Archaeology in Israel Update--January/February 2011
By Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg
W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research,
Jordan Baptismal Site Reopened
On 18th January, a ceremony was held to mark the reopening of the site on the River Jordan where John the Baptist is supposed to have baptized Jesus. It had been closed for over forty years as a military zone and has now been released by the army and renovated by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority who have improved access for pilgrims and tourists. The site is known in Arabic as Qasr al-Yehud (Castle of the Jew) and pilgrims can enter it from both the Israeli and Jordanian side, though crossing between them is not possible as it is fenced off mid-river to mark the boundary between the two countries. The ceremony, marking also the Feast of the Epiphany, was led by Theophilos III, Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, and was attended by an estimated 15,000 pilgrims, most of whom watched the ceremony on screens while the lucky few got to immerse themselves in the river in white cloaks. The site is also deemed by some to represent the place where the Children of Israel are said to have crossed into Canaan by the fords, under the leadership of Joshua.
The Passing of Vendyl Jones
Vendyl Jones, who was said to have spent much of his life looking for the Ark of the Covenant, passed away in late December 2010. He had been a pastor in the Baptist Church and was drawn to Jewish texts and practices by his reading of the Bible, so much so that he called himself a Noahite, that is, one who keeps the seven Jewish commandments for Gentiles. In 1964 he came across literature on the Copper Scroll and started searching for the treasures of the Temple. His fame rested on his identity with the "Indiana Jones" played by Harrison Ford, but Vendyl denied the connection. In Israel his enduring image was known in the press. He was often photographed digging in the soil with a trowel in one hand and the Bible in the other. He claimed to have found samples of the "ketoret" incense used in the Temple. It was a reddish powder and was confirmed by tests at the Weitzmann Institute, though disputed by other scholars.
Drainage Channel and Street of Ancient Jerusalem
After the work of seven years, the surface water drain near the Temple Mount to the Pool of Siloam has been cleared and will shortly be opened to tourists. The work had been conducted by Prof. Ronny Reich and Eli Shukron for the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and has opened up a stepped street above the channel that goes back to the early Roman period. Remnants of pottery and other domestic waste suggest that the channel, which is from 1m. to 2m. high under the street, was used by refugees escaping from the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 CE. Josephus carries a vivid account of the Roman forces searching for the escapees, enslaving some and killing others. Parts of the tunnel had already been uncovered by Charles Warren, at the Western Wall end, and by Bliss and Dickie at the Siloam end, but this is the first time that it has been possible to see the two ends as one continuous passageway and sewer. The present section runs for 600 meters and it is presumed that it extends further northwards for an equal amount to the Damascus Gate.
Jerusalem Leper Hospital to be Arts Centre
The former Hansen Hospital, named after the doctor who isolated the germ that caused leprosy, is to be renovated as the City centre for the visual arts. It stands on a large piece of ground opposite the Jerusalem Theatre in the prosperous Talbiyeh neighborhood. It is a pleasant three-storey structure with balconies around a central courtyard and its interest to archaeologists is that it was built in 1887 by the German architect Conrad Schick (1822-1901), who came to the city as a missionary and died there as an early explorer and archaeologist. He is known as the builder of models of the Temple Mount and the surveyor of maps of Jerusalem. It was his pupils who first saw and drew his attention to the Siloam Inscription in the water tunnel. As an architect he was responsible for the layout one of the early neighborhoods outside the old City, the Mea Shearim housing complex, now largely inhabited by members of the ultra-orthodox Jewish community. One wonders if they realize that their homes were planned and built by a former Christian missionary.
Byzantine Church in the Judaean Hills
Due to the discovery of illegal plunder from the site, the chief IAA investigator of archeological theft, Amir Ganor, started a dig at the ruins of Hirbet Madras, south-west of Jerusalem and just north of Beit Guvrin, where he uncovered the floor of a 6th century CE structure that was thought to be a synagogue. The excavators discovered many stones carved with crosses, which indicates the building was also used as a church. It has a magnificent mosaic floor of geometric patterns that incorporate representations of lions, foxes, peacocks and fish. The church is built over another structure, probably five centuries earlier, of the early Roman period that might have been a village synagogue. There are also underground tunnels that may have served as hiding places for the Jews during the Bar-Kochba Revolt (132-135 CE), as found at Beit Guvrin nearby. Steps from the church lead down into a small burial cave that the excavators think was considered to be the holy resting place of the Prophet Zechariah, but the reasons for this are obscure. The site, which is now on an isolated hilltop, will be covered over again, until plans and funding become available to secure it and open it to the public.