Shortly after a raging mob demolished the traditional site of Joseph’s tomb near ancient Shechem, first dismantling it stone by stone and then setting it aflame, a newspaper reporter called me for comment. Like most people, I was sickened by the violence. He wanted to know about endangered archaeological sites.
The hate, the fierceness of the anger, the crowd behavior was new, but unfortunately the lack of respect for ancient Jewish sites was not. Within days of the destruction of Joseph’s tomb, another stone-throwing mob destroyed an ancient synagogue in Jericho with a simply lovely mosaic floor that had been in pristine condition. Dating to the Byzantine period, the mosaic featured a stylized Torah ark in the center and, just below, a circle containing a three-footed menorah, a shofar (ram’s horn), a lulav (palm frond used on the festival of Sukkot) and a Hebrew inscription from Psalm 125- Shalom al Yisroel, “Peace unto Israel.” The destruction of this building violates an express provision of the Oslo accords, which gave Jericho to the Palestinian Authority on the condition that it protect this synagogue and assure Jewish access to it.
Weeks before the violence began, even while the peace process was at its height and hope ran high, the Waqf (the Muslim religious trust) was using a bulldozer to remove archaeologically rich material(a) from the Jerusalem Temple Mount and throw it into the adjacent Kidron Valley. In an op-ed piece for the Washington Post, I condemned this wanton destruction. I also noted that this illegal activity on the Temple Mount, in clear violation of Israel’s antiquities laws, was nothing new.(b) Years earlier, a lawsuit seeking an injunction had been brought against the Waqf (and against the Israeli government for its failure to enforce the antiquities laws). The court found that the Waqf had been guilty of 35 different violations of the antiquities laws over a period of years. In one case a 6-foot-wide and 16-foot-long wall, thought to be part of the foundations of a Herodian Temple courtyard wall, had been excavated by utilities workers and demolished before archaeologists could study it. The court nevertheless declined to take any action because of the politically sensitive nature of the matter, expressing its confidence that the government would not allow any future violations.
An ancient synagogue mosaic from the Byzantine period found in Gaza in 1965 prominently displayed David wearing a crown and playing a lyre. A Hebrew inscription identifies the biblical king. Shortly after the mosaic’s discovery, David’s face was gouged out. When the Israelis captured the area in the 1967 Six-Day War, they brought what remained to the Israel Museum.(c)
The Great Mosque of Gaza was originally built as a Crusader church and later converted into a mosque. An imposing structure, it rises to a great height, supported by double columns, one upon the other. Some of the upper columns were taken from an ancient synagogue. We know this because on one of these columns were engraved Jewish symbols, the same ones that appeared on the mosaic floor of the Jericho synagogue described above- Enclosed in a circular wreath near the top of the column was a three-footed menorah, a shofar and a lulav. Below the wreath was a Hebrew and Greek inscription memorializing a donor to the synagogue, one Hannaniah, son of Jacob. When I visited the mosque in 1973, this was all still on the column. The carving was so high up you had to know just where to look to find it. Unfortunately, it was too high to take an effective picture. Its only detailed representation is a careful drawing published by Charles Clermont-Ganneau in the 1870s. When I returned to Gaza in 1996, it had all been erased and the stone smoothed over. This could not have been done easily; it obviously required great effort, but it was apparently worth it to someone.
A prominent Israeli archaeologist who had specialized in the Sinai before it was returned to Egypt writes me- “I visited many sites that I worked on, and saw terrible destruction in almost all of them. Right after, I wrote a polite letter to the director of the Archaeological Council of Egypt, reported to him and offered my help in showing them other sites which were not yet ruined, but I never got an answer.”
I could go on and on. Will we ever again see the faint drawings on the vessels from Kuntillet Ajrud with their Hebrew inscriptions and their depictions of what may be the Israelite God with a consort?(d) Since Kuntillet Ajrud is in the Sinai, the finds from the site were turned over to the Egyptians after the Israel-Egypt peace accord. Reportedly, the vessels remain unpacked in some Egyptian storeroom. Based on this precedent, the Palestinians are now making claim to the Dead Sea Scrolls because they were found in the West Bank, at Qumran. The scrolls, they say, are part of their heritage.
When I talked to the American reporter after the wanton destruction of Joseph’s tomb about what the future might hold, I could not be very optimistic.
a. See Suzanne F. Singer, “Jerusalem Update- More Temple Mount Antiquities Destroyed,” BAR 26-05.
b. See “A BAR Editorial- Ancient Remains on the Temple Mount Must Not Be Destroyed,” BAR 09-02; Steven J. Adler, “The Temple Mount in Court,” BAR 17-05, and “Israeli Court Finds Muslim Council Destroyed Ancient Remains on Temple Mount,” BAR 20-04.
c. The mosaic has since been restored. See Connie Kestenbaum Green, “King David’s Head from Gaza Synagogue Restored,” BAR 20-02.
d. See Zeev Meshel, “Did Yahweh Have a Consort?” BAR 05-02; André Lemaire, “Who or What Was Yahweh’s Asherah?” BAR 10-06.