Construction begins on the new Tower of David pavilion and explores the secrets of Jerusalem

A few centuries ago, an Ottoman soldier could have been walking along the city wall of Jerusalem. Maybe it was a long and windy winter night, maybe a summer day, just after sunrise. As he looked out of town to scan the horizon, in a moment of distraction, he dropped the tobacco pipe he was smoking with as he spent the long hours on patrol.

Many years later, that tobacco pipe, along with some ceramic fragments dating from the time of the biblical king Hezekiah in the 8th century BC. C., was among the artifacts unearthed in the excavation that accompanied the construction work of the new pavilion of the Museum of the Tower of David. whose opening ceremony took place on Sunday.

The structure, which will be inaugurated in November 2022, will reach some 17 meters below the level of the citadel and will house the new entrance to the museum, an art exhibition gallery, a cafeteria and offices. The addition is part of a renovation project at the museum that will include a new permanent exhibition that will present the history of Jerusalem through ancient artifacts and pioneering technology.

Meanwhile, the Jaffa Gate construction sites already offer unique opportunities to delve into the archaeological mysteries of the city.

In Israel, by law, any development project must be preceded or accompanied by an archaeological excavation. In Jerusalem, and especially in an area as rich in history as the grounds adjacent to the Old City, the opportunity to excavate is unique, as Noam Silverberg, director of the excavation on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, says.

THE TOWER of the David Museum (credit: NAFTALI HILGER)

“In the last year and a half, we have had the opportunity to go under the modern floor and expose a lot of archaeological elements,” he said. “This is truly a once in a generation time.”

The area had been excavated by British archaeologist Cedric Norman Johns in the 1920s, who kept a journal and documented some of his finds in pictures. The material helped both archaeologists and architects to plan the work.

However, many new items were discovered, including artifacts, a stone with an Arabic inscription and a date (1212), and a medieval latrine.

Furthermore, digging deep enough to reach the foundations of the wall has allowed experts to investigate another fascinating mystery regarding the structure: its original dating.

“We know that the citadel wall dates back to the Middle Ages, but scholars have been debating exactly what period,” Silverberg said. “In the past, it was believed that the wall was completely erected by the Crusaders, later it was suggested that it was the Mamluks, at least partially.”

The archaeologists were able to collect samples of organic material, and specifically coals, trapped within the plaster used to build the wall. The samples are being analyzed at the Weizmann Institute of Science.

“This is going to offer us answers not only for this specific area but for many others in the Old City if we see that the plaster used is similar,” said Silverberg.

In designing the new building, preserving the area’s landscape has been a top priority, said architect Etan Kimmel of Kimmel Eshkolot Architects, who was tasked with the project.

“It has required five years of design work,” he noted. “It was important that the new pavilion was integrated into the landscape but at the same time not appear hidden in it, pretending to be old when it is modern.”

The result, he emphasized, is a very contemporary structure that will welcome visitors from the Mamilla area while integrating into the environment, “like a poetry between old and new,” he said.

When construction began, the architects had to constantly consult with archaeologists.

“In such a sensitive place, you can’t just think of a great engineering solution without considering … what’s underneath,” Kimmel said.

When asked how often they needed to change plans in light of archaeological needs, he replied “every day.”

Patrick and Lina Drahi’s steel, stone and sunken glass entrance pavilion is ready to be ready in about a year, just after the Tower of David Museum also opens its new permanent exhibition.

“After more than three decades, it was time for a makeover,” said Eilat Lieber, the museum’s director and chief curator. “For us it was important not only to renew the exhibition, but also to add the necessary infrastructure to involve the new generations.”

“The pandemic has presented us with many challenges, but on the other hand it has allowed us to accelerate our work,” he said. “Now we want to be prepared to welcome tourists, who we are sure will soon return.”

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