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Andrew Lawler—Jerusalem, the hidden city and the paths of history

Juo Tabb

When Andrew Lawler gives a talk about a subject he is covering, he is focused, sometimes funny and extraordinarily well informed.

That was certainly the case Wednesday evening at All Saints Episcopal Church in Southern Shores when he previewed his latest book, “Under Jerusalem: The Buried History of the World's Most Contested City.”

The humor began the evening with Lawler noting that it takes as long to drive from his home in Asheville to the Outer Banks as it does to fly to Jerusalem. He also noted, referencing his first book, “The Secret Token” about the mystery of the Lost Colony, that again he immersed himself in controversy.

“Instead of having Hatteras versus Manteo people, you have Jews, Muslims and Christians,” he said.

What makes Lawler’s presentations standout—and it is the same for his books—is his ability to walk the listener, or reader, through the basics of the history of the location to where we are today. And, the journey he takes the audience on is also personal, not simply a tour of history.

He explained that for years he had avoided studying or writing about Jerusalem he explained,”Partly because of all that religion and all that politics, and I didn’t want to get involved in that.”

That changed, though, when a friend who is an Israeli archeologist, offered to take him on a tour. Lawler thinking it would be a pleasant afternoon looking at sites in the city agreed.

“Six hours later we were still underground going through tunnel after tunnel, cave after cave,” he recalled.

It was at that point he understood what made Jerusalem so compelling and why it would worthwhile subject to study.

“I realized that politics and religion and science are all going on at once in this same place, and it’s is actually unique and utterly fascinating,” he said.

The insights and history Lawler introduces and discusses are the works of a true scholar of history. He traces the history of the city to what is considered its origins, some 5000 years ago, around 3000 BCE. There was spring in a hill in an arid mountainous part of the mid East. That spring was at the crossroads of the great civilizations that were arising at that time—Egypt and Mesopotamia. Over time that spring at the crossroad became a moderate sized town, what we now know as Jerusalem.

At some point this crossroads town becomes the center of commerce and conflict in the region. By 1000 BCE it came to be the centerpiece of Biblical stories, the City of David and the Temple of Solomon.

Except, as Lawler points out, no one has ever been able to find archeological evidence of David’s reign or Solomon’s temple.

Yet, that mystery persists and the search goes on, for Jerusalem is a city built upon itself…especially in the old city, the tiny core in the middle of a sprawling metropolitan area with a population greater than 1.2 million.

The Old City is tiny.

“It’s worth remembering…you could almost drop the Old City into the reservoir of Central Park (New York City). That’s how small we’re talking,” he said.

Because it is so concentrated and has been the crossroad of civilizations for millennia, it is a city of extraordinary religious significance for Judaism, Islam and Christianity. This compact area atop the city of Jerusalem is the location of the Temple Mount, the Noble Sanctuary (Haram al-Sharif) for the Islamic faith, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Christ was supposedly crucified and buried.

Yet beneath the religious symbols lies this amazing labyrinth of tunnels and forgotten civilizations. Lawler illustrates how the modern and the ancient words intersect in this part of the city when an Arab shopkeeper opened a trapdoor in the middle of what looked like a potato chip aisle, and invited him to explore the hidden city.

The city, it seems has existed as a center of conflict between beliefs. The streets of what we now know as the Old City were laid out by the Romans after they seized the city from the Jews. Then the Muslim came and controlled the city. Then the Crusades, briefly, and once again it fell under Muslim control.

Interestingly there was little conflict about Jerusalem for 700-800 years. It was a relatively backwater city, largely forgotten except as a Biblical reference. Until European religious scholars in the mid 19th century became concerned that the age of reason would debunk the religious precepts of Christianity.

Biblical scholars of the day reasoned, according to Lawler, that if science was going to attempt to debunk the stories of the Bible, then there was no reason why science couldn’t be used to demonstrate the opposite.

“Their goal was to prove the Bible was accurate,” Lawler said.

What followed has been 175 years of intense archeological investigation that has discovered much—some of it uncomfortable—but resolved nothing.

The details of that history of investigation are extraordinary in what they reveal. There was an early equivalent to the space race as France and England competed to find the Temple of Solomon and perhaps the Ark of the Covenant. France, jumped to an early lead in what was described as a “Sputnik” moment, but England with better organization and money soon forged ahead.

There have been Israeli excavations and ongoing international excavations, and through it all, the Jews and Muslims seem to have become more entrenched in their positions.

Yet, to Lawler, that is only part of the story and leaves an important player out of the mix.

“We hear those, ‘Muslim and Jews can’t get along.’ But see it in historical context in which we western Christians…played a big role in creating what is today the…geopolitical knot,”he said.

What has happened, is that this one time way station along ancient times has become so much more than a spring of water in an arid land.

“Jerusalem is not some city on a hill unaffected by its neighbors,” Lawler said. “It is part and parcel of the Middle Eastern fabric of time”