Issue No.
178, February 2013 Latest update 9 2014f August 2014, at 4.39 am
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“Capture” (from Rob Roy on the Jordan).
Terraces, with invisible Palestinian plowing.
Jazr (Gezer) Calendar, 10–11th centuries BCE.
Bilal ben Rabāh Mosque (Rachel’s Tomb): then and now.
“Adam and Eve” Seal, Iraq, 23rd century BCE.
‘Akka in hieroglyphic and cuneiform.

Toward a Real Archaeology and History of Palestine
By Basem L. Ra’ad
Archaeology is a fairly neutral science that involves discovery and interpretation of artefacts and material evidence from the past. Not so in the “Holy Land,” a term for geographic Palestine, now divided into “the West Bank,” the State of Israel, and the Gaza Strip. “Holy Land” is applied religiously, but also now as a cover to avoid using “Palestine.” In its geography and archaeology, there is a mix of the real and the imaginary.

Nowhere else is it more urgent to separate genuine religious faith from political exploitation of religion, and to distinguish real archaeology from imagined geography.

A British scholar finds a bath structure in Sūba (a depopulated Palestinian village) and publishes a whole book that presumes - with no evidence - that it must be the cave of John the Baptist. An Israeli archaeologist locates a rock platform in Silwan and jumps to the conclusion that it is a palace for a legendary “King David.” Inscriptions and material remains are employed to support this or that claim, when questionable interpretations are plentiful. Obsessions are deep, and few can abandon self-invested repetitions about the past. The customs and culture of Palestine, its landscape, are portrayed as an “illustration of biblical times,” whereas the Palestinians as people are absented from that connection, made invisible, even demonised.

The Palestinians themselves have not yet formulated a coherent interpretation of their history and culture. This vacuum allows discoveries to be explained by others and their implications muffled or usurped to serve political agendas.

Sacred geographies
All such instances have their background in sacred geography and quasi-archaeology of the “Holy Land,” beginning with the region’s Christianisation in the fourth century, followed by Islam in the seventh century, the Crusades starting in 1099, the Ottoman conquest in 1516, the rise in religious travel of the nineteenth century, and finally the British and Israeli occupations. These factors have defined historical and archaeological interpretation, creating a situation where shrouds of religion and of political claims make separating fact from fiction difficult.

One defining moment was the adoption of Christianity by Constantine, emperor of the Byzantine Roman Empire, about 313 CE.* This religious conversion was reinforced in 323 CE when the emperor’s mother, Helena, visited to fix major sites associated with biblical stories. It is said that she discovered the sites by acts of “divine inspiration” - for presumed events that occurred hundreds, thousands of years before. Constantine used the new religion to consolidate authority over his subjects. Of the place in Hebron associated with Ibrahīm/Abraham, a symbol for Constantine’s imperial “new age of Abraham,” he writes to Eusebius, bishop of Palestine, directing him to implement plans for the “destruction of every vestige of paganism and the building of an appropriate Christian basilica.” This action is corroborated by Sozomen, a fifth-century ecclesiastical historian and native of Gaza.

The nineteenth century produced another change that still influences Palestine today. A different kind of crusade began, through travel and a type of fever called “sacred geography,” combined with various missionary and millennial sentiments. Responding to mounting doubts about biblical accounts that resulted from scientific advances in geology and biology, clergy and lay people set out for the actual “Holy Land” to confirm religious beliefs. They hunted for evidence that would “verify Scriptural sites” and prove “the veracity of the sacred record.”

These mostly Protestant European and US travellers rejected Catholic and Orthodox traditions, and were instead attracted to elusive tracks such as the desert route of a supposed Exodus. Most notable among hundreds of books published are Edward Robinson’s Biblical Researches in Palestine (1841), Eliott Warburton’s The Crescent and the Cross (1845), William M. Thomson’s The Land and the Book (1859), and Edward Palmer’s The Desert of the Exodus (1871). They were on-site recreations, 200 years after Thomas Fuller’s absentee account Pisgah-Sight of Palestine, of a land these writers claimed as their “heritage.”

Exploitation today
Such works mirror the present, where religious and colonial thinking intersect.

Edward Robinson launched the guessing of biblical locations based on their Arabic names, a practice expanded by Zionist scholarship for its uses. Israeli policies, designed by committees, then forced Hebrew phonetics on the map, often translating original Arabic names to Hebrew and inventing non-existent connections to the Bible. 

John MacGregor’s The Rob Roy on the Jordan (1870) recounts a doubtful canoeing trip down the Jordan River that reproduces prejudices acquired during his North American adventures. In one place, he describes an attack by “hostile natives,” half-naked “Arabs” carrying bones as weapons and looking stereotypically like North American “Indians.” Today, an Israeli boat-renting company, Dor Kayak, copies MacGregor’s narrative and describes it as “excellent.”

The wife of a British consul in the second half of the nineteenth century, E. A. Finn, wrote Palestinian Peasantry, published by her daughter in 1923, six years after Balfour’s promise and the British occupation of Palestine. Finn had dedicated herself to converting Jews, with activities based at Christ Church (still there for that purpose near Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem). Her primary aim was to discredit Palestinian customs as pagan, “most probably of Canaanite origin,” and thus in violation of biblical laws. Like ancient Cana’anite, these Palestinians are unqualified to govern the land, and should be, while not altogether exterminated, at least subjugated.

Zionist claims
The Zionist project uses these traditions and other cultural-religious accumulations to develop an extensive claim system. Its claims are made up of aspects related to history, religion, ancient languages, landscape, place names, architecture, heritage, and others.

Zionism is not the first to employ biblical justifications. A model to establish “A New Israel” in a “Promised Land” was used to colonise America, Australia, and South Africa (as Michael Prior shows in The Bible and Colonialism). Balfour too was motivated by fundamentalist belief to give his “promise” in 1917. The US national myth is based on such identification, which influences US political positions today.

The Zionists modified this colonial model by claiming that they, as Jews, are the natives instead, and are entitled to “return” to the land of their “ancestors.” The Mormons in the United States, “British-Israelites,” also called “Anglo-Israelites,” and others believe as well that they descended from the ten lost tribes of Israel. Each of these movements adopts such incredible claims for its own religious and/or imperialistic motives.

This pretence at native status results in an appropriation complex, involving the takeover of local cultural heritage that is not native to the colonisers. Appropriation by Zionism denies nativity to the real natives, while it wants to own aspects of daily Palestinian life that it lacks, such as foods, dance, embroidery, and local connections.

More widely, the takeover involves the whole landscape, the animals and the flora: Jerusalem has a “Biblical Zoo,” and Israeli writers describe figs and sabr as the “fruit of our ancestors.” (Ironically, sabr or prickly pear was introduced to Palestine in recent centuries from the Americas.) Israelis live in old Palestinian homes in Jerusalem, Yāfa (Jaffa), ‘Akka, ‘Ein Karem, ‘Ein Houd, and other 1948 ethnically cleansed villages and towns, re-use Palestinian stones, and employ stone masons, attempting to lend local authenticity to their buildings.

Fixation on “Israelites” results in other exaggerations and inventions. Though no Israelite material remains exist, obsessed scholars insist on creating their existence. They claim, for example, that the Israelites “invented” agricultural terraces, though such structures developed worldwide thousands of years before any possible Israelites. In a re-creation of this presumed ancient labour, at Sataf and other locations, Israelis are invited to pay a fee to explore the landscape and farm their own terrace “as their ancestors did before them.” Sataf is a deserted Palestinian village, one of hundreds whose population was evicted by Zionist forces in 1948. These terraces may be ancient, though the people who built and cultivated them until recently were Palestinian farmers - now refugees.

Biblical study has expanded the “Holy Land” to include the whole region, simultaneously ingraining biblical chronology and geography, while incorporating real material remains from Greater Syria, Egypt, and Mesopotamia into terms such as “Bible Lands,” “Bible Times,” and “Land of the Bible.” Many atlases and publications include unrelated historical events, cultural achievements, and ancient languages under the heading “Biblical World.”

Another by-product is the exaggeration of the age of Hebrew, by confusing it with Aramaic and other scripts. In fact, square Hebrew is a script takeover of late square Aramaic. One strategy backdates Hebrew a thousand years by saying that inscriptions - such as an almanac found in Tal el Jazr (Gezer) - of “Phoenician” or Moabite, even Philistine, origin are instead “ancient Hebrew.”

Some scholars exploit the confusion of ancient scripts and diminish the importance of Arabic. This despite the fact that, by continuity and live connection, Arabic today best preserves the “Semitic” inventory of languages such as Cana’anite, Ugaritic, “Phoenician,” and Aramaic.

Even Israeli currency, the shekel, is a borrowing from the inventors of money, the Babylonians. Yet Israeli sources and international dictionaries define “shekel” as “Jewish” or “Hebrew” currency, changing history and demeaning the inventors. The Tower of David near Jaffa Gate, though it postdates any possible David and has nothing to do with him, being called that after the Ottomans rebuilt it, has been turned into a show of Jewish history in Jerusalem.

With sacred places, Israel has been using Muslim tradition as an excuse to take control over maqams that were never part of Jewish tradition, as well as other sites such as “Joseph’s Tomb” and the Ibrahīmi Mosque in Hebron (two-thirds of which has been turned into a synagogue). Similar plans propose another forced “sharing” of Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock, on the pretext that it is built on the site of Solomon’s temple. (Regarding this site, see Chapter 3 of my book Hidden Histories.) It is little known that the Western or Wailing Wall has no “temple” connection, being a Roman fortress remnant, a structure not regarded as sacred to Jews, even according to the 1971 Encyclopaedia Judaica, before the Ottoman occupation of Jerusalem in 1517, less than 500 years ago.

Misleading terminology
One common fallacy equates ancient Jews with the idealised community of ancient “Israelites” or still more ancient “Hebrews.” These groups (Hebrews, Israelites, Jews 2,000 years ago, Jews today) are nebulous and far removed from each other in chronology and reality.

“Israelites” refers to the tribes that presumably descend from Ya’qub (Jacob). Ya’qub is given the name “Yisra’el,” meaning “the god El rules or struggles,” El/Īl being the father god, head of a pantheon, not the same Yahweh god later worshipped by Jews. “Hebrew” is a more ancient designation than “Israelite,” suggesting people who lived a Bedouin life and crossed borders. Judaism developed much later than the narratives that became part of its belief, as a religion to which some people converted or others left. The Zionist claim system links these disparate idealised ancient entities, dating up to 4,000 years ago, both in terms of ethnicity and religious affiliation, and then declares their relation to present-day Jews. Many people, Palestinians included, fail to deconstruct this tactic, and so often confuse Jews or Israelis with “Israelites” and “Hebrews.”

Jews today are not the Jews of old and cannot be assumed to be “Semites,” or the result of a “Diaspora” or “exile.” Arthur Koestler’s The Thirteenth Tribe (1976), about the conversion of Khazars in the eighth century CE, angered Zionists. Other conversions are documented in Shlomo Sand’s Invention of the Jewish People (2009).

Even if aspects of an “ancient Israel” are taken as historical, this would have nothing to do with Jews and Judaism. For present-day Jews to claim these connections would be like Muslims from Indonesia, 2,000 years from now, saying that they descend from the prophet’s line and Mecca and Medina are their ancestral homeland.

It was not known before that Bible chronology is arbitrary and impossible; in fact, that accounts of Creation, Exodus, “Conquest of Canaan,” and a “Kingdom of David and Solomon” are fictionalised or copied. Biblical chronology assumes that the universe was created about 6,000 years ago, an “Abraham” lived and travelled about 4,000 years ago, the Exodus and conquest occurred about 3,300 years ago, and a large “Kingdom of David and Solomon” existed around 3,000 years ago - accounts all unsupported by historical, scientific, or archaeological records, being (according to many historians today) literary and legendary products.

Early antecedents relevant to Palestine and the region occurred in stories that predate the Bible’s composition and were copied into it. One by one the region unearths its own truths - as if in revolt against all untruths. Similar stories have already been found, such as a duplicate Mesopotamian flood 2,000 years before the Bible’s composition, a cylinder that suggests Adam and Eve, and (only two years ago) an Assyrian covenant that seems to have been used for the biblical narrative. 

Other evidence has uncovered a religious-cultural environment very different from that implied in the Bible or traditional assumptions. The Kuntilet ‘Ajrud inscriptions found in 1976, dating from the eighth century BCE, leave no doubt that Yahweh was worshipped along with Il (El), Ba’al, and the goddess ‘Asherah. Similarly, the Qumran or Dead Sea Scrolls (dating later to the first or second century BCE), discovered by a Bedouin boy in 1947, show that ancient editors attempted to eliminate certain embarrassing implications. Deuteronomy 32: 8-9 demonstrates that a scribe or scribal committee fabricated the text to suppress polytheistic suggestions, replacing “sons of God/ Il” with “sons of Israel.” The original clearly indicates that the father god Il (El) distributes his sons to various nations, and that his son Yahweh, a tribal deity, is assigned to the descendants of Ya’qub (Jacob), that is, the Israelites. The changed text, called Masoretic, was used in later centuries to translate into all the popular languages. (Only the Catholic New Jerusalem Bible today corrects that scribal editing, and it uses “Yahweh” instead of “Lord,” since “Lord” continues to confuse between “God” and “Yahweh.”) Such a discovery makes it impossible to retain a monopoly on monotheism or the idea of a “chosen people.”

In “Holy Land” archaeology, a questionable finding can become highlighted as a major subject of obsession in scholarship and the media. Often cited, the Merneptah stele from about 1207 BCE, discovered in Egypt in 1896 by Flinders Petrie, was interpreted as containing a rare reference to “Israel.” (He said that this would make the clergy happy.) However, the hieroglyphic signs, more accurately transcribed, instead read “” The stele contains a song celebrating victory over the Libyans. The final stanza makes reference to this “”: “His seed is no more.” (If this is indeed a possible reference to Israelites, then that means, according to the text, that the Israelites were finished!) Several possibilities have been posited, consistent with the mention of various cities and the Libyan context, among them the name of a city, or a phrase describing Libyans as “wearers of a side-lock.”

A fragment from an Aramaic royal victory stele found at Tal al-Qadi (Tel Dan) contains the expression byt dwd. Some interpretations suggest the stone is a forgery, while others argue that byt dwd is a place name or a dynasty or a patronage kingdom. Its significance has been inflated out of proportion, considering that the area was part of the Kingdom of Aram. Despite excavations elsewhere, and in or near Jerusalem, no trace has been discovered of a king called dwd (David) or any remains for him. Even if a King David were found to be in any way historical, rather than a legendary figure or a minor local chieftain as some scholars conclude, why should he be considered to have anything to do with Judaism as a religion or with present-day Jews?

Ugarit in northwest Syria is more important to Palestine than it is even to Syria. Its discovery in 1928 by a farmer has unhinged religious scholarship. Dating 3,200 to 3,500 years ago, it shows more mythological parallels to stories found later in all monotheisms. The alphabet and language of Ugarit are amazingly similar to Arabic, thus distressing a key Zionist claim that the region (Palestine especially) was Arabised during the Muslim conquest in 638 CE, 1,375 years ago. 

Foreign institutions
Sacred geography expeditions of “discovery” were commissioned by the Palestine Exploration Fund, established in 1865 under British royal patronage and the Archbishop of Canterbury, to secure “biblical illustrations.” Other research institutions represent the interests of Britain, France, the United States, Russia, Germany, Sweden, and other countries.
One descendant of the Palestine Exploration Fund is the British School of Archaeology, now the Kenyon Institute. Despite the effects of political turmoil, as well as an apparent replacement with the establishment of the Israel Exploration Fund, the Kenyon is attempting to renew itself in its Palestinian context in East Jerusalem. Another institution devoted to biblical exegesis, “Semitic” languages, and archaeology is the École Biblique, established in 1890 by Dominican priests. It has produced important work such as The New Jerusalem Bible, with gains from the Qumran text.

Two institutions reflect US interests: the local campus of Brigham Young University and the Albright Institute. Brigham Young, a Mormon university in Utah, has a campus called the Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies, mostly to study the Old Testament and fulfil its legacies. The Albright Institute, located in East Jerusalem on Salah ed-Din Street, continues the legacy of William Foxwell Albright, a “father” of US biblical archaeology. As pointed out by Keith Whitelam and Burke O. Long, Albright expresses imperialistic views in his writing, while the institute itself has clear ideologically biblical beginnings. The Albright employee structure betrays a tokenism where the cook and cleaner are Palestinians, while Palestinians included as fellows are not involved in affiliated excavations or meaningful research, and most cannot reach the Albright because of Israeli movement restrictions.

Such organs have had a dubious role, though some are more inclined to become part of the Palestinian environment. These institutions owe a debt to the region and its people, and share in the responsibility for creating what happened, which should encourage them to enable local academics to realise their potential rather than silence their history.

Archaeology: Israeli and Palestinian
Early Israeli archaeology was an extension of Western biblical archaeology, with the addition of intense Zionist efforts to establish a national mythology. Benjamin Mazar (Maisler), born in Poland and educated in Germany, was an Israeli historian and “dean” of Israeli biblical archaeology. Several Mazars are now also archaeologists. Yigael Yadin, a general-turned-archaeologist, explored and theorised about sites such as Qumran, Mas‘ada, and the so-called “Bar Kokhba” caves, which assisted in incorporating them into the national mythology. He excavated Cana‘anite cities such as Majiddu (Meggido) and Hāsūr (Hazor), trying to show that Solomon had something to do with rebuilding there. Yohanan Aharoni (Aronheim), another founding figure, is known for his book The Land of the Bible: A Historical Geography. Among his arguments is that ancient place names are preserved in usages such as “Ashkelon” and “Acco,” which is still adopted in Zionist linguistics. However, hieroglyphic and cuneiform transcriptions indicate a four-thousand-year continuity that best preserves the names in Arabic as ‘Akka and ‘Asqalān.

Though much Israeli scholarship still implements nationalistic Zionist objectives, alternative approaches have emerged, led by more independent-minded scholars, some of whom were students of Benjamin Mazar and Aharoni. They refute the conclusions of Mazar and Yadin, and more recent contentions by Eilat Mazar about a site in Silwan.

Ze’ev Herzog, for example, has declared that there were no patriarchs, no exodus, no conquest, no large kingdom of David and Solomon - in effect disbanding many pillars of Zionist ideology. Another archaeologist, Israel Finkelstein, disputes the whole chronology and accuracy of biblical events, as well as assumptions about any building conducted by a Solomon. He concludes that there was no Joshua conquest, but instead a peaceful, ideological transition from Cana‘anite to Israelite practices occurred - that is, Israelites grew out of Cana‘anite society. This is not altogether a new theory, and though it debunks the biblical conquest, it nevertheless attempts to acquire cultural legitimacy for claims based on a gradual ancient development rather than on a cruel conquest.

“Palestinian” archaeology was non-existent before 1967, not even soon after. In anthropology, Tawfiq Canaan studied the country’s folklore and customs, under the auspices of British institutions, producing essays for the Journal of the Palestine Oriental Society, most notably “Mohammedan [sic] Saints and Sanctuaries in Palestine” (1924; 1927). His work argues that Palestinian village customs predate current religious affiliations, that these religions “were not able to suppress all primitive beliefs.” Since Canaan, anthropological work has been sparse, due to fragmented circumstances within which Palestinians are working, though there have been successful attempts to collect some folkloric heritage and to produce monographs on such subjects as embroidery.

An institute of archaeology was begun at Birzeit in the 1980s under Albert Glock, who was mysteriously assassinated in 1992. The work of archaeology at Birzeit University has fluctuated since, and later at Al-Quds University a department and an institute of Islamic archaeology were started. More recently, other departments of archaeology have sprung up and are also graduating students, such as at An-Najah University. It may well be propitious at this time for all these universities to cooperate, pool resources, and try to reach a strategic consensus.

It is encouraging to see the work in conservation of heritage and historical buildings being undertaken by some NGOs, such as Riwaq, NEPTO, the Jericho Mosaic Centre directed by Osama Hamdan, and projects to rehabilitate places like Sebastia and Old Hebron. Also, some Palestinian scholarship is beginning to analyse the discipline of archaeology, as in Nadia Abu el Haj’s Facts on the Ground on Israeli practices and suggestions for Palestinian archaeology in an article by Ghattas Sayej.

Palestinian universities, at present, lack proper funding and resources for major excavations and for production of scholarly reports. The situation is exacerbated by the inability of the PA’s Department of Antiquities (Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities) to extend its mandate to Area C, designated in the Oslo Agreement, and by the Ministry’s adoption of the new definition of “Palestine” as the West Bank and Gaza.

A future?
For an effective Palestinian archaeology to emerge, building resources and working within a vision that encompasses the whole of Palestine’s human history are essential requirements. Ancient history remains a challenge in Palestinian self-understanding and in understanding by others of geographic Palestine’s cultural heritage. A corrective history is in the waiting, with research that would separate religious beliefs from archaeological findings and emphasise regional human continuities. Palestine’s history and heritage span tens of thousands of years of prehistory and domestication by humans over several millennia, and cannot be restricted to an ethnicity or religion.

A new approach can be formulated by employing all already-available discoveries, re-interpreting old excavation reports and anthropological studies, starting new excavations, researching customs and ancient connections, and studying ancient languages. This could expand knowledge and thinking rather than continue one-sided takeovers by Israeli scholarship, museums, and antiquities authorities.

Priorities for national policies in education, the media, and tourism are urgently needed, starting with an informational system of tourism and its strategies, at present plagued by traditionalism and repetition. Tourism in its current state cannot enrich the minds of travellers if it reproduces out-dated information and approaches. The same applies to the educational curriculum, which now repeats inaccurate information for students, thus disadvantaging Palestinian national interests. In some cases, the information reproduces or assists Zionist contentions, such as with ancient place names and historical narration of pre-Christian periods. Both tourism and education require new emphases. Palestinians need a national museum and a national archaeological institute. And a campaign to raise public awareness is imperative, to get people involved in ownership and preservation of their heritage - including, at least for 1948-Palestinians, claiming their share of what is now in Israeli heritage parks and museums.

For an auspicious future direction more than funding is required. A new generation of archaeologists, anthropologists, geneticists, and experts in ancient languages and other fields must be trained, and comprehensive strategies adopted in the key areas affecting this field. The priorities we set and the steps we take today will affect our future as a nation, our ability to contribute to human knowledge, and our meaning and sense of identity.  

Basem Ra’ad, born in Jerusalem, is professor emeritus at Al-Quds University, Jerusalem, and author of Hidden Histories: Palestine and the Eastern Mediterranean and several other publications.

Article photos courtesy of the author.

* CE stands for “common era,” now used by many historians instead of AD; BCE, “before the common era,” replaces BC.

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