Vandalism at Jerusalem holy site

12:00 Jan 3 2013 King David's tomb, Jerusalem

Some of the smashed tiles at King David's Tomb in Jerusalem last week.
Photo by Emil Salman

Vandalism at Jerusalem holy site may have aimed to erase traces of Muslim past
About two weeks ago, a young ultra-Orthodox man was arrested after he was caught using a hammer to smash centuries-old painted wall tiles.

By Nir Hasson for Haaretz

An attempt to harm the fragile status quo at the building which houses King David's Tomb and the room of the Last Supper may have been behind the smashing of centuries-old tiles at the site two weeks ago, informed sources indicated on Thursday. The Israel Antiquities Authority and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which manages the site, said the damage to the tiles was 'total.'

The tiles, and the traditional site of King David's burial, are located on the lower floor of an ancient building on Jerusalem's Mount Zion that is sacred to the three monotheistic faiths. The Room of the Last Supper, where Christians believe Jesus celebrated Passover with his disciples before he was crucified, occupies the second floor.

The tiles, which feature flowers and trees painted in shades of blue, turquoise and red, were installed at the site, which is also important to Islam, during an Ottoman renovation in the 17th century. They serve as evidence that the building – as indeed Jerusalem – was once controlled by the Muslims. They were damaged about five years ago during renovations carried out by the Religious Affairs Ministry; some were plastered over, and a Holy Ark was put on top.

About two weeks ago, a young ultra-Orthodox man was arrested after he was caught using a hammer to smash centuries-old painted wall tiles. He told police he did so because an older friend had advised him that “the tiles were stopping his prayers from reaching the tomb.” The man said he was hoping that his prayers for a bride would be answered.

The Israel Antiquities Authority said in response that "about five years ago the Antiquities Authority began a project of preservation and maintenance at the site of King David's Tomb. So far millions of shekels have been invested to turn the site into one of the most important places in the Old City (of Jerusalem). The Antiquities Authority sees great importance in continued preservation and development at the site, and calls on those responsible for it, plus the Israel Police and the Jerusalem Municipality, to assist in the safeguarding the site and preventing similar incidents.”

There have been efforts in the past to bring the tiles under the protection of the Antiquities Law, in the wake of research by Nirit Shalev-Khalif, a scholar at Jerusalem's Yad Ben-Zvi. Though the law still does not apply, conservation work at the tomb the National Center for the Development of Holy Places, the Jerusalem Development Authority and the Israel Antiquities Authority has included restoration of the tiles.

Shalev-Khalifa says the tomb’s tiles are part of a centuries-old Jerusalem artistic tradition. The genre reached its height in the 16th century when Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent covered the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount with decorative tiles. “This was the hottest art in the Ottoman Court, the highest art,” Shalev-Khalifa said. The King David's Tomb tiles date from the 17th or 18th century. The genre declined in importance in subsequent years, according to Shalev-Khalifa. “In the 20th century Jerusalem saw the establishment of the Armenian ceramic tradition, so there is continuity here in the city’s visual culture. The damage done is terrible. These tiles are part of the universal identity of the place,” she said.
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