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Feature: Excavating in Jerusalem poses challenge to archaeologists

JERUSALEM, Aug. 11 (Xinhua) -- Digging in what many consider the world's holiest city, Jerusalem, is no easy task. Not only because the city, cluttered and densely populated, has an extensive history, but also because it is rich in political and religious intricacies.

Excavation projects in Jerusalem have become increasingly significant amid political confrontation, as Israelis and Palestinians contest for historical narratives, legal authority and territorial rights.

The recent discovery of a crusader-era hospital in the heart of Jerusalem's Christian quarter is an example of how carefully archaeologists have to handle affairs in the Holy city.

"Excavating in this city is not an easy thing, that's for sure, not only because it's like a layer cake, but also because many times the historical buildings or the findings are located in parts of the city that belong to the Waqf," Amit Re'em, a Jerusalem District archaeologist working for Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), told Xinhua.

The Waqf, the Islamic endowment authority, controls most of the Islamic parts of the city, including the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque, as well as other buildings in the area. The hospital discovered by Re'em's team was in a building that belongs to the Waqf and the Gran Bazaar company of East Jerusalem.

"We didn't have any problems to excavate in the building, for both the Waqf and the company were very helpful, but we know that sometimes problems would arise," Re'em said, "Luckily, this was not the case, but of course we had to ask for the Waqf's permission to dig."

As Jerusalem's Old City is dotted everywhere with archaeological remains, any construction, no matter how small it is, requires the presence of an archaeologist from IAA.

"We conduct a lot of salvage excavations, because if someone wants to expand his house, the moment he puts the shovel in, he may find something. Obviously, if we were to preserve everything, construction in the city would be impossible," Re'em said.

The City of David, an excavation project just outside the gates of the Old City, has been in the middle of a political and archaeological storm in the last decade. Some Israeli archaeologists are contending it is King David's city, while others claim it is being used for political propaganda.

"There may be some archaeologists who have a political agenda, but in general those of us who work for the IAA are professionals, and the Waqf knows that, as well as East Jerusalem authorities," Re'em said.

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