Review: Uncovering the layers of history and politics in Andrew Lawler's "Under Jerusalem"

Science and archeology journalist, Andrew Lawler, has made a name for himself writing unique and compelling books on somewhat unconventional subjects. His first book, Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?, explored the cultural history of the domesticated chicken and how it spread across the globe. His second title, The Secret Token: Myth, Obsession, and the Search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke, examined the known history and many theories of what happened to the residents of that early English colony in the New World.

Lawler's latest, Under Jerusalem: The Buried History of the World's Most Contested City, is an impressively absorbing, admirably executed exploration of the labyrinthine layers of history, politics, religion, and science buried beneath one of the most religiously significant and politically volatile cities on Earth. Painterly descriptions, engaging storytelling, and meticulous research turn what could be a yawning tale of endless bureaucratic permit wrangling and religious and political machinations into a surprisingly exciting page-turner.

Lawler takes readers on a journey through the archaeological discoveries, political tensions, and cultural conflicts that have shaped Jerusalem's dense and layered underground landscape. Our story begins in the 1860s as French and English explorers/proto-archeologists, motivated by Biblical accounts of King David, Solomon's Temple, and holy treasures like the Ark of the Covenant, set their sights on the Holy City. It continues up to the present day, where that golden age remains largely unverified and ever-alluring to the world's archeologists, treasure seekers, and the world's Judaeo-Christians.

Through ancient tunnels, cisterns, and sewers of the city's layered past, carved in soft limestone, Lawler shows how Jerusalem's subterranean realm has been both a source of mystery and wonder and the site of seismic scientific, historical, and religious contention. Along the way, he introduces readers to a colorful cast of characters, including archaeologists, Biblical zealots, treasure-hunters, politicians, and religious leaders, each with their own motivations and perspectives in dealing with the city's buried past.

Some of the stories of discovery in Under Jerusalem detail events that are almost too jaw-dropping to believe:

A Muslim business owner of a leather menswear company hears early morning sounds in what he knows to be the crawlspace beneath his factory. He lifts the hatch to the space to find a "dozen drunken black-bearded Egyptian Coptic priests in robes" and the formerly shallow and dank crawlspace now transformed into "a forest of stone columns and arches extending into the shadowy distance." It turns out the priests had discovered another entrance into this Crusader-era space–long filled to the ceiling with centuries of muck and garbage–and had been secretly digging it out during the day, their sounds masked by the factory machines clanking away overhead. Their work completed, the priests had celebrated their efforts, gotten drunk, and were subsequently discovered in the morning hours by the owner. This incident would lead to a 20-year legal battle over ownership of the space below and to the discovery of an even larger Crusader-era space beside it. (As Lawler points out in the interview below, that factory space is now a convenience store and the hatch to that ancient underworld is in the middle of the potato chip aisle.)

Then there was the shocking and brazen 1999 bulldozing on the Temple Mount when Muslim authorities approved a cover-of-darkness hauling away of thirty dump trucks worth of dirt. This was done in an effort to open up archways along "Solomon's Stables," another Crusader-era structure they wanted to turn into a prayer space for upcoming Ramadan worshipers. They insisted there were no items of archeological significance in the dirt they trucked to the dump. A later sifting project of this dirt, organized by a young Jewish archeologist, would reveal over half a million artifacts, items from every period of Jerusalem's history.

Or, how about the shop opener in the Muslim Quarter who began digging behind a curtain in his 5' deep convenience store and 30 years later(!) his efforts would reveal an elegant, arched room held up by stone pillars. He would turn this space into "an atmospheric café popular with foreigners." He would also find another large space beneath that one and a cistern below that, along with a series of tunnels that lead to various important sites around Jerusalem.

While Lawler focuses primarily on the physical and historical aspects of Jerusalem's underground, he deftly handles the spiritual and symbolic resonances that these spaces hold for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. By exploring the complex interplay of religion, politics, and culture that defines this city, Under Jerusalem offers an illuminating and thought-provoking picture of one of the world's most fascinating and complicated places.

Under Jerusalem is an engrossing, eye-opening read that should appeal to history buffs, armchair archaeologists, and anyone interested in the complex web of religion and culture that's shaped this ancient and enigmatic city. Weeks after finishing it, I keep thinking back to it, wishing that it wasn't over. You really can't ask for more from a book.