CUFI Summit: Jerusalem Pilgrimage Road Should be American Heritage Site

The Pilgrimage Road from the Shiloam Pool to the Temple Mount, used by Jewish worshipers in the late Second Temple period, was excavated over the course of six years and unveiled by the City of David organization on June 30. Source: City of David.

A week before the CUFI summit took place in Washington, there was a ceremony in Jerusalem to mark the opening of the Pilgrimage Road, which some have called one of the most significant archaeological finds of the past century.

American officials who took part in the June 30 ceremony — and were excoriated by many for doing so, because it was in the Old City of Jerusalem, which is considered “occupied territory” by some — spoke at the summit, and described the site as being a vital part of American history.

David Friedman, the United States ambassador to Israel, said the road is “one of the most significant discoveries of the last 100 years,” and it was “incredible to be involved, even ceremonially, in this once in a century discovery.”

Friedman and U.S. White House Special Representative for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt wielded a sledgehammer to break through a symbolic wall separating two parts of the road, which is now accessible in an underground tunnel that will open to the public in a few months. About 1,000 feet of the road has been excavated.

The road was built about 2,000 years ago for Jewish pilgrims who came to Jerusalem, especially on the three festivals. The road went from the Pool of Siloam, where they would ritually purify themselves before ascending to the Temple Mount.

In 2004, a burst pipe led to the discovery of the 2,000-year-old stone stairs, far from other archaeological discoveries. The path was traced back toward the Temple Mount.

Excavations were done far underground, beneath modern-day Jerusalem, with care taken to preserve the road while making sure nothing affected the roads and buildings above ground.

Opponents claimed the Arab neighborhood of Silwan was endangered by the project, but those arguments were rejected by the courts and disproven as work progressed. According to a background report by veteran journalist Nadav Shragai, hundreds of Silwan residents took part in the archaeological digs, until emissaries of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority threatened them with violence.

Silwan was originally founded by Jews from Yemen in the 1880s, who were then expelled from the neighborhood in the Arab Revolt of the late 1930s.

Coins that had been minted in the last years before Rome destroyed the Second Temple in 70 C.E. were found along the road. The coins were inscribed “for the freedom of Zion.”

Another surprise find was an intact raised podium on the side of the road, unlike anything ever found. It is figured that anyone trying to convey a message to pilgrims would have spoken from that platform, leading to speculation that Jesus must have been among the speakers.

Friedman said the site is important not only to Jews, but to Christians as “the footsteps of the beginning of Christianity.” Because those were the actual stones everyone walked upon, it is more meaningful than “just to see in a museum an ancient coin, a shard of glass, a piece of parchment.”

Whenever a discovery is made further demonstrating Jewish history in Jerusalem, Palestinian groups say the discoveries are manufactured or misinterpreted, as they insist there is no historical Jewish presence in the area.

That happened with this project, Friedman said. They were attacked by the New York Times, Washington Post and Palestinian Authority “with a level of vitriol I haven’t seen in two years at my post.”

Saeb Erekat, PLO Executive Committee secretary, referred to “the criminal settlement project in Jerusalem” as “an attempt to erase Arab Palestinian Christian and Islamic historical identity and wipe out the Palestinian presence.”

Greenblatt also noted the controversy, saying “we got criticized so heavily for attending this event.” He said the Palestinians asserted that the tunnel “was mythical” and Israel was “Judaizing the city.” He said the U.S. “will not tolerate that wording… We will push back on it time and time again. You cannot build peace without a foundation of truth.”

Friedman said this episode demonstrates why peace is elusive. “There is just not much to discuss” if you can’t accept history. “Their wish is for Israel to deny its past and destroy its national DNA.”

Zev Orenstein, director of international affairs at the City of David Foundation, said there were so many Americans at the ceremony because “this administration understands that when the United Nations, when the Palestinians deny our heritage in Jerusalem… they are denying our shared heritage” of Judaism and Christianity.

Because the foundations of that shared heritage, which permeate the formation of the United States, come from Jerusalem, Orenstein said the City of David “is an American heritage site… It’s like Gettysburg, but 6000 miles away.”

Friedman also called the road “a heritage site for Americans just as much as it is a heritage site for Israelis. It has as much to do with the founding of this great nation as the miraculous founding of the state of Israel.”

In a video appearance at the Summit, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the pilgrimage road is where “hundreds of thousands of my ancestors walked,” and the road has been buried for centuries.

“You can’t bury the truth forever,” Netanyahu said. “Jerusalem is the center of our religious and national life for 3000 years. No people has had a connection to this land and this city like the Jewish people have to Jerusalem.”

Greenblatt added that “I’m happy to talk about tunnels,” asking “Where’s the outrage about the tunnels coming from Gaza? Where’s the outrage about the tunnels coming from Lebanon?”