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.

China’s Ancient Jewish Enclave


Through a locked door in the coal-darkened boiler room of No. 1 Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Kaifeng, there’s a well lined with Ming Dynasty bricks. It’s just a few yards deep and still holds water. Guo Yan, 29, an eager, bespectacled native of this Chinese city on the flood plains of the Yellow River about 600 miles south of Beijing, led me to it one recent Friday afternoon, past the doormen accustomed to her visits.

A mezuza at the doorway of Guo Yan’s house in Kaifeng, where traces of a thriving Jewish community remain.

The well is all that’s left of the Temple of Purity and Truth, a synagogue that once stood on the site. The heritage it represents brings a trickle of travelers to see one of the more unusual aspects of this country: China, too, had its Jews.

Read the full article at NYTimes.com.

‘Massive’ ancient wall uncovered in Jerusalem [VIDEO]


From CNN.com:

An archaeological dig in Jerusalem has turned up a 3,700-year-old wall that is the largest and oldest of its kind found in the region, experts say.

Standing 8 meters (26 feet) high, the wall of huge cut stones is a marvel to archaeologists.

Read the full story at CNN.com.

Escape, exile, rebirth: Iranian Jewish diaspora alive and well in Los Angeles


Thirty years have passed since the massive and violent demonstrations against the Shah of Iran that began in September 1978, and for many, the start of that country’s bloody revolution might seem a faded memory. Yet I have carried those shattering events with me all of my life: I was born on in Tehran on Sept. 11, 1978, as chaos unfolded on the streets outside.

For Americans, Sept. 11 has its own painful history, but for me, that day each year has always been, as well, a reminder of another horrific tragedy: Sept. 9 to Sept. 11, 1978, were among the first and most brutal days of a revolution in Iran that would result, among many upheavals, in the uprooting of the country’s ancient and once-thriving Jewish population.

My family’s story is no different from that of thousands of other Jews who fled Iran during and after the revolution, many of whom now live in Southern California, New York, Israel and elsewhere worldwide — the Iranian Jewish diaspora.

While scholars have since debated the true cause of the revolution, it is well known that the massive public protests for “greater freedoms” and strikes crippled Iran’s economy. Violence between the protesters and police erupted in Iran’s capital in January 1978 and intensified later in the year.

These activities eventually resulted in the collapse of the government led by the shah, who fled Iran on Jan. 20, 1979. On Feb. 1, 1979, the exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to Iran, quickly dissolved the monarchy and shortly thereafter established a new fundamentalist Islamic state government.

The new theocratic regime eliminated practically overnight many of the freedoms and civil liberties once taken for granted by Iranians — including the country’s Jews, who under the shah’s reign had experienced one of the greatest periods of peace and prosperity in their long history in the region.

A day perhaps best remembered in the United States is Nov. 4, 1979, when regime operatives took over the American Embassy in Tehran and held captive 52 Americans in a reign of terror that would last for 444 days — the rationale for this act, in part, was retaliation against the U.S. government, which had granted the exiled shah permission to be treated for cancer in America.

The new regime’s henchmen also quickly executed several prominent Jewish community leaders, accusing them of sympathizing with the fallen monarchy or “spying for Israel and America.” For fear of what calamity might befall them, many Jewish families rushed to abandon their homes and businesses and fled the country — often under cover of night. Others lost everything they owned, as millions of dollars in assets were confiscated by the new fundamentalist Islamist Iranian government.

Under the shah’s rule, Iran’s Jews, as well as other religious minorities in Iran, had become accustomed to being treated with respect, albeit as separate, distinct cultures. Now they were second-class citizens, and the atmosphere of hostility led thousands of them to flee the country.

Looking back, the trauma of that flight has left deep wounds within my community. Many Iranian Jews continue to live in disbelief at what transpired.

“It was unbelievable, unfathomable for us Jews to believe anything would happen to us in Iran because of the incredible power of shah and his government,” Ebrahim Yahid, a local Iranian Jewish activist, now in his 80s, told me in a recent interview. “Nobody in our community believed of the calamity we would face under the new regime of Khoemini.”

Jewish flight from Iran began in earnest, most community members agree, in May 1979, when the new regime’s revolutionary guard executed 66-year-old “Haji” Habib Elghanian, a philanthropist and the leader of Iran’s Jewish community. Elghanian’s younger brother, Sion, who now lives in Los Angeles, recently spoke to me about his brother’s execution, the first time he has spoken publicly about it.

“Haji was in America, and 10 to 15 days before Khomeini returned to Iran, he returned to Iran,” said Sion Elghanian, who is now retired and in his late 80s.

The older Elghanian had been in the United States temporarily, hoping to weather the chaos of the early days of unrest, which had brought the country to a standstill through nationwide strikes.

It was expected that Habib Elghanian might become a target, because he was the wealthiest Jew in Iran and the leader of Iran’s Jews.

“Everyone, including the late Israeli Prime Minister Begin, asked him not to return to Iran, but he said, ‘I was born in Iran, I love my country, I have treated all Iranians — Muslims and Jews alike — with compassion, and I have not done anything illegal,'” his younger brother remembered.

The Islamic regime arrested Habib Elghanian on Feb. 17, 1979, and falsely charged him with being a Zionist spy, along with other trumped-up charges of treason against the state. He was executed on May 9, 1979, after a sham trial by the revolutionary Islamic court, which lasted just over an hour and consisted merely of a proclamation of the verdict, without presenting any real evidence. While he was in prison, family members and friends were able to get some messages to him and receive his replies.

“Haji knew that they were going to kill him,” Sion Elghanian said. “Before he was executed, he requested that that he be given his tallit and kippah to wear. He recited the ‘Shema’ … and then they shot him by a firing squad.

“Afterward, Iran’s Jews were in total shock and grief,” his brother told me. “We told him [Elghanian] that we wanted to arrange to have him sprung from jail in an escape, but he told us not to go forward with it, as the move might motivate the Islamic leaders of Iran to retaliate by executing thousands of Jews living in the country.”

Sion Elghanian said that he respects his brother’s wishes not to be sprung from jail and feels that the family did all that they could to rescue and save him. He views his brother as a hero who sacrificed himself for the good of the community.

Arab to deliver Hebrew TV news, new ancient neighborhood discovered in Jerusalem, Hamas still wants


Arab to deliver Hebrew TV news

Lucy Aharish, an Israeli Arab graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who also underwent broadcast training in Germany, was hired recently by Channel 10 television as a news anchor. Aharish, 25, told Ma’ariv in an interview Monday that although she has experienced racism in Israel, she believes Arabs can overcome such challenges and succeed. Having barely survived an attack on her family car when she visited Gaza as a child, she also voiced disinterest in the Palestinians.

Aharish is the fourth generation of a Muslim family from Nazareth, but spent most of her life in the southern town of Dimona, where she celebrated Jewish festivals and served in Gadna, Israel’s paramilitary youth training program. “There is no doubt that the different experiences that I underwent caused an identity crisis, which developed for years,” she said. “But the truth is that I don’t regret for a moment that my parents raised me in a Jewish environment. They gave me the privilege to stand in the middle of the road and look at the whole picture. I am grateful for this.”

Livni: Hamas smells E.U. accommodation

Israel’s foreign minister accused Hamas of seeking to weaken the European stand on the Palestinian Authority’s policies. Tzipi Livni said during a visit to Canada late Monday that the governing P.A. faction, which has rejected Western demands that it moderate its views on Israel, hopes the European Union will accommodate its intransigence.

“Hamas is looking at Europe, and they want to see this kind of hesitation,” Livni told reporters. “When they sense this smell of hesitation, why should they change in the future?”

The European Union last week called on the new coalition government being formed by Hamas and the moderate faction Fatah to set a diplomatic platform that “reflects” the international community’s preconditions that the Palestinian Authority recognize Israel, renounce terrorism and accept past rapprochement efforts. Livni said this did not signify a change in the European attitude toward Hamas.

“If somebody thinks that Hamas, while not recognizing Israel, while using terror — not to create a Palestinian state but to demolish the Jewish one — can be partners to something, they are wrong,” Livni said.

Hamas reaffirms goal to ‘liberate Palestine’

“We will not betray promises we made to God to continue the path of Jihad and resistance until the liberation of Palestine, all of Palestine,” the governing Palestinian Authority faction said in a statement Monday.

The move, which could complicate Palestinian efforts to lift a Western aid embargo on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, came in reaction to a rare criticism of Hamas by al-Qaida’s deputy commander Ayman Zawahri. In a statement Sunday, Zawahri denounced Hamas for agreeing to share power with the more moderate Palestinian faction Fatah, calling this capitulation to Israel and the West.”Zawahri’s recent statements were wrong,” the Hamas statement said. “Resistance is our strategy. How and when? This depends on the reality at the time and our corresponding view of things.”

Ancient Jewish neighborhood discovered in Jerusalem

A network of Second Temple-era streets, homes and ritual mikvah baths were found recently in Jerusalem’s Arab district of Shuafat when municipal workers laid tracks for a light railway, Ma’ariv reported Tuesday. The Antiquities Authority estimated that the finds, which currently spread over an area of some 100 acres, date to a period after the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. Evidence suggests the neighborhood was affluent and religiously observant.

“In the digs, many stone tools and caches of coins were discovered, including a rare gold coin with the image of the Emperor Trajan,” Antiquities Authority official Rahel Bar-Natan said.

Barnea to get Israel Prize

The Israel Prize Committee announced Tuesday that it would honor Yediot Achronot’s top political pundit, Nahum Barnea, for his career in journalism at this year’s Independence Day ceremonies.

“Barnea always makes sure to be close to the action, in places of social turmoil, in times of war or terror attacks, and even when his presence there puts his life at risk,” the Israel Prize judges wrote. Barnea, 63, is widely considered one of Israel’s most influential journalists.

Palestinians ready kosher produce

Palestinian farmers are reportedly preparing for a windfall from sales of produce to Israelis who observe the Jewish law that requires Jewish-owned land to lie fallow. The next Jewish year, 5768, is shmitta, meaning that it falls at the end of a seven-year cycle ordained by the Torah and in which religiously observant Israelis are formally barred from raising or harvesting fruits and vegetables. Some ultra-Orthodox groups in Israel have been in talks with Palestinian officials about obtaining produce from the Gaza Strip as an alternative, the Israeli newspaper Hatzofeh reported Monday. The meetings reportedly were facilitated by the Israeli military, which pledged to expedite the merchandise’s transport out of Gaza..”

Leo at the Wall spurs a fracas

Police tried to limit access to the Western Wall Plaza late Monday when actor Leonardo DiCaprio, on an Israel tour, paid his respects along with his Israeli girlfriend, model Bar Refaeli. Paparazzi surged forward and were rebuffed violently by DiCaprio’s bodyguards. Two of the guards were arrested for assault, police said. Earlier Monday, DiCaprio and Refaeli made an after-hours visit to Yad Vashem. The actor’s arrival in Israel has prompted a media frenzy that has been stoked by the glitzy couple’s camera shyness.

Israel fires ambassador who was found drunk and bound

Jerusalem sources said Monday that Tsuriel Raphaeli, its ambassador to El Salvador, has been recalled after El Savaldoran police a couple of weeks ago found him drunk, bound and wearing only bondage paraphernalia. Raphaeli had been expected back in Israel due to family issues, the political sources said. The Foreign Ministry had no immediate word on who would replace him.

Report: Rabin assassin expects child

Ma’ariv reported Tuesday that Yitzhak Rabin’s jailed assassin Yigal Amir, who is serving a life sentence, impregnated his wife, Larissa Trimbobler, during a recent conjugal visit. Amir was jailed for murdering the Israeli prime minister in 1995, but only last year did the Prisons Service fully recognize his marriage to Trimbobler, which was performed in a proxy ceremony. Amir’s family had no immediate comment on the Ma’ariv report.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Israel Launches First Underwater Museum


It was the largest, most impressive port in the Roman Empire when it was inaugurated in 10 B.C.E. And some 2,016 years later, the ancient port of Caesarea — along the Mediterranean coast of Israel — was inaugurated again last month, this time as the world’s first underwater museum.

Divers can now don their wetsuits and tour the sign-posted remains of the magnificent harbor built by King Herod to honor his Roman patron, Caesar Augustus. The site has been excavated over the last three decades by a team led by the late professor Avner Raban of the University of Haifa’s Recanati Institute for Maritime Studies.

It’s not your ordinary museum tour. Visitors float from one “exhibit” to the next, marveling in silence at the untouched remains of a once-glorious harbor: a Roman shipwreck, a ruined lighthouse, an ancient breakwater, the port’s original foundations, anchors, pedestals.

“It’s a truly unique site,” said Sarah Arenson, a University of Haifa maritime historian and participant in the project. “This port was built as the state-of-the-art port of the Roman Empire, and made the other ports of the time, including those of Rome, Alexandria and Piraeus, look small and out-of-date by comparison.”

Arenson notes that the port is also unique today: “There are no other ancient ports in the world that are accessible to ordinary divers,” she said.

Some such ports are restricted to authorized scientists. Others may be open to any diver, but would be meaningless to such visitors “because,” Arenson explained, “all you would see is a bunch of stones.”

At Caesarea, divers view some 28 different sign-posted sites along four marked trails in the sunken harbor covering an area of 87,000 square yards. Divers are given a waterproof map that describes in detail each of the numbered sites along the way (currently maps are in English and Hebrew; within a few months they will be available in six additional languages). One trail is also accessible to snorkelers; the others, less than eight yards below the surface, close to the beach, are appropriate for any beginner diver.

And what does the visitor see?

In a sense, an abrogated history of this once prominent port town — from its entrance at sea (about 100 meters from the current shoreline) to the Roman shipwreck that signaled the demise of the port — probably due to an earthquake — about a century after its construction, researchers believe. And, in between, divers can view the remnants of the original foundations that made this harbor one of the wonders of the Roman Empire.

“This port was built using the knowledge and technology of Roman engineers,” said University of Haifa maritime historian Nadav Kashtan, a member of the team that excavated the site.

The port was built with a type of hydraulic cement, invented by the Romans, known as pozzolana.

“The Romans found that when they take the volcanic powder found around Mount Vesuvius and mix it with lime and rubble, the substance hardens in water,” Kashtan said. “This hydraulic concrete was imported to Casearea and used to fill wooden frames which were then lowered into the water to lay the foundations for the port.”

Two such frames were found, one almost perfectly intact, and are on view today.

Kashtan noted that thousands of men were recruited — both from Rome and locally — to build the port in the course of 12 years. Among them were many divers, who descended simply holding their breath, or possibly in a diving bell.

The Roman city of Caesarea was built on the ruins of a decaying Phoenician town called Straton’s Tower. Its builder, Herod, who also built the Second Temple of Jerusalem, was considered one of the most magnificent builders of the Roman era, Kashtan notes.

The Jewish king built the town — given to him as a present by Augustus — into a grand, fortified city that served as the capital of the Roman province of Judea for about 600 years.

The underwater park was developed with the financial support of the Caesarea Development Corporation.

Israel has long been known as a diver’s mecca because of the rainbow of corals and exotic fish found off the coast of the Red Sea resort of Eilat. But the country has more than two-dozen other diving sites along the Mediterranean coast — from the unique maze of chalky white caves of Rosh Hanikra in the north, to a collection of shipwrecks dotting the coast as far south as Ashkelon.

The sunken port of Caesarea — with its ancient sites and modern explanations — is sure to become one of the top underwater attractions.

Leora Eren Frucht is an associate editor of Israel21c.

 

Qumran Offers Look at Legacy of Scrolls


Descending eastward from the rolling hills on the outskirts of Jerusalem, the sapphire-colored Dead Sea appears like a jewel set in the dusty brown Judean Desert. As you breathe in the thundering stillness, it’s easy to imagine why the ancient Essenes chose this place for their spiritual refuge.

When they lived here some 2,000 years ago, the Essenes led a highly ritualized life along the sea’s northern shores, 40 miles east of Jerusalem.

You can learn more about them and the fascinating legacy they created — the Dead Sea Scrolls — at Qumran National Park. This well-kept archaeological site preserves the center of Essene activity.

An introductory audiovisual program describes the Essenes’ way of life, which the Romans destroyed in the year 68 C.E., during the great Jewish revolt. These Jews were mostly male ascetics, dedicated to spirituality, who fled Jerusalem.

They created a largely self-reliant, communal settlement amid picturesque limestone hillside cliffs. Their structures included stone assembly halls, a main dining room for ceremonial meals, a kitchen, laundry room, watchtower, stable and pottery workshop.

Archaeologists believe the Essenes were highly concerned with maintaining their ritual purity and bathed at least twice a day. An aqueduct system caught water from the hills above and channeled it into an elaborate series of mikvahs, or ritual baths.

In the 200 years they lived at Qumran, Essene scribes also dedicated themselves to copying biblical texts in a scriptorium, or writing room, with desks and inkstands.

The biblical texts were discovered by a young Bedouin shepherd in 1947. When an errant goat disappeared into a cave, the boy tossed a rock inside, and was surprised to hear the rock hit something. As he continued searching, he discovered clay pots that had protected seven ancient scrolls for centuries.

When the film concludes, the screen lifts and you are directed toward a darkened hallway, where replicas of the implements of the Essenes’ daily routine are displayed. From there, it’s a short walk to the ruins, where you can see remnants of the mikvahs, as well as the aqueduct and other finds, in addition to a view of the historic cave.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest biblical documents ever found, often are described as the most important archaeological discovery of the 20th century. They date to a time that spawned Christianity and laid the foundations for modern Judaism.

The scrolls include books from the Torah, the Apocrypha and the sect’s own works. Some of these are on permanent exhibit at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

They are stored in the iconic white domed Shrine of the Book, which resembles the lid of the type of clay jar in which the scrolls were found. As you walk into the exhibit, you enter a dark hallway that resembles a cave.

The parched climate of the Dead Sea helped preserve the scrolls and items rarely found by archaeologists: wooden combs, leather sandals, linen fabric and ropes made from palm leaves and rushes.

Most of the scrolls discovered at Qumran were made of a lightly tanned animal skin. A small percentage were written on papyrus. To prevent their further deterioration, the exhibit was specifically designed with low lighting and controlled humidity and temperature.

The scrolls are stored in darkened cases that are illuminated with the press of a button. The beautifully penned texts reflect portions from every book of the Bible, except the scroll of Esther, as well as the entire book of Isaiah. And some reveal the beliefs and customs of the Jews at Qumran, such as monogamy and prohibitions against divorce and celibacy.

The scrolls and thousands of fragments later discovered in the same area have been mired in controversy since 1954, when four scrolls were advertised for sale in The Wall Street Journal. They were subsequently purchased for Israel, but only a select group of European and American scholars were chosen to reconstruct and publish the texts. The 1984 publication of an article about one scroll discovered years earlier ignited a lengthy battle over long delays in publication and freedom of access for other scholars.

In 1991, independent scholars broke protocol and released computer-generated reconstructions of some fragments. The Huntington Library in San Marino later allowed access to its photographic copies. The Biblical Archaeological Review printed complete photographs of the unpublished fragments without disclosing the source.

You can view the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Israel Museum (phone: 02 670-8811) and the ruins of the Essene settlement at Qumran National Park (02 994-2235). Call for updated hours and admission charges. For more information, contact the Dead Sea Information Center at

Local Team Solves Ancient Mystery


In 1979 two tiny pieces of cracked and deteriorated silver found in a tomb outside of the Old City of Jerusalem proved to be one of the most important archeological discoveries of the century.

The silver strips had Hebrew writing on them — albeit a very different-looking Hebrew to the one we know today — and the words spelled out the priestly blessing: “May the Lord bless you and guard you. May the Lord make his countenance shine on you and be gracious to you. May the Lord turn his countenance to you and grant you peace.”

The strips, which were initially dated from the seventh or sixth century B.C.E., contained the earliest known citation of a text that is also found in the Bible (in this case, Numbers 6: 24-26).

But for years, researchers doubted whether the “Ketef Hinnom amulets” — named for the place where they were discovered — were actually from that period, which would make them 400 years older than the Dead Sea Scrolls. They believed that the silver strips could have been written not in an archaic script, but an archaistic script — in other words, written in a way that made them look older than they actually were. The rest of the writing on the strips had corroded away with the silver, so scholars couldn’t read it clearly. And they weren’t even sure if the strips were amulets, which were usually worn as a sort of spiritual protection, or something else. Those scholars dated the silver as coming from the third or fourth century B.C.E. If that were the case, the strips would have been a less-important discovery in establishing the ancientness of the Bible’s language.

Recently, a team of Southern California researchers from the USC School of Religion-affiliated West Semitic Research Project (WSRP), an organization that photographs ancient artifacts so that scholars all over the world can study them, rephotographed the amulets using innovative lighting techniques that revealed more of the writing on them. Then, using computer imagery to analyze the writing on the strips and compare it with other writings of the period, proved that they are archaic, not archaistic, and the oldest-known citation of a biblical text. The scholars dated the strips as coming from the period just before the destruction of the first temple in 586 B.C.E., reestablishing the strips as, in words of one scholar, the “heavyweight champions of the [archeological] world.”

“We initially tried to photograph the objects conventionally, but it was clear that it was not going to work,” said Dr. Bruce Zuckerman, a professor of Semitic languages at USC, who is the project leader at WSRP.

Zuckerman explained that markings on the amulets were too small too be decipherable to the naked eye, which is why many photographs taken from different angles were needed to properly study them.

“We took picture in contrasting lights, then we would match them and superimpose them one on top of the other,” he said, referring to the way that some of the letters were visible from one angle, but not from another.

Zuckerman and his colleagues, Dr. Marilyn Lundberg of the WSRP and Dr. Andrew Vaughn, a biblical historian at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, also used a computer imaging technique they called “patching,” which took a piece of the writing that had been misaligned by the cracked silver and “patched” it into the place it was meant to be. They also studied similar writings from the period, which enabled them to recognize letters that were no longer whole, due to the age of the silver.

The team was able to decipher the preamble to the priestly blessing on the amulets, which read: “May he [or she] be blessed by God, the rescuer and the rebuker of evil.”

“It tells you without question that you are dealing with an amulet,” Zuckerman said. “And we were able to do a close comparison with equivalent inscriptions from that period and from the later periods. Basically, we believe that we decisively proved that what had originally been proposed was correct, these are the earliest citation of a biblical text. It reestablishes them as the heavyweight champions of the world.”

The scholars also worked with Dr. Gabriel Barkay, the archeologist at Bar Ilan University in Israel who discovered the amulets. Together they published their research in a CD form, in The Bulletin of American Schools of Oriental Research. Academic articles are traditionally published in paper journals, but the CD, which was published with the assistance of the Annenberg School of Journalism at USC, enabled the scholars to publish the photographs they took, as well as the digital imaging techniques, so that other scholars could assess them.

“It is really important to me that our common Jewish heritage is more fully explored — and when I say our common Jewish heritage, I don’t mean just for Jews,” Zuckerman said. “The Jewish heritage lies at the base of the great religions, and when one makes a small discovery like this, we’re doing something to further clarify the origins of the great religions.”

For more information on the project, visit www.usc.edu/dept/LAS/wsrp.

Kershaw Museum Plans Ethiopian Show


Timed to coincide with the Bowers Museum’s “Queen of Sheba” exhibit, the Kershaw Museum at Temple Beth El is organizing its own sampler exhibit of artworks by Jewish Ethiopians and Yemenites, who believe themselves to be the queen’s descendants.

The museum is seeking to borrow examples of Ethiopian and Yemenite art or artifacts from local collectors for possible exhibition, beginning Oct. 14. Descriptions and photos of the items should be submitted before Aug. 1 to Irene Breisacher, a volunteer at the Aliso Viejo synagogue, who is helping organize the exhibit.

“A lot of people went to Israel when the country was new and bought Yemenite art, but they didn’t tell you it was Yemenite,” said the museum’s director and founder, Norma Kershaw. “Ancient or modern, whatever people have” would be welcomed.

Typical works are silver Bible covers with fine filigree work. Ethiopian folk art is evident throughout Israel, produced by resettled Ethiopian Jews, who fled religious persecution and deteriorating economic conditions in their homeland en mass beginning in 1984.

Kershaw, who previously created exhibits on Chanukah and Israeli art with examples borrowed locally, hopes to fill three exhibit cases with at least 100 items. One person has offered Ethiopian costumes.

The exhibit’s logo is likely to be a pillow cover featuring King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, which Kershaw obtained recently in Los Angeles from an importer promoting modern folk art by Ethiopian Israelis.

The Bowers’ Sheba exhibit will open Oct. 17 and will feature 100 treasures, some from the first century, chosen from the vast collections of the British Museum.

As part of an archeology trip to Yemen in 1985, Kershaw said she looked without success for scientific evidence to support the biblical legend. According to legend, Sheba ruled an ancient kingdom that prospered as a trading crossroads between Jerusalem and the Roman Empire; she was seduced and married to King Solomon around 950 B.C.E.

Potential lenders should contact Irene Briesacher at
(949) 837-1005 or by e-mail, irene@fea.net before Aug. 1.