Two months ago, our trip to the Holy Land seemed unlikely in light of the bombings in Gaza. Now that time seems impossibly far away, considering the incredible experience we have shared here. As we prepare to return to Duke, we reflect on the immensity of what we’ve learned in the last two weeks in Israel.
Our day began on the grounds of our very own lodgings, at the so-called Jesus Boat Museum. Two fishermen brothers from Kibbutz Ginnosar discovered this 2,000-year-old fishing boat here in the Galilee in 1986. The find attracted volunteers from all over the world, capturing the imagination of both Israeli Jews seeking a piece of national history and Christians inspired by the connection to Jesus and his disciples. After eleven days of digging, the entire ship was revealed to be astonishingly well preserved. The team encased the craft in a polyurethane casing for transporting it to the lab and then to the museum in which it lies today. The twenty-seven foot vessel is a dark amalgamation of twelve types of wood overlaid with ribs for support. It was easy to imagine fishermen casting out their nets from this craft, hauling in their livelihood each day without fail.
Our second stop was Nazareth Village, a reconstruction of the first-century CE village Jesus knew. The site featured a small indoor museum where we were informed that we stood in a site of great importance (or at least, a simulacrum of a site of great importance). Nazareth, according to the New Testament, is the site of the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel informed Mary she would bear the Messiah. It is the site of Jesus’ childhood and of his confrontation with the Jewish leaders in the temple. The remains of the actual first-century village were uncovered under the Church of the Annunciation, which we visited later on.
We exited the museum onto a grassy hillside, which boasted a handful of stone buildings. Our tour guide, Daniel, introduced us to the various facets of Nazarene life: goat and sheep herding, weaving, olive pressing, and synagogue worship. The town in Jesus’ day would have comprised only four or five hundred inhabitants, as compared to the modern city of 70,000. Actors in Bible-era garb greeted us and demonstrated crafts such as carving, reminding us of the daily labor of the time.
We visited the beautiful Church of the Annunciation, which contained stunning mosaics of various countries’ depictions of the Virgin Mary. Inside the modern basilica a congregation of Christians circled around the grotto and sang hymns where Mary and Gabriel supposedly spoke. One man offered a beatific song of praise to the Virgin, his voice resounding in the austere, high-ceilinged sanctuary. We listened for a time, sitting and savoring the earnest worship of this community.
Finally, we stopped briefly at the synagogue of Hammat Tiberias. The site boasted an intricate fourth-century mosaic floor, whose centerpiece is a wheel of the Zodiac with the figure of Helios in the center. Other figures include lions, a lampstand, the Holy Ark, and an inscription dedicated to the donors of the artwork.
The lesson that has been compounded with every site, sound, and experience may seem simple, but was rather unexpected for me: archaeology does things. It is not an isolated study of rocks or remains, nor a collection of facts that collects dust on a shelf. Archaeology is the umbilical cord tethering the present to the past. The development of archaeological sites is particularly instrumental in Israel for vindicating political and religious truths. This understanding was affirmed in our adventures today, the last day of our journey. We saw how the Galilee boat connected the Jews at the kibbutz to their fishermen forefathers, how Nazareth Village could transport Christians to the time of their Savior, and how an ancient synagogue could trace the culture of a people who are constantly defending their homeland’s very existence.
We may not all go on to become archaeologists, but we have all been inspired by the discoveries, as well as the academic discourse regarding the political and religious conflict that follow in their wake. The cross-section of Holy Land Archaeology with which our professors have presented us is an impressive tour de force, encompassing disparate landscapes, people groups, eras, faiths, histories, theories, and realities. We won’t forget what we learned here. We simply can’t believe it’s time to go back.
The sunny skies we had become accustomed to during the first nine days of our journey turned gray, a dreary fog spread across the landscape, and wind and rain pounded the region of Galilee. Not exactly the best day to view archaeological sites, but nevertheless like clockwork we hopped on the bus this morning, and prepared for a day exploring the archaeology of the region. Our first stop, and, due to the weather, our only stop, was the ancient city of Sepphoris. Though there is evidence of earlier settlements in the area, Sepphoris really became an important city during early Roman times, and contained a sizable Jewish population. During the Great Revolt of the Jews against the Romans from 66-70 CE, Sepphoris chose to remain loyal to Rome and not revolt, earning them the title of “city of peace.” After the revolt was suppressed, Sepphoris was rewarded by Rome with massive public works projects and an expansion of the city. Additionally, many of the Jewish elite who were exiled from Judea after the failed revolt eventually settled in Sepphoris, and as a result by the 2nd century CE Sepphoris was a large urban center with a population of about 20,000 people and a major center of Jewish religious and cultural life in Galilee.
On the outskirts of the city sits the Roman water system, which, through a system of tunnels and a natural cavern, brought fresh water from the surrounding hills to the city proper. The oldest part of the city sits on a small hill, and as the city expanded it spread out in all directions, connected by wide, well-paved streets, one of the major ones discovered by our own class TA Ben Gordon. The lower city, built surrounding the hill, contains both residences and administrative centers, the latter decorated with incredible mosaics. The most notable of these depicts a scene of the Nile River, featuring crocodiles, a Nilometer (a device that measures how high the Nile is running) and many other scenes of Egyptian culture and fauna. Fascination with Egypt is a trademark of Hellenistic culture, as Alexandria in Egypt was one of the most important cities in the Hellenistic world, so this mosaic testifies to the heavy influence of Greco-Roman culture in Sepphoris.
After exploring the lower city we moved to the upper city, much of which was excavated by our very own Dr. Eric and Carol Meyers, and funded by Duke University. The crown jewel of the upper city is known as the “Dionysus Villa,” the private residence of a wealthy citizen that contains a beautiful mosaic with scenes depicting Dionysus — the Greek God of fertility and wine — engaging in a drinking game with Herakles. The depictions of Dionysus are unto themselves impressive, but what is most stunning about the mosaic is a picture of a woman’s face situated at the front of the mosaic. The woman is remarkably beautiful, with dark, piercing eyes that seem to follow you as you walk around the villa, earning her the nickname “The Mona Lisa of Galilee.” History leaves us no answers to who owned this villa, or even if the owner was a Jew or Gentile, though some believe it could have been the home of Rabbi Judah the Patriarch, an important Jewish leader in the 2nd-3rd century CE.
The clear influx of Greco-Roman culture at Sepphoris, a predominantly Jewish city that likely even had Jews on the city council, shows that at this time Jews were very open to Greek culture and in many artistic and cultural arenas traditional Jewish practices meshed with Greek ones. This phenomenon is also attested to by the mosaic in Sepphoris’ excavated synagogue, which contained symbolism and scenes from Greek culture. This cultural amalgamation challenges conceptions of Jews in antiquity as being orthodox and rigid and is an incredible testament to the ability of different cultures to cooperate and thrive. In modern-day Israel much of the political conflict arises from the inability of different cultures and ethnic groups to live side by side. Firebrands from both side of the conflict claim their group is the sole heir to the land, and have the sole right to live in and inhabit the country. However, the history of this area is filled with the constant introduction, meshing, and intermingling of cultures, often times on very peaceful and mutually beneficial terms. If Jews and Greeks could peacefully coexist and even learn from one another in antiquity, then I believe there is hope for peace in modern Israel.
On a lighter note, today was also a great reminder that our tour is being led by verifiable archaeological rock stars. The Meyers had us captivated telling us the story of their excavation of the Dionysus Villa, conveying all the excitement of discovering The Mona Lisa of Galilee and all the ensuing scholarship that followed. Just as we were leaving, a group from Colgate University entered and one of the students, who was writing a senior thesis about the site, started to discuss it with her class. Shortly afterwards, when she discovered THE Eric Meyers was in the same room as her, she was so excited she almost fainted! An autograph and a few photos later, the girl left grinning, and we all left with a reminder of how blessed we are not only to be able to come on this trip, but also to have such world-renowned scholars leading us.
We knew today was going to be a good day because of the count. Very soon after getting off the plane in Tel Aviv we all were assigned a number so that we can quickly count off and thus make sure we never leave anyone behind. I’m not trying to say that our class isn’t a group of the most intelligent people in the world cause we are but…we have a really hard time counting off. This morning, however, when we got on the bus, we counted perfectly. We all cheered and we knew, “This is going to be a good day!”
Due to predicted rain for the next few days, we had to change our schedule. Our first stop this morning was Tel Dan, a few miles from the Israel-Lebanon border. It was cold and foggy (but not raining!) as we got off the bus and began our muddy hike through a nature reserve towards the remains of the ancient city of Dan. The reserve is lushly green and filled with rushing springs that feed the Jordan River. As our T.A. Ben said, “I bet you didn’t expect to find the look and weather of the British countryside in Israel!” On our way we saw a fire salamander, which, apparently, is very fascinating.
The size and significance of the city in the Middle Bronze Age is reflected in its well-preserved city gate from that period. The remains of the 7-meter-high arched gate, Dr. Carol Meyers told us, is one of the archaeological wonders of the world. Unexpectedly, as we walked to the gate, we saw another fire salamander, which elicited much excitement, and even a cry of “Z000UBEK!!” from Dr. Eric Meyers. The gate is the only intact mud brick arch from the ancient world and dates to the 18th century B.C (the Middle Bronze II). It has survived so well because the builders quickly discovered that mud brick is not as stable as stone (surprise!) and improved it by building a massive thick stone defensive structure around the gate that sloped at a 30-degree angle making it almost impossible to climb. It is estimated that to build the enormous structure would take 1,000 people three years.
The city of Dan is mentioned repeatedly in the Hebrew Bible. Dan is one of the 12 tribes of Israel and in the Book of Judges is allocated the land in the southwest coast. Unfortunately, the Philistines already occupied that land and the tribe of Dan is said to have migrated north, win some land called Laish from the Canaanites, and rename it Dan. According to 1 Kings, after the death of Solomon in 928 B.C., the first king of the Northern Kingdom, Jeroboam (928-907 B.C.), did not like that his subjects left his territory to worship in Jerusalem. He “made two calves of gold. And he said to the people, ‘You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.’ And he set one in Bethel and the other he put in Dan” (1 Kings 15:20). King Jeroboam also built a second line of fortification for the city around the previous 18th century B.C. wall.
We also saw remains of the later city wall from the time of the Iron Age. Because the gate of the wall is the point at which it is most vulnerable, the wall had 3 layers of gates. At this early time in history, the gate was a civic center (unlike later times when they figured out it was actually a good idea to keep the people and business away from and not right next to the most vulnerable part of the city). We saw the plaza for merchants and other public business on the outside of the first gate and another in between the first and second. In this plaza standing stones were found which may have been part of a political or spiritual ceremony, as well as a bench for elders and a throne for the king of the city.
We also saw the Iron Age cult center at Dan inside the city walls. It appears to have been operational through the Hellenistic period, as attested by a Greek and Aramaic inscription found there. Archaeologists have excavated a sanctuary, some small rooms for ritual feasts and the horn from a huge altar. The altar’s outline is reconstructed in aluminum and placed among the ruins. There were mixed feeling in our group about the appropriateness of reconstructing and representing archaeological sites in this way. I think subtle and suggestive reconstructions like this are extremely helpful for understanding the site.
We also saw some newer remains: an Israeli patrol road used from the founding of the state through the 1967 war and a bunker used up through that war. The good water supply and location near the Golan Heights and hills of Lebanon and a low-lying valley leading to the heart of Israel made this spot strategically important in modern history as well as in antiquity. After seeing all of this and accumulating a few inches of mud on our shoes, we drove over to our next stop, a short hike to Banias Waterfall. We stood on a platform and could feel the spray from the falls on our faces.
Before lunch we had one more stop at an ancient town called Caesarea Philippi at the foot of Mount Hermon, the tallest mountain in Israel. In antiquity, water would pour out of a cave on the side of the mountain. Since the Hellenistic period the place was closely connected to the worship of the god Pan, a nature god. A city grew up around the sanctuary to Pan and with time other places of worship were built nearby. Augustus gave the land to Herod the Great who then in gratitude built a temple dedicated to the worship of Augustus. In the New Testament, the town is referenced with the name Philippi, which it was given in honor of Herod’s son Philip, who ruled from there after Herod’s death. The name Caesarea comes from Caesar, in honor of Augustus’ status as emperor. We saw the remains of the grotto to Pan, the court of Nemesis, the tomb temple of the sacred goats, and a temple to Pan and the dancing goats. From the ancient writer Eusebius, we know of a water oracle practice that took place there. In the ritual, a sacrificial goat’s throat was cut and then the body was thrown into the chasm, normally it would float in the water, but in some cases it would sink to the bottom. It was understood then that the demons had claimed the goat, an ominous sign.
After this we were all ready for lunch and walked over to a nice Lebanese restaurant. Although it involved no sacrificial goats, our omen of the count was correct. It had been a good morning.
Upon stepping out of the bus and onto the land of the ancient city that was once known as Hazor, one cannot help but to be struck with awe at the beauty that exists in every direction. Rolling green hills characterize the terrain and what appear to be the remains of a modest little town adorn the landscape. This “modest little town,” we soon learn, was actually quite the opposite. Hazor was an enormous Bronze Age city with a population of about 20,000-30,000 people. The modest little area we were looking at was in fact only the upper city area. The rest of the city, known as the lower city, is completely covered by farmland.
Hazor was a very important city during the early Bronze Age through to the late Bronze Age due to its strategic location at a major crossroads; it intersected a route connecting Egypt to Babylon. Not only a biblically significant town, Hazor was internationally recognized as a superpower of the Bronze Age. In fact, Hazor is mentioned as being an important site in extra-biblical Egyptian and Mesopotamian sources, such as the Amarna letters. Unlike the other cities mentioned in the Amarna letters, descriptions of the king of Hazor indicate that he had possession of a larger domain than the kings of the other regions and that he held dominion over the other regions mentioned, making Hazor quite the formidable foe.
In biblical accounts of Hazor, a similar picture of the city is painted. Hazor is described as having had dominion over a sizable coalition of towns. The Book of Joshua mentions that the Canaanite king of Hazor unsuccessfully led a confederation against Joshua, which led to its ultimate destruction:
“Joshua turned back at that time, and took Hazor, and struck its king down with the sword. Before that time Hazor was the head of all those kingdoms. And they put to the sword all who were in it, utterly destroying them; there was no one left who breathed, and he burned Hazor with fire. And all the towns of those kings, and all their kings, Joshua took, and struck them with the edge of the sword, utterly destroying them, as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded. But Israel burned none of the towns that stood on mounds except Hazor, which Joshua did burn” (Joshua 11:10-13, NRSV).
As we have become accustomed to discovering, this biblical account does not necessarily fit perfectly into the story that the archaeological remains attest to. In the mapping of the biblical timeline, scholars have placed the Joshua account of the burning and Jewish occupation of Hazor during the reign of Joshua, towards the end of the 13th century BCE. The archaeological evidence that was uncovered during the excavation of the site does validate the destruction of this city during the 13th century and the presence of a more impoverished settlement on the site afterwards. However, the evidence does not indicate a great influx of people to the area until the time of King Solomon in the 10th century BCE. The evidence used as a testament to Solomon’s presence in Hazor is said to lie mainly in the city gate and the biblical account in 1Kings 9 about Solomon’s construction of walls around Hazor and two other cities (Gezer and Megiddo), which, it turns out, contain city gates executed in virtually the same architectural plan.
While touring the site we asked the question: Could it be that the Israelites really burned down Hazor? Professor Amnon Ben Tor, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, follows more closely the biblical narrative of the destruction of Hazor and maintains that it indeed was the Israelites. On the other side of the spectrum, Ben Tor’s associate, Dr. Sharon Zuckerman, upholds very different ideas about the destruction. To Dr. Zuckerman, a more likely scenario is that the city was in disarray because of a downturn in the economic situation and the economically underprivileged citizens rose up against the wealthy elites and set fire to the buildings. Dr. Zuckerman backs up her theory with archaeological evidence that has been interpreted to indicate that some of the areas in Hazor had already been abandoned before the mid-13th century BCE, thus indicating that Hazor was in economic straits, which would have led to civic unrest. In many cases with archaeology there is no definitive answer, and answers can often lead to more questions. In the realm of biblical archaeology there exist interpretations, all of which aim to shed light on an unattainable reality.
Moving away from the Bible as a source of information on the city of Hazor, I found that the architectural elements of the site were also a great source of information. In the 9th and 8th centuries BCE, threat from the Assyrians loomed large on the horizon. During the reign of Ahab, the city organized the construction of a deep underground tunnel in order to tap into the water table and obtain a convenient source of water within the city walls. The well served municipal purposes and provided the people of Hazor with a permanent and year round supply of water. To say that the well was an impressive site to behold is an understatement; it was unbelievable. While walking down the steps of the well to reach the water at the bottom, I could understand, at least for a moment, what this tiny aspect of life would have been like for the people of Hazor. In that moment I gained an even greater appreciation for the art and science that is archaeology because it breathes life into places that have long since been breathless.
We concluded the day at Hazor with a discussion led by Erin and Connor about biblical archaeological remains discovered in recent decades and what they tell us about the life of Jesus. We also discussed the problems associated with identifying things as early Christian artifacts due to the unclear distinction between Christian and Jewish material culture during the 1st century CE. Another interesting topic we touched upon during our discussion was in regards to the world surrounding Jesus and how his external environment might have shaped how he taught and how he approached the world. Today’s discussion has most definitely been illuminating on some of the problems associated with dealing with biblical figures and places in an archaeological manner. Biblical archaeologists exist in a constant yet precarious position between how much relevance the Bible should be given as a historical text while maintaining a forced agnosticism. This is a very difficult edge to balance on if you ask me.
After a hearty breakfast at our new home, the kibbutz Nof Ginosar, we departed for our first stop of the day, the Gamla Nature Reserve, located in the Golan Heights plateau. In addition to being a popular destination for both Israeli and foreign hikers, the reserve also has archaeological significance by containing the ruins of the ancient Jewish city of Gamla, a city whose historical importance comes from its involvement in the first Jewish-Roman war. Flavius Josephus, the great Jewish historian, documented in his writings Gamla’s final struggle against the Roman invaders in 67 CE. With many eerie parallels to his account on the Roman siege of Masada, Josephus described the actions of the Jewish rebels at Gamla as they valiantly sought to hold off the Romans from breaching their city. Though they could stave off initial attacks, the rebels unfortunately succumbed to a final push from the Romans. Similar to the Masada account, Josephus suggested that many of the rebels, unable to accept their defeat, committed what we might label to be suicide by jumping off the ridges near Gamla.
As we arrived at the reserve, I noted some of the topographical features that make the Golan Heights region unique from other geographical areas we have visited thus far in our journey. In addition to being an elevated plateau, the Golan Heights has several dormant volcanoes, the former activity of which contributes to the rocky landscape of the region. As we got off the bus, we began our day at the reserve by hiking towards the highest waterfall in modern Israel, the Gamla waterfall. Along the way, the Meyers pointed out two interesting archaeological findings. First, they asked us to look at several upright stone structures that we found to be scattered along the sides of our hiking trial. Through further discussion, our class learned that these upright structures, primarily attributed to the Chalcolithic period of the Bronze Age, are called dolmens. Though there is no clear consensus within the archaeological community, most archaeologists posit these structures to have been used as tombs.
In addition to the dolmens, the Meyers also pointed out another archaeological find on our way to the waterfall. This finding, the remains of a Christian village dating to between the 4th and 6th century, was inaccessible for us to explore further, as nomadic Bedouin settlers in the area have appropriated this site and destroyed its integrity. Fortunately, we were not disappointed for long, as we came within sight of the Gamla waterfall. Though seeing the falls was not the principal focus of our day, we all would agree that being near the waterfall gave us an opportunity to step back and soak in the natural beauty of the reserve.
Now, it was time for us to see the real gem of the reserve, the ruins of Gamla. Returning back to where we started, we then proceeded to begin a slow and difficult descent down a ridge, and I can tell you that we all breathed a collective sigh of relief when we reached the bottom of the ridge and arrived at the ruins. Here, within the ruins, we had the opportunity to study and examine the remains of the Gamla synagogue, which experts date to the Second Temple Period during the 1st century BCE. Sitting in the area of what we would consider to be the sanctuary in a modern synagogue, we discussed further the purpose of this ancient synagogue, which, in addition to serving as a spiritual space, also functioned as a meeting space for locals discussing the public and political affairs of the city of Gamla. In addition, as we always do each day, we examined the functional significance of the structural features of the site.
We concluded our tour of the Gamla ruins with our class discussion, which we held within the remains of the synagogue. Today, we primarily talked about the purposes of coming to the Holy Land for different Christian groups and the characteristics that we find their pilgrimages/”vacations” to have. What I thought was most interesting about our discussion was when we attempted to delineate our own purposes for being in the Holy Land and understand how these purposes define our collective experiences and growth as a group. In some ways, we agreed that the dichotomy between tourism and pilgrimage that most people believe to exist might not be as present as we like to think.
After our discussion, we headed back to the bus and were accompanied in this journey by a family of Griffon Vultures. We then proceeded to the town of Qatzrin, the only settlement in the Golan Heights, to eat lunch and to visit the Golan Archaeological Museum. Of particular note at the museum was an exhibit that described the archaeological excavation in the Golan Heights of Rujm el-Hiri or the “Stonehenge of the Golan,” a megalithic structure from the Early Bronze Age containing concentric circles walls with a mound in the middle. In addition, we also watched at the museum an informational video that detailed the excavation by Israeli archaeologists of Gamla and some of their interpretations of the findings that allowed them to find Josephus’s account to have actually happened at this site.
Overall, I believe our day in the Golan again highlighted the importance that the discipline of archaeology has for the creation of a broad national and cultural narrative. In creating the Gamla reserve, the nation of Israel has given the opportunity for both Israelis and foreigners to transcend the difficulties of the natural terrain to discover a site, a “Masada of the North” if you will, that further augments the connection the state of Israeli has with the Levant.
Accustomed to the routine by now, we all assembled in the main hotel at 7am for our first buffet breakfast at Kibbutz Ginosar. All of the makings for fruit and vegetable salads spread across the two main tables along with three kinds of fish and various dairy spreads. Following kosher tradition, meat is not allowed in the same meal as dairy (fish, clearly, excluded). Last night was a “meat meal,” thus all the dishes, including various baked deserts were made with soy instead of dairy. This morning was a dairy meal, so yogurt and cheese spreads were the norm. Once we’d had our fill, we filed onto the bus where Mahfouz was waiting to drive us to our first destination.
Professors Meyers narrated our drive offering their customary Jeopardy-worthy trivia tidbits. “Off in front of us at one o’clock,” rang Dr. Meyers’s voice through the microphone, “you see the dome built, oddly enough, by Mussolini. That’s the site where Pope John Paul preached to multitudes in the year 2000.” We whizzed by the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes and Capernaum with only a passing mention, as the Meyers assured us we’d get the full account later this afternoon when we toured the Church.
Out the window to my left, a herd of cattle grazed freely, and the rows of greenhouses alternated with rows of apple trees. In a striking juxtaposition, a natural wall of wild cactus circumscribed an orchard with neat rows of baby trees whose new buds were protectively wrapped. Green was everywhere, uncharacteristically so, even for winter. Greys and browns are just beginning to take hold as thistles and foxtails and naked plants that have shed their green recognize that the end of the Israeli rainy season is drawing near.
“We’re now ascending the Golan Heights to Gamla,” explained the headless voice echoing through the bus. From our new vantage point, the valleys surrounding us were all purples and yellows and oranges. The top of the Heights is a leveled off plateau. Off to the left, Dr. Meyers pointed out the remnants of extinct volcanos, the source of the black rock that features prominently in the local architecture along with the white limestone that is pervasive throughout Israel.
The road wound to the right, curving around a compound fenced off with barbed wire in which seven tanks sat abandoned, most likely vestiges of the wars of ’67 or ’73. As if on cue, the voice chimed in “you can imagine the strategic value of the Golan Heights, especially in the case of a ground war. Up ahead at eleven o’clock you see a pointed peak. That’s Gamla, the site of the biggest battle of the Great Revolt.” And so we had arrived.
Our morning reliving Josephus’ account of the Jewish Revolt at Gamla and the Golan Archeological Museum led into an afternoon retracing the steps of Jesus from Capernaum to the Mount of Beatitudes. Walking first through an exterior gate then under an archway, we emerged in the garden courtyard of Capernaum. In biblical times, Capernaum served as the base of Jesus’ ministry in the Galilee. Five apostles, including Peter, were to have lived here.
Trees in full bloom and other greenery surrounded the two excavated structures in stark contrast to the dirt-brown and stone-gray that dominated the landscape surrounding the other excavations sites we’ve seen to date. According to Dr. Meyers, the synagogue upon whose steps we casually sat is “the most interesting of all the sites venerated in the Christian tradition.” The synagogue that is visible above ground in Capernaum was built in Byzantine times, but beneath it purportedly rests the first-century synagogue it replaced. Enormous and gleaming white, the synagogue, like the one at Gamla, is oriented towards Jerusalem.
Just across the courtyard from the synagogue is a church converted from the house believed to have belonged to Peter. The octagonal house-church, which like the original synagogue dates to the first century CE, had a church erected in its commemoration during the Byzantine period. These layers of history are all visible through the transparent glass floor at the center of the modern church built just a few decades ago on the same site. Today, the site of Capernaum, which the Ottomans ceded to Rome, is an extraterritorial possession of the Vatican that only the Franciscan Order has authorization to excavate.
Down the road, the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes boasts an exquisite mosaic floor. Most of the floor is decorated with geometric designs, but the area nearer to the altar depicts cranes and trumpet flowers. Immediately before the altar is the original mosaic of the Loaves and Fishes. Although the Meyers had made a point to give their explanation while we were still in the bus in order to maintain the silent sanctity of the church, the church was hardly silent. Boisterous children dashed here and there and waved their fingers through the candle flames.
For the final site of the day, we ascended the Mount of Beatitudes, where Dr. Meyers had pointed out the domed church commissioned by Mussolini earlier this morning. According to the book of Matthew, Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount here. Besides the significance of the site itself and the commemorative Church of the Beatitudes, the Mount offers a view of most places Jesus lived and worked. We gathered at the edge of the Mount, each finding her or his own significance in the scenery before us. Together, in our own little communitas, we watched the sun set over the Golan Heights and reflect its last light off the still waters of the Sea of Galilee.
Waving goodbye to the lovely sisters of the Rosary Sisters Convent, we also bid adieu to Jerusalem and its wonderful life and culture. Though this departure made for a morning of lots of luggage schlepping and a little sadness, there was much to anticipate in our first stop of the day, the city of Jericho. In all honesty, most of my “pre-Holy Land trip” knowledge of Jericho could be found in the children’s song “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho.” But in keeping with every single day of this trip, my expectations were more than exceeded in how much history, culture, and life can be packed within the “strata” of the lands of Israel.
Jericho is widely known for its popularized biblical tale of Joshua sending the walls of the city tumbling to the ground, however this site may also be one of the first permanent settlements on the planet with its first community established around 8,000 BCE. Famous archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon revealed the depths of Jericho’s history in the 1950s to discover a built structure resembling a tower that was possibly used in a massive fortification wall but was destroyed around 1550 BCE. However, Kenyon found no evidence of an Israelite presence in Jericho near 1200 when Joshua and his 40,000 soldiers were said to have entered the city, only finding evidence of this Israelite presence later in history. As I admitted before, my knowledge of Jericho had been rather single-minded and solely biblical, and as a result I felt a twinge of sadness at learning the results of the excavation.
Unable to deny the facts of this excavation, I inevitably challenged myself with the question: what do archaeologically unsupported tales such as Joshua’s feat at Jericho mean for the legitimacy of texts like the Bible as a historical account? A popular question and point of debate among biblical scholars, and today our own group of students, this question would drive our approaching discussion for the afternoon. But before we could answer this question, we all enjoyed a quick snack of fresh fruit in the small produce stand in the parking lot of the excavation site. Not wanting to waste much time, we got back on the bus to make our way to the next adventure.
Arriving shortly at Bet She’an, the modest entrance does not elude to the massive archaeological park hidden several meters ahead. I cannot exaggerate in claiming that this excavation site is an archaeologist’s dream with the seemingly complete ruin of an ancient city that was once an impressive picture of civilization over many periods. The impressive complex includes the ruins of a market space, an amphitheater, two theatres, a public latrine, and a column-lined cardo.
Though under control of the Egyptians from the 15th-12th centuries BCE, the area was ruled by the Philistines under the time of King Saul. The biblical story of the Israelite-Philistine battle for Bet Shean ended in a Philistine victory and the death of King Saul and his sons, leading to the Lament of David over the death of his friend, the son of King Saul.
From the tell you can obtain one of the best views we have seen in this trip, which is saying something considering the consistently remarkable sights we have visited. Standing high above the ruins, my only description of my resulting emotions can be unadulterated joy in seeing the most holistic picture of society within the series of archaeological ruins we have seen. It is in the rich history of this society that there is belief of one of the many legendary stories that saturate the Bible, and it is in this moment I feel confident in the strata of memories, records, and secrets exposed in this space, reaching a personal conclusion on the question I posed before.
Archaeology is not a weapon of legitimizing precedence of texts or of personal agendas. If we can ever hope to achieve a picture of unbiased archaeology, it is our job as students to learn from the resources we are privileged to have and allow the guiding principles of texts, sacred or other, to fill in the gaps where our own imaginations fail us.
Following lunch, our discussion began in the middle of a Roman theatre as our fearless (grad student) leader, Daniel Stulac, described and critiqued the extreme ends of the spectrum with respect to how archaeologists perceive the Bible as a source of evidence – “minimalism” and “maximalism.” As the names suggest, minimalists hold that the Bible (and presumably any other written text) is not capable of accurately representing the past, preferring to rely upon solely archaeological evidence; on the other hand, maximalists believe that the Bible is an extraordinarily reliable source of information. Most archaeologists would find themselves closer to the middle on such a spectrum, recognizing that within any given passage, while there is a possibility of anachronism (the Bible was probably written and redacted over a period of a thousand years) or exaggeration (much of the material within it was probably never meant to be objective), the narrative of the Bible is still extraordinarily capable of providing information about the history of Israel and the lives of its people.
After our discussion, we took a tram – essentially golf carts strung along by a tractor – back to the bus. While it was of a lesser degree than in Jerusalem, I was once again struck by how often present day life casually resides alongside the remains of ancient civilizations: solar panels powered the homes that gazed across the street towards the deteriorated outlines of structures from days long ago. During our drive to Bet Alpha, we found ourselves passing through a vast expanse of fertile green – most certainly in contrast to the near-desert surroundings of Jericho that we had visited earlier that morning. It has been called the “bread basket” of Israel.
As we came upon Bet Alpha, we encountered a quaint, nondescript building that housed a gorgeous 6th-century mosaic floor of a synagogue. According to the Meyers’, the excavation of the synagogue in 1929 would have helped to further the modern Jewish claim to the land, while the art inside would have provided a counter to prevailing narratives of the day regarding the nature of Jewish art. The mosaic itself can be divided into three parts: the part closest to the building’s doorway depicts Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac; the center, a zodiac circle representing the different months surrounding the sun-god Helios riding in a chariot; and the part farthest from the door (and closest to where the Torah would have been housed), the ark, two menorah, and several animals.
While the existence of the zodiac itself could simply be written off as Greco-Roman influence upon Jewish society, the presence of what appears to be the sun god Helios at the center of the mosaic would seem to violate the biblical commandment against the graven image. However, Dr. Carol Meyers informed us that one alternative theory for this image explains the figure at the center of the circle as depicting the prophet Elijah ascending to heaven in a chariot of fire. Another curiosity lies in the stairs that would have potentially ascended to a second story within the synagogue: one interpretation of the purpose of these stairs suggests a separation of men and women during the service; this concept is presumably based on the traditional Jewish practice of segregated prayer. However, it seems that nothing in the texts of the day appear to suggest this practice. On some basic level, the interpretation of both of these unexpected features in the synagogue reflects the minimalist-maximalist debate that we discussed earlier in the day: namely, how much stock can be put in texts’ representation of 4th-century Jewish life and adherence to Jewish law.
Our next stop was the city of Tiberias, where we will lodge for the next few days. Since our departure from Jericho, we had been following the Jordan River, such that at points we could look across river to see the farmland residing on the opposite embankments of Jordan. However, as we neared our destination, we finally crossed the Jordan River – perhaps it could more accurately be termed Jordan Creek – near where it met the Sea of Galilee.
As we entered the outskirts of the modern city of Tiberias, we decided to make a quick stop at a current dig that was exploring the Tiberias of antiquity as our professors wanted us to gain an understanding of the nature of the beginning of an archaeological excavation. Unfortunately, as the bus doors opened, our noses were greeted by the lovely aroma exuding from an adjacent sewage plant. As we disembarked from the bus, we learned that the site was actually the current project of Dr. Katia Cytryn-Silverman, who spoke to us several nights ago about Islamic archaeology; moreover the first subterranean structure we encountered was identified as an 8th-century mosque – which is relatively early. She was able to identify the poorly preserved structure as such only because of her familiarity with Islamic architecture; it was at first thought to be a covered market.
She had actually cited this particular location as an example of how Islamic archaeology could clarify this region’s past: it seems as though 7th-century Tiberias was previously understood to be primarily Jewish, but the existence of the mosque would indicate that a large Muslim population was also present here during this time period. Adjacent to the mosque lay beneath the ground a 4th-century church identified as such due to its plan and mosaic floors. If the date holds, this church would be one of the earliest known in the region. However, between the two subterranean religious structures, the grassy earth lay undisturbed aside from the few, but large, precisely square holes that peppered the landscape in a seemingly helter-skelter manner. The apparently random locations of these squares were in fact the result of a rather calculated method by archaeologists of attempting to ascertain the plans of various buildings.
As we drove up to the Ginosar Kibbutz, which rests along the Sea of Galilee, we were just in time to watch the sun set, marking the end of yet another amazing day.
Today was our final day in Jerusalem, so we spent the morning exploring and discussing the history of the city. After breakfast at the convent, we made the very familiar walk to the Old City to visit the Jerusalem Archaeological Park, which has outdoor displays of archaeological discoveries in Jerusalem from several different time periods. Before walking through the outdoor area, we visited the Davidson Center, which provides virtual tours of the Herodian Temple Mount. The woman facilitating our virtual tour discussed the layout of the temple and the experience of a pilgrim visiting the city during the Second Temple Period. She also explained the way the Temple Mount had changed throughout history. For instance, the second temple was destroyed during the Roman Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE and was eventually replaced by the Dome of the Rock in the 7th century CE.
After our virtual tour, we were able to explore some of the outdoor exhibits of the park. The first thing we saw was the springer of Robinson’s Arch, which once stood at the southwest corner of the Temple Mount. We had been told during the virtual tour that the arch was the largest in the ancient world and weighed around 1,600 tons. However, we were all still struck by just how massive the arch must have been, particularly because no cement was used to hold the stones in place. We walked around to the Southern Wall, where we saw one of the ritual cleaning baths where pilgrims would purify themselves, and then walked up the steps to the Hulda Gates, which once led up to the Temple Mount. Our tour guide during our virtual tour pointed out that the steps were uneven, which required pilgrims to slow their pace, allowing them to contemplate the holiness of the place they were about to enter. I was a little bit skeptical that steps would require me to slow down but climbing them proved more difficult than I anticipated.
After leaving the Jerusalem Archaeological Park we visited a museum that included several houses from the Herodian era, including a very impressive mansion. We also saw remains of a wall built around Jerusalem by Hezekiah in order to protect the city from an attack by the Assyrians (2 Kings 19). Finally, we saw part of a floor mosaic of the Holy Land that came from a 6th-century Byzantine Church. The portion of the mosaic that we saw was a map of Jerusalem that provides attestation to the layout of the city during the Byzantine period.
Several of the sites on the map were places we had visited over the past week, including the Neapolis Gate on the left, the Cardo (the north-south main street of the city), the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (upside down in the center of the mosaic), and the Lions’ Gate on the top. After our tour of the city, we went back to the entrance to the Temple Mount and sat in the security line for about half an hour before we were able to enter. The wait was well worth it, as the Temple Mount was absolutely gorgeous. We wandered around for about twenty minutes, taking pictures and soaking in the beauty of the Dome of the Rock and the picturesque vistas.
We grabbed lunch outside of the Old City and took a bus to the Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. Many of us had visited the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C., but the museum in Israel provided a unique experience. One of the aspects of the museum that struck me most was the fact that the architecture of the building evoked a sensation of oppression. The museum was laid out as a long hallway made of cement walls that seemed to be collapsing inwards. There were rooms off to the side of the hallways that presented a poignant history of the Holocaust. My favorite room was the final room, called the Hall of Names, which commemorates all of the men, women, and children who perished in the Holocaust. Outside the museum proper, we visited a Children’s Memorial in which the names and ages of children who died in the Holocaust were read. The memorial was located in an underground cavern that was entirely dark, except for a single candle reflecting off countless mirrors along the walls and creating the illusion that we were surrounded by millions of twinkling stars. Visiting the museum and the memorial was a moving experience for our group.
After our visit to Yad Vashem we were given some free time before dinner and our seminar discussion. Some people returned to the convent, but several of us went back to the Old City to do some souvenir shopping. I think we’ve finally gotten the hang of bargaining – too bad it’s our last day in Jerusalem! Tonight was our final dinner at the convent, so after we had finished eating the nuns turned out the lights and brought in a chocolate cake with a big sparkler in the center. It was a very sweet way to end our experience in Jerusalem. Tomorrow morning we will be heading to the Sea of Galilee for the next leg of our journey.
Today was a day of exploration in the mountainous region under the Palestinian Authority north of Jerusalem. After passing the armed border control, we left behind densely settled land into that of Palestinian settlements broken up with rocky terrain and pristine terraces of olive and almond trees. Every so often a walled Israeli settlement broke the monotony of the serene landscape and served as a reminder of the heavily contested land that we are studying.
After about 1.5 hours, we traveled through the city of Nablus and headed up to the holy hill of Mt. Gerizim. Mt. Gerizim was located in the northern Israelite kingdom of Samaria after the split, and when the kingdom was conquered in 722BCE by the Assyrians, the Israelites who were left in the region became known as the Samaritans. Academia is not certain when the Samaritans formed their own sect of Judaism, but there is evidence that it happened in the 5th century BCE. Since then the Samaritans have considered Mt. Gerizim as the legitimate place of the temple in Judaism instead of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
During his dedication speech for the opening of Mt. Gerizim as an Israeli National Park this past summer, Environmental Minister Gilad Erdan said “Opening sites like Mount Gerizim will help us prove to the world that the Palestinian smear campaign is deceptive and that it’s impossible to undo the Jewish people’s historic ties to its country.”Instead of praising the archaeologists for the actual excavation and preparation of the site for the greater knowledge of the public, it is interesting that this statement, and really all of Erdan’s speech, contains political rhetoric against the Palestinians and celebrates connecting the younger Israeli generations to their heritage.
There’s also a lot of irony in the formation of the park in that it shows the Jewish people reaching out to the Samaritan community (currently numbering around 450 people) and celebrating them as part of the Israeli heritage. This is funny because there has been a deep schism between the Jews and the Samaritans ever since the Samaritans formed their own Judaism and showed hostility towards the Jews who returned from the Babylonian exile of the Southern Kingdom. The divide between the two groups was so great that Jews traveling between Galilee and Jerusalem in Biblical times would purposely take a longer route around Samaria instead of through the region to avoid contact with the Samaritans. The New Testament also illustrates several examples of the hostility between the two groups, most famously with Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan in the Gospel of Luke. This parable was astounding because it is the Samaritan, not the Jewish priest or Levite, who stops and cares for an injured man, and identifies the “neighbor” mentioned in Leviticus 19:18 of the Old Testament.
The ruins at Mt. Gerizim were amazing because of their extent and preservation. Much of the remains surrounding the holy site were still standing and the houses surrounding the site still retained the second story foundations! The remains of the Samaritan temple could not be found because when the Roman emperor Zeno put down a Samaritan revolt in 490CE, he destroyed the temple and built an octagonal-shaped Byzantine Church (similar to the shape of the Dome of the Rock) dedicated to Mary, the mother of God, right on top. The walls of the temple precinct remain though (they are similar in function to the walls surrounding the Temple Mount in Jerusalem) as well as the walls from the fortification of the church.
Next, we traveled back down through a relatively poor area of Nablus, a modern Palestinian town, to another site called Tell Balata. There was not really much of a marker to the site, which was interesting considering its relevance to the biblical Shechem of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The remains excavated there include Chalcolithic finds and a fortress temple of a mammoth Canaanite city from as early as the 19th century BCE! The fortress courtyard contains a giant sacred stone similar to other Canaanite shrines found in the Holy Land.
Personally, current observations of the site are more interesting than the history because of how it informs developmental goals that could be related to that of infrastructure. First was the presentation of the site. Tell Balata was strewn with trash and contained no signs and information posts to guide tourists around. Although the excavation and presentation of the site was funded primarily by reputable organizations from Europe in conjunction with local inhabitants, it was clear that the European groups’ main goal of getting the Palestinians to truly “own” their history was not achieved as evidenced by the obvious lack of support from the local community. Such an outcome is an example that developmental goals in areas of conflict—not just concerning archaeology—face much steeper uphill battles, and thinking in engineering terms, this idea can help inform future plans in the urbanization and infrastructure development in similar complex areas of the world.
The issue of ownership of heritage was further explored in Sebastiya, the site of ancient Samaria, the last capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. Here, we witnessed a more successful integration of the locals to their heritage. A Franciscan order funded by an Italian organization was able to excavate and present to tourists a 12th-century Crusader church that, according to local tradition, contains the burial of John the Baptist. While the church is significant for its pristine preservation of Byzantine architecture and biblical connection, what is even more significant is how the Franciscans have incorporated the local Palestinians into “owning” the history of their town even if it is not their particular culture and teaching them the economic advantage of such ownership!
One such example was a school that taught the local Muslim Palestinians how to replicate the Christian mosaics of the site and thus profit in this manner. This creative heritage management serves as a light for how other sites throughout the Palestinian Authority can be handled to be of use to the local populations, regardless of political agendas. Of course, politics can never be completely expelled from the picture, but that is a much too complicated issue to address fully in this blog post. Again, this example highlights the creativity needed by engineers for possible infrastructural upgrades in contested areas.
Less than 800m away laid many ruins of structures that had been built on Samaria. Once we got to the top of the mountain/hill where Samaria was located, it was clear why such a site had been heavily built. Not only did the high vantage point give a military advantage in defense, it also was situated at an economically advantageous region. Thus there were all different kinds of remains: a Roman temple to Augustus by King Herod, a Roman theater, Hellenistic structures, and most impressively of all, a palace dating back to the Iron II age built by King Omri, the father of the well-known King Ahab of the Old Testament.
Because of the impressive remains, it was surprising that the site was not very popular among tourists. We considered a couple possibilities, including the thought that the site did not present a pro-Jewish enough picture to Israelis (only the palace was really part of Jewish heritage, but King Omri wasn’t exactly venerated in the Old Testament), but we eventually settled on the opinion that the site was too Israeli for the Palestinians. Not to mention the Palestinians would lose the economic benefits of the agriculture land that covered this mountain/hill.
Following our trek around the site, we settled into the remains of a very large church to hold our seminar for the day. Today’s topic was on Israeli Archaeology and Nation Building, and we all read an interesting article by a Duke doctoral graduate that pointed out issues of exploration in the relationship between archaeology and political agendas. We launched into a discussion of archaeology as a colonial weapon and how the interpretations are created. The two cases by the reading talked about how Yadin, as a military leader, read the excavation at Hazor as showing a quick conquest of Canaan, while Aharoni read the same site as showing a gradual conquest and settlement. These two interpretations could then be connected to political agendas of using military aims or using Israeli settlements as methods to take over Palestine.
We ended up discussing bias in archaeology and whether archaeology is inherently political and all the different choices that go into excavation and interpretation. Eventually the discussion morphed into how we could move forward from such bias and extremes and we landed on different policies and perhaps using archaeology as politics for peace. Thus we ended the conversation on a high note and boarded the bus for a long trip (and much needed nap) back to the convent.
After another excellent dinner by the nuns, we had the opportunity to have Dr. Katia Cytryn-Silverman, a specialist in Islamic Archaeology, come speak to us about her field. It was incredibly enlightening to hear about the field, particularly the challenges it has faced and still faces in the Holy Land. Islamic archaeology has been neglected until the mid-20th century when historians realized that Islamic history was really one-sided and only portrayed the views of the Muslim elites who lived in the city and not that of the Muslim community outside the cities or non-Muslims. Thus came the realization that Islamic archaeology could be used to fill the gaps in Islamic history. With that, the onset of Islamic archaeology excavations began and included such discoveries as Umayyad palaces right next to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem (talk about adding fuel to the fire for contested space!) and interesting Islamic art, depicting some seemingly non-Muslim graphics in Umayyad palaces in Jordan.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the evening was hearing Dr. Cytryn-Silverman’s own excavation in Tiberias in the Galilee region. Although she discovered a humongous 7th-century mosque, ground-breaking in her field, she faced many difficulties. For one, many of her colleagues, while interested, could not come help her analyze and further excavate the site because of the risk of losing their visas for Islamic archaeological excavations in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt. She also faced unwanted politicization from both Muslims and Jews about the excavation. These issues serve to again remind how complex the situation is in the Holy Land and how archaeology, wanted or not, must interact with such complications.
Our early-morning bus ride took us to Tel Maresha, the value of which lay, quite literally, under the surface. Tel Maresha was occupied was one of the cities of Judea. Edomites moved into the region around the sixth century BCE, and in the last of the second century BCE the Maccabees, looking to expand their influence, forcibly converted the people to Judaism. In fact, Herod’s father was a converted Idumean Jew, one of the reasons why the king’s “Jewishness” was always in question.
As we poured from the bus and onto the terrain, we learned that though the landscape may resemble California’s, we stood upon a fascinating – and settlement-friendly – geological phenomenon. Directly underneath our feet was a layer of Nari limestone, in some places only 6-8 feet deep. It formed a hard upper crust above a second layer of soft limestone, an excavation opportunity settlers seized upon as early as the second century BCE. Why build up, after all, when you can just build down?
We had all read about the underground rooms that honeycombed the landscape, but I’m sure no one had grasped the reality of them until we ourselves descended into the earth below. Our first stop was the columbarium, a term derived from the Latin word Columbus, or pigeon. An apt name, it turned out – limestone walls shot up around us, studded with around 2,000 indentations in which birds, most likely rock doves, could roost. I could imagine an ancient Idumean entering the columbarium, the glow of lamplight barely illuminating the thousands of animals fluttering above. In the cool air and green-tinged light, even an imposing tourist information sign couldn’t detract from the eeriness of the cross-shaped room.
Perhaps my sense of the sacrosanct was not unfounded. Some of the birds most likely served as sacrifices to the divine, or were sent to Gaza, where inhabitants worshiped doves and featured them on their currency. At least one scholar, however, had published an article that cast doubt upon the Columbarium hypothesis; archeologists, after all, had not uncovered any remains of fertilizer in their excavations. The scholar instead argued that the underground chamber served as an interment tomb for the ashes of the dead, but given the sheer number of indentations and the height at which some of them lay, we quickly dismissed the hypothesis as just a little bit bird-brained. I left convinced that the room had housed doves. As Dr. Carol Meyers explained, after all, the thousands of dark and tiny niches gave new meaning to the term “to pigeonhole.”
Off we went, then, climbing a nearby tel, or ancient mound. Lest we mistake ourselves for hikers in the remote wilderness, countless potsherds covered the ground, an indication of how close we really were to the remains of an ancient civilization. Fragmented and strewn, potsherds are worth more than humble appearances might suggest. These pieces of the past serve as critical pieces of evidence to the sharp-eyed archaeologist. Experts can use the shards to date an excavation, either by determining the overall shape of the pot from which it came and then referencing what we know about pottery at different time periods, or by using neutron activation analysis or micrography to analyze the clay and determine its provenance or its place of manufacture. As I examined the tiny pieces beneath me, I finally understood that the day-to-day of real-life archaeology isn’t exactly what we find in Indiana Jones. Instead of fighting off Nazis or flying snake-infested planes, workers at archaeological sites can spend entire days collecting and cleaning fragments of pottery, sometimes to send to scholars who have devoted their lives to reassembling ancient potsherds into their cohesive whole. Archaeologists, then, often have a tough call to make – with thousands of fragments at their fingertips, should they invest the resources necessary to attempt a reconstruction? Is a newly assembled piece worth the expense, especially if other scholars may have already published similar findings? I imagine that archaeologists must often make such decisions; when elements of ancient civilizations always may always remain shrouded in mystery, how much money and manpower should go to attempts to illuminate the lives of those who came before?
As we approached the next site, I struggled to imagine what the area must have looked like thousands of years before. What was now a landscape of softly sloping hills was once a bustling urban center with many of the same needs as civilizations today. I spoke with Ben about agriculture in the region, learning that wheat, olives, and perhaps some fruit fed the local population. Already infatuated with falafels and shawarma, I couldn’t help but ask – how similar were the cuisines of previous inhabitants of Israel? We know very little of actual dishes, especially for the wealthy, Ben explained – Tel Maresha, it turns out, lacked a Julia Child or a Jamie Oliver to record the recipes of a culture for posterity’s sake. We do know what the staples were, though, and it’s safe to say that olive oil played a central role in the cuisine. It’s appropriate, then, that our next stop was an underground olive press. Worked by a donkey, a crushing stone would mash freshly harvested olives. A worker would then move the olives to shallow, woven baskets and stack them on top of one another underneath a large wooden beam. By attaching large stone weights to the beam, one could place pressure upon the baskets and cause juices and oils to seep out to a large vat underneath. The first press was the virgin olive oil, and later presses would yield oil of lesser quality.
The process fascinated me, particularly because our modern-day olive press technology relies on the same basic steps and provides us with the same basic substance – an oil that transforms raw ingredients into meals in dozens of cultures the world over. We often speak of food as an agent of unity – whether in peace negotiations that tie together nations, festivals that bring together countries, or family dinners that unite a home, the shared moment of a meal knits us together. As I inspected the olive press, though, I realized that food also connects us to those who came before, transcending the linearity of time and tying populations both ancient and modern to a common thread: eating, an act both simple and sublime. This, then, is one of the most compelling aspects about archaeological inquiry into the rhythms of everyday life – the similarities we share with those we can never know.
After the olive press, we launched into an exploration of the site’s most awe-inspiring displays – gigantic underground cisterns, designed to hold water in the otherwise oppressive terrain. Roof gutters, drainage routes, and other channels diverted all rainwater into huge underground caverns, painstakingly carved out from the limestone. Those without their own cisterns had to pay a fee to use another, expending countless calories carrying water from one place to another. I was immediately reminded of my time in rural India, where I learned that the burden of water transportation often kept women out of school and other forms of work. Countless global health and development NGOs work to provide nearby water or even recast water carrying as a gender-neutral task. It was difficult, then, to stop myself from imagining the water responsibilities of women in ancient Israel as an example of gender inequality and injustice. Even though I had read Dr. Carol Meyer’s article, I recognized that I was still stuck in present thinking, which often deems household tasks as inferior, and thus their delegation to women as unfair.
After a quick lunch and a trip to the gelato shop, we spent our second half of the day in Beer Sheba. This specific location, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is the excavated ancient city of Beer Sheba, with various parts dating between the 10th and 8th century BCE. In contrast to this morning, where we focused on people’s such as the Idumeans at Maresha, our study at Beer Sheba was specific to the Israelite people.
At Beer Sheba we saw a well that some believe to be the well referred to in Genesis. We walked through and talked about a four room or pillar house, a structure in which families lived in in this time period. We climbed a watchtower to look over the entire complex of Beer Sheba. We saw, we saw, we saw. Though we are looking at many different incredible sites, for the untrained eye, these places are just old stones. It is the discussion surrounding and concerning these sites that bring them meaning to me personally as an eager yet inexpert student.
Today’s seminar topic was on the women of the Hebrew Bible period. Our very own Dr. Carol Meyers wrote each article read for today’s class. She is one of the first scholars to speak of “Engendered Archaeology,” and is very interested in looking beyond the typical assumptions about women in this time period, including notions that they were unimportant, oppressed, and underpowered. Instead, she argues that the Hebrew Bible itself does suggest strong female characters, one example being the priestess Huldah in the time of Josiah’s reforms (2 Kings 22).
This classroom discussion also delved into some of Dr. Meyers’ case studies concerning the role of women in bread making and in religious rituals. Women not only were essential in food production for the family, but the communal practice of bread making in groups gave women social/political power through the connections they made in these settings. In addition, women were in charge of religious rituals such as maintaining oil lamps and were experienced ritual an medicinal practice through their roles as midwives.
Though our class conversation allowed us to see ways in which women were “empowered,” our dialogue was prefaced with a caution against present-mindedness. As we have grown up and exist in a specific society/time, it is easy for us to look back in time with judgment or an imposition of our own standards on societies to which we do not belong. Our modern day feminists cannot criticize the Israelites for their women’s inability to choose a profession (or have one at all for that matter), for this is a modern construction of what gender equality looks like within our own time and place.
Thinking about and imagining ancient societies without present or personal bias is a difficult concept to master in this course and in the fields of religion and history. However, visiting the pillar house and then talking about what may have occurred there for both genders is a good tool for re-imagining what life might have been like for those people. Today, as most days, has been about not only seeing the sights, but learning from them. We are using archaeology in conjunction with stimulating dialogue to understand the women and men of old.
Our day began in the newly remodeled Israel Museum, which is located just minutes away from where we are staying. The museum has three parts but our time there focused exclusively on the archaeological wing of the museum. The artifacts contained within were truly incredible. They covered the span of history: from a skull 250,000 years old, to glass vases from “just” hundreds of years ago. The pieces also span the cultures of the world: from Jewish pottery to Muslim mosaics. The diversity of the cultures represented also very much highlighted humanity’s shared heritage, identity, and ties to history. Ultimately, the sheer breadth and variety of such artifacts was, frankly, astounding, and a tangible reminder of just how much archaeology can teach us about the past.
Some of the artifacts featured in the exhibits were from daily life, like frame drums, butter churns, or jewelry. Examples of such finds ranged in time of origin from the prehistoric to the modern era, but showed an unsurprising constancy in the importance of the daily necessities of life. Also showcased were the historical evolution of tools and materials in the Levant. The often sudden jumps in technique were fascinating. For example, one culture’s advances in bronze metallurgy, as shown in scepter manufacture, were a striking contrast with groups that had come before them. The instructors’ explanations of the uses of such objects and the unique cultural fixtures they represented lent a greater depth to our studies, in that our subjects became much more human.
Most impressive, however, were some key pieces of the collection intimately related to our studies. The Tel Dan stele, significant evidence for a historical King David, was on display, as were segments of scripture almost 3000 years old. Additionally, in the Shrine of the Book, which is focused on the celebrated Dead Sea Scrolls, other segments of the Hebrew Bible that were literally thousands of years old were also on display. Such artifacts’ direct ties to our studies, to debates we have read about, and to sites that we have visited meant that to physically see them was an incredible realization of our studies.
Personally, it was also an actualization of the past. For me, sometimes the past seems fictional, almost too separated from my own personal experiences to be meaningful. Yet, to see so many significant objects of literal ancient history just inches away from my hands made the past incredibly real. It was a reminder to me of just how important the past is in shaping the world today, and how real all the things that once existed still are today in their effects on us.
It was in this mindset that I entered our discussion about Israeli antiquity law. After an excellent presentation by Ethan and Kelsey, the discussion soon turned to how to do deal with the current loss of antiquities in Israel. Scores of artifacts illegally enter private collections or leave the country daily, essentially disappearing from the archaeological record. Students offered different solutions about how to confront this problem, from complete prohibition of the antiquities trade to various regulation schemes of private archeological digs. All students seemed to realize the need for action and the immediacy of that need. I think the most significant unanimous conclusion was that protecting relics of the past, which are now all we have of the past, is crucial. I think we also agreed that the burden for this falls primarily on the nation-states of the world under the supervision of international law. Although some may stand to profit from the antiquities trade, profiting from the commodification of our shared human history, which as I realized in the museum is still so powerfully shaping our lives today, is an unacceptable state of affairs.
Gone are the dozens of walls lined with marvelous artifacts of immense value, and in front of us appears one long, thick wall with these words painted in graffiti: “evil empire” and “to exist is to resist.” Move with us, now, from the grandeur and beauty of the Israel Museum, and witness the immediate contrast as we enter through the wall dividing Israel from the Palestinian Authority. We move almost seamlessly from grandiose symbols of a nation rich in beautiful history to this barrier symbolizing a nation torn with an uncertain future.
What better way to examine this dichotomy than to travel to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus. It is Christmastime in Bethlehem, and the holiday music, the massive Christmas tree in the center of Manger Square, and vibrant crowds shopping and chatting around the area create a joyous atmosphere. We may have thought we left the Christmas spirit behind us when we departed from home, but many in Bethlehem still eagerly await the Orthodox Christmas date of January 7th.
Turning to our left, we entered the Church of the Nativity, the basilica built over what is traditionally considered the cave of Jesus’ birth. Taking a seemingly unimpressive doorway inside, what opened up to us was a most impressive site. The oldest continuously operating Christian church in the world, the Church of the Nativity was commissioned by Constantine, the first Roman emperor to legalize Christianity, and his mother Helena in 327 AD. The line to the grotto, or cave, winded all the way to the back of the sanctuary, as Christians from all over the world waited to see the birthplace of their Savior. The remarkable basilica stands today as one of the most important pilgrimage sites for Christians.
Here, though, another contrast emerges. Not fully understood to the eyes of visitors like us, this birthplace of Jesus, a man who spent most of his ministry with the poor, is surrounded by areas of poverty. Jesus speaks of an end to oppression, yet the peoples of the Holy Land have suffered the scourge of oppression all too frequently. Further, Christians in Bethlehem have dwindled in number very quickly due to tensions in the area. We may have been standing on holy ground, but it was also deeply contested ground both on political and religious levels.
The Holy Land has considered by many to be the “center of the world.” Today, it has reassumed central stage on the global platform. A major international crossroads in antiquity, the nation of Israel and its territories remain a cultural, religious, and economic crossroads today. Hope for progress in the region rests on an ability to simultaneously learn from the past while looking forward beyond traditional conflicts and territorial disagreements.
In all of this, a ray of hope shines through the tensions in Bethlehem. The Christmas celebrations show the promise of unity, as Muslims and Christians walked side by side during a processional through Manger Square on Christmas Eve. With this type of togetherness comes the hope of minimizing the struggles of the area, and instead highlighting its beauty through its rich ethnic and religious diversity. And of all the places around the globe to represent hope, the Holy Land—the center of the world—shines the brightest.
Today we descended into the Jordan Rift Valley from Jerusalem to visit Masada, the site of a popular national myth of Jewish resistance against the Roman Empire. According to the ancient Jewish historian Josephus Flavius, a pocket of Jewish Zealot and Sicarii people committed suicide rather than go into slavery among the Romans. This final act of resistance, following a Roman siege of the mountain city of approximately 4 to 6 weeks, has entered into the national conscience of Israelis as a unifying source of national pride. Masada has both the distinction of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as being the most popular paid tourist attraction in Israel. While we were on the site of this ancient city, we discussed the complexities that have arisen from the evidence uncovered by the famous archeologist Yigael Yadin.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Zionist leaders who were interested in creating a national myth for a Jewish nation state popularized the myth of Masada as the last stand of Jewish freedom fighters in Palestine following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Yadin and other Zionist leaders used the group suicide as a device to connect Israelis and other Jews with their historical past. To the sociologist, Nachman Ben-Yehuda, Yadin was interested in perpetrating this myth and painted circumstantial evidence that was found in a light that would fit this agenda. Ben-Yehuda argued that by choosing to use a liberal interpretation of the story of Joseph Flavius, rather than a minimalist interpretation, Yadin could pick and choose evidence in order to convey the story that he wanted to tell, rather than the true story of what happened. Ben-Yehuda believed that the tale of Masada is not a heroic tale; rather he viewed the suicide as a cop out from continuing the fight, even if their defeat was inevitable. One of Ben-Yehuda’s strongest arguments was noting how Yadin changed his interpretation of what role the three people whose remains were discovered over time to more closely fit his chosen narrative.
This critique is countered by Amnon Ben-Tor, an archeologist who defends Yadin’s interpretations by arguing that the assertions made by Yadin were not contrary to the known facts of the event and that archeological discoveries are used around the world to further national interests. Even though Yadin may have been influenced by the politics of the time, Palestinean archeologists have the same right and ability to use archeological discoveries to create their own nationalist sentiment.
Our group discussion that followed centered on a few questions. The first was: “How can we say with confidence what really happened in the past, and what role should scholars play in dictating public opinion on these events?” This brought up an even greater question: “How reliable are the accounts of Joseph Flavius himself? Should we attack his story?” Flavius was not present at this battle, and as with all historians, he wrote with a bias. He was a Jewish historian, but he switched roles in the Judean uprising a few years earlier and was supported by the Romans at the time that his writings were published. The goal of his initial writings was to discourage rebellion against the Roman Empire as well as to encourage Jewish readers to follow the leadership of those Jewish people who survived the revolt, rather than follow in the footsteps of a people who committed mass suicide.
Finally, the question of “What role did the myth of Masada play in the history of the Israeli state?” Masada became symbolic of Jews throughout the ages, who were always under attacked by some other people and were persecuted as a minority. The myth of Masada dictates that death would be preferable to another diaspora and that within the new Jewish state, Israelis would rather die than be driven from their land and face a second Holocaust. Masada is a myth of Jewish empowerment, and not long after the excavation by Yadin, the Six Day War gave this new Israeli state a chance to show their fighting spirit and to reinforce their belief that “Masada shall not fall again”. Even today, despite retreating from the forefront of the national conscience, Masada remains a strong attraction for many visitors, as evidenced by the many tourists who visited alongside our group.
The Masada National Park is the site of the ancient fortress, Masada, built by King Herod the Great and later the setting for one of the most important stories of the Zionist collective memory. Masada is allegedly the site of the last stronghold of the great revolt of the Jews against the Romans. The climax of the story surrounds the mass suicide of the inhabitants of Masada in order to avoid being captured into slavery by the Romans. In 2001, Masada was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In order to reach Masada, we drove an hour into the desert through the Palestinian Authority’s West Bank (I did not fully realize that were in the West Bank until we encountered a checkpoint to get back into Israeli territory).
As we were arriving to the site, the Masada rock was clearly visible from a distance: majestic and colossal. The fortress of Masada was built atop a 400 meter high natural plateau overlooking the Dead Sea. There are two main ways of reaching the top of the plateau. The first is the hike of the snake path that if walked takes about 40 minutes. The other, for an extra charge, is through the use of the recently installed cable cars. Around the large rock, the remains of many encampments of the Roman Army are visible. Today the Masada Museum Site Complex includes a guest house, museum, gift shop, food court, among many other amenities. Its entrance is garnished with a row of Israeli flags and the entrance prices range from 27-80 New Shekels with the main difference being the use of the cable car.
Our first stop at the site was the Masada Museum, which was built in memory of Professor Yigael Yadin, who excavated the site from 1963 to 1965, and who according to some scholars helped embellish the Masada story to develop it into a nationalistic myth of Jewish heroism. A quaint hunchbacked woman distributed audio guides to the group after using Peter as an example on the proper employment of the equipment. She repeatedly asked us what language we wanted them in and warned us to not touch or play with the devices. The audio guide was extremely embellished with “natural” sounds of birds, water, etc. It narrated the entire exhibition with a certain tone of heroism and pride that resembles the mythical story of Masada constructed by Israeli nationalism.
The museum was organized chronologically around the story of Masada. It began with the construction of the fortress by King Herod followed by the events of the Jewish rebels that sought refuge in the Masada from the Roman Empire. This rebellion was portrayed as a heroic Jewish struggle against the formidable Roman Army. The different stages of the museum attempted to recreate the environment of the historical event that it was describing. Part of this reconstruction used large life-size statues placed sporadically through the exhibit making the visitor feel as if one was there at the time of the rebellion. The audio guide was very detailed regarding the Jewish heritage, and quickly gleaned over the Roman influence despite it being one of the largest portions of the exhibit. Before explaining how Masada fell, one enters a room with a large bleacher structure against the wall upon which are sitting many sculptures of the inhabitants of Masada. The audio guide asks one to sit amongst the statues to imagine how it would have felt to be there during the fall. The goal was to create a consciousness that links the current Jewish visitors to the experiences of their ancestors. The exhibit ends with a homage to Yadin, which included some of his manuscripts and an uncanny sculpture of him working on his reports. As you exit the museum the last artifacts one sees 11 pieces of clay with names. These so called lots are attributed to the lottery that was used to determine which of the soldiers would be in charge of overseeing the mass suicide, and for picking the killer of the last survivors.
Before going up to the Masada rock, we were directed to a small theater to watch a short movie. It is in this moment that the amusement park feel is exacerbated. A short comedic film is shown presenting the alleged “truth” about Masada. It continues to use the tropes of heroism and courage that are so primordial to the nationalistic myth of Masada. Through a series of simple jokes, the narrator attempts to portray the grandeur of the fortress and its narrative misconceptions. The film ends with the narrator re-enacting the speech of the rebel leader with its famous line “Death before slavery.” Right before exiting the room, the narrator ends with the following line: “I invite you to climb the mountain.” The use of the film reminded me of different attractions at amusement parks such as Universal Studios that use these kinds of introductory films to set the scene for the coming attraction. Though it had an almost theatrical quality, it was also extremely politically charged reinforcing a specific narrative regarding Masada, and disregarding most of its controversial debates.
We then headed towards the top of the plateau on a cable car. I knew the rock was supposed to be large, but I was surprised by its extensive size. We walked through the remains of the northern and western palaces along with a Roman-style bathhouse. Though most of what is seen today on top of Masada are reconstructions based on the remains the museum uses a black line to delineate the difference. We were able to also observe the breaching point of Masada and a room that is thought to have been used as a synagogue. The view from atop of the plateau was breathtaking and it leads one to question: how were the palaces and the fortress constructed?
We end the amusement park ride of Masada by going back down to the Museum complex in the cable car. It is here that we encounter the classical trope of all consumer attractions in amusement parks: the gift shop. At the entrance of the gift shop, there is a woman directing where we should go. The gift shop sold overpriced “dead sea” merchandise such as sea salt and sea mud along with other trinkets and souvenirs including hats that say Masada. How much of an archeological or cultural heritage site should be enmeshed with its economic consumption? How much consumerism is too much to the point that it feels as if one was in an amusement park instead of an archaeological site? Luckily for us, despite its high prices, the gift store connected to the food court where our group was designated to have the day’s lunch before heading out to gingerly float on the Dead Sea.
After stopping by the Sanctuary of the Flagellation, which marks the location of Christ’s torture by Roman guards took before the he was crucified, we continued on to the Church of St. Anne. This church which is a 12th century Crusader church, built some time in the early 1100s A.D., and it was built over the supposed birth site of the Virgin Mary and of Mary’s mother, Anne. Though the grounds for this belief tie more to tradition than clear historical data, the church is located near where Anne grew up, and is the oldest remaining church in Jerusalem. An example of Roman architecture, the tall, limestone church with a simplistic, vaulted interior and absent of much ornamentation within save the large metal cross hanging over the altar, this church resides beside another extremely famous site: the pools of Bethesda. According to the Gospels of the New Testament, specifically John 5:1-15, Jesus healed a man who had been paralyzed for thirty years here.
The pools of Bethesda were extremely interesting because our T.A. Ben Gordon pointed out a wall of dirt dug apart from the pools, and we could make out sharply visible slants in the soil lines/rocks embedded in the soil. He taught us how by examining the soil, archaeologists were able to determine rough approximations of the time period of each layer. Gazing across at the extremely large wall of soil and rock, we could see the bottom foundation of a building, built over a triangular fill of dirt from its own time period, which had been used to fill in a slant in the ground (visible in the soil line from the time before it). Next, we climbed down a narrow stairwell in what would have been the basement of a Byzantine church that was built over the middle of the pool site, and the climb took us down into an ancient Roman cistern, possibly the source of water for much of the pools.
Afterwards, we all shared THE most delicious, hot and steamy sesame bread, sprinkled with a mix of herbs and salt called “Zatar,” thanks to Mr. Meyers. With goodness rolling in our stomachs, we left the Muslim Corridor of Jerusalem through the Lion’s Gate and headed down towards the church of Mary’s burial, nestled at the bottom of the Mount of Olives.
Walking down into the Kidron Valley (also known as the Yehoshaphat Valley), we next passed by the Pillar of Absalom, called Yad Avshalom in Hebrew and literally meaning Absalom’s Shrine. This breathtaking, sandy-colored monument is composed of two portions. The bottom half is rock-cut, hewn out of the side of a hill at the foot of the Mt. of Olives and sculpted to look like a temple with pillars. The upper portion of the tomb is built out of ashlar stones, added to the carved walls, and the roof is a conical, hollow stone. Though most scholars now believe that the tomb was constructed in the 1st century A.D. and belonged to an unknown, wealthy family, traditional history long held that the tomb housed the remains of King David’s rebellious son, Absalom. Further to the right of the “pillar,” we saw another structure carved in the side of the cliff. This tomb, by Jewish tradition, is that of the prophet Zechariah. Also carved out of the rock, the roof is a rectangular pyramid, and a series of stairs, one set leading to the inner chamber through a hole in the front. Again, no direct historical data can support this connection between the tomb and the prophet; however, writings from 1200 A.D. indicate that this site has long been viewed as Zechariah’s resting place.
After lunch, a fast and delicious falafel-pita run, we all hurried to the ancient portion of the city of Jerusalem, known as the City of David. This section is heavily walled off from the surrounding neighborhood of Silwan, a poor Palestinian neighborhood and largely politicized region of East Jerusalem.
Following a new tour guide down into the excavation sites of the Large Stone Structure, a name given to the remains of a large building discovered in this area that dates back to roughly 9th-10th B.C., our guide told us about the history of the dig and described briefly why some believe it to be the palace of King David. Eilat Mazar, an Israeli archeologist, discovered the remains of the stone structure while on a dig to find David’s palace; an American banker funded the dig privately. She used a reference from the book of Samuel (about David going down into a strong-hold after his anointing) in order to charter a path for her dig, and so she looked to begin at the point of second-highest elevation in the City of David. However, many archeologists believe the building to have been a separate series of buildings, not King David’s palace; possibly a Jebusite fortress. Her pottery-dating has come under attack by many, and some scholars like Israel Finkelstein believe that the pottery and design of the structure, including the Phoenician artifacts she found do no more than set a rough idea of the building’s lifespan not its construction date, and further do not serve to differentiate it enough from other structures in the area to make claims that it is King David’s palace.
Today was our second day in Jerusalem and we focused on the meaning of contested space. We toured many sites and explored the geography and history of Jerusalem. Our first expedition brought us to the Western Wall, formerly known as the Wailing Wall (a place where Jews would mourn the destruction of the Temple). The Western Wall is a fitting name, as it is the western wall of Harem esh-Sharif (Temple Mount). This is the location (originally called Mount Moriah) where Abraham came here to sacrifice his son Isaac, and where Jacob slept, dreaming of a ladder to heaven. According to the Hebrew Bible, Solomon built a temple on this land, but it was destroyed in 586 BCE. Herod rebuilt this temple nearly 2000 years ago and was praised for the beauty. It was said, “He who has not seen the Temple of Herod has not seen a Building of True Beauty.” Unfortunately, the temple perished under Roman control, the only thing remaining was the western retaining wall of the temple.
In front of the wall is cleared space called the prayer plaza. Here people gather to pray and worship. The plaza is divided into two areas, the right being the women’s area and the left being the men’s. Today the men were singing as part of communal songs and we are told they do so regularly, but the women are not permitted to worship together with the men. We also learned that women cannot wear prayer shawls because it is traditionally a men’s attire and men and women cannot wear the same clothing for worship. When I got to the wall I saw people crying while reading the Torah as well as touching and kissing the walls. There were small papers containing prayers crammed into cracks the wall left by worshipers. When people would leave they would walk backward not to turn their back on the wall. The wall is considered the most sacred structure of the Jewish People and is a symbol of Jewish national unity. As described to us in a pamphlet, “To feel, to understand, to experience true awe come to Jerusalem, to the Western Wall.” Our group reconvened outside of the plaza and we made our way to St. Anne’s.
After leaving the supposed birthplace of Mary we made another quick stop at the church commemorating her burial. Located along the streets is a modest looking, Eastern-Style Church called the Church of the Burial of Mary. This church has significant Armenian influence, evident by the text inside. Following a staircase beneath the ground took us to a shrine with lamps, wood and gold paintings and a grotto. This Eastern Orthodox Church commemorates the Virgin Mary’s burial and dedicates the space to her. Once we left we made our way to the Mount of Olives we encountered more burial sites.
Our group readings for the day addressed the uses of archaeology in Israel. This discussion proved to be particularly useful as we mapped out the transitions in the region. Archaeology in the region has been used to correlate biblical texts with tangible evidence, further nationalistic agendas like that of Zionism, and most recently help develop the tourism economy. What we found is that all three traditions contain reasonable bias, this can be seeking to prove something, such as biblical bias or even aiming to ignite nationalism by skewing artifacts to fit that of a cultural history. This has led to contested space and right to land. In past instances, sites have been renamed and eras have been ignored in the excavation process to exclude other religions affiliations to a site, therefore discrediting a right to the land in question. Modern Holy Land archaeology operates under a different system in which activity is monitored by a collaboration of the government and various religious institutions to provide protection of sacred sites to all. We witnessed this on our morning walk past a historic Islamic cemetery. This area was the desired location of a Israel national museum but because of the religious and sacredness of this cemetery the government ruled that it could not be touched.
This discussion explored the ideas of archaeology as an economic resource through tourism but also elucidated the idea of conflict through geographical and historical means. This was a resourceful preface to our next tour, which was the City of David.
When we were first arrived at the City of David we were greeted by our guide, Yonathan Mizrachi, from Emek Shaveh. The organization defines itself as, “an organization of archaeologists focusing on the role of archaeology in Israeli society and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” They specifically state their opinion on the conflict, “ our fundamental position is than an archaeological find should not and cannot be used to prove ownership by any one nation, ethnic group, or religion over a given place.” This ideology was especially prevalent to our tour, which was titled “Issues and Political Conflict in Archaeology.”
The City of David is a site with a dense history beginning in 5,000 BCE. People were attracted to the area for the water source. Later, the Canaanites (referred to in the Bible as Jebusites) harnessed the water supply and started a small-scale settlement. The city expanded under their reign along with Israelite/Judean settlements. The area then transformed into a Christian center under Byzantine rule until the Islamic period. From there we see the city under Crusader, and even Ottoman control. Jordan had control of the area until the Six-day war when Israel annexed the area (modern–day East Jerusalem). Despite this diverse history most people associate the site with King David from the Bible. According to the Bible, when David needed a capital he took the area and made it a regional center of the people.
When we first entered our tour we were taken to a large platform above the city. From this vantage point our guide explained the complex geography of the region. We faced the Kidron Valley and Mount of Olives. From our perspective we overlooked the Palestinian village of Silwan. Internationally the area is considered occupied territory by every country except Israel. Our guide provided a brief historical overview of the conflict, drawing on the green line and the 1967 war. He brought up the most recent Israeli attempt to repossess land, when he discussed the garden project. This project aims to recreate the garden of King David as interpreted by the Bible. In order to do so, land would have to be given up. Yonathon explained the issues affecting land in the occupied territories. A Palestinian can own land but they will never be granted a permit to build a house and if they do so it will be bulldozed at their expense. Yet at the same time if their property owner does not develop on this land the (Israeli) government will seize the land. When this territorial issue was situated within the context of our geographical region our guide truly elucidated the concept of “contested space.” We were in an occupied Palestinian village looking at the Mount of Olives and a Jewish cemetery as well as the Western Wall with Temple Mount (the holiest site in Judaism) with the Islamic mosques of el-Aksa and Dome of the Rock resting on top. Clearly Jerusalem is still extremely diverse in religion and tradition, these complex political issues only pursue in the site itself. As our guide explained in relation to archaeology, “it is very complicated.” The work of the site is a question of history and right to land, as we can see in both historic/biblical Jerusalem as well as modern day Jerusalem the entirety of the space is contested. It is Emek Shaveh’s goal that the excavations will benefit society as a whole.
As we exited the city we walked along the main road of Silwan. Our guide reminded us that the official title of the location is up to interpretation, as he pointed out the street signs on both sides of the street. Each side declares the area as either Silwan or the City of David. This shows us that no single space can be attributed to one culture, rather in thin words of Emek Shaveh, any given site “consists of the ancient layers but also the present day attributes- the people living in it or near it, their culture, their daily life and their needs.” This ideology is optimistic in relation to the political conflict, but as we came to understand today, this idea is not agreed upon by all.
The drive from Tel Aviv to the Rosary Sisters began in the coastal region, moved through the Shephelah plain, and climbed up to Jerusalem through the Judean Hills. Having never been to Israel before, I was personally struck by the obviously high population density here—all available land seemed to be under cultivation, reserved for timber, or developed into residential or commercial spaces. Everywhere seemed to have a use of some kind. We passed newly plowed and sown fields of grain, orchards in full fruit, vineyards, and large greenhouses. After winding up through the narrow valleys and steep hillsides, etched with ancient terraces and eroded with time, we entered Jerusalem traffic. One cannot help but notice the local, white limestone used for the construction of virtually every edifice in sight.
After checking in to the convent, we walked to the Old City, stopping at various points along the perimeter such as the Jaffa Gate and New Gate. Just north of the Old City, we made our first stop at the Garden Tomb, which seems to cater especially to Protestant Christians (especially evangelicals). Our guide was clear that the Garden Tomb cannot be proven as the real site(s) of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection, but he did enthusiastically endorse at least the possibility of making such a conclusion. We observed the rocky hilltop said to be the Place of the Skull and the public area below where Jesus would have been crucified (now a paved bus stop), a large cistern dating at least as far back as the Crusades, an ancient wine press, and of course the Garden Tomb. The cistern and wine press offered interesting glimpses into what kind of technologies have made possible human habitation in the land of Palestine in ages past. The tomb itself offered an interesting glimpse into first century burial practices, but if indeed Jesus’ tomb was sealed with a round stone, scholars (such as Eric Meyers) largely reject the Garden Tomb as the tomb of Christ.
Returning to the Old City, we entered through the Damascus Gate and made our way through the narrow streets, crowded with merchants selling trinkets and goods and food, to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. On this site in the 3rd century, Constantine’s mother, Queen Helena, is supposed to have ascertained the true location of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection (in contrast to the Garden Tomb above). As a result, these sites continue to be venerated by Catholic and Orthodox Christians. One can observe the stone on which Jesus’ body was supposedly laid, his presumed tomb, and an outcropping of bedrock said to be Calvary. The church is unimpressive from the outside and has suffered major damage in centuries past. Today we participated in an endless stream of visitors, of all branches of Christianity, and probably other students like ourselves, making their way in a somewhat chaotic manner through the various chambers, even while chanting and processions took place in our midst.
The time at the Sepulchre was an interesting chance to reflect on the religio-political competition for sacred space in this ancient city, as well as the very nature of religious pilgrimage and piety. It strikes me that while Catholicism and Orthodoxy have tended to venerate holy artifacts, vestments, and iconography, Protestant Christianity’s relationship to material Israel has focused more on the prospect of imagining biblical narratives. I wonder if this is in part why the Garden Tomb is more popular among this demographic—regardless of the historical improbability that it is in fact Christ’s tomb, it presents the story of Christ’s death and resurrection in a way that is more spatially evocative for the Protestant imagination. At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, this author chose to remain in line with his Protestant roots and watch the processions of visitors rather than inspect the empty tomb for himself. After all, didn’t the angels aptly point out that nothing remained here to be seen?