Under Jerusalem

Andrew LawlerBy Andrew Lawler7 Minutes

Excerpt taken from Under Jerusalem: The Buried History of the World’s Most Contested City by Andrew Lawler




I see the Past, Present, & Future existing all at once.
—William Blake


Sacred to three faiths and revered by more than half the people on the planet, Jerusalem conjures up powerful images of the celestial. According to Christians, Jesus ascended into its skies; many believe he was followed by his mother, Mary. For two billion Muslims, this is where Muhammad climbed through the seven heavens on his mystical night journey. Jewish folklore places here the angel-filled ladder that Jacob dreamed rose into the firmament. And in many traditions, God’s final judgment will descend from the clouds hovering above the city.

“Jerusalem is the gateway to heaven; all the nations of the world agree on this,” noted the twelfth-century Spanish Jewish poet and scholar Judah Halevi. A century later, the Muslim author Fakhr ad-Din al-Fazari reported that “angels descend every night unto Jerusalem.”

Yet the Holy City conceals a secret subterranean self. Below the ground is a labyrinthine three-dimensional time capsule recording five millennia of bustling prosperity, brutal war, and remarkable religious innovation that altered the course of human history. A twentieth-century Israeli poet compared Jerusalem to a terrestrial Atlantis where everything “is submerged and sunken.”

That observation is grounded as much in geology as poetry. Water and stone define this landscape. During the age of the dinosaurs, the entire Middle East was covered with a shallow sea. When the marine organisms that made it their home died and collected on the bottom, the mass eventually hardened into limestone. Each block of Jerusalem’s famed building material is, in essence, a congealed cemetery.

Forty million years of folding and lifting combined with the tenacious trickle of water rolling down slopes and seeping underground created the rugged Judean hills above and an intricate world of cracks, crevices, and caves below. One of those rivulets eventually burst out of the flank of a steep and stony ridge, creating a mysteriously pulsating but reliable spring. That water source drew permanent settlers about the time that neighboring Egyptians and Mesopotamians were building the earliest cities and writing the first stories some five thousand years ago.

Another draw was a local rock with almost magical qualities; soft when extracted, it became tougher when exposed to the elements, and it turns the color of honey in the slanted rays of day’s end. Along with quarries, residents dug underground passages to funnel water and waste. As the city above rose, they punctured the surface to insert cisterns, lay foundations, and carve out tombs.

Over millennia the Jerusalem above waxed and waned, its walls swelling, contracting, or vanishing as its fortunes rose and fell. Yet the territory beneath relentlessly expanded. An earthquake or an invasion might suddenly cast whole neighborhoods onto the subterrestrial shore, but most of the accretion came with the mundane actions of urban life; a first floor filled with debris became a basement, an old cistern turned into a convenient septic tank.

“Jerusalem is lifted on the carnage of its own centuries, layer upon layer of destruction and daily waste,” wrote British author Colin Thurbron. “Age upon age, the city grows and is buried.”

Like the marine organisms that created the limestone, succeeding generations created new strata. But Jerusalem is not like the abandoned towns, such as nearby ancient Jericho, dotting the Middle East that left behind high mounds resembling layer cakes, with the old neatly stacked beneath the more recent. Constant human activities jumbled the past; a Roman column might be repurposed for a Byzantine church, and stones cut by Jewish masons two thousand years ago could adorn a medieval mosque. Jerusalem is an old puzzle that reassembles itself in fresh ways, like the faiths that grew from it.

A lack of wood on the barren hillsides also shaped the growing underground terrain. Without the luxury of cheap and sturdy beams, architects learned early to span distances with stone vaults and domes. “The knobbiest town in the world,” said Mark Twain, the itinerant newspaper reporter who arrived in 1867 as part of one of the first American tour groups. He added that it “looks as if it might be roofed, from center to circumference, with inverted saucers.”

As a result, a succession of invisible arches came to undergird much of the city. “There is an old Indian saying, that the arch never sleeps,” noted British archaeologist Charles Warren, who began his excavations the same year Twain visited. “And as Jerusalem is a system of arches (every house being built of vaulted rooms), it may be said that the Holy City never sleeps.”

Jerusalem is perched ever more precariously on a succession of ruins, built vault upon vault, bathed in sewage while mounting slowly to heaven.

From UNDER JERUSALEM: The Buried History of the World’s Most Contested City by Andrew Lawler. Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Andrew Lawler.

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