Archaeology and history as “tools of dispossession”: Jerusalem’s Silwan neighborhood

Silwan 1

The neighborhood of Silwan is adjacent to the Old City of Jerusalem.

Updated April 2010

The neighborhood of Silwan lies southeast of Jerusalem’s Old City, just outside the city walls and in the shadow of the the Al Aqsa Mosque. It is a place of densely packed houses clinging to the sides of a narrow, steep valley. At the end of the valley closest to the Old City is a spring, a rarity in this dry region, and a pool that dates back to biblical times. It’s a pool where a fifty-something year-old Palestinian man I’ll call Samer tells me he used to swim as a child growing up in Silwan Village, part of the Wadi Hilwah (“beautiful valley”) neighborhood.

I met Samer recently during my second visit to Silwan in as many days.  He came up to me as I was looking at some old photographs of the neighborhood, pinned to the side of a tent alongside the narrow road that leads into Silwan from the direction of the Old City. The tent is a project of the Wadi Hilwah Information Center, established by local residents to tell the story of their neighborhood, and to fight for its survival as a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem. The neighborhood is threatened by an ongoing effort to remove Palestinian residents to make way for Jewish settlers and to establish a controversial “national archaeological park” operated by an Israeli settler group.


Map of the Old City, Silwan area, and surrounding areas

Silwan is located just south of the Old City

Silwan’s Past

To understand the controversy raging over this place, we need to look at its ancient and recent history, and the way these histories are told and retold.  It was in this small valley that, more than 3,000 years ago, King David established his capital, later moved up the hill to the location of what is today the Old City of Jerusalem.  Here, at the same pool in which Samer swam as a child, Jesus is reputed to have restored the sight of a blind man.

Then, as now, water was a critical resource in the area, and the stories of elaborate irrigation projects in the valley are to be found in many historical accounts, including the Old Testament. The best known of these is the Siloam Tunnel, commissioned by Hezekiel in the 8th century BCE.  The village of Silwan itself is specially mentioned in writings by Arab geographer and Jerusalem resident Al-Muqaddasi in 985 CE.

Since biblical times Silwan, like the rest of Jerusalem, has fallen under the control of numerous groups and imperial powers. It was controlled by Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, Arab Caliphates, Byzantines, the Ottoman Empire, and, from 1948 to 1967, by Jordan. This area was populated early in its history by Jews, but for most of the time since then other groups have predominated here as in the rest of the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan Valley. In recent centuries the majority of the population has been Arab (Indeed the Siam family, one of the largest families in the Silwan, claims that it arrived in the village in the 12th century during the rule of  the days Salah Al-Din).  In Six Day War of 1967 Silwan, along with the rest of East Jerusalem, was captured and very soon afterwards annexed by Israel. Jewish settlers set their sights on Silwan, and began making plans to move in to the area.  That’s when the controversy began.


Silwan. The houses at the bottom of the valley are in the al-Bustan neighborhood, much of which is slated for demolition to make way for an expanded "City of David archaeological park.".

Changing the Geography of Silwan

The dispute over Silwan isn’t just about political control. It’s also about demography, religion, and also about who gets to tell the history of this place and to name it. It’s a controversy with international dimensions, and it’s probably no exaggeration to say that what happens in Silwan has the potential to help move the so-called ‘Peace Process’ in the Middle East forward, or to stall it in its tracks.  That’s why I wanted to visit this place, and learn something about it.

On my first visit to Silwan, my two guides were from the Israeli group Ir-Amim (“City of Peoples” or “City of Nations,”) a research and advocacy organization that does excellent work focused specifically on the city of Jerusalem. My tour focused on the way that the geography of East Jerusalem is deliberately being changed by Israel in an attempt to consolidate its hold over the area.

The first change was in the political geography of the area. Just seventeen days after the end of the Six Day War of 1967, Israel unilaterally expanded the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem, incorporating some 70 square kilometers of West Bank territory captured from Jordan in the war. This territory included not only the previously Jordanian part of the city of Jerusalem, but also 28 additional Palestinian villages in surrounding areas (No country other than Israel recognizes the legality of this annexation.) The new boundaries drawn by Israel had three main goals: to control areas of military importance around Jerusalem, to include as much territory as possible around the city, and to include as few Palestinians as possible in the within the new ‘greater’ Jerusalem.

Following the annexation of East Jerusalem and its environs, Israel began the process of changing the area’s population geography.

The goal here has been to consolidate Israeli control by changing the population balance, in other words by making Jews a majority, particularly in those parts of preominantly Palestinian East Jerusalem they regard and most significant.  Silwan’s location (adjacent to the Old City,) and its importance in early Jewish history (the original site of King David’s Jerusalem) make it a prime target for the engineers of demographic change. This process involves an exceedingly complex array of different actors: the Israeli state, municipal authorities, settler organizations, foreign financiers and, in the case of Silwan, archaeologists and historians.

Silwan 3

A Palestinian woman walks along a street in Silwan as an Israeli flag flies above a settler home in the background.

As I walked down the hill into Silwan, it wasn’t difficult to see evidence of what is happening here.  One of the first houses on my left had an inscription in Arabic above its gate; outside the house next door were three women in Muslim dress, talking in the yard. But above the next house down the street was a large blue and white Israeli flag, on the roof of the house opposite was small guard post, complete with armed guard, another Israeli flag flying overhead.  Settlers are not only moving in, they are also announcing their presence in no uncertain terms.

At the bottom of the valley is a small neighborhood called al-Bustan. It is an area of small homes, tightly packed together, the minaret of a mosque standing out alongside (this satellite image shows the al-Bustan and surrounding areas.) Al-Bustan is an area that, if the Israeli authorities are true to their word, will soon cease to exist. When I visited the area in late July, 88 households in al-Bustan, all of them Palestinian, had been served with official notices informing them that their homes are to be demolished, displacing some 3,600 people (Since then, demolition notices have been served on at least five more households.) According to a July 2009 report by Ir-Amim, the area is to be turned into an “archaeological park.” Municipal authorities maintain that they have no ulterior motive, and are simply planning to demolish illegally built houses. Residents claim that what is underway here is “ethnic cleansing,” part of the ongoing effort to purge this part of East Jerusalem of its Palestinian inhabitants.


Sign at a protest tent in Silwan.

“Archaeology as a tool of dispossession.”

The largest and most obvious sign of Israel’s attempt to refashion Silwan is to be found at the entrance to the neighborhood, the part closest to the Old City.  Here, partly completed and already open to the public, is a place its creators have called “The City of David.” This ambitious creation is part theme park, part museum, part archaeological site; all dedicated to the objective of telling a history of Silwan that emphasizes the role of Jews in the area’s history and the role of the area in Jewish history.  By 2008, the “City of David” was one of Israel’s top give tourist attractions, with 350,000 visitors passing through its gates.

The aim and effect of the propagation of the “City of David” version of history is, of course, to legitimize Jewish claims to the area, while minimizing those of Palestinians.

The “City of David” and its associated archaeological diggings have already claimed large tracts of Silwan (see satellite image.) Alongside Silwan’s main road is an area that has been cleared of houses; only the minaret of a mosque remains. A few cars were parked here when I walked by, alongside was a tented area where archaeologists were at work on a dig.  Underground, additional excavations are taking place, to the consternation of Palestinians living above who fear that their homes’ foundations are being undermined.

Archaeological work under way in Silwan under the auspices of an Israeli settler group.

Archaeological work under way in Silwan under the auspices of an Israeli settler group.

But the archaeologists at work here are no ordinary archaeologists, and their dig is far from the archaeological norm. Unlike most archaeological excavations in Israel, this operation, in one of the most historically important areas of the country, is not being sponsored by an academic institution or museum. It is instead under the control of a group called Elad, an organization of right wing settlers, funded largely by foreign (mainly American) donors. Nowhere else in Israel has responsibility for such critical archaeological work been handed over to militant political organization.

Eilad not only controls archeology here, it also controls the content of tours of the “City of David” site, and maintains an elaborate website, telling its particular version of the history of the area.  Archaeologist Yonatan Mizrahi has noted:

“After three hours on an Elad tour, you are convinced that you are at a site that is solely Jewish.  Canaanite, Byzantine, Muslim and of course Palestinian findings are shunted aside.  Jerusalem has 4,000 years of history, and they concentrate on the glorious stories of Solomon, David and Hezekiah, for whom there are no archeological findings linking them to the site.  When you present the story this way to hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the world, it is a tool with a great deal of political power and a way of justifying the act of settling the area.”

But Elad control of the archaeology has not only shaped the way the history of Silwan it told, there is also evidence that the organization may bolstering its version of history by ignoring or even suppressing evidence of non-Jewish settlement in the area. In 2008, for example, the Israeli news organization Ha’aretz reported that dozens of skeletons dating to the 8th or 9th century C.E. (two centuries after the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem) were discovered at a Silwan site. In a violation of Israeli law, the skeletons were removed without reporting them to the Israeli Ministry of Religious Services.

I found this story all too familiar. As a child growing up in South Africa, I was taught the apartheid version of South African history.  Prior to the 17th century, I learned, South Africa was devoid of human inhabitants. Then, in about 1652, just as white settlers arrived at the southern tip of Africa, black Africans crossed the Limpopo River moving south. As whites moved north into the central parts of South Africa, blacks settled along the fringes of the country, producing a “natural” geography of settlement and segregation that the policies of apartheid, I was told, recognized and respected.  My school syllabus didn’t include any mention of places like Mapungubwe, an archaeological site in northern South Africa where evidence had been found of a thriving African kingdom a millennium earlier. Artifacts from the site, including an impressive collection of gold objects, were closeted away in a safe at the University of Pretoria. Like the Muslim skeletons of Silwan, their existence would have undermined the settlers’ historical narrative.


Post at a protest tent in Silwan.

Resistance in Silwan

Not surprisingly, the Palestinian residents of Silwan are doing their utmost to make sure that their version of history is also told. Over a small cup of strong coffee at the makeshift protest tent,  Samer and a local imam tell me their stories, and show me historic photographs of the area.  They tell me about Al-Bustan, and show me some of the  demolition orders displayed on a poster. Stickers proclaim “solidarity with Silwan,” and  a visitors’ book is evidence that this place has been on the itineraries of various foreign luminaries (including a Vice President of the European Parliament and a South African diplomatic representative.)

Numerous NGOs, Israeli and Palestinian, local and international, have taken up the cause of Silwan.  My hosts from Ir-Amim have just published a report on the area.  Alternative archaeological tours are offered by local archaeologists and residents, and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has taken up the area’s cause. A Google search produces numerous news stories, reports,  and organizations focusing on Silwan and the plight of its residents.

Fence around a construction site at the "City of David."

Wall around a construction site at the “City of David.” (Click on the picture for an article on the rather bizarre murals.)

But here, on the ground, it looks to me as though the residents of Silwan and their supporters are waging a losing battle.  During the half hour or so I spent at the protest tent, I was the only visitor. Meanwhile, up the hill, a steady stream of visitors passes through the gates of the “City of David.” Within a few days of my visit, I read that more demolition orders have been issued to residents of Al-Bustan. And, despite the Obama administration’s pressure on Israel to stop the building of new settlements, as I leave Silwan to return to my hotel, I pass a construction site where workers are hard at work on the building of a new apartment building – for Jewish setters.

Update: A November 2013 article by Samuel Nelson Gilbert, ‘Israeli land claims: Archaeology and ideology,’ deals with some of the same issues I raise in this post, many even more acute than they were when I wrote this post.


Note 1. I owe  great debt of thanks to Sarah Kreimer and Ela Greenberg of Ir-Amim for taking several hours from their busy schedules to show me around East Jerusalem, and for introducing me to Silwan. Thanks too to those friendly residents of Silwan who welcomed me as I walked around their neighborhood during my second visit (including the shopkeeper who came out of his store and handed me a peach as a walked by, and “Samer” and the imam who gave me coffee and told me their version of Silwan’s story) I’m glad that I ignored the advice of the Israeli taxi driver who refused to take me to Silwan. “It’s too dangerous to go there,” he told me.

Note 2. The more I read about Silwan (or Jerusalem, or the Middle East in general), the more I realized how little I know.  I have therefore written this piece as a student rather than an expert on this topic, and I’m sure I have got some things wrong here. So please feel free to post corrections, comments, and arguments here.

Note 3. It took me several weeks to write this blog entry, mainly because I kept finding more and more information on Silwan. I have included links to several good sources in the blog, but I am listing a few more below. If you want to know more, just do an online search for “Silwan” and you will find plenty to keep you going.

The website of Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine contains information and links on Silwan, as do the websites of  B’tselem and Ir-Amim (whose recent report on Silwan details much of the story I outline here; the map above is an excerpt of a larger map from Ir-Amim. Also see Ir-Amim’s blog.)

Jeffrey Yas:  (Re)designing the City of David: Landscape, Narrative and Archaeology in Silwan

Adina Hoffman: Archaeological Dig Stokes Conflict in Jerusalem.

Meron Rapoport. A Hate-Filled Morning, posted on the blog ePalestine. (Rapoport writes about the hostility of Jewish settlers toward their Palestinian neighbors.)

For a good overview of the process of dispossession in East Jerusalem, see the BBC documentary A Walk in the Park. Also see the BBC’s February 2010 take on the story I tell here.

Update: Also take a look at this news story from the New York Times, in which the Mayor of Jerusalem is reported as having made an offer to some of Silwan’s residents slated for eviction.

Update (February 2012): This piece just published by the Israeli Committee Against Housing Demolitions (ICAHD) reports on the ‘ongoing acceleration’ of the homes of Palestinians (including Israeli Arabs)  in Silwan, East Jerusalem, and Area C of the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Update (October 2014.) Jewish settlers take over 25 houses in Silwan, “sending out shock waves that were felt in Washington and still reverberate in the neighborhood,” according to the New York Times.

Update (March 2015.) ‘Parks an Occupation: Archaeology is the new Security‘ Writing about Silwan, Natasha Roth argues that “the past makes for prime real estate when you’re developing a national mythology.” In her post she cites this 2014 interview in which anthropologist Nadia Abu El-Haj argues that “archaeology was one among a series of practices and projects that together turned what was a source of contention (is this place the Land of Israel, or is it Palestine?) into a “resolved” historical fact — at least for particular and very powerful publics in Israel and beyond.”

For a good visual explanation the geography of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem (and the importance of Silwan in this process), see this short video from the Israeli Committee Against Housing Demolitions.


  1. Helen Mongan-Rallis August 21, 2009
  2. Stephen Smuts August 22, 2009
  3. Elizabeth Lopez August 31, 2009
  4. Karl Gergel October 29, 2009
  5. Ted Minniear July 17, 2010
  6. Michelle Cole October 31, 2010
  7. Sherry Loehr July 10, 2012
  8. Kathie B July 11, 2012
  9. Melissa S. June 19, 2013
  10. Cheryl C. June 20, 2013
  11. Alicia L. June 20, 2013
  12. Jessica Kamvar July 19, 2013
  13. Brittni F July 8, 2014
  14. Donald Rallis July 8, 2014
  15. Heather Taylor June 26, 2015

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