Blogs Faculty - Gordon Matties

City of David: Archaeology is Political

The tires were slashed and windows smashed in the small Suzuki four wheel drive vehicle we were driving. I was with an Italian friend of mine. It was his car. It had blue West Bank license plates, so we thought we would be fine. But we looked like strangers, and therefore suspicious. Silwan was still “hot” in 1991, just after the first intifada. And it remains a contested area today. The major archaeological sites there (the City of David, Hezekiah’s Tunnel, and the Pool of Siloam) are situated at the centre of a heated controversy. Visitors with eyes wide open discover very quickly that archaeology is political. But most of the 500,000 annual visitors to the site don’t get it.

Silwan has long been an Arab village on the hill just south of the Old City of Jerusalem, within spitting distance of the Temple Mount area, or the Haram es Sharif (Noble Sanctuary). The area has been continuously inhabited (more or less) for 5000 years. After all, who wouldn’t want to live on a hill near a year-round spring? Among the earliest inhabitants of the area were Jebusites, who, according to the books of Joshua and Judges, could not be conquered (Josh 15:63; Judg 1:21). Hundreds of years later, the city became King David’s capital, according to the story in 2 Samuel 5. But even then, the Jebusites continued to live alongside of the first Israelite population in Jerusalem. In the late 19th century the City of David area became a settlement for Yemenite Jewish immigrants. Although Jews and Arabs have lived in the area off and on over the centuries, in recent decades archaeology has been drawn into the conflict.

There are two organizations, both interested in archaeology, that are telling the story of Silwan. One of these writes on its website: “Buried under the village lands, 5000 years of history bind the stories of ancient nations and rulers with the present life of the local residents. Dozens of excavated archaeological strata tell the complex multi-cultural saga of Jerusalem.

We, a group of archaeologists and residents of Silwan, invite you to hear the story of ancient Jerusalem and of life in the village today. Our tour sheds light on the role of archaeology in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and in the discourse of the future of Jerusalem. We will offer a different perspective: archaeology without an ownership, one that bridges between periods, cultures and nations; archaeology which involves the local residents and examines the past as a shared asset regardless of religion or nationality.

We believe that archaeology in Silwan/”City of David” has the power to change the dynamics of the conflict and promote tolerance and respect for other cultures, past and present, for a better future for both the local residents and the whole region.”

Browse through the website for treasures like these: a history timeline, survey of excavations in Silwan (all of which will be relevant for our visit), principles of a peaceable archaeology, and much more. There is a very fine short essay on the Yemenite Jewish settlement in the late 19th century, and another on the current Jewish settlement in Silwan. These two pieces are must reading prior to a visit to the City of David. Of course all tellings of the story are selective, as this piece at the Jewish Virtual Library website illustrates. The story is accurate, but incomplete. The Wikipedia article on Silwan seems to present a broader perspective.

The problem, as those essays point out, is that the City of David archaeological site has become attached to a partisan agenda. I won’t say more here. You can read the articles. Or, read the articles listed at the bottom of the Wikipedia page on Albert Glock, an archaeologist who was murdered on January 19, 1992 in Palestine. I attended his funeral.

Elad, the organization that now runs the City of David archaeological park, has created an wonderful website about the City of David excavations. The home page includes a slide show with uplifting accompanying music. Pick your language and enter an educational smorgasbord of interactive maps, virtual tours, a 360 degree interactive panoramic photograph (read the instructions first), etc. Don’t miss any portion of this website. There are menus across the top and bottom of the page. Because it’s such a rich page, may take a while to load.

For more on the City of David, see Bible Places, and the Israeli Foreign Ministry Archaeology page.

This hasn’t been a long blog post, but the content of the websites toward which I’ve directed you should keep you busy for a few hours. I am looking forward to another visit to Silwan and the City of David this spring!

Faculty - Gordon Matties

Church of the Nativity

What I like most about visiting the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is not seeing “the star” in the floor of the grotto that supposedly “marks the spot” where Jesus was born. It’s being in a place where followers of Jesus have worshiped and commemorated the nativity since the second century.

The pillars in the photo at the left are mostly from the original fourth century church (Photo Creative Commons License Christopher Chan). To read about the church, have a look at the Sacred Destinations website. Here’s a sample:

“In 326, Constantine and his mother St. Helena commisioned a church to be built over the cave. This first church, dedicated on May 31, 339, had an octagonal floor plan and was placed directly above the cave. In the center, a 4-meter-wide hole surrounded by a railing provided a view of the cave. Portions of the floor mosaic (my photo below) survive from this period. St. Jerome lived and worked in Bethlehem from 384 AD, and he was buried in a cave beneath the Church of the Nativity.

The Constantinian church was destroyed by Justinian in 530 AD, who built the much larger church that remains today. The Persians spared it during their invasion in 614 AD because, according to legend, they were impressed by a representation of the Magi — fellow Persians — that decorated the building. This was quoted at a 9th-century synod in Jerusalem to show the utility of religious images.

Muslims prevented the application of Hakim’s decree (1009) ordering the destruction of Christian monuments because, since the time of Omar (639), they had been permitted to use the south transept for worship.

The Crusaders took Jerusalem on 6 June 1009. Baldwin I and II were crowned there, and in an impressive display of tolerance the Franks and Byzantines cooperated in fully redecorating the interior (1165-69). A Greek inscription in the north transept records this event.”

To read more about the Church of the Nativity, CLICK HERE. See also the Photo Gallery at the Sacred Destinations website.

Faculty - Gordon Matties

NOVA: The Bible’s Buried Secrets

Every tour group to the Holy Land, unless it is a short ten day tour, runs the risk of experiencing archaeological site fatigue. My guide, Khalil, happens to love ancient water systems. After the sixth or so water system some of us began to tease Khalil. Over the days, however, we discovered, in spite of ourselves, that we had gained an insight into life in ancient Israel/Canaan. Water is a precious resource that must be protected. I am tempted to digress by mentioning why water continues to be a contested resource in Israel Palestine. But more on that in another blog.

For now, let me say that archaeological site fatigue can be remedied in two ways. One depends on the guide, who should be able to bring the site to life by telling stories that link the site to the biblical and historical record. A second depends on the tour participant. I suggest prospective tour participants do some reading and viewing to discover what archaeology contributes to our understanding of the ancient world, and of the biblical text.

For a very fine exploration of that topic, one can hardly do better than to watch NOVA’s (PBS television) “The Bible’s Buried Secrets.” That web page offers a variety of interactive pieces, including short articles, timelines, and videos on interesting topics like “Moses and the Exodus,” “The Palace of David,” “Archaeology of the Hebrew Bible,” and more. Every one of the links on this page is worth having a look at.

NOVA’s must-see two hour television program has been divided into 13 chapters, each of which can be viewed separately. If that link doesn’t allow you to view the videos, you can watch it by CLICKING HERE. When one episode is done, click “next” at the top left of the screen.

Becoming informed about archaeology will provide you with a few resources that allow you to be able to ask the right kinds of questions on the site, and to understand better why the “ancient stones” are relevant to a tour like this.

Faculty - Gordon Matties

Annunciation Goes Global in Nazareth

I’ve always marveled at the mosaics in the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. They tell us in visual language the biblical story of the angel Gabriel’s announcement of Jesus’ birth to Mary Luke 1:26-38. Hearing the gospel reading in worship this morning reminded me of my many visits to that amazing church, the largest in the Middle East.

Nazareth is also famous in Luke’s gospel as Jesus’ home town, where he read his famous “manifesto” from the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-29; citing Isaiah 61;1-2; 58:6).

It isn’t surprising that this same infusion of the Holy Spirit that settled on Mary (Luke 1:34) also empowered Jesus. Could it be that Jesus embraced his mission of justice after learning it from his mother? After all, her empowerment expressed itself in poetic form, imagining God as one who “has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:51-53).

On visiting the Church of the Annunciation, one is struck by the many mosaics that line the walls of the upper level of the church, and of the courtyard walls. Each mosaic depicts either the annunciation scene itself, or Mary with the infant Jesus. Each is designed as imagined by an artist from a different country. It is striking that each one reflects a cultural embodiment, suggesting that this story transcends Nazareth. God’s presence, as incarnated in Jesus, is understood as transposed into the garb and idiom of scores of nationalities and ethnicities. Here are a few of the images. Not all of these images are easily photographed, since lighting is limited and flash is not allowed. Click on each one to see the mosaic in a larger format.Japan








Faculty - Gordon Matties

When Was Jesus Born?

Photo Creative Commons License Tamer Shabaneh.

The other day I was listening to the The Blind Boys of Alabama Christmas CD (Go Tell it On the Mountain). The song “When Was Jesus Born” struck me as worth commenting on during Advent (please do read to the end to watch the video). The fact is, shepherds were not tending their sheep in Bethlehem’s “fields” in late December (“the last month of the year,” as the song goes) but in summer or into September, some time after the grain harvest in April and May (Luke 2:8-10). Flocks simply wouldn’t have been allowed in the fields until then. And that reminds me that we will be visiting the Shepherds’ Fields in Beit Sahour, just outside Bethlehem, on May 1, 2010 (our first day on the ground). Although one website I read recently claimed Jesus was born on September 29, 05 B.C., it could have been May. So perhaps we’ll celebrate with the shepherds and the angels that day.

I have a wonderful memory of one of my visits to that site (Christmas, 1991). There’s a beautiful chapel at the Franciscan site. It was designed by the Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi in 1954 (more on his work in another blog posting). As we were leaving the site, we heard a group inside the chapel singing the old standby, “Angels We Have Heard On High.” Our daughter, 3 years old at the time, on hearing the chorus “Gloria in excelsis deo,” asked, “Mommy, where are the angels?”

“Tradition”locates the Shepherds’ Fields in least two places, one run by the Greek Orthodox and the other by the Franciscans. As one looks around the village of Beit Sahour, one realizes that the entire region surrounding Bethlehem would have been cultivated in grain. Remember the biblical story of Ruth and Boaz? David Roberts’ lithograph (1842) presents that image well. CLICK HERE to locate the shepherds’ fields on an interactive map of the Bethlehem region.

So whatever the date (let’s say some time in summer), the song “When Was Jesus Born” is still worth listening to. You can hear the crystal clear version sung by the Stars of Faith, with Marion Williams singing lead (video version here). I like the raucous Winans’ version set in the context of a Christmas party. Best of all is this video of the Blind Boys of Alabama stealing the show from a very staid Christmas Pageant.

Faculty - Gordon Matties

King Herod in Bethlehem and Beyond

Thinking about Bethlehem during Advent reminds us of King Herod, whose tomb was discovered in 2007 just outside the city at the fortress called Herodium. I was pleased to be able to see it for the first time when I led the Ancient Stones, Living Stones tour in the spring of 2008.

Of course Herod and Bethlehem are related to one another in several texts, particularly in Matthew’s gospel. Herod appears in the story of the Magi’s visit (2:1-12) and in the story of the massacre of the infants (2:16-18). These stories remind us of what Matthew’s gospel is doing with the notion of power. Herod, for Matthew, stands in for Pharaoh of the Exodus story. Matthew’s gospel even tells us that Mary’s and Joseph’s escape with baby Jesus is an ironic escape to Egypt because Herod is looking to kill him. Matthew explains the irony by quoting the prophet Hosea, “Out of Egypt I have called my son” (Matt 2:15; Hosea 11:1). The Magi, of course, want to pay “homage” to this new king. The Greek word for “homage” appears three times in Matt 2:1-12, and thirteen times in all in Matthew’s gospel (and by comparison not many times in other gospels). Another way of rendering the word “homage” is “worship.” Matthew has an agenda. Jesus is the object of worship, of homage, not Herod, nor any other power (cf. 4:9).

Looking at Herod’s tomb at the Herodium reminds us of power gone awry. During this tour we will visit at least five of Herod’s massive building projects (Herodium, Masada, Temple Mount, Hebron Sanctuary of the Ancestors, and Caesarea by the sea). According to Matthew, King Jesus is building a kingdom whose evidence is discerned in a new community concerned with justice and peace, not in grand stone structures (Matt 16:19).

Read this recent National Geographic article on “King Herod Revealed.” Don’t miss the Photo Gallery by Michael Melford, and the King Herod quiz!

Faculty - Gordon Matties

Banksy in Bethlehem

The first time I entered Bethlehem after the separation barrier had been built, I felt as though I were imprisoned. Unless one stays inside an air-conditioned bus, the massive guard tower and the eight meter high wall (see the photo on a previous blog post) make it impossible to avoid that experience. Tourists are easily whisked into Manger Square for the requisite visit to the Church of the Nativity. But I like my groups to linger for a while. By staying in Bethlehem for four nights, we’ll be able to have a richer experience.

One of the blessings of a longer stay is the opportunity to see some of the graffiti art on the separation barrier. The most prominent pieces are those painted by Banksy, a “quasi-anonymous British graffiti artist” (Wikipedia). In 2005 Banksy painted nine images on the wall. Some of those, like the one of the little girl frisking a soldier at a security checkpoint, can be seen on the side of a building in Behlehem. I took that picture in 2006.Here are a few more:

Hole in the wall:
Let’s climb over?

Imagining a paradise:

Of course others are also adding variety:

We can only imagine what it must be like for ordinary people to face that wall every day. This house in Bethlehem is surrounded on three sides by the separation wall.

Banksy’s graffiti art offers a slightly hopeful imagination, even if terribly ironic, to those who must live with this constant reminder that their only hope for freedom of movement is emigration.

Faculty - Gordon Matties

Sinai: A Separate Peace

The March 2009 issue of National Geographic has a fine article: “Sinai: A Separate Peace.” Amid a sea of conflict, the Sinai offers pleasure, spiritual refuge, and—potentially—harmony. Here’s a paragraph to whet your appetite for reading the whole article.

“For millennia the Sinai Peninsula has served as a bridge. A land bridge for people moving from one continent to another, yes, but also a metaphysical bridge between man and God. The forebears of the three great monotheistic religions are all said to have sought refuge in this triangular desert. According to the Bible, Moses received his assignment in Sinai when God spoke to him from the burning bush, then wandered the desert with his people for 40 years. As a child, Jesus and his family fled into Sinai to escape a jealous King Herod’s wrath. Early Christians hid from Roman persecutors among the peninsula’s lonely mountains, establishing some of the first monastic communities.”

Do not miss having a look at this very fine MAP, and a Photo Gallery by Matt Moyer. The photos and the article depict Sinai in all its contradictions, hosting both ancient traditions and modern indulgences. CLICK HERE for a printer ready version of the article (without page breaks).

Faculty - Gordon Matties

Approaching Bethlehem in Advent

A Canadian Mennonite University Study Tour
April 26 – May 17, 2012

Faculty - Gordon Matties

Who Owns the Holy Land?

A Canadian Mennonite University Study Tour
April 26 – May 17, 2012