The Final Trip to the Old City and the Tunnels

My appointment for the tour of the Western Wall tunnels was finally confirmed…only 7 hours after the time that I requested. This meant that I needed to be in the Old City in the evening. Bearing this in mind, I took it easy yesterday morning.

Early in the afternoon I set out to the Old City again. I went in through the Jaffa Gate, in order to make sure that I got in with no problems. From there I immediately set out through the Armenian Quarter, wandering through a couple of tunnels and trying not to get run over by taxis (whom I insistently told that I did not want to go to Bethlehem). There really wasn’t much to see in the Armenian Quarter; most everything was behind large stone walls. From there I continued on to the Zion Gate, insisting that I didn’t need a private tour guide for any of this. I made my way to the Dormition Church, but I didn’t wander through (I did visit the gift shop), but in retrospect I should have. Then I made my way over to David’s Tomb, which of course is not really David’s Tomb. There was a whole boatload of soldiers there, so I didn’t go in. I did get to snap a picture of David in all his glory though:

From there it was back through the Zion Gate and along the city wall down to the Western Wall (“No, thank you, I really don’t want to go to Bethlehem”). I just wanted to confirm that they would be running the tour so late and where I need to be in order to go on the tour. First I went back to the wall for a bit and then found my tour. I was pretty excited about it.

Then I grabbed a late lunch at Al Buraq (which is the name of Muhammad’s flying horse that he supposedly rode from Jerusalem to heaven), a cafe just north of the Western Wall. For the first time here I ate Shwerma (it was excellent). While there I met a German girl from Wuppertal, who’s studying in Berlin, but doing a practicum in Tel Aviv. She was headed to the Western Wall to snap some photos, so I told her I’d walk that way with her, since I was going to the City of David on the south side of the Old City. While on the way to the City of David, however, I got distracted and went into the archaeological park there. It turned out to be way bigger than I thought it was going to be. It was a great experience and worth every cent. I could have spent much more time there, but I wanted to get to the City of David before nightfall. Here are just some of the things I got to see in the archaeological park:

The little outcropping here is Robinson’s Arch, named after the American archaeologist who discovered it. If you’re anything like me, you’re wondering, how does someone discover this huge stone outcropping 10 meters up in the air. After some consideration, I thought maybe he was the first person to recognize it for what it was: a supporting arch for the massive staircase leading up to Herod’s Temple. Sure that sounds perfectly plausible. This whole area was buried under junk for centuries though. Only recently have people begun clearing it away. That is, coincidentally, how the Dung Gate got its name: from all the trash piled up here. In the Byzantine era, the spiritual center of town moved from the Temple Mount to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. You see, these Christians didn’t pay heed to the Temple Mount and viewed its destruction at the hands of the Romans as a sign of Christianity’s victory over Judaism. As the Romans had really dismantled the temple, leaving just piles of stones they cast down, the Christians just continued the process in the most logical manner and began filling it with trash. The stones the Romans cast down can still be seen.

You can compare them with the people standing next to them. They are pretty big stones and must have taken some effort to cast down and presumably even more effort to set up in the temple in the first place. Also from this perspective, I was able to snap a shot of something important to the Muslims: The two holes in the stone on the left. This is one of the corner stones where the south wall meets with west wall (these walls are of course the retaining walls built by Herod the Great to expand the temple acropolis in Jerusalem). According to a Muslim tradition, these holes are where Muhammad tied up his horse Al Buraq on the night of his ascension. So, they had a practical purpose for the prophet of Islam. While there was lots more to see at the park, I won’t bore you with all of the details.

After a long while wandering around there, I noticed that it was starting to get dusky, so I figured I better make my way over to the City of David before it got to late. What I really wanted to see there was the Siloam pool, where according to biblical tradition, Hezekiah made a tunnel in order to provide the people of Jerusalem with water in the event of an Assyrian siege (which he was anticipating). Actually, I really wanted to walk through the tunnel, but as I didn’t have the appropriate shoes with me, I was going to skip that on this trip. On the way down there I saw ads for a touring company that provides you with waders and everything. Oh well, I know it now for next time. Once I arrived at the entrance to the City of David, I notice a huge number of police with their lights flashing. Well, I decided that was a sign and just left it at that. I wasn’t so intent on seeing it that I was willing to put myself at risk, even if this risk was only a phantom. I didn’t want to go there if anything was potentially going down. That meant that I had some time to kill before the tour that evening. I didn’t know what to do to kill that time though.

I made my way back to the Western Wall, as I noticed that tons of people were coming there to welcome the new day (in the Jewish tradition, the day begins at sundown; cf. Genesis 1: It was evening and it was morning; the first day). So I sat down there and did some reading. After a little while the minarets began their evening calls to prayer; so while I watched the Jews praying at the wall, I listened to the minarets of Al-Aqsa calling the faithful Muslims to prayer. After a while, I was freezing, so I went back to Al Buraq and had a late coffee and some Baklava. Then I headed into the Old City a bit again to see what it was like at night. It was dark and pretty well abandoned, though some people still had their stores open and were playing games and such. They immediately tried to sell me everything that they had. Of course, I wasn’t interested, but they didn’t seem to care. After a while of wandering and seeing just how many police and soldiers were there, I made my way back to the Western Wall. I got my ticket for the tour and sat down to read again for a few minutes before it started. Then I went back to the Wall itself, where I managed to get (unintentionally) wrapped up in some Jewish prayer. There was a group of men praying together. One would pray (it was amazingly fast) and the others would respond; and then it would start over. It was like a chorus and a refrain, then a bridge, where the whole group would pray something very fast together. After that, I was ready for the tour of the tunnels.

This series of tunnels run underneath the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem and follow the length of the Western Wall, eventually going on into an old aqueduct from the Hasmonean period. It is an incredible sight to wander through these tunnels. Plus you get to see some exceptional things from a religious standpoint.

The picture on the right is the point that is closest to the Holiest of Holies of the second temple. While there are usually people praying there, we had it all to ourselves (on the way back through, it was full of such people). About 90m behind that wall was the location of the Holiest of Holies in Herod’s refurbished temple. Because of the Dome of the Rock sitting on the site today, this is the closest that Jews can get to pray. This was probably about halfway through the tour. We continued on for a while until we got the aqueduct.






So the picture’s a little out of focus, but I had to take it on the run. We were on the move and I didn’t really have time to stop and set up the shot. You can see just how tall the walls are by comparing them to the pedestrians walking in front of me. Keep in mind that above us are the shops and houses of the Muslim Quarter, which was built right up against the Western Wall. Must of the time the tunnels were tall, but sometimes we did have to crouch a bit and watch our heads. We wandered through theses tunnels for a while, and eventually came into the cisterns that still naturally collect rain water under the city. The whole time we were in there, water kept dripping from the ceiling and getting us wet. That was where the tour ended.

Normally, we could exit at that point onto the Via Dolorosa, which was my plan, as I could then take in a couple of sites on that route that I had missed up to that point, such as the Ecce Homo Basilica and the Damascus Gate. However, due to the late hour and security concerns, the gate that let us out that way had been closed, meaning that we had to return the length of the tunnels again and exit at the Western Wall. While I had originally planned on exiting the Old City from the Damascus Gate and walking back to my hotel (about 15 Minutes by foot), I was now going to have to take a taxi or wander all the way back through the Old City to the Jaffa Gate, as there were no sidewalks on the street going west from the Dung Gate. I made my way out and found some taxis (actually, someone had already called me). I went over and said that I would like to go my hotel and asked if he would use the meter. “Lot of traffic, 40 Shekel.” “Will you use the meter?” His boss, who was standing there, translated. “40 Shekel.” Aha. “Can I get a receipt?” “45 Shekel.” At that point I left. I mean there are way too many taxis in Jerusalem for me to have to put up his shenanigans. After I walked of, his boss ran up to me, said he would use the meter and give me a receipt. Amazing how that works.

He drove me back to the hotel (and he made some wrong turns, which made it a little more expensive) and when we arrived the meter was at just over 30 Shekels. I gave him 35 and told him good night. Hopefully he will remember this. I mean, I am someone who doesn’t mind giving tips for good service, but I feel that it is up to me to decide how much extra I give. The people here see it as their job to try and rip you off for as much as they can. I mean, that one taxi driver felt that for his bad attitude and ass-hattery that he deserved 15 Shekel extra. That’s a bit of money…a tip of 50%. Maybe they would make more money if they would treat people with respect and treat them fairly. They would get more customers if people trusted them. And if they did good work and made good impressions (instead of the impression that they are going to rob you as soon as you turn your back, if you’re lucky; often they give you the impression they are robbing you right in front of your eyes) they would probably get better tips. It doesn’t make a good impression on customers to have a hearty laugh with your colleagues right after they have paid. At any rate, I made it back to hotel and settled in for the night, eating some dinner and packing my bag. Then I passed out trying to read. It had been a long day, and a long week, with lots of wandering and physical activity. All things considered, it was a great time.

Now I am waiting for my Sherut to the airport to catch my flight. I will most likely be there way too early, but it’s better that way than to have to rush everywhere. I am looking forward to being back in Germany, where the prices are what they are, and while the customer service people generally aren’t friendly, they aren’t robbing you. When I arrive tonight I will most likely be utterly exhausted, but it will be a great feeling of exhaustion. I’m looking forward to it.

Shopping in Jerusalem

A quick aside before the real entry: Something I discovered last night: not all banks accept all credit cards here for withdrawals. After trying to get cash three times last night and this morning, I was finally able to ask what was up in the bank. They told me that they (Discount) only accept Visa. If I wanted to use my MasterCard, I would have to walk another 500 meters uphill both ways to get the Bank HaPoalim, where I could use my MasterCard. Beyond this, not every bank even has an ATM or a possibility for getting money. Pretty amazing. Learn from my suffering and spare yourself.

Three major groups fill the streets of Jerusalem: the Jews, the Christians, and the Muslims. Shopping with each of them provides an experience in and of itself.

The Christians are probably the most laid-back, and therefore I have the least experience with them. Wandering through the Christian Quarter of the Old City is a quieter experience than going through the other quarters. Mostly, the shopkeepers just sit there and keep watch. They sell a variety of merchandise, and as you closer to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the holier it becomes. The love to sell things like olive oil and little vials of holy water. Candles can be found in any shape and size and with any picture of Jesus you could want on it. They also seem to do the least business. Usually their prices are marked, but they may be flexible.

While shopping with the Jews (I haven’t done this in the Old City, because I haven’t come across many Jewish salespeople there), the prices are clearly visible and reasonable. Often they have things that you don’t necessarily need, but may want. What you see pretty often, at least in the area of town where I am staying, is lots of silver and gold anything – especially Judaica: menorahs, pesach plates, etc. I can’t afford any of this stuff, so I haven’t really been shopping there. Once I finally found a grocery store here, I found shopping it a rather relaxing experience and was even successful finding everything that I needed.

The Muslims probably do the most business here. In the Old City, they grab hold of you and harangue you, refusing to let you leave until they have all of your money. They mostly want to sell you anything that is worthless; if they sell you something worth $0 for $200, they make more than if they sell you something worth $0.50 for $200. This way, they make the most profit. An example story may help illustrate what I mean:

Yesterday I finally got around to buying postcards to send to family and colleagues. While at a Muslim shop right at the Jaffa Gate in the Old City, I found a couple of cards that were acceptable. I enquired about the price: 2 Shekels per card (about 50 cents each), that is 10 Shekels total. Before I could even ask if they sold stamps, the shopkeeper told me that they had stamps available and would be happy to sell them to me. The shopkeeper then left me in the care of his apprentice (?) salesman, a boy about 12 years old, who should sell me the stamps and collect the money, while the shopkeeper presumably went back out to harangue more people. The youth pulled out 5 stamps, 4.60 Shekels each, totaling 23 Shekels. Then he gave me the combined price of stamps and postcards: 10+23=50 Shekels. Of course I called shenanigans, saying that 10+23=33, not 50. He was then kind enough to tell me that the value on the stamps wasn’t their actual value. They were worth more than was printed on them. Well, I told him he was full of bullshit and that I would just take the postcards and go. He obliged. I then went to the post office (across the street) and ordered the stamps: 3 for Germany (4.60 each), 1 for USA (6.70), 1 for Australia (6.50) and paid exactly the total: 27 Shekels. No problem. What this means is that the little Muslim boy wasn’t even selling me the right stamps for what I needed. Rather, he was just going to give the stupid white person the European stamps and be done with it, knowing good and well that the other postcards would never arrive. The Muslim salespeople always seem to think that they are smarter than you and that you will buy anything they have to offer.

They never have prices on anything. The reason for this is that the price for everything starts just below infinity dollars and then moves down from there. Say you want to buy a bracelet with some gold in it: starting price $450,000. You try to bargain him down, but his final offer is still $1,200, which is still too much. You change your mind and try to buy another bracelet, this time with no especially valuable metals in it. Starting price: $500,000. You ask why this one is worth more than the other, even though it is made of aluminum and the other was gold. Well, the second, he replies is made by hand and required a lot of work. Aha.

They also love to try to sell you unprovenanced antiquities, which are illegal to take out of the country without certification from an authorized dealer. Of course they don’t tell you this because by the time you get in trouble for it, they have already charged your credit card 3 times more than you were supposed to pay for it. You are on your way out of the country and lose both the merchandise and the money. Everybody’s happy. Especially frequent are dealers selling “ancient” coins and stones “from Solomon’s mines”. I am assuming that most of these are a rip, even though I am not a geologist. When I went looking for ostraka (pottery shards that were used as cheap writing material – like paper – in antiquity) nobody has them. I think this is at least partly because they know that anyone who knows enough to look for these kind of items will generally be able to spot a fake, and therefore is not as easy to rob. Therefore the market is not lucrative enough and they will just keep fleecing John Q. Tourist. They also love to try to sell you anything made of olive wood. Why? Well Jesus was crucified on olive wood, of course! What, you didn’t know this? For this reason, all olive wood in Israel is the same as the cross of Christ, and at least 3 times as expensive.

A general rule when shopping in the Old City here: never, ever pay what they want. Only pay what you want or just leave. Also, always check to make sure you will have all of your valuables when you leave the store. Police are generally not far away, should the need arise. I think today I may go down there and try to sell them some things. I have some napkins that I got free with my meal; they must be worth at least $1000 each in the Old City. For my empty Coke bottle I could probably ask about $3000. I mean, the writing on it is in Hebrew, and Jesus knew Hebrew, therefore this is Jesus’ Coke bottle. That makes it virtually priceless and $3000 is a steal, when you think of it this way. Maybe I’ll give that a try…

Return to the Old City and the Search for Zion

This morning I try to sleep in, since I started to develop kind of a cold last night and didn’t sleep well. Today I was even debating whether or not to go out of the hotel, but I did eventually drag myself out and made my way back to the Old City. I was actually looking for Zion and I saw it, but I didn’t get to climb it. I am going to try again tomorrow. Usually I am really good with orientation and directions, but the maps of Jerusalem are just flat out wrong. You follow the street where it should lead you, but all the sudden you are standing in front of a wall and can’t go any further. It’s really annoying. This led me astray in the Jewish Quarter today, where I received unwelcoming looks from lots of Jewish children. For every kilometer you walk, you’ll have to walk 2-3 back in order to get where you want to go. Because of this, I didn’t make it onto the temple mount today, as was my plan. Oh well. Maybe tomorrow. At any rate, here is Zion:

Since I couldn’t make it to Zion and the Kidron Valley and the other sites that I sought this morning, I redid some of what we saw on the tour in a little more detail. I went back to the Western Wall (where I have a tour booked tomorrow evening in the tunnels below it) and had some quiet time there, before doing a bit of shopping in the Muslim Quarter (they will do their best to rob you; see below). After that I wandered around to no avail looking for the Church of the Holy Sepulcher again. Once I finally found it, I went in again to see the sights personally, but didn’t take any pictures, since I don’t really find that necessary. It was much nicer this time and there were fewer crowds. So, I took my time there. After that, I headed back to the hotel to take it easy for the rest of the day, as I still am not feeling especially good. I may try to find a supermarket and a pharmacy. Plus I need to find a bank, one that actually has an ATM. This is something that we apparently take for granted…that you can access your money at a bank. It is also next to impossible to find practical stores here. You can buy junk, anything made of silver or gold, but nothing to eat. Maybe that’s why they’re healthier here.

There was one picture that I had to take today. It is a follow-up to the picture of the impression of Jesus’ hand in the wall. At the site of the crucifixion, you can see part of the rock of Golgotha. In this rock, there is a large crack, which they attribute to the blood of Christ, which fell on the rock and then split it. Combined with the impression of his hand in the wall as shown the other day, and the Russian Orthodox Church where they have his footprint engraved in stone from the Ascension, one gets an incredibly violent picture of the prince of peace. I mean, the man broke stone all the time by touching it. That sounds kind of suspicious for someone so moved by love and peace. Just something to think about I suppose.

Well, I am about to sign off for the day and maybe take a look around if I can find a grocery store and a pharmacy somewhere in the vicinity. Maybe I’ll be able to publish more tomorrow, but we’ll just have to see…

The Tel Dan Inscription

Well, this morning I finally made it to the object of my journey today: the Tel Dan Inscription. It was quite a bit different than I had expected, but it was a great experience. Some of the details:

My appointment with the curator was at 8am, which meant that I needed to get up earlier than I have been. Plus I needed to shave. After breakfast, I was off to the Israel Museum via taxi. The driver was Israeli, which meant he didn’t ask me if I wanted to go to Bethlehem (I have since found out that Israelis are not allowed in Bethlehem) and that he used the meter at my request. The fare was about the same as it had been when I just paid the 50 Shekels (I saved about 5 Shekels). Because of my tardiness in getting out of the hotel in time and the bad traffic, I was running a little bit late. I called the curator and he told me that his assistant would meet me at the security gate. She was already there waiting and took me to the inscription right away.

It looked a bit different than I had thought it would look. It was almost impossible to read it in the lighting that they had there. So, I asked for a flashlight, and she quickly brought me one. In the meantime I climbed over the security gate, after getting permission to do so. This permission presumably hadn’t been universally approved however, as shortly afterwards, someone came to ask me what the hell I thought I was doing going over the security barrier. Just in time the right people came back and prevented me from getting arrested or something. I didn’t think that it would be a problem at all actually, since the museum is closed on Tuesday morning. No matter, I was there doing my work, checking out the problems that I had researched in the past few days. I was able to verify some of the readings that I had, but also able to disprove some of the readings of others. So that was a big success in my book. The research element became a bit problematic when a whole boatload of school children showed up in the museum to eat breakfast. That meant that I was setting a bad example for them, having climbed over the security barrier. Oh well…hopefully the corruption won’t be permanent.

After finishing up my work on the inscription, I was invited to come back into the storage rooms where the artifacts are being kept while the museum is under construction. I also assume that many of the things there will not be put out on display. I really wanted to take pictures, but this isn’t allowed by the Israeli Antiquities Authority, as not all of the objects there have been published yet. It was pretty cool to look at all of this ancient stuff. They showed me some of the Samaria Ivories and some other great stuff from eighth century Israel. They also hooked he up with some other scholars I should visit while I’m here. That’s why I made my way over to the Hebrew Union college, where I got an appointment to see the material from Tel Dan. It was also pretty cool. They also had a copy of the Tel Dan Inscription, which was incredibly consistent with my reading. On the way back to the hotel, I walked past the YMCA:

The YMCA in Jerusalem

So that was pretty much my day today. Now I’m back at the Hotel trying to get some work done, typing the inscription while I still have the information fresh in my memory. This afternoon, I may make my way down to the sauna here in the hotel, especially since the weather isn’t that good again today. They are saying that it may rain again, like it did yesterday. Hopefully, I’ll be able to get some work done efficiently…

Jerusalem and the Dead Sea

This morning I was really looking forward to my tour of Jerusalem and the trip to the Dead Sea that was to follow. I got up and got going to meet the tour bus at 8:30. I ended up waiting until 8:50 when a taxi came to pick me up. There was some confusion about whose cab it was, as another guy was also waiting for a different tour from the same company. Once it was finally settled that it was my cab, we were off to another hotel to get split up into our buses for all of the different destinations. I was in a tour bus with two other Americans, a Hungarian-Romanian with his German-Romanian wife, and a heap of Italians. We were touring the Old City, but before that we went up to Mount Scopus and then to the Mount of Olives.

  This is the view of Jerusalem from Mount Scopus.

After we finished looking over the city, we drove around to gain access to the Old City, more specifically to the Wailing Wall. While on the way there we drove past Gethsemane where I was able to get a couple of pictures of it. Here you can see a Roman Catholic Church in the bottom right corner. Behind and above it to the right, you can see the Russian Church where the Russian Orthodox Church believes that Jesus ascended to Heaven. While the other Christian Churches all put this on top of the Mount of Olives, the Russians put it here. They claim that there is a footprint of Jesus where he ascended. This sounds curiously like the claim of the Muslims that there is a footprint of Muhammad under the Dome of the Rock where he ascended to Heaven to have his vision.

So after a short drive with our tour guide Ossi, we had finally made our way to the Wailing Wall. I have way too many pictures of this to put them all up here, but I thought that I would at least put up two of them:

The Wailing Wall

Bar Mitzvah

From there we went through part of the Jewish Quarter into the Muslim Quarter. The security getting in and out of the Wailing Wall was pretty intense. There were lots of soldiers with machine guns and metal detectors between the Jewish and Muslim Quarters. The transition between the two Quarters was pretty shocking. One minute you see Israeli soldiers in their uniforms and Hasidic Jews and children at their Bar Mitzvahs, and then you see the men in their head scarves and the women in their Burqas, although this was pretty rare. It was surprising how quickly one moved from one region to the next. Eventually we made our way to the Via Dolorosa, where we had the opportunity to see Christ’s hand imprinted in the wall. We were assured that it was Christ’s hand because of the cross imprinted in it. That way we could be sure that it was his and definitely wasn’t a fake. We went through the stations of the cross, well at least most of them. While in this process, we were approached by a whole variety of people trying to sell us junk. The tour guide asked us not to shop with these people, since he would take us to a bazaar. He delivered on this promise and they eventually walked us into a really expensive store selling all kinds of religious paraphernalia, whether Jewish or Christian. They had things like ancient Roman coins, which they then encased in a little gold and glass frame. This made it cost even more. We were also informed of the tradition of buying an artifact and then putting it on the stone where Jesus’ body where prepared for burial and then taking a picture of it. I commented that this is an ancient tradition, going back to at least the 1970’s, when people started carrying cameras with them. The Catholics went to town, buying anything they could get their hands on. Well, maybe they weren’t all Catholic, but they were at least Italian.

After lunch at a restaurant they picked out for us (it was a little more expensive than the one I ate at the day before), they took us to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It was a pretty amazing experience, but I have to admit that I felt more connection to the Kotel (Wailing Wall) than I did to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. There were way more pilgrims at the church though, at least as far as I could tell. The church is medieval construction based on the “research” of Constatine’s mother, Helena. After it was destroyed by the Persians in the early 7th century, it was rebuilt. The current form of the church goes back to the late 11th century, to the crusaders. Here are some pictures of the experience:

Pilgrims at the site of the cross

Pilgrims waiting to get into the site of the grave

Pilgrims at the stone where Jesus was prepared

From there we walked back to the bus and prepared to separate our paths and head to our next destinations. Most of our group was headed to Bethlehem, but one American, Kristin and I were headed to the Dead Sea. The tour guide took us to a taxi. Based on my experiences in the morning, I figured they were going to take us to the bus where the rest of the people were going to the Dead Sea. After cruising past the border and driving through the Palestinian area of Jerusalem, it became pretty clear that we weren’t going to meet up with a bus. It was just the two of us off to the Dead Sea. Turns out Kristin was a professional volleyball player in Russia and also played for the US national team. She looks like she could be a professional volleyball player. At any rate, we were off to the Dead Sea and stopped a couple of times to get some pictures on the way. Oh yeah, we got to see something that most tourists don’t get to see: it was raining in the Judean Desert and at the Dead Sea.

The Judean Desert


With our tour guide/taxi driver Hassan

One of these is Gatorade, the other is water from the Dead Sea. Guess which is which.

While at the Dead Sea, I made a couple of important discoveries. Actually I was told about this in advance, but since I’m a slow-learner, I had to experience it myself to make sure that it was true. Water from the Dead Sea tastes terrible and really burns your eyes. Don’t get it in them. It is a bad idea. The water was much rougher than I had expected, but that may have been connected with the rainy weather. There were whitecaps on some of the waves, which made it even harder to avoid getting water in your eyes and in your mouth. It was great though.

There was no one else there initially. After while, a group of American Christians on a church retreat showed up, but they kept to themselves and stayed away from us. As we were leaving the water, a group of Italian Goths showed up. Then just before we left the beach, a big group of people showed up. I don’t know what kind of group they were, but they looked conservative, heads covered and such. But we were on our way out, so I didn’t bother to investigate more. They had showers and locker rooms and stuff there, so I could wash off before we headed back. It was tough getting all of the salt off. One reason for this is that I forgot to bring any kind of soap or shower gel with me. Take note and if you go, be sure to take that with you. We left the Dead Sea at about 16:30 after having a couple of hours there. We met up with all of the others at a gas station on the way back to Jerusalem. Kristin headed back to Tel Aviv with the others in a big bus, whereas I continued on with Hassan back to Jerusalem with a couple of others. I got back about 17:30 and just had a quiet evening, digesting the events of the day. I had to grab another shower to get rid of the saline stink on my skin. But my skin felt great, whether after bathing in the sea, doing the mud bath, or rinsing off afterwards. It was a great day, maybe one of the best I’ve had. Now I’m really looking forward to the rest of the week. Oh yeah, the bottle on the left is the water from the Dead Sea. The other is the Gatorade.

The Israel Museum and a First Glimpse of the Old City

This morning I woke up early to make sure that I would be able to get to the Israel Museum by the time that it opened at 10am. After getting up about 7:30 and taking a shower, I went down to get breakfast. It was a great buffet with a variety of eastern foods (cheese from sheep and goats; helva; salads and vegetables; fish) and breads, as well as some typically western items like eggs. There was no meat, presumably to prevent anyone from eating anything that wasn’t kosher. While you eat they have live piano music and you can have champagne and some good fresh fruit juices. I tried to eat a heavy breakfast in order to skip or postpone lunch in the hope of saving some money. It was really good and I am already looking forward to it again tomorrow. After a good breakfast I was ready to head out.

The first hurdle then became how to get to the museum. In keeping with Oriental tradition, especially in hotels of the moderate to expensive range, they told me to take a taxi. When I asked about how to get there by bus, they didn’t know. That was kind of frustrating, but I figured I’d give it a try. Then I reconsidered. I decided I would go ahead and take the taxi waiting at the hotel. At the reception desk, they told me that a taxi to the museum would cost about 35 Shekels. So I hopped into the cab and we were off. After telling the driver I wanted to go to the Israel Museum, he asked “Would you like to go to Bethlehem” on the (accurate) presumption that I was Christian. I thanked him and declined his offer. Once I got to the museum, the driver told me it would cost 60 Shekels. The meter still said 0, since he hadn’t bother to start it. I told him that at the hotel they told me it would cost about 35 Shekels, which he jovially laughed off as a silly error on their part, and then quickly agreed to take 50 (I think he saw the police eying us). I got a receipt and got out of the cab, excited to finally see this inscription that I have read so much about.

I had arrived there a little early and decided to use the remaining time to review some of the material in the Tel Dan Inscription (the reason that I am in Jerusalem right now) before I got to see the actual artifact. You see, this is displayed in the Israel Museum, which is under construction right now. In spite of this construction, I was informed that the Inscription was on display in another portion of the museum. Having reviewed the book by George Athas, I was ready to examine the questionable portions of the Inscription.

When the museum opened, I bought my ticket (you get to pay the same price even though most of the museum is closed for renovation) and headed in to get my audio guide and go right out to the model of Jerusalem, reconstructed as it appeared in 66 CE. Here’s a photo looking at the reconstruction from what would have been the Mount of Olives:

Clearly you can see the temple in the middle. Also, the giant Japanese women in the background. The city looks pretty sparsely populated in the north, which can be seem from all of the space on the right side of the photo. I was wondering how they came up with this reconstruction, and fortunately I was able to satisfy that thirst for knowledge. The sources used for this reconstruction were literary (the Gospels, the Mishnah, etc.), archaeological, and comparative (i.e. they compared it to other ancient medieval Mediterranean cities that they have unearthed. This variety of sources unfortunately makes the reliability of such a construction somewhat improbable (they can’t really dig much in Jerusalem and the Gospels aren’t always really clear on where things are located), but it was at least nice to see such an extensive attempt. What one must commend is well is their pursuit to continue to update the model as they find more information. This is truly worthy of praise. However, since this model wasn’t really the main reason of my visit, I quickly moved on to the next area: the Shrine of the Book.

The Shrine of the Book houses the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Aleppo Codex (the oldest complete [at least it was complete until Arabs destroyed parts of it when Israel became a state in 1948] Hebrew manuscript of the Bible). The Dead Sea Scrolls are probably pretty well known by now, and I had seen them once before when they came through North Carolina. At any rate, it was nice to see the examples they have on display here. The only biblical texts they had on display were a copy of the Isaiah scroll and a portion of Leviticus as recounted in the Greek tradition of the Septuagint. The Aleppo Codex was on display and open to the Book of Job, but I didn’t take time to find out exactly which chapter and verse. Seeing such amazingly old materials is always very exciting for me and I was thrilled to take about an hour and really look into the material. They also had some small displays on making parchment and other such fun things. This picture is the rough of the dome where the scrolls are on display. It was shaped to look like one of the lids of the clay jars in which the scrolls were found. In this vein, the Isaiah scroll is displayed on a giant reconstructed scroll. The handle on the top of the “scroll” was probably 1.5m tall.

After that, it was off to the Youth Section, where I had been told the Tel Dan Inscription was on display. It was not. When I got there, the workers looked at me like I was crazy, and all said, “uh, didn’t they tell you at the desk that this section was closed?” When I told them what I wanted, they didn’t really seem to be of the opinion that what I sought was available at all. I really have to wonder what this is going to mean for my appointment on Tuesday, and if I will actually be able to see this thing or if the whole trip was for naught.

Basically what this meant is that my plans for the day were frustrated, so I hand nothing planned to do. Because of the great weather, I decided that I would try to head down to the Old City and spend some time there. After finally getting some instructions as to how I could get somewhere in the approximate area via bus, I was off. I got out at Ben Yehudah St. and walked east through a shopping district to Jaffa St. (which was entirely under construction) and then south to the Jaffa Gate into the Old City. Located there is a tourist information booth. Hoping that they could give me a map of the bus lines, I entered. After waiting for some unkempt American youths (who had even less of a clue what was going on than I did), I got the chance to ask about my bus routes. “It doesn’t exist,” the woman answered with a big smile. What a pisser. Oh well, to Hell with it. As soon as I entered the gate (even before I made it into the tourist information booth), I had been approached by a man who assured me that he wasn’t a tour guide, but would love to show me his shop. After I refused him three times, he left me alone. This lesson I learned in Turkey. You must remain hard, but the people here respond better to friendly, but firm, negative answers than they did in Turkey. I took off down David St., which is a shopping area not for the faint of heart. If you can’t deal with people grabbing you by the arm and trying to pull you into their shops, you shouldn’t go here. It is also crowded and somewhat dark, as the whole area is covered. It wasn’t as crowded as I had feared, but maybe that was because it was Sunday.

Most of what they are trying to sell you is outrageously overpriced (though they will negotiate quite a bit) and the materials range from fine hand-crafted wares, to stereotypical middle eastern products, to just mountains of old crap. After wandering aimlessly for a while, I decided that I would grab a bite to eat. While wandering around I did manage to run into some of the Nigerian pilgrims I had seen upon arrival here. Some of them seemed to have had some difficulty with the merchants in the Old City; I witnessed more than one episode where a woman went back to a salesman and berated him for his prices. A distinct curiosity there was also the fact that the Arab salesmen would refer to black customers as “my brother” or “my sister,” but I never once heard them say this to a white person (other than other Arabs).

I found a quaint little “restaurant” not far from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. I didn’t ask to see their health certification, but I did get to see their feral cats. While I listened to a French woman bitch about the misery that must be French existence to a French couple, I enjoyed by humus with falafel and Arabic coffee. It was pretty good and quite fresh. Then I made an attempt to go to the Wailing Wall. After wandering around for a while and making some wrong turns, I found the main entrance and was told by the police that it was closed (I had previously heard the call to pray from the mosque, and had been afraid of this). They told me that I could either walk all the way back to where I had been when I was lost, or come back in the morning, on any morning. That was what I decided to do. Since I needed a toilet and wasn’t ready to risk a toilet in the Old City (I really don’t see the need to poo where Jesus pooed, although some of the pilgrims here might disagree with me on that point), I decided to take a cab back to the hotel. I got in one and he told me that it would cost 50 Shekels. I said, “why don’t we just rely on the meter?” Then he answered, 30 Shekels since it is rush hour and there is lots of traffic. I agreed (according to my tour book this is pretty much standard price for moving around the city) and we were off. He immediately asked if I was Christian and wanted to go to Bethlehem. That seems to be a kind of standard greeting in Arabic here. After just a few minutes I was back in my room, having disappointed the second driver of the day who wanted to take me to Bethlehem.

Since I will be on the road a bit tomorrow and doing loads of walking with my tour group, I decided not to do too much more wandering today. I have gotten a first taste of the city and will be back in the coming days. Now I will most likely do some work on the Tel Dan Inscription in preparation for Tuesdays appointment. I may still go to the sauna, which I discovered the hotel has, and maybe go down to the German Colony for dinner tonight. We’ll see what comes.

Impressions of Israel (5 December 2009)

This morning (5 December 2009) I flew out of Nuremberg at 6:55 headed to Tel Aviv (via Munich). I wasn’t sure what to expect upon arrival in Israel. The first view outside of the airplane windows (looking down at Tel Aviv and the beaches there), I was struck by the similarities that Tel Aviv shared with many European cities I have visited: it looks like it was built in the 50s and 60s. While there are some more modern looking structures, for the most part, the looked to be about 50 years old. Conspicuous was also the ubiquity of the white buildings. This reminded me of another Mediterranean culture I have visited: Sevilla. As we approached, a bit of turbulence rocked the plane, but without incident we landed and slowly exited the plane (I was in the second to last row, so it took a while to get out).

The experience at security most likely would have overwhelmed the faint of heart – not because of the depth of the security, but rather just because of the amazing mixture of people travelling here. I ended up in the midst of two very large groups: one group had just arrived from South Africa and were apparently here for a council about child abuse, while the second (and many times larger) group consisted of Nigerian pilgrims. These Christian pilgrims wore bright lime (almost neon) green fabric with messages about Christ’s eternal mastery over the universe and a portrait of a decidedly European looking Jesus. I wonder if I will encounter them again in the coming days.

At any rate, my flight arrived at 14:10 (5 minutes late). Security/immigration/customs kept me in line until about 14:55. At this point I was finally able to get to my suitcase, which had been waiting from me and had been removed from the conveyor belt before I got there. The next step was to figure out how to book passage to Jerusalem. As it was Sabbath until sundown, neither the Israeli trains nor buses were operating. That meant I would have to rely on a taxi for the almost 1 hour drive, or ride with a special kind of taxi that they call a sherut here. Basically, this is a shuttle bus that takes 10 people to a more or less common objective. For Jerusalem, there is always interest. I booked passage and prepared for the journey. As I was waiting, the woman who sat next to me on the flight from Munich got in with some colleagues. She was Canadian. There was also a Swiss couple, another American, two Palestinians, and three Germans, making it a suitably international group. The driver was obviously an Israeli (he had his military uniform hanging in the van), but apparently was not a practicing Jew, meaning that he had no qualms about working on the Sabbath.

The ride was uneventful in the extreme. I don’t mean to make it sound like it was necessarily boring, but there was very little traffic and not a lot going on. I wonder if that is only because it was Sabbath, or if so few people here drive. My only other experience in a middle eastern country contrasted most definitely; in Turkey cars and pedestrians covered the totality of the surface of Istanbul. I had expected the same here. We’ll have to see what the next few days bring. The landscapes were amazing, though the tectonic activity implied by some of the hill structures I saw makes one a little uncomfortable.

All of the sudden we were in Jerusalem. There wasn’t a lot of warning. All the sudden, we turned a corner and there were Hasidic Jews walking around and enjoying their day of rest. Otherwise there wasn’t much activity to be found. After I made it to the hotel, my first order of business (as a fat person) was to look for something to eat. There are a few restaurants near here, but a few of them were closed due to the Sabbath. The only place that really seemed to speak to me and remain open was a little vegetarian pizzeria. I ordered a veggie calzone and brought it back to the hotel for a cozy evening.

After eating, I started to try to find any way to contact Anja and let her know that I had made it. My cell phone wasn’t working for some reason (I have since gotten it up and running) and the internet costs more at the hotel than I’m really willing to pay for it right now (which also implies that this post will be uploaded ex post facto). After several tries, we were finally able to talk on the phone.

Things have turned out to be more expensive here than I had anticipated, which isn’t great, but I’ll be able to deal with eat. At least (unlike London) I will be getting breakfast for free in the hotel. I am about to crash now though, as I am utterly exhausted from the last few short nights I’ve had. Tomorrow will be my first real foray into the city of Jerusalem. Mostly I will be in the Israel Museum, working on the Tel Dan Inscription. This will be my preparatory work for the examination that I have scheduled for Tuesday morning. Monday I will be taking a tour of Jerusalem followed by a trip to and a dip in the Dead Sea. The other days I still have free, though I hope to be able to get into the Wailing Wall Tunnels. I still have to find out if they will confirm my appointment or not.

Jerusalem, in terms of buildings and appearance, reminded me of Istanbul, only with the aforementioned lack of populace. The buildings are all of a somewhat monotone stone (sandstone, I believe). This is just a result of the material they had available I take it. More details and descriptions will have to follow.

London – Educational

Tuesday night I returned from a six day excursion to London with my students from last semester. The objective of the trip was primarily the British Museum, but also the British Library. We were there looking at artifacts and manuscripts relating to the history of the Ancient Near East, the stories and history recounted in the Bible, and text editions of the Bible. This was my third trip to London, so most of this was familiar to me (this was also the reason that I was the one organizing the trip).  I thought that I would put some of my pictures up here with some explanations for anyone who is curious about the kind of work I do. Please bear in mind that this is a very small sample of both the photos that I have and of the material in the museum. I had to be picky in the consideration that someone might actually read this. First, I would like to thank the trustees of the British Museum for allowing me the opportunity to photograph these items. For understandable reasons, photography is not allowed in the British Library, so I have no photos to put here of one of the highlights of the trip. Without further ado…

I’ll start with Egypt, since this seems to be most fascinating and well known for most people. Personally, I prefer the Mesopotamian materials, but that is only my preference. I don’t have that many pictures of Egyptian material, but what I have, I’ll post.

Ramses II of Egypt (r. ~1279-1212)

This is part of a huge statue of Ramses II. How do we know that this is supposed to be Ramses II and not someone else, you ask? Well, they were nice enough to note this information about him on the back:


Why is this so fascinating for people interested in the Bible? Ramses II has been suggested as the Pharaoh of the Exodus, should any such event have occurred (many modern scholars seriously question the historical reliability of the biblical image of the Exodus). This identification is based on the note in Exodus 1:8-11 that the new Pharaoh forced the Israelites to build the cities of Pithom and Raamses. Also by combining the internal biblical chronology (cf. 1 Kings 6:1) with absolutely datable events (solar-eclipses noted in Assyrian records) one arrives at a time about the time of Ramses II, give or take a century.

This is another image of Ramses II, which presents him as the king of both Upper and Lower Egypt (note the tall crown and the serpentine crown, as well as the crook and flail).

That’s really all I wanted to present from Egypt. Let’s move on to Mesopotamia…

Tablet 11 of the Gilgamesh Epic

One of the most famous epics of the ancient world (way before Homer) was the Epic of Gilgamesh. The most famous version of this comes from the library of Ashurbanipal (r. ~669-627), the last great king of the Assyrian Empire (you know, the people who conquered Samaria and sent Israel [not Judah!] into exile) and was written on 12 tablets. This is all interesting Jonathan, but what’s the point of you telling me this? Well, on this tablet, which was translated at the end of the 19th century, the reader is confronted with an interesting story told to Gilgamesh (who is seeking immortality after the death of ally and friend Enkidu) by an immortal man named Utnapishtim. Utnapishtim tells him that he became immortal by outliving the flood that the gods sent to destroy mankind from the earth. This may sound familiar to many of you, for example if you consider Genesis 6-8. There are quite a few more similarities between these two stories, but I don’t really want to take the time to enumerate them all here. Most good translations into English will list them for you, if you take a minute to pick one up (and you should, since it is one of the great literary works of human history and tries to keep your attention by using phrases like “and the mated for 6 days and 7 nights”). Since the flood recounted by Utnapishtim was a one time occurrence, there is no way for Gilgamesh to earn immortality that way. Utnapishtim eventually tells him about a plant at the bottom of the sea that can restore him to youth and provide him with immortality. After Gilgamesh retrieves this plant and plans on using it, he is thwarted by a crafty snake who comes and steals the plant, losing its skin (an etiology of serpentine rejuvenation via shedding skin), and thus destroys Gilgamesh’s hopes of becoming immortal. This may ring some bells too, if you consider Genesis 2:9 and all of Genesis 3. One at least finds similar literary motifs here, if nothing else. I’ll leave any decisions about that to the reader.


So, take the story above about Utnapishtim and replace his name with Atramhasis and you arrive at this much older flood story. Well, that is an oversimplification, but you get the idea. The gods create humanity to be their slaves; they then deem them to be too loud, deciding to wipe them out by sending a flood. Atramhasis escapes with the help of a god who advises him about these plans secretly. The gods are eventually thankful that he survived though, since they realize without human sacrifice they have nothing to eat and must suffer hunger pangs. Rather than wipe out humanity in one fell swoop again, they decide to release various plagues on humanity at various irregular intervals. Nice.

The Black Obelisk

The large black stone in the middle is the so-called Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III (r. ~859-824). It describes a series of military campaigns throughout his reign. These are only interesting to us peripherally, as they help us reconstruct a larger context for the history described in the Book of Kings. One of them is also mentioned in the text of the so-called Kurkh Monolith Inscription of Shalmaneser III (which is largely obscured by the Black Obelisk in the photo); the Monolith Inscription mentions Ahab of Israel in the text as being a member of a military coalition with Aram – this being the earliest mention of Israelite king found outside of the Bible to date. The Black Obelisk mentions this coalition several more times (although Ahab is never mentioned in it). This image leaves the reader with a bit of a question mark. Ahab and Aram as allies? What about 1 Kings 20 and 22? Well, there are a number of possibilities for addressing these issues, but I’d rather not go through all of them right now. Let’s zoom in a bit closer for a tight shot of one of the images on the Black Obelisk.


Jehu of Israel

The text above this image suggests that this kneeling man is either Jehu of Israel or his envoy to Shalmaneser III. The larger image shows him bowing before the Assyrian monarch and the symbols of two of Assyria’s gods, namely Ashur and Ishtar. The text identifies Jehu as the son of Omri. This raises several questions again. Was Jehu really the son of Omri? The Bible recounts him wiping out the family of Omri (more specifically Ahab), cf. 2 Kings 9-10, and names his as the son of Jehoshaphat son of Nimshi. The biblical text also does not mention this tribute. For that matter, Shalmaneser III never appears in the text of the Hebrew Bible (The only Shalmaneser who does show up is Shalmaneser V in 2 Kings 17). At any rate this is possibly the only image of an Israelite king discovered to date and is also as of yet the only (potential) image of a biblical personage from the Ancient Near East. Fascinating.

Sennacherib besieges Lachish

This image of Sennacherib of Assyria presides over a series of reliefs demonstrating the Assyrian victory over the Judean city. This event is referenced in 2 Chronicles 32:9 and took place during the reign of Hezekiah of Judah in 701. Neither the Bible nor the Assyrian records shed further light on the ultimate fate of the city of Lachish, so it is unclear exactly what happened. This series of reliefs shows him accepting tribute from some, deporting some, and having some thrown down the side of the mountains. When the city of Nineveh was destroyed and the palace was sacked in 612, someone attacked the relief and defaced Sennacherib (quite literally, as you can see). The cut in his face looks just about right to have come from an axe.

Let’s consider some of the artifacts from Palestine:

Ivories from Samaria

The ivories appear to be of Phoenician provenance (there are similar examples from Egypt and also from Mesopotamia, suggesting that they came there from the Phoenician traders) but were found in Samaria, the capital of the Northern Kingdom Israel from the time of Omri until its collapse in 722. The two bottom left pieces are remains of a sphinx and the center piece is some kind of palm tree. The supposedly were found in the “palace” of Samaria, suggesting that they might be the property of kings. This may sound familiar to some of you who read very closely. Take a look at 1 Kings 22:39 NRSV and Amos 3:15 (there is no evidence that these were part of an “ivory house”) and also at Amos 6:4, which suggests that the nobility of Israel was in possession of ivory furniture, something for which they were condemned by the socially-conscience prophet. These pieces date to about the eighth century, suggesting that they were more likely from the time of Jeroboam II than from the time of Ahab. This implies that they might be relics of the luxury that Amos condemned. No they’re on display in London.

The Lachish Ostraka

Recycling was also a fact of life in the ancient world. Since paper didn’t exist and papyrus and parchment were expensive, people wrote letters on junk, like these broken pieces of pottery (these are referred to as ostraka, ostrakon in the singular, and can be found all over the ancient world). These particular examples were found in the remains of Lachish within the gate complex. They are a group of letters describing the stressful situation during the invasion of Nebuchadnezzar II in 587/6. Beyond that glimpse into the history of Judah, they provide us with something much more tantalizing, namely a look at pre-Masoretic Hebrew grammar, syntax, and vocabulary. These elements of the language are conspicuously similar to the Hebrew that we find in the bible, should one remove all of the Masoretic vocalizations and accents. This makes these pieces especially interesting for philological reasons. That rules.

The Cyrus Cylinder

So this one isn’t from Palestine, but everyone needs to have seen this at some point. Babylon was conquered in 539 by Cyrus of Persia, who was viewed as a liberator by most people (cf. Isaiah 45, which records Cyrus as the Messiah of God!) including some important elements of the Babylonian society, most specifically the priests of Marduk. The last king of Babylon was a man named Nabonid who turned attention away from the all important Marduk religion of Babylon and focused on the moon-god Sin. Much of the time of his reign he spent outside of Babylon, meaning that the Marduk priests couldn’t even celebrate the important New Year’s Festival. Basically this really hacked them off and they sought someone to put an end to this situation. Cyrus was their man. They invited him in to Babel and he took the city without a battle. To celebrate this success he restored the Marduk cult in Babylon and paid for it himself. It is unclear if he stopped with the Marduk cult. Ezra 1 (Hebrew) and Ezra 6 (Aramaic) record a similar situation for the temple in Jerusalem. Of these 2 texts, Ezra 6 appears to be the earlier text and matches this cuneiform cylinder more than the Hebrew version in Ezra 1. There seems to be a relationship between these texts. Here is what the other side of the cylinder looks like:

The Cyrus Cylinder

The Persians were “liberal” in terms of religious policy as far as we can reconstruct it. It seems that they allowed people to follow their own religion as a means of keeping them in line with their own politics. If people are happy, they are less likely to rebel. They were also the people who introduced taxes in a monetary form, as opposed to just offering a percentage of the yields of the crops. So, taxes and religious relativity…they sound kind of like the Democrats of the ancient world. I kid. Anyway, The image of the Persians has pretty much been consistently influenced in the popular mind by Greeks, who generally attempted to make them look ruthless, gluttonous, and ridiculous (cf. the film 300 – which basically uncritically accepts this image in order to make “white” Europeans look mighty and fair in the face of the fascist Middle-Easterners). Frankly, quite the opposite was true. The Persians let the various groups in their huge empire maintain their own culture and religion as long as it didn’t lead to direct problems with the state. The Greeks on the other hand, after Alexander conquered the Persians, did such fabulous things as forcing Jews to eat pork and putting a statue of Zeus on the altar in Jerusalem. Friendly. Because they were Europeans and we have a generally Eurocentric view of history, these facts are generally just ignored. Oh well.

Well, I hope that someone found this interesting. I loved the trip and I love the British Museum. I could spend weeks there. I look forward to any questions or comments that might arise from this.

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