Ancient Shiloh: A new stop on the tourist map?
Travis Allen was spending three weeks in 2009 driving around Israel visiting historic sites when he suddenly noticed Shiloh on the map and asked his driver if they could go to the site of the archaeological dig. What Allen, a financial adviser from California who’s making his first run for public office, remembers vividly is what was not there. People.
“I went and there was no one there. There was a little station by a gate. I asked if this is Shiloh where the tabernacle used to stand and I was told, ‘up by the hill.’ I walked up by myself and I had the whole place to myself… It was fantastic. There was a viewing platform and nothing else.”
Nestled in the Judean Hills about a 40 minute drive from Jerusalem and closer to Nablus lies the ancient city of Shiloh, the first home of the Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary that for 369 years was the epicenter of religious observance and sacrifices as the Jewish people traveled in the desert.
Tzofia Dorot, a young, modern and passionate woman dressed in slacks, a kerchief—symbolic of the majority of community living in modern Shiloh—covering her head, guided a group of American and Israeli tourists through the Tel Shiloh archaeological site on a hot summer afternoon. She explained to The Media Line why Shiloh was attracting new visitors.
“People are not afraid today; unlike maybe 10-years ago when the situation was different. Today it’s pretty quiet. Usually, you’re afraid of something you don’t know. So many people didn’t cross the Green Line—Israel’s pre-1967 borders with Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon—for years because they were afraid of getting shot, they were afraid of bombs; and today it’s a great opportunity to learn about this place, the sites and the people,” said Dorot.
“Shiloh doesn’t appear so dangerous to me,” offered Ken Abramowitz, a market analyst from New York who helped put the group together. “Shiloh was the heartland of Israel. About 3200 years ago this was the center of Israel, and unfortunately people have forgotten that. It’s good to remind myself, and I invited ten friends to join us in order to remind them, too.”
Dorot, who now lives in Kida, a community of fifty families located within the Shiloh bloc overlooking the Jordan Valley, adds that “the people who live in Judea and Samaria are shown by the media through a very narrow pipe. The extremists are on television, the normal people aren’t shown.”
When archaeological digs resumed in 2010, thirty-years had lapsed since the most recent previous work. The visitors led by Dorot saw a Jewish ritual bath (mikveh) from the Second Temple period – and artifacts found when archaeologists discovered an entire room containing piles of broken dishes from the time of the Tabernacle. Dorot explained that because people typically keep their dishes with them, the abundance of broken pottery indicates that the inhabitants left quickly, presumably under duress, in flight.
Further up the hill and part of the most recent digs, archaeologists found the big platform believed to be the resting place of the Tabernacle itself.
“People come to Shiloh because it was the first capital of the Jewish nation, it was a spiritual center where the Tabernacle—housing the ark, the menorah (candelabra), the table, and everything needed to serve God)—was sitting. This is where land was distributed to the tribes by lottery; and this is where Tu B’Av the Jewish love holiday—is celebrated every year on the tenth day of the month of Av,” according to Dorot.
In February, 2012, the government of Israel declared Tel Shiloh an archeological heritage site, and pumped-in an initial $1.5 million, a portion of the $12 million needed over the next five years. This help enabled the recent digs that uncovered the actual area where the Tabernacle rested.
Dorot says Shiloh is like a “mini-Jerusalem” without the mess and noise of the big city. “A site that has so many layers and is such a big part of our history should be exposed,” she argued. “Today we have all the layers of the history of Shiloh. Basically, we have the story of the land of Israel.”
The head of the Israel Antiquities Authority agreed to establish at Tel Shiloh the first visitors’ center located inside an archaeological site, set to open this year. The ultra-modern glass and metal structure that is designed to evoke an image “that connects the land to the sky,” stands on bedrock in order not to harm the archaeology. Visitors will go from the stones of archaeology up to the tower where, “The tower will help visitors understand and see what their eyes cannot. The first floor will be for guiding and the second floor will showcase a movie projected onto the special glass walls that can be controlled so that cinema merges with the reality beyond. Dorot promises that, “You’ll see the actors in the area and sometimes you won’t know what is real and what is not.”
The Jewish presence in areas Israel acquired in the 1967 war is widely recognized as a key obstacle to the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. The Palestinians regard the land as their future state, while even many Jewish Israelis are willing to cede the land in return for a genuine peace.
Abramowitz faults the Israeli government for “speaking in a mixed message to its people.” He disdains that, “one government will say ‘Judea and Samaria are ours forever,’ while another says, ‘we don’t really want it, it can be a Palestinian state.’ It confuses the population: both the children and the adults,” he told The Media Line.
Despite the divisive political debate surrounding the future of post-1967 lands; and illustrative of Abramowitz’s point about inconsistent policies of respective governments, Education Minister Gidon Saar announced in early 2011, a program to bring Israeli schoolchildren to heritage sites located in post-1967 territories – including the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and the ancient city of Shiloh—so that they would know “the historic roots of the State of Israel in the Land of Israel.”
Marc Prowisor, director of security for Judea and Samaria for One Israel Fund – an advocacy group promoting Jewish ties to post-1967 lands—felt Saar’s initiative was long overdue. Prowisor charged that “it was a crime of all Israeli governments and educational ministries for withholding information from the Israeli public, children and the Jewish people.”
According to Avital Seleh, director of Tel Shiloh, “Two years ago we said it was time to bring Israelis and tourists to Shiloh. 30,000 people have been visiting annually: 50% Israeli and 50% from around the world. A separate program was initiated that brought in young people to participate in the digging so they will remember that they touched Shiloh.” Adding evidence that interest in the area and willingness to travel there is on the rise, Prowisor said referring to an American lobby tied to Israel that advocates ceding post-1967 land to the Palestinians, “Even J-Street recently came.”
Despite the enthusiasm of those associated with Shilo, travel in the territories has apparently not yet become mainstream within Israel’s tourism industry. Nimrod Shafran, operations manager for Da’at Educational Expeditions, told The Media Line that “A visit to Shiloh was never requested” in the six years he has been working with one of Israel’s foremost tour operators. “The only time I remember adding Shiloh to a program was for a group that included Judea and Samaria in their visit and we took them to Shiloh and a settlement to show them the old and the new.”
Pini Shani, director of the Israel Tourism Ministry’s overseas department told The Media Line that it’s the Evangelical Christian groups who primarily go to visit Shiloh. When asked if anyone has inquired to his desk about Shiloh, his answer was negative.
As the group Ken Abramowitz brought to Shiloh approached the construction site of the new state-of-the-art visitors’ center, participants were surprised to see several Arab workers enjoying a lunch break. Did they have problems with “assisting in excavating Jewish history?”
Dorot offered a story by way of illustration. She said that, “One Arab worker asked me as he was digging, ‘What is this layer and the next layer?’ The deeper we went, he understood that Jewish history is the first layer, then the Christian history, then the Muslim history. I’m proud of all the layers. I think it is great the Muslims wanted to build their mosque here, and the Christians wanted to build their church here. They all came here because the Tabernacle was first standing here. The worker saw it with his eyes,” according to Dorot.
But Prowisor’s take was more reflective of the intensity of the conflict. “In their (Arab) books, there is no Jewish history in Israel,” he argued. “You can’t ignore it. You just see it.” Charging he has “yet to see anything taught in Arab schools about peace with Israel,” Prowisor said “I respect the Arab culture, but expect the same in return.”
Allen, a candidate for the California Assembly, interjected that, “Shiloh belongs to the whole world, not just the Jewish nations. When Christians come here they look through the bible,” a belief Dorot seems to incorporate into her outlook. It also forms part of her answer to the painful question of whether Shiloh will ultimately be ceded to the Palestinians in a future peace deal.
“If I am here now, it’s my job to make sure that the archeology here will be exposed; it’s my job to make sure we have serious research here. I don’t want to lose the artifacts; I want to make sure I write down everything. I think it’s never going to happen, but even if something will change and nobody will be here, I know we did the research, we have the artifacts, I know my roots are deep into this site, we have the history here and nobody can deny it.