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When Stones Cannot Agree

by Fernando de Morais

Upon visiting any major old city in the world you will certainly happen to hear, solemnly pronounced by a more enthusiastic than original tourist guide (or fellow traveler, or local citizen), that “here every stone tells a story”, period. And then comes the dramatic pause.

Though certainly a little worn, the saying itself is usually true. And being true, let’s say, about Rome or Athens, it is certainly true about Jerusalem, the city of stones, as it is called in reference to its famous building limestones, which in their turn are mostly known as “Jerusalem stones”. The identity Ouroboros eats its own tail, which in the end (where else?) is quite telling.

Ok, so as people pass by, stones unremittingly deliver their silent speech in expectancy of ears willing to hear and eyes willing to see. True. But this doesn’t mean, however, that all these stones tell the same story. The distracted passer-by would be surprised to know to which extent stones can disagree. And when we get Archeology or Politics to jump in, then they (the stones, I mean) may start arguing out-loud. Here again, terrestrial Jerusalem is the canonical archetype.

We had an example of this debate among stones last week, during our field trip to Mount Zion, the western hill located out of the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem (and luckily,  just a few minutes on foot from Polis).

Our guide there was the Israeli archeologist Amit Reem, who has been working on excavations in the area around the Tower of David since 1999, and particularly in the southern part of the citadel moat, where we find the site called the Kishle, an Ottoman-period jail which also served as police station and prison during the British Mandate. Wall inscriptions made by members of the Jewish Underground can still be found there.

 Amit Reem in the Kishle. Photo by Emil Salman – []

So what about it, you might ask. Well, the findings in the Kishle are impressive in itself, irrespective of any controversy. Spanning from the First Temple Period to the late Middle Ages and then to the 20th Century (as the inscriptions we mentioned), those findings tell close to 3000 years of history. Among those findings, there are the remains of the retaining walls that supported the base of Herod the Great’s palace.

You must remember that on their way to adore baby Jesus, the magi had a sort of audience with Herod the Great. This took place nowhere else but there, at Herod’s palace. The episode is found only in the Gospel of Matthew, and it is indeed the first episode of the entire Gospel, after the long genealogy. So the life of Jesus, as narrated by Matthew, began in Herod’s palace and, had Herod been able to find and seize the newborn “king of the Jews”, it would have probably ended there as well. Now I ask: what if it really did?

Calm down and don’t jump to conclusions. What I am trying to say is that, 33 years later, it was probably at that very palace that Jesus stood his trial before Pontius Pilatus.

According to the Gospels, The Prefect of Judaea had come from his official residence (another palace built by Herod) in Caesarea to supervise and prevent disorders during the Jewish festival of Passover in Jerusalem. Since we know from written sources (Philo and Josephus) that the Praetorium at Herod’s palace was used as residence by Roman governors after Herod’s death, it is only natural to suppose that Pilate must have stayed there.

Tradition, however, does not support the conclusion. As any pilgrim following the stations of the Via Dolorosa will know, the place where Pilate is assumed to have stayed then is the Antonia Fortress, a military complex (named after Mark Antony, but also built by Herod the Great) and headquarter of the Roman soldiers provided with both a privileged view of the Temple’s court and a secret passage leading to it. It was the right place to be if one were to keep a close eye on the temple.

Later that day we visited the Tomb of David and then the Cenacle, the upper room at Mount Zion where according to tradition both the Last Supper and the Pentecost took place. What stones told us there I wouldn’t dare to open out right now, for those were other stones, and therefore another story.

A quick glance at the new Jerusalem from the top of the old city walls.