I write this final entry on Israel from back on Duke’s campus. Our trip ended with a wonderful morning at Caesarea and an afternoon at the coastal town of Akko. The next morning, we pulled away from the Kibbutz Ginosar when it was still dark to make it to our flight out of Tel Aviv on time. Twelve hours later we were on the ground in Newark, New Jersey. Modern travel can make it difficult to find the occasion to reflect on experiences abroad. Suddenly I find myself tossed back into the hectic rhythm of a semester at Duke and the landscape of Israel seems impossibly far away in space and time.
During our last day, one of my classmates, Jamie, mentioned that he felt that the parts of the Israel trip that were important to him would shift over time, with different facets of the experience taking on a special significance at different moments and places in his life. I feel similarly. Already, I feel the significance of certain days shifting and growing. As we traveled to over thirty archaeological sites during our time in Israel, even the most spectacular of artifacts took on an ordinariness toward the end of the trip. Now, in North Carolina, I’m beginning to miss the archaeological richness of the Israel. It seems unbelievable that such a small corner of the world could hold such a wealth of archaeological treasures. Now, in my mind, the sites of Bet She’an and Sepphoris begin to stand out. Bet She’an is home to perhaps one of the largest tels in the region. Our visit to Bet She’an came toward the end of the trip, and as we climbed to the top, I found myself beginning to think more like an archaeologist, wondering what stories each of the layers told just beneath our feet. It soon became clear that the stories were manifold. Saul and David were said to have lived at Bet She’an and the city also thrived during eras of Roman and Byzantine settlement, with the remains of bath houses, amphitheaters, and roads commemorating the settlements during those periods. The notion that the structures in a single small region can bear testament to centuries of settlement strikes me as near-miraculous. I wanted nothing more than to able to envision the city as it was at each era; it is difficult enough to imagine the city at one time in its history but to be able to sift through the various layers of structures and symbols is even more difficult. In retrospect, I would have loved to have spent much more time at Bet She’an in order to sift through the time periods and more fully appreciate each era in the city’s history.
The sites of Masada and Gamla seem particularly significant to me retrospectively. Dr. Carol Meyers spoke often of the tendency in archaeology to focus on the unusual aspects of life suggested at a particular excavation, like the structure of government or lifestyle of royalty. While archaeologists certainly should explore such concerns while conducting excavations, such questions should not be explored at the expense of gaining insight into the lives of the common people. The sites of Masada and Gamla both spoke to the experiences of the common people, albeit under extraordinary circumstances. At one point during the trip, one of our instructors asked the class whether the sites not associated with a specific narrative had less significance. I believe the student responded that a lack of narrative did not seem to affect his or her experience of the site. For me, however, imagining the experiences of entire communities in a particular setting holds much more power than simply learning about the features and functions of certain buildings. The Gamla and Masada sites both emphasized that large group of people lived, if briefly, at that location and that tumultuous events at that location molded their individual narratives there. These sites facilitated my awareness that fully alive, intelligent, and creative human beings inhabited the places that we now excavate and study. Such an understanding can certainly contribute to a fuller appreciation of the sites both as testaments to the advancement of human civilization and as places with strong human narratives.
Even though we visited the Church of the Holy Selpulcher on our very first day in Jerusalem, I think that it’s important that it enter into my concluding thoughts on the trip. On our visit to the Church of the Holy Selpulcher, one of our instructors mentioned that the Church’s space is shared by six different Christian groups and that the interior of the church would reflect this division. Upon entering the Church, one can easily see that the interpretation of the space is disjointed; there is not a strong sense of cohesion between the various rooms and alcoves of the church and even the way in which visitors respond to the assorted spaces and relics varies drastically. I watched some visitors frantically snap pictures, looking for the perfect angle and lighting. Other visitors knelt to kiss various relics, maintaining an air of devotion and solemnity throughout their time in the church. This contrast confirmed and encouraged a slowly developing sense of just how starkly different in significance and meaning some of these sites can be for visitors. As I mentioned in some of my earlier journal entries, I have often thought that I would visit Israel in a context of a pilgrimage. Visiting these sacred sites in a scholarly context demanded a very different mental and emotional approach to the trip. While I certainly still felt a sense of reverence for the Holy Land, I found myself considering the sites and the narratives they represented from a much more analytical and objective perspective. Particularly in Israel, it seems to me that archaeology takes on a significance to visitors outside of the scholarly community. For some, biblical archaeology is simply interesting, but it seems important to me not to underestimate the sense of reverence that visitors may feel in response to these places. For me, the potential for personal significance that these sites wield is all the more reason to research, excavate, and analyze with a strong sense of scholarship and integrity.