Solid Foundation

The Foundation Stone captures our curiosity. Centered under the golden dome of the Dome of the Rock, this stone has many traditions surrounding it. Moslems claim it is the site of Mohammed’s Night Journey described in the Koran. Christians point to depressions in the stone as the marks left by Jesus when he upsets the tables of the money changers. Jews see it as the place of the Holy of Holies of the Temple. This one stone is credited with the Binding of Isaac, Jacob’s Ladder, Noah’s sacrifice, Cain and Abel’s sacrifices, and the entry to the Garden of Eden, and it is no surprise that this stone is considered by Jews to be the Foundation Stone, from which the entire world was stone

While I understand the philosophical significance behind naming a stone as the Foundation Stone, marking the seminal event which serves as a basis for a religious belief, I wondered when the foundation stone became known as such in documents. The Bible does not mention this stone explicitly. Solomon is not reported as building the Holy of Holies upon the Foundation Stone, but rather on the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite. Nor is the Foundation Stone mentioned in reference to any of the other biblical stories attributed to it – not in the binding of Isaac, nor in Jacob’s Ladder, nor in the sacrifices of Noah or Cain and Abel.

The Gemara, however, does attribute this stone with being the foundation of the world. In the Yerushalmi,

Rabbi Yohanan said: “Why is the stone called the Foundation Stone, because from it the world was created.”

The Mishna besides stating the above explanation, projects backwards to the time of David and Samuel who placed the Ark of the Covenant on the Foundation Stone. (Mishna Yoma 5,2)

One idea for the emergence of the Foundation Stone in Judaic thought links it to Josiah’s reforms in the 7th century B.C.E. Josiah destroys not only the cultic centers around Israel dedicated to pagan gods, but also bans scattered altars used for worship of God. Josiah sees the Jewish people becoming scattered. The Northern Kingdom, Israel, has mostly been lost to exile; and as people are more mobile, there is a fear that Jewish peoplehood will be lost. A strong central institution like the Temple and Jerusalem as the center of Jewish life can help to ensure the future of the Jewish people and work against assimilation. As part of his move to reestablish the centrality of Jerusalem, he emphasizes the Foundation Stone as the focal point of the Temple. What had simply been the foundation of the Holy of Holies, now gets additional significance as being known as the Foundation Stone, and associated with other important scenes from the biblical text.

Later, during the times of the Mishna and the Gemara, the Foundation Stone as a uniquely Jewish place, remains after the destruction of the Temple. In essence, the marking of the Foundation Stone by the post-destruction Rabbis, sends a message that while the Romans can destroy the Temple, they can’t destroy its foundation.

Whether or not we believe that this exact stone is the Foundation Stone, the ideas represented within it are eternal. Whether or not the stone marks the exact spot where man connected to God, man showed his unshakable belief in God, or the entire world came into being; it does represent an eternal symbol of those themes and a focus for the Jewish world until today.


Beer Sheva to Jerusalem

Last week on October 31st, Beer Sheva celebrated 100 years since the capture of the city by the British and ANZAC forces in 1917.  And while the area around Beer Sheva was busy with streets closed, parades, thousands of visitors from Australia and New Zealand, and even a reenactment of the light horsemen’s charge, the event was scarcely remembered in the center of the country.  A one-liner on the hourly news was almost all that the event garnered in the national press.  Soon, on December 11th, we will mark 100 years since the British rule in Jerusalem, which will also be celebrated.light horsemen

Echoing the disconnect between people in the center and in the periphery in Israeli society, the two events are seen as separate.  Jerusalem doesn’t recall the Beer Sheva battle; and Beer Sheva has no idea how victory there led to British rule in Jerusalem.  These two events are, in fact, intrinsically connected.  In The Atlas of Palestine: 1917-1966 by Salman H. Abu-Sitta, the first section of the book on the British Mandate starts thus:

On the evening of October 31, 1917, with overwhelming force, the British army over-ran the small Turkish garrison in the town of Beer Sheba in a surprise attack from the south and east. The attack had been expected from the west. The Turkish flag opposite the mosque was lowered and the Union Jack was raised. Thus ended 1400 years of Arab Islamic rule….   Beer Sheba was the key to Palestine at its southern gate. Palestine now lay open to British occupation.

Interestingly, Abu-Sitta does not even mention Allenby’s entry into Jerusalem.  According to him, only because of the victory at Beer Sheva was the British mandate established.  Beer Sheva was the turning point of the war in the Levant.  After horrific losses in Gallipoli, the disheartened Commonwealth soldiers suffered 2 losses at Gaza.  General Allenby replaced General Murray and breathed fresh air into the battle theater.  His direct attack and victory at Beer Sheva would lead, finally, to conquest of Gaza and then Jaffa.

The possibility of threatening Jerusalem from the east via Hebron and from the west from Jaffa meant that the Ottoman line was stretched thin through mountainous terrain.  Allenby decided to strike from the North and cut off the Jerusalem-Nablus road.  This necessitated continuing on to el-Bireh through Shilta (Shilat), el-Burj (Givat Titura in Modiin), and Beit Ur El Tachta – Rt. 443 of today.

The fighting continued as a back and forth with a decisive battle happening on the plains below el-Burj.  There, the Australian and New Zealand troops joined with the Scots who were stationed there.  December 1, 1917 in the Judean hills was very different from Beer Sheva of October 31, 1917.  Winter had set in and the rain was falling.  (The Scots were still in their short knickers.)  Added to the inclement weather, the British troops faced “storm troopers”, specially chosen and trained by the Germans.  Only by sheer force of will and dedication did the British hold their fire when, “Allah hu achbar” was heard in the dark, cold silence.  They waited until the Turks were at point-blank range and then opened fire.  In the morning light the British troops prevailed and were able to advance up Rt. 443, cutting Turkish access to Jerusalem.

According to HS Gullett, an Australian War correspondent:

Had the enemy seized El Burj, the British would have been deprived of the use of the road leading up from Berfilya (on the western edge of Modiin), and the Beit Nuba (Mevo Horon) – Beit Sira valley would have become untenable. This would have weakened all the pressure towards the Nablus road, and exposed the left flank of the infantry which was making the main advance towards Jerusalem.

The same troops who first captured Beer Sheva were responsible for taking key positions on the road to Jerusalem.  By learning the relationship between events, we can form a more complete picture of the true connectivity of all of the land of Israel – periphery as well as center.

Bedouins and Tourism

Bedouins of the Negev are an interesting part of the Israeli landscape. Their culture and their way of life make them a curiosity for all who pass the narrow roads of the Negev Highlands.  As we become more dependent on technology, the free existence that we associate with the Bedouin entices us.  The Bedouins moved into the Sinai desert from Arabia.  Trade routes and better pasture lands lured them to the Negev.  Their traditional lifestyle – living in small compounds with their flocks – reflected the desert’s ability to sustain life for small groups and specific lifestyles. bedouin

Until the last 30 years, Bedouin encampments were rarely seen by the casual visitor.  Tribal compounds were far from the main roads.  They were self-sufficient and moved with the flock.  Large life-cycle events, such as weddings, which lasted a week, brought together larger groups of people and kept the traditions alive through an otherwise scattered group.

Some parts of Bedouin culture seem idyllic to modern man. Bedouins don’t tend to have many things, but they are masters of having enough.  Items are praised not necessarily for their intended purpose but instead for their best purpose right now.  These, combined with the perceived simplicity of life, make Bedouin culture interesting to us.  Although I think that few “downsizers” would be willing to live in a Bedouin tent, the idea of fewer possessions, living in the present and focusing on the important things are more than undercurrents in popular quality-of-life philosophy, even if most people don’t come near to fulfilling these goals.

The interest in Bedouin culture and its philosophy echo in tourism.  The manager of a Bedouin tent experience outside of Mitzpeh Ramon in the Negev Highlands said that in the past 15 years he has seen a change in tourists who come to the desert.  Fifteen years ago, the desert was about pushing the limits of extreme activities.  How far can you push yourself, your bike, your jeep, to get the biggest adrenaline rush?  Today, people are still hiking, biding and jeeping, but those activities have become simply the means.  The tourist uses those means in order to fulfill the goal – arriving at far removed places to just get away from it all. Bedouins are perceived to fill that end goal; they are seen as the ultimate “get away from it all” people.  Part of the allure of the Bedouins and why people are willing to take part of their vacation to spend with them is to connect with their lifestyle – free, unattached and authentic – a departure from the tourists’ everyday stresses.

There are many sites associated with the Bedouin and many ways to explore Israel’s friendly desert, from tea in a Bedouin tent to the newly developed Negev Highland Trail.  On your next trip to Israel, consider taking some time to connect to the Bedouin culture – not just to learn, but to experience.

Jonah and the Whale

Yom Kippur is one of the central holidays of the Jewish people and during that day the book of Jonah is read in its entirety.  The story of Jonah and the whale is one of the epic tales of all times.  So, it shouldn’t be surprising that the places associated with the Jewish prophet are sought out and revered. Here in Israel there are several spots along the coast which are associated with Jonah. The port of Jaffa from whence he departed is one. As to where the whale deposited Jonah after he agreed to go on God’s mission, there are 3 candidates: Tel Yonah next to the Rishon LeZion beach, Givat Yonah overlooking Ashdod, and Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip.

After his predicament in the whale/fish, Jonah does end up going to prophesy against the people of Nineveh, and they repent, making this an appropriate reading for a day associated with repentance.

What happens to Jonah afterwards, however, is a mystery. The biblical account does not follow him to the end of his life.  One tradition posits that Jonah stayed around Nineveh, dies and was buried there. A shrine in Mosul, known as the Nebi Yunis (Prophet Jonah) shrine marks a spot that is revered by both Christians and Moslems. It occupies a place of importance on one of two mounds which made up the ancient city of Nineveh.

Tragically, in 2014, the shrine along with many antiquities in Mosul were destroyed by ISIS, their treasures destroyed or sold off to fund the terror organization.  (See before and after in inset.)

nebi yunus -1After the Iraqi government recaptured Mosul, archaeologist Layla Salih came to the site to do emergency archaeological work. She found that the ISIS terrorists did not just destroy and loot that which was visible, but also dug tunnels in order to harvest even more antiquities, hundreds of objects according to Salih.

This story is not just tragic, though, for in digging these tunnels, they unwittingly discovered that the shrine to Jonah sat on an earlier building, a 7th century B.C.E. palace. There had been earlier excavation at the site during quieter times; the Ottomans headed an expedition in 1852 and the Iraqi government revisited it in the 1950’s, but neither reached as deep as the palace.

Among the finds was a marble cuneiform inscription describing King Esarhaddon. He was the son of Sennacherib who destroyed cities in Judea and set siege on Jerusalem in approximately 701 B.C.E. Archaeologists believe that the Royal residence of Assyrian kings was initially built for Sannacherib himself. Sometime during Esarhaddon’s reign (681-669 B.C.E.), the palace was expanded and renovated. A later renovation was during the reign of Ashurbanipal (669-627 B.C.E.). In 612 B.C.E. Nineveh was destroyed by the Babylonians and, with the city, the imperial palace. In the 7th century C.E. an Assyrian Church stood on the hill and that church became associated with Jonah. Sometime in the 8th century C.E. a mosque and shrine took the place of the church.

The wheels of time have a way of turning history upside down. Jonah the prophet was sent to proclaim the destruction of Nineveh, and in so doing, preserved the city when the residents repented. In modern times, the destruction surrounding Jonah’s tomb, reveals the ancient palace and makes possible preservation of the site.

Turtle Soup

Turtles are one of the first wild creatures to which kids have a connection. It is a wild animal that moves slowly enough on land that any fairly coordinated 3-year old can capture it. Additionally, its ability to retract its head and legs makes it a custom crafted “toy” for the younger set. My summer vacations in northern Minnesota inevitably including taking our turtles into town for a race, an interesting endeavor since turtles neither move quickly nor care about getting to the finish line.

As we grow older, we learn that turtles are some of the most ancient animals alive today. As soon as early humans found turtle meat under those hard shells, turtles began to be hunted and eaten. One million years ago in Africa, people hunted and ate turtles. As they moved out of Africa, they took their hunting skills with them. In the Qesem Cave, tortoise shells attest to their inclusion in the prehistoric human diet 400,000 years ago.

turtleResearcher Rebecca Biton, who 3 years ago discovered an extinct frog species in the Hula Valley in northern Israel, has been examining sites there for signs of amphibious life. She discovered in a Middle Paleolithic site (60,000 years ago), next to the paleo-Lake Hula, evidence of hunting of the freshwater Western Caspian Turtle which is indigenous to Israel. Sixty bones from sites in this area have been identified as having been from freshwater turtles.

Interestingly, when we think of harvesting food from lakes, we first think of fishing, not hunting. Fishing, however, only started in the Upper Paleolithic era, 40,000 years ago. These turtle bones predate fishing and suggest that freshwater turtles were hunted in the water much as their cousins, Mediterranean Spur-Thighed Tortoises, were hunted on land. Both land and freshwater species have been found by Biton in various sites in the area.

Protein requirements consisted mostly of  deer, gazelles and cows during the Middle Paleolithic period in Israel.  There is some thought that turtles provided a sort of “canned food” option which rounded out people’s diet.  Everyone likes some variety in what they eat – even thousands of years ago.

Considered a delicacy in some Chinese communities today, Turtle Soup was apparently also enjoyed by our human ancestors in Israel 40,000 years ago.

King Solomon’s Mines?

One of the hot debates in Israel’s archaeological community is on the extent of the Jewish kingdom during the time of Kings David and Solomon (read about another town involved in this debate here). Were David and Solomon rulers over a vast kingdom as described in the Bible or simply tribal chieftains with a penchant for telling good stories?

One of the places this debate is playing out is deep in the southern Arava, north of Eilat in the valley of Timna. During the past few years, researchers have gone back and forth over the designation of the copper mines there as being the famed King Solomon’s Mines, popularized by the 1885 book by H. Rider Haggard.king solomons mines

Conventional archaeology conjectured that the lack of finds from the 10th century B.C.E., the time of David and Solomon, pointed to the site being unsettled then and shattered the Solomonic mines myth. Excavations at 2 sites during the past few years using advanced technology are changing the picture once again. Discovery of preserved mule dung and left over food from the miners which were examined with Carbon 14 dating may actually shore up the Biblical account.

Site 34, Slaves’ Hill, is an ancient site of copper smelting on a flat mesa at the center of the Timna valley. According to the C14 finds, this site was occupied during the Iron Age, during which David and Solomon were kings. The production of copper carried with it a well-organized, centralized society, such as is described in the Bible under David and Solomon.  Not only that, but the food remains found in the dung show that the mule ate a diet of Mediterranean food products – the type which were found in David and Solomon’s kingdom around Jerusalem pointing to a connection between the miners and Jerusalem.

Other finds put the cessation of settlement at Site 34 to around 930 B.C.E. during the invasion of Shishak from Egypt, and the reorganization of supply lines which come with a change of sovereignty.

Nearby Site 30 was found to have a peak in copper production in the first half of the 10th century B.C.E. – exactly the time period of Kings David and Solomon.

The C14 studies in Timna bring to light archaeological questions, especially questions of societal complexity in tent-dwelling societies, which do not leave behind plentiful physical remains. Unless ancient people were engaged in unique activities, such as mining or smelting, they were completely transparent in common archaeological practice. New technologies can help to uncover these societies and contribute to a greater understanding of not only their particular social orders, but also the wider questions in archaeology.

Worms to Words

Silk is one of the most desirable fabrics. Ever since the Chinese discovered the strength, sheen and malleability of silk threads in the 4th millennium B.C.E. silk has been the textile of privilege. Although silk is mentioned twice in the Hebrew Bible, finds from ancient times are scarce. Organic materials break down with time and do not survive for archaeologists to find them.  The drier regions of Israel, however, have an ideal climate for the survival of organic finds.

During Byzantine times, with prosperity in the Negev and open trade routes, there are a few surviving fragments. Christian pilgrims traveling to holy sites from Egypt brought silk fragments to Nitzana where 4 fragments of this rare cloth were found. In Avdat, the Nabatean Byzantine city, one fragment was found dating from before the destruction of the city in 636 C.E. This fragment’s pattern was discernible and resembles patterns of tunics found in Egypt from this same time period. Nahal Omer in the Arava Valley yielded 3 silk fragments from among 250 textiles found there from the 7th-8th century C.E. The location of the spice route from Petra to Gaza led to the opulence of these locations and the existence of people who had the means to acquire silk garments.

qarantal silkThere is another place in Israel where silk has been found which is not associated with the spice route – Qarantal, above Jericho. In Cave 38 beneath Qarantal fortress (today known as the Mount of Precipice), were found 800 textile fragments from the 9th-13th century C.E. Many of them are compound silk fragments – silk woven in with other less expensive threads. All of these 800 fragments were used and most were from repaired garments.

Who was storing old clothes in a cave above Jericho? In antiquity, clothing was used and patched until it was beyond repair, and only then discarded. Researchers believe that this was not a giant trash heap but rather a horde of raw materials for another purpose. During this time, new technology came to the Middle East. A cheap substitute for parchment or papyrus was available. Developed and streamlined in China in the 2nd century C.E., paper-making made its way on the trade routes. Using wood pulp for paper would only be invented in 1843, and ancient paper production was from fabrics. Quality paper would be made from quality textiles, like silk, which could provide durable fibers.

Writing started circulating on this paper. Silk, which started as a product of worms, became at the end of their journey, substrate for words.  Worms to words.

Beit Shearim – A Gated Community?

If you forced me to pick my favorite spots in Israel, Beit Shearim would be up near the top. So I am always happy to learn and relearn about the ancient hometown of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi.

The name Beit Shearim was always assumed to mean “house of many sheaves”, a place of abundance. Originally given as a gift to Bereniki, a descendent of Herod the Great, by the Roman Emperor Titus, it sits overlooking the Jezreel Valley, one of the most fertile areas of Israel.  The town did not revolt against the Romans during the Great Revolt during the 1st century C.E. and so did not suffer destruction.

By the time that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi moved the Jewish High Court, the Sanhedrin, there, the town was a thriving, wealthy Jewish center.  Beit Shearim was never a large city with many different types of people, like was the case in neighboring Tzipori.  Despite his upbringing in this Jewish shtetl, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi himself was rumored to be friends with the Roman emperor Septimus Severus. The town continued to exist and thrive until it was damaged during the Gallus Revolt. A subsequent earthquake in 386 further damaged the town. From the early Islamic period, the town continued to decline until it faded into obscurity sometime before the Crusader period.

Alexander Zaid, the Jewish watchman who lived and died on the land that had once been Beit Shearim, rediscovered it in 1936. His granddaughter, Tali Zaid, who still lives on the family estate, called in archaeologist Adi Erlich in 2016 before undertaking some improvements in the yard. Erlich found in the Zaid estate the remains of a city gate from the late Roman period. Most settlements of that time did not have gates because of Pax Romanus – peace throughout the Roman Empire. Certainly, a small town like Beit Shearim would not have been walled during this time.  There is no evidence of a fortress here, either.  The presumed absence of gates led to the prior explanation of the Beit Shearim’s name, due to its location and affluence.

But maybe those exact qualities necessitated gates in the city. We could perhaps see the city as a “gated community”; its affluence leading to a need for security, not against foreign armies but from resident bandits. The gate is only half excavated, so keep your eyes out for what the other half will teach about life in this Jewish town!beit shearim gate

Enough Booze to Hydrate an Army

As the Jewish New Year, Rosh HaShana approaches, and families get ready for three days of eat, sleep, pray, we will start to hear the well-known phrase – Enough Food to Feed an Army. This summer, in the fields of Netzer Sereni, near Ramle in central Israel (other posts about Ramle here and here), archaeologists found the remains of Enough Booze to Hydrate an Army.

Alongside Paleolithic flint tools from 200,000 years ago were found hundreds of glass liquor bottles from 100 years ago. The nearby building housed agricultural implements during the Ottoman era and was reassigned as a garrison for British soldiers during World War I. Those soldiers, the Egyptian Expeditionary Forces, conquered the cities of Lod and Ramle on November 15, 1917, controlling them and the farmland around them in the British fight against the Ottoman Turks. Under General Allenby’s orders, the British soldiers stayed in the requisitioned buildings for 9 months before heading to targets farther north. Inside the building were found belt buckles, uniform buttons, and parts of riding equipment.

A few meters/yards from the building was the trash heap (seems the best stuff is found in the trash). This collection of discarded items gives an insight into what they did for 9 months here. Apparently, they wiled away their free time by drinking a fair amount of liquor. In fact, 70% of the trash heap was composed of liquor bottles. According to Brigitte Ouahnouna, a researcher in the glass department at the Israel Antiquities Authority, “This is the first time in the history of archaeology of Israel in which an assemblage of hundreds of glass bottles from the British army camp from World War I was uncovered.”OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Besides providing a way to socialize and pass time, the drinks were a taste of home. All of the bottles were imported from Europe – no local brews were found.
As we are in the 100 year anniversary of the British foray into Middle East politics is being celebrated this year, get together with a friend and raise a glass. Imported liquors only, please.

Qumran: Things that Don’t Exist

Sometimes your story needs updating. I used to stand at Qumran and look at the caves in the rock escarpment facing the Dead Sea and tell this story: From these caves came the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS). The discoveries starting in 1947 and stretching into the mid-1950’s yielded the thousand or so fragments which make up the DSS, the oldest known copies of the books of the Jewish Bible. All of these fragments were only found in 11 caves.

As my tourists stood and looked at the numerous caves, their eyes grew wide and they imagined the treasures yet to be found. I dashed those dreams by stating that all those caves had been fully explored and that there are no more fragment-laden caves. There are and only will be 11 DSS caves.

That story worked until this year. A 12th DSS cave has been discovered, but with a twist – there are no written scrolls in it. Cave 12 (Q12) is the first DSS cave discovered in 60 years and the first to be properly excavated by archaeologists. The previous explorations, more than 60 years ago, had one goal – to retrieve scrolls – with little concern for other archaeological remains.q12-remnant of scroll - qumran

If there are no scrolls, why does Q12 fit into the elite group of DSS caves? Q12 yielded many remains. A 1950’s style pick axe alludes to looting which may have occurred here. Broken, empty storage jars and lids from the Second Temple Period lead archaeologists to imagine ancient texts which may have been stored here. They also found many signs of literary activity. A piece of parchment ready for writing, a leather strap for binding scrolls, and tendons and pieces of skin for connecting parchment were overlooked by those who wielded the pick axes in their hunt for the prize – written fragments.

Being a repository of DSS was not the first usage of Q12. Chalcolithic and Neolithic flint blades, arrowheads and a stamp seal of carnelian attest to its use far in the past.

Archaeologists are excited by the discovery of Q12. The revelation of another DSS cave just underlines that we cannot know for certain the things that don’t exist.