Herodion unveiled: the tunnels, baths, corridors, and courtyards of an ancient administrative center. Photos by David Blumenfeld
Herodion unveiled: the tunnels, baths, corridors, and courtyards of an ancient administrative center. Photos by David Blumenfeld

Encounters With an Ever-Present Past

Beginning with two weeks in Israel, a course on Holy Land archaeology explores the roots of controversies and competitions that have stretched over millennia.
April 1, 2010

In front of Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a cluster of Duke students consulted a good book—if not exactly the Good Book—as one of them read aloud: "One expects the central shrine of Christendom to stand out in majestic isolation, but anonymous buildings cling to it like barnacles. One looks for numinous light, but it is dark and cramped…. One desires holiness, only to encounter a jealous possessiveness: The six groups of occupants—Latin Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Syrians, Copts, Ethiopians—watch one another for any infringement of rights."

That disturbingly apt description came from The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide, by Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, the main text toted by students for a two-week study tour of Israel. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which sits on the spot where, according to some traditions, Jesus died and was buried, became the starting point for the students, just a couple of hours after their late-December flight to Israel.

Israel provided the prelude to a seminar that continues this spring on campus, "Holy Land Archaeology: Political and Religious Issues." A "semester-plus" experience that embeds students internationally is an educational innovation—made all the more appealing by the extending of financial aid toward the $3,000 program cost. The course centers on sites that, because of their location or their representation in ancient texts, are contentious.

Two longtime religion professors, Carol and Eric Meyers, are teaching the course with their Ph.D. student, Ben Gordon. Gordon has a master's from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, studied the Talmud and Bible in Jerusalem, worked as a translator and manuscript editor for the Israeli Antiquities Authority, and helped supervise archaeological excavations in Sepphoris, in Israel's Galilee region—where the Meyerses have long led excavations.

Their course enrolled nineteen students, mostly juniors and seniors and predominantly religion majors, along with one master of divinity student and one master of arts student. This was the first visit to Israel for almost all of the students; for at least one, it was the first time abroad.

Days typically began with breakfast at 7 o'clock (weekends included), were filled with visits to ancient sites (with accompanying lectures), and ended with after-dinner discussions. The required readings would have filled a thick notebook; every student was assigned to present supplementary material, usually in places relevant to the readings.

Many in the group are from strong Christian backgrounds. Still, they said they were drawn to a trip that hinged on critical assessment rather than a faith-based pilgrimage. That attitude flavored their experience in places like Nazareth Village, a re-created community that allows the visitor to "step into the life Jesus knew." The village is built on a patch of green in modern Nazareth. Actors dressed in period costumes work at the imagined first-century C.E. carpenter's workshop, an olive press, a weaver's space, and a donkey stable. In the "synagogue," one of the students was recruited to read the New Testament passage in which Jesus identifies with the Isaiah prophecies. Some found the whole setup hokey; others appreciated a New Testament version of Colonial Williamsburg.

In a distinctively Jerusalem juxtaposition, the students passed through a security screening to the Western Wall, a sacred site for Jews. It had been part of the perimeter wall for the foundation of King Herod's massive expansion of the Second Temple, later destroyed by the Romans during the first Jewish-Roman war in 70 C.E. From there, the students went through a different security screening and up to the Dome of the Rock, Islam's earliest major sanctuary, completed in 691 C.E. (Muhammad is thought to have ascended to heaven from the rock.) The Dome of the Rock is built on top of the destroyed temple. But a number of Muslim scholars don't accept the idea that the temple ever existed there. In 2000 a visit to the area by Ariel Sharon, then Israel's opposition leader, along with his armed accompaniment, was the sparkfor a Palestinian uprising.

Layers of controversy: The Western Wall visited by juniors Peter Farmer, left, and Grant Meeker.

Layers of controversy: The Western Wall visited by juniors Peter Farmer, left, and Grant Meeker.

That was far from the trip's only example of battling ideologies. Along the Golan Heights, bordering Syria, the Duke bus passed gun emplacements from the 1973 war. A stay in Haifa was introduced with a reference to Hezbollah missiles being hurled from nearby Lebanon in 2006. In Tiberias, the students learned that the local Arab population had been evacuated by British forces during the 1948 War of Independence and had never returned. Traveling to the Palestinian West Bank, as they did over several days, the students passed through border checkpoints; just beyond the checkpoints were graffiti reading "Free Palestine" and "To exist is to resist." A few blocks from where they were staying in Jerusalem, they walked by the prime minister's official residence and saw protests against a temporary crackdown on Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Signs declared, "We stand with Gilad Shalit," referring to a young Israeli soldier held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip since 2006.

So while the course was built on the events and artifacts of past millennia, students observed, inescapably, that a fraught history is reflected in today's fractious Holy Land.

Throughout the trip, the Meyerses and Gordon illuminated decades of archaeological experience: They told tales of biting scorpions, collapsing ladders, pressure groups trying to influence the presentation of artifacts, a run-in with a fox in an ancient water channel, and Eric Meyers' helping test voice projection at the Mount of Beatitudes—the site associated with Jesus' Sermon on the Mount.

A prominent biblical scholar, Carol Meyers has also worked on numerous archaeological field projects. One of her books, Discovering Eve, is a landmark study of women in ancient Israel. (During the trip, she talked about how the practice of making and distributing bread gave women considerable economic power in ancient cultures.) Her Women in Scripture is widely considered the most comprehensive study of women in Jewish and Christian scriptures. Eric Meyers, director of the Center for Jewish Studies in Duke's religion department, has directed digs in Israel for almost forty years. He was editor of the journal Biblical Archaeologist; wrote, among other books, the Cambridge Companion to the Bible; edited the five-volume Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East; and served as president of the American Schools of Oriental Research.

Both Meyerses have consulted for media productions, including A&E's Mysteries of the Bible, Dreamworks' Prince of Egypt, and the public-television series Civilization and the Jews. Recovering ancient civilizations through archaeological ruins, Carol Meyers said in Jericho, poses problems. "One important problem is that archaeology itself is destructive. In order to keep going down from one layer to the next, you have to be removing something. And then you're asking the question, Is that structure too important to be tearing it down?"

There are issues not just of how to present the past, but also of how to interpret it. In areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority, the interpreting was often minimal. One example was the ancient city of Samaria—reached through narrow, twisty streets that the bus gingerly negotiated—where the excavated Roman forum, theater, walls, and towers presented a forlorn picture. The Duke group encountered no other visitors except for a couple of Dutch missionaries and a local shopkeeper inexplicably sporting a boa constrictor around his neck.

In Jerusalem, Eric Meyers observed, "I love archaeology. I live my life in the dirt. But I can't forget that stones don't tell the entire story." Gordon offered another perspective as he was leading a discussion in Maresha, in the south of Israel, where students gamely descended into underground cisterns, tombs cut into the rock face, and a columbarium once used for raising pigeons. Given the gaps in the literary record, archaeology can "shed light on a dark age," Gordon said. Biblical literature, he added, "sometimes doesn't deliver the goods."

Layers of controversy: In Jerusalem, Carol Meyers and Ben Gordon take the lead around the Dome of the Rock.
Layers of controversy: In Jerusalem, Carol Meyers and Ben Gordon take the lead around the Dome of the Rock.

Even before the Jewish state was established in 1948, archaeology had become "the national pastime and obsession," Eric Meyers wrote in an article, "Archaeology and Nationalism in Israel: Making the Past Part of the Present," that was part of the students' assigned reading. "At the very core of Zionism is the belief, supported by archaeology, that Jews had lived in the land for at least 3,000 years, and hence were entitled to it."

The appropriating of archaeology works both ways. In the same article, Meyers mentions the published report of a mosaic discovered in Gaza. The description overlooked the mosaic's Hebrew inscription; the area of discovery was under Palestinian control, and one commentator quoted by Meyers singled out the account as symbolizing an effort to "de-Judaize Gaza."

On the trip, one guest speaker stood out for the students. Katia Cytryn-Silverman, a specialist in Islamic archaeology who immigrated to Israel from Brazil, teaches in the department of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and directs excavations in Tiberias. Cytryn-Silverman talked about "the unique position of Islamic archaeology in an Israeli nation." She mentioned difficulties in attracting funding, finding scholars who are able to bridge the cultural divide, and even earning status for the field within the academy.

Asked by a student how she deals with pressure to tell the story of the past from an Islamic perspective, she responded, "I try to be as neutral as possible. But what happens when you excavate a site so tightly connected to the Jewish past, and the Muslim past turns out to be nearly as glorious? Jewish patrons are not enthusiastic about funding the excavation of an early Islamic mosque in a Jewish town. Muslim patrons are not enthusiastic abound funding a Hebrew University excavation. It can be difficult."

According to Robert Wright, author of the new, critically acclaimed book The Evolution of God, there's a standard biblical version of early Israelite history: the Israelites escape slavery in Egypt, wander in the desert, and finally arrive at Canaan, the promised land. The Israelites march in, conquer Jericho with Yahweh's help, and then do likewise with a series of Canaanite cities. Wright quotes William Foxwell Albright, sometimes called the founder of biblical archaeology, as arguing, in his 1940 book, From the Stone Age to Christianity: Monotheism and the Historical Process, that artifacts unearthed in the Holy Land supported that picture: The backward-looking Canaanites were replaced by Israel, "with its pastoral simplicity and purity of life, its lofty monotheism, and its severe code of ethics."

Learning circle: Eric Meyers, Ben Gordon, and Carol Meyers, from left, gather students in Masada’s excavated synagogue.

Learning circle: Eric Meyers, Ben Gordon, and Carol Meyers, from left, gather students in Masada’s excavated synagogue.

Jericho, the lowest and the oldest town on Earth, where a massive defensive wall went up around 8,000 B.C.E., provided a setting for the Meyerses to challenge that statement. (It was also one of the places where Palestinian children, drawn to the novelty of visiting Americans, gathered to observe the Duke students observing the site.) Judeo-Christian tradition marks this as the place where the Israelites, led by Joshua, began their conquest of the land after escaping bondage in Egypt. As the Duke bus pulled up, Eric Meyers couldn't resist leading the students in singing "Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho."

But recent decades of archaeological research—including excavation of Jericho and other cities supposedly conquered by the Israelites—have failed to bolster "the narrative of conquest of the land," the Meyerses said. There isn't even much evidence of a slower, more peaceful influx of desert wanderers, a gradual displacement of Canaanites by Israelites. Wright observes in his book that "it looks more and more as if the Israelites were Canaanites" and not foreign invaders.

Jericho tapped into the occasional tension between biblical passages and archaeological findings. A visit to Jerusalem's so-called City of David, a curious agglomeration—much of it enveloped in scaffolding—of ancient massive foundations, crumbling stone walls rising several stories, and water networks that once supplied an underground reservoir, put the tension in even sharper relief. Eric Meyers called this arguably the largest—and the most politically charged—archaeological dig in the world. It's funded by a settlers' group called Elad (an acronym for "To the City of David"), which is committed to "Judaizing" Silwan, a mostly Arab neighborhood adjacent to Jerusalem's Old City; some of the excavation activity going on there has literally undermined Arab homes. On its website, Elad refers to the City of David as "the actual location of the Biblical City of Jerusalem captured by King David over 3,000 years ago," calls it the only place on Earth "where the only guidebook needed is the Bible itself," and claims that its founder was inspired in large part by "the longing of the Jewish People to return to Zion."

If David were shown to be a true historical figure, and if his palace in Jerusalem were to be revealed, that would "strengthen Jewish claims to a contested part of Jerusalem beyond its pre-1967 borders," as a recent Time account put it. In Jerusalem, the students' City of David tour was led by excavator Eilat Mazar, the granddaughter of Benjamin Mazar, one of the first officially recognized archaeologists in the new state of Israel. She talked excitedly about uncovering pottery shards that, she claimed, neatly tied together the local archaeology and the biblical narrative.

The Tel Dan Stele from northern Israel, discovered in the early 1990s, offered the earliest extra-biblical reference to the House of David. But no evidence positions David in any particular spot "along the continuum from tribal chieftains to mighty kings," one of the course readings noted. Based on construction techniques and pottery finds, many experts aren't convinced that the City of David excavations are actually from the time of David, the tenth century B.C.E. It's also by no means clear that David's palace is what was uncovered.

The case for the Dead Sea Scrolls in Qumran, where the students were almost overwhelmed by busloads of touring Nigerian Evangelicals, is clearer. Between 1947 and 1956, some 900 manuscripts packed in clay storage vessels were discovered in caves here by two Bedouin shepherds. More than 2,000 years old, the scrolls consist of texts from the Hebrew Bible, non-canonical psalms, and rules governing the community. A few days earlier, the students had seen the scrolls on display in the Israel Museum's Shrine of the Book, a building constructed in the shape of a huge ancient storage vessel and located next to the Israeli Knesset on "Parliament Hill"—a symbolic embrace by the modern Israeli state of what are, in essence, founding documents of the Jewish faith.

Rallying point: A class on—and in—Masada.

Rallying point: A class on—and in—Masada.

Archaeologists believe the scrolls were hidden away from the approaching Romans by the local inhabitants, the Essenes, members of a Messianic Jewish sect with a strict regimen that would influence Christian monastic communities. At the time of the discovery of the scrolls, the area was under Jordanian control; since the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, the Israeli Antiquities Authority has maintained jurisdiction. During the Duke trip, the media were reporting that Jordan's tourism minister wanted to regain possession of the scrolls, citing the 1954 Hague Convention that protects cultural property during armed conflict. The scrolls had just traveled to a Toronto museum, and the minister was asking Canadian officials to block their return to Israel.

As the students gathered alongside the ruined walls of Qumran's "scriptorium," where excavations uncovered writing tables and inkwells, Eric Meyers relayed a Duke connection to the Dead Sea Scrolls. Back in 1950, Duke was one of four stops on a U.S. tour for a visiting exhibition of some of the most important scrolls. Displayed under armed guard in Duke Chapel, they drew some 30,000 visitors. Reportedly, the university was invited to purchase three of the scrolls for $250,000; Duke officials turned down the offer.

A more recent and more somber history was presented as the students visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem, which derives much of its emotional power from suggestions of ordinary lives snuffed out—photos from the shtetls, diary pages, and piles and piles of shoes. A wall text says most Europeans, influenced by a long history of anti-Semitism, "reacted with apathy to the murder of Jews," even though Jews "had lived in their midst for centuries."

On-site history lesson: Eric Meyers gives an authoritative

On-site history lesson: Eric Meyers gives an authoritative overview of Herodion.

Eric Meyers talked about having attended a ceremony recognizing the parents of some friends included in the Yad Vashem "Righteous Among the Nations" project, which pays tribute to the non-Jews who helped Jews (in this case, thousands of children) during that dark time. His voice breaking, he sketched his personal Holocaust story through family members in Germany. The fate of his grandfather, a well-to-do textile manufacturer and music enthusiast, was never clear. His grandmother escaped and, after years as a displaced person, was reunited with her family. She would never say anything about what had happened, Meyers said.

Across thousands of years, there were emotional and ideological ties between Yad Vashem and Masada, an isolated rock cliff overlooking the Dead Sea. Most of the construction in Masada was carried out by King Herod, the great builder—and a great scoundrel, as Eric Meyers characterizes him, who acquired multiple wives and executed various family members. Herod ruled from 37 to 4 B.C.E. (The trip would take in other sites associated with Herod, including Herodion, which served as a summer palace, fortress, monument, district capital, and burial ground; and Caesarea, headquarters of the Roman government in Palestine and site of a huge artificial harbor and equally impressive amphitheater used for sporting events.)

After a steep uphill cable-car ride, the students worked their way through ancient storerooms, a bathhouse, ritual baths, a synagogue, and a defensive wall. Josephus Flavius, a first-century military leader and author of The Jewish War, reported that when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E., Masada filled up with refugees. According to Josephus' history, three or four years later, the defenders decided to commit suicide in the face of the invading Romans. He describes how the defenders killed family members, and then, "having chosen by lot ten of their number to dispatch the rest, they laid themselves down, each beside his prostrate wife and children, and flinging their arms around them, offered their throats in readiness." The Masada museum includes pottery shards, each one inscribed with the name of an individual—perhaps testifying to a grim fate driven by the drawing of lots.

Rallying point :Envisioning the Roman assault on Masada’s outer walls.

Rallying point: Envisioning the Roman assault on Masada’s outer walls.

But on the windswept edge of Masada, with a view that stretches into Jordan, the Meyerses cast doubt on the story of mass suicide. According to Jewish law, which calls for the shedding of blood only in self defense, that would be "the ultimate affront," said Eric Meyers. He added that the absence of physical evidence, namely skeletal remains, casts further doubt on the story. And he described the rallying cry of "Masada shall not fall again" as "an awkward metaphor" for a Jewish state that feels constantly besieged. Carol Meyers said Josephus' work "is not historiography in the modern sense," and that he would have had "no compunction about embellishment to get the point across." Modern interpreters have to grapple with the truth-bending conventions of ancient stories, she added.

Masada echoed in other ways for the Meyerses. The two had met when she was a senior at Wellesley College headed for a Ph.D. in biblical studies and he was doing a master's at Brandeis University (he went on to Harvard University for his Ph.D.). They were the only two students awarded fellowships at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. As part of the fellowship, they spent their first dig together in the Negev Desert. During the next academic year, in Jerusalem, they were students at the Hebrew University; over winter break, they both worked at the excavations in Masada. That was exactly forty-five years before they stood on the site with their Duke students.

Masada had an archaeological echo in Gamla, in the Golan Heights, another rebellious Jewish city overtaken by Roman forces. According to Josephus, the city, surrounded by cliffs, could only be accessed through a steep, winding trail—the same trail used by the students. The students walked into the ruins through piles of rubble—the precise point where the Romans
breached the city walls. Gamla supports Israel's largest nesting colony of birds of prey. In one patch of the brilliant, blue sky, students watched circling vultures; in another, they watched Israeli Air Force jets in training maneuvers.

Gamla overlooks the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel, an area that has strong drawing power for the Meyerses. For years they've been drawn to Sepphoris in particular, along the ancient roadway that linked the Mediterranean Sea with the city of Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee. With colleagues from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, they launched the Joint Sepphoris Project in 1985. Two years later, Thomas L. Friedman reported in The New York Times that the Meyerses' team had "discovered, in excellent condition, a 1,700-year-old mosaic that includes the stunning portrait of a woman who is being called the 'Mona Lisa of Roman Palestine.' "

As Carol Meyers recalled the nerve-racking process of packing it in a layer of gauze and rolling it up to be sent off for restoration, the students surrounded the mosaic. It's now reinstalled in the reception-hall floor of the palatial Roman-era building, whose original function is obscure. In Sepphoris' small museum, the students crowded around images of the Meyerses excavating there in the 1980s; the students avidly took photos of the photos.

Sepphoris provided a good lesson in how archaeologists reveal a city's Jewish character. On the site, the Meyerses pointed to the prevalence of ritual baths, structures determined to be too small for hygienic bathing but perfectly suited to ritual immersion. They mentioned the recovered fragments of stone vessels (considered enduringly pure in Jewish tradition) and the absence of pig bones (avoiding consumption of pork conformed to biblical dietary laws). And they debunked a theory that considers the city to have been a Gentile Hellenistic center in the first century C.E. That view, unsupported by either archaeology or research on the culture of Galilee at the time of Jesus, has led to claims that the Hebrew language and literature and Jewish culture were not prime influences on Jesus, who is thought to have visited the city. From there, said the Meyerses, it's a quick and unfortunate leap to denying Jesus' Jewish roots.

As they took the leap across 6,000 miles and a couple of millennia and returned to campus in mid-January, the students were resigned to forgoing their Mediterranean staples of falafel, hummus, and shawarma, a wrap of shaved lamb or turkey bathed in meat juices. But they outdid their peers with New Year's Eve memories: a five hour Arab meal in Bethlehem, complete with plastic Santa Clauses, a DJ spinning Arab tunes at a deafening volume, an impromptu chorus of "Jingle Bells" in Arabic, a rousing group sing of "Happy Birthday" in English, a gyrating conga line, and midnight hugs across generations and ethnicities.

At their first on-campus course meeting, one of the students said he was "surprised at how in Israel the past reaches out to the present in such a visible and tangible way." A second said it was eye-opening to learn about the divide between biblical "maximalists" and "minimalists" among scholars—those who look to the Bible as illuminating archaeology and those who consider it fantasy. A third remarked on what it's like to get to know a subject by actually experiencing the space. There's no comparison with merely observing it as a tourist or seeing it represented in a textbook, she said. Another noted how frequently the Duke group encountered religious-pilgrimage and Zionist-youth groups. How different it was, she said, to be looking at ancient sites—places of enduring religious and ideological significance—guided by scholarly skepticism.

And there was praise for the Duke group dynamics. Many of the students, even those with previous study-abroad credentials, found it remarkable that none of their peers complained about the workload or the stresses of long days. It was a group that, even to an outside observer, was unfailingly engaged and good-humored.

Some thought back to their last day in Israel. Along a Tel Aviv beach, they had been treated to a fiery, Turneresque sunset—streaks of reds and oranges above the blue-green Mediterranean. It was an evocative end-of-trip metaphor for the Holy Land itself: something both marking time and timeless; something at once fragile and fraught.