Journalist Lawler's Under Jerusalem (Doubleday, Nov.) examines the history and politics of archaeology in the Holy City.

What brought European archaeologists to Jerusalem in the 19th century?

This was the big surprise for me. To discover that archaeology, which began in the 1860s, was actually part of the colonial race to control Jerusalem, because it was part of the Ottoman Empire, which was coming apart at the seams. Christian Europe had always looked at Jerusalem as its own—during the Crusades, it had actually captured Jerusalem—and the people who went there were generally deeply religious, and were seeking to corroborate the Bible in the face of the onslaught of doubt and new science that was coming to the fore, particularly in Europe, during the early and mid-19th century. To do that, they had to look beyond the old, medieval, largely Arab-speaking city for the mythical Jerusalem, which they’d heard about from the pulpit for so many years.

Who was the most memorable explorer you came across in your research?

It would have to be Capt. Montagu Brownlow Parker, an English aristocrat who came to Jerusalem right before WWI to seek the Ark of the Covenant. He raised the equivalent of $2.4 million from English aristocrats and American industrialists, who believed they would get several billion dollars on the art market if they found it. Of course, they didn’t find the treasure, and instead they began to dig on the Temple Mount, which Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary, and caused riots, nearly caused the fall of the Ottoman government, and nearly sparked a revolt by Muslim subjects of the British empire, who were outraged by this English aristocrat attacking Islam’s third-holiest shrine. Now it’s considered a comic opera, but I discovered that Parker, in inflaming Muslim opinion against the English and against archaeology, and against treasure hunters, turned the Noble Sanctuary into a center of what became Palestinian nationalism.

How is archaeology politicized in modern-day Jerusalem?

Archaeology is used by politicians on all sides to prove that Jerusalem belongs to them—whether it’s the Christians, the Jews, or the Muslims. It’s become a weapon in the war to control the city. But I have what may be a naive belief that science can actually show that Jerusalem belongs to neither the Christians nor the Jews nor the Muslims. In fact, it is an accretion of all of these traditions, which over the centuries have created something quite unique. If there can be a recognition that the science shows this complexity, and the beauty of the diversity of cultures that have come together in Jerusalem, it might someday, perhaps, form some basis for Jerusalem to become the city of peace that it has been heralded as for so many centuries.