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‘Under Jerusalem’ author Andrew Lawler reveals the Holy City’s archaeological history

Author Andrew Lawler’s latest novel, “Under Jerusalem: The Buried History of the World’s Most Contested City” brings the past to life. FAU’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute will host Andrew at its Jupiter Campus Auditorium on Monday, December 11th at 3 p.m. and in Boca Raton at the Friedberg Auditorium in the Lifelong Learning Building on Tuesday, December 12th at 3 p.m. A book signing will follow both presentations. Ahead of his OLLI lectures Andrew shared details about the book’s research.

Linda: Explain why you wrote the book “Under Jerusalem”?

Andrew: For the past two decades I have been writing about ancient sites in the Middle East, but I tried to avoid Jerusalem – too much politics, religion and controversy. One day when I was in Israel for a meeting, an Israeli archaeologist gave me an underground tour. I was stunned by how much was going on below the surface. I did a cover story for National Geographic and then grew interested in how archaeology had shaped the Holy City. Since there was no book on that topic, I had to write it myself. I finally realized that the mix of religion, politics and science is what makes Jerusalem so unique and fascinating. The characters I encountered (dead and alive) were incredibly colorful.

Linda: Explain how you combine your background as both a journalist and a historian to present your research?

Andrew: I grew up in Virginia where history was part of everyday life. I’ve always felt that how we see the world today is rooted in where we came from and the stories that we were told when we were young. For me, history and journalism are all part of the same package. In my books, I like to weave together the past and present, because that is how it is in real life. I’ve been a working journalist for decades covering everything from Congress and the space program to the Iraq War and Amazonian tribal people.

Linda: Why is archaeology such a vital tool in uncovering Jerusalem’s and Israel’s ancient history?

Andrew: Using the tools and methods of archaeology has hugely expanded our understanding of the world in which Canaanites, Israelites, Phoenicians and others lived. We know what they ate, what diseases they had and how and what they traded with one another. But archaeology also poses challenges to our old assumptions. Despite a century and a half of digging, for example, we still don’t have a single undisputed building that dates from the biblical era of David and Solomon. That doesn’t mean they didn’t exist, but it does mean they likely were more tribal chieftains than great kings of an empire.

Linda: Share some of Jerusalem’s most recent  and significant archaeological finds?

Andrew: Historians and archeologists long suspected that a monumental street (part path and part staircase) led from the Pool of Siloam up to the Temple Mount. It was presumed to have been built by Herod the Great as part of his massive renovations of Jerusalem in the first century BCE. The problem was that it lay far below today’s surface. What has to be the most expensive, ambitious and controversial dig in the world has uncovered this street using tunneling methods beneath an Arab neighborhood. Coins dropped by the ancient workmen make it clear that the street was constructed not during the rule of Herod, but when Pontius Pilate oversaw Judea on behalf of the Roman Empire. So the man that has been long considered a villain by Jews and Christians put a lot of political and financial capital into glorifying the Jewish Temple.

Linda: How does archaeology benefit Israel’s modern day research (including medicine and science)?

Andrew: Archaeology is no longer the story of a lone adventurer, a la Indiana Jones, finding some spectacular artifact.
Today’s archaeologists work closely with biologists, chemists, physicists and materials to analyze their finds and make sense of their dig site. This sort of interdisciplinary work helps push forward the science for all involved. Take ancient DNA; the effort to glean data from ancient bones has helped geneticists make progress in coming up with cheaper and more efficient methods of gene analysis.

Linda: Express how ancient archaeology relates to modern day Israeli politics and religion?

Andrew: You can’t separate archaeology in today’s Israel from politics and religion. This is true in many places, but nowhere more than in Jerusalem. The search for the biblical past (first by Western Christians and then by European and Israeli Jews) has defined the city since the 1860s. It was this search that helped inspire Zionism and the Jewish people to return to Jerusalem. Then, as today, excavation finds are used by politicians and religious leaders to assert their right to the Holy City.

Linda: What do you hope readers take away from reading your book and attending your presentations?

Andrew: There are so many conflicting narratives about Jerusalem and these competing stories make it hard to grasp the deeper context. “Under Jerusalem” steps outside those boxes and readers can see it evolve through the eyes of a fascinating and diverse array of characters.

Linda: What inspired you to pursue the understanding of Israeli archaeology?

Andrew: At first I was mostly curious about ancient times in the region (the Bronze and Iron ages in particular) which knew no formal borders. But as I was drawn into Israeli archaeology, which is a vibrant discipline, I realized that scientists here must contend with complicated religious and political forces and often confront moral dilemmas. This makes their stories as compelling as those of ancient times.

Linda: What personal discoveries did you learn about yourself during your book’s research?

Andrew: One day I was shopping in my local store in the Old City when the owner and I began to chat. When I told him what I was up to he led me to a hatch in the floor. That led to a vast underground chamber that was once a grand hall built by Crusaders. Living off and on in Jerusalem, I learned that there is always more below your feet that you suspect. I also learned that while it is important to consult experts, it is important to talk to those who live above ancient sites. They always know more than a passing journalist.

Linda: Express both the challenges and rewards of your work?

Andrew: Spending chunks of time in Jerusalem’s Old City was an enormous privilege. I particularly enjoyed walking the streets in the early mornings and late evenings after the tourists and pilgrims had departed. It is a very intense place. Though few cities are safer for tourists, there is always an edge here. It was sometimes a relief to return home and get a good night’s sleep.

Jupiter Osher Lifelong Learning Institute: Jupiter Campus Auditorium (5353 Parkside Drive, Jupiter) on Monday, December 11th at 3 p.m. $35/member; $40/non-member. For more information call (561) 799-8547 or visit https://www.fau.edu/osherjupiter

Boca Raton Osher Lifelong Learning Institute: Friedberg Auditorium in the Lifelong Learning Building (777 Glades Road, Boca Raton) on Tuesday, December 12th at 3 p.m. $35/Member; $40/non-member; $40 One-Time Guest Pass, Member or Non-Member at the door. For more information call (561) 297-3185 or visit https://olliboca.fau.edu/

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