Underground was the place to be on the last day of Campbell University Divinity School’s study tour of Israel.
Following another 5:30 a.m. wake-up call, most of us visited the Western Wall tunnels, an underground dig that extends across most of the Western Wall and goes as far down as bedrock. Hatless men in the group were required to wear paper yarmulkes, which left Graham Norris looking positively rabbinical, but were a chore to keep on our heads when we walked past the occasional exhaust fan.
The dig was begun in secret by a group of rabbis, and was first known as the “Rabbis’ Tunnel.” When it became known what they were doing, however, the appropriate authorities had to step in and take it over.
Much of the pathway extends along stone courses of the temple mount retaining wall that was built by Herod the Great. Like others before us, we were amazed by the “master course” stone (above), a quarried block of limestone more than 44 feet long, about four feet high, and an estimated 11 feet deep. Despite weighing about 570 tons, its place in the wall was actually quite high above the ground, requiring a massive effort of men and first-century machinery.
Along the way, well below ground, we crossed a place where part of the original Roman street ran near the Temple Mount, a place that Jesus and other New Testament characters are very likely to have walked. Doron, our guide, also pointed to two Herodian columns embedded in the fill, and noted that further excavations are required to determine their purpose.
Near the end of our trek, we left the new tunnel resulting from the dig, and entered an ancient aqueduct that had been cut into the bedrock to carry water into a huge underground cistern. We had seen part of it on an earlier expedition to the Antonia Fortress, and now saw the same cistern from the back side of a dividing wall.
After a quick stop to pick up those who chose to sleep in rather than explore the tunnels, we were off to the Israel Museum, where we spent some time examining a very careful scale model of Jerusalem in 66 A.D., to the best of archaeologists’ and historians’ ability to reconstruct it. In the Shrine of the Book – where we were not allowed to take pictures — we were able to see substantial samples of the Dead Sea Scrolls, though most related to the Essenes and few were biblical. A realistic replica of the great Isaiah scroll is the centerpiece of the museum.
An unexpected bonus is that the famed 11th century Aleppo Codex, widely regarded as the most accurate single manuscript of the Old Testament, was on display, along with a 14th century manuscript called the Little Codex. Seeing things like that with one’s own eyes, after having often read of them, was a special treat.
From the Israel Museum we traveled to Mt. Hertzel, site of the Yad Veshem, Israel’s memorial of the Holocaust (Yad Veshem means “Memorial of the Name”; again, no pictures were allowed inside). The magnitude of the crimes committed against the Jews through the years is overwhelming, with the Nazis’ murder of six million Jews being at the top of the list: of the seven million Jews living in Europe and North Africa in 1938, only a million survived. The impact of those atrocities is so great that the world’s Jewish population today, about 17 million, is less than half of what it would have been without the Holocaust.
The museum’s well-crafted displays left many of us tearful. Those who didn’t get choked up in the main museum, few emerged dry-eyed from the Children’s Memorial, in which visitors descend a narrow passage similar to those leading to the gas chambers to enter a dark room lit only by six candles and many mirrors. As visitors make their way slowly through the memorial, they hear the names of the 1.5 million children killed in the Holocaust being read, along with their home country and their age when they were killed.
Both the museum and the Children’s Memorial exit onto a broad vista of the land below, where a growing population of Jews provides their own answer to the Holocaust.
Following our time at the Yad Veshem, we traveled into Jerusalem for a lunch of schwarma or falafel pitas at a roadside restaurant, and then drove for 45 minutes toward the coast and into the Valley of Elah – the place where David and Goliath reportedly battled – before turning south and driving 10 kilometers more to Bet Guvrim (pronounced “bet joovreem”), a farming kibbutz that is also home to a large archaeological dig.
We participated in a “Dig for a Day” coordinated through the Israeli national parks service. The site is located at ancient Maresha, about nine miles from the Philistine city of Gath and 15 miles from Ashkelon. The dig is concentrated in a complex of 171 cave systems, with a total of 5,000 total caves. Most of the caves are not natural, but were dug out as sources of building stone beneath the foundations of above-ground houses. Beneath a tough surface layer called gnarl, the stone is a type of soft chalk that is easy to cut and carve.
The area had been settled by many Edomites in the early second century, B.C., and was part of what was called “Idumea.” When the Hasmoneans conquered the area, they required residents to either convert to Judaism, or destroy their homes and leave. The caves in which we were digging were places where people who chose to leave had torn their homes down and dumped the above-ground parts into the basements. Because of that, there is no real stratigraphy to be concerned with: virtually all of the remains are from the second century before Christ.
Our short dig experience, led by Ian Stern, an archaeologist who’s been digging there for 21 years, consisted of three stages: digging, schlepping, and sifting. First, we divided into teams who climbed down into Cave 89 (below the shade tents above) and dug for awhile, filling many buckets with dirt, stone, and other materials. We were especially pleased the Lloyd Blevins, who has worked harder than any of us on this trip, was able to make it down the steps and participate in the dig. If we identified any pottery or other finds while digging, we put it into a “finds” bucket in each room for later analysis. Rooms were labeled with fanciful names to help keep straight what finds come from where. We dug mostly in the “Temple” room and the “Aphrodite” room.
While digging, our folk found many pottery shards, parts of a kiln, burned animal bones, part of an animal’s skull, a complete jar handle, and a small bronze spear point. Everyone found something, if it was only a pottery shard. As our hosts had promised, we got “immediate gratification” from the dig.
When digging in caves, getting the material in buckets is just part of the effort.
After filling many buckets, we schlepped the material out by forming a bucket chain and lifting it to the surface, being careful to keep buckets from the different rooms separate. Those with the strongest backs were asked to stand on or near the ladder (about 12 feet high) to lift the material to the service. That part of the exercise went surprisingly quickly, as our large group was able to stand close together and pass the buckets with little trouble.
Back above ground, we again broke into teams and dumped the buckets onto sifters, allowing us to discover more finds, including additional pottery, small shells, more burned bones, and even a small fish bone.
Earlier in the day, other groups had found three coins.
After digging, we had the op
portunity to explore other caves: a group of “spelunkers” walked and crawled through a cave still filled with detritus that has yet to be excavated, while a larger group walked through a cave system that has been completely excavated. Both options turned into quite an adventure. The “spelunkers” had only candlelight to guide them, while the other group experienced true darkness when the park staff cut off the power because it was time for the park to close.
After another long day in more than a week of long days, we have come to the end of a remarkable, rewarding experience that many already regard as life-changing. It has certainly been mind-changing, an experience we are unlikely to forget.
We may not have done much to impact this part of the Holy Land, but it has certainly impacted us.