Crocs Uncover

Bizarre Species

viernes, 3 de diciembre de 2010

David and Solomon 1

The woman sitting on a bench in the Old City of Jerusalem, round-faced and bundled up against the autumn chill, chews on an apple while studying the building that has brought her both fame and aggravation. It doesn't really look like a building—just some low stone walls abutting an ancient terraced retaining wall 60 feet high. But because the woman is an archaeologist, and because this is her discovery, her eyes see what others might not. She sees the building's position, on a northern escarpment of the ancient city overlooking Jerusalem's Kidron Valley, and she imagines an ideal perch from which to survey a kingdom. She imagines the Phoenician carpenters and stonemasons who erected it in the tenth century B.C. She imagines as well the Babylonians who destroyed it four centuries later. Most of all, she imagines the man she believes commissioned and occupied the building. His name was David. This, she has declared to the world, is most likely the building described in the Second Book of Samuel: "King Hiram of Tyre sent … carpenters and masons, and they built a house for David. And David realized that the Lord had established him as king over Israel, and that He had exalted his kingdom for the sake of His people Israel."

The woman's name is Eilat Mazar. Munching and gazing, she is the picture of equanimity—until a tour guide shows up. He's a young Israeli man accompanied by a half dozen tourists who assemble in front of the bench so they can view the building. The moment he opens his mouth, Mazar knows what's coming. The tour guide is a former archaeology student of hers. She's heard how he brings tourists to this spot and informs them that this is NOT the palace of David and that all the archaeological work at the City of David is a way for right-wing Israelis to expand the country's territorial claims and displace Palestinians.

Mazar jumps up from the bench and marches over to the tour guide. She chews him out in a staccato of Hebrew, while he stares passively at her. The gaping tourists watch her stalk off.

"You really need to be strong," she mutters as she walks. "It's like everyone wants to destroy what you do." And then, more plaintively: "Why? What did we do wrong?"

The archaeologist gets into her car. She looks stricken. "I feel like I'm really getting sick from stress," she says. "I've lost years from my life."

In no other part of the world does archaeology so closely resemble a contact sport. Eilat Mazar is one of the reasons why. Her announcement in 2005 that she believed she had unearthed the palace of King David amounted to a ringing defense of an old-school proposition under assault for more than a quarter century—namely, that the Bible's depiction of the empire established under David and continued by his son Solomon is historically accurate. Mazar's claim has emboldened those Christians and Jews throughout the world who maintain that the Old Testament can and should be taken literally. Her purported discovery carries particular resonance in Israel, where the story of David and Solomon is interwoven with the Jews' historical claims to biblical Zion.

That narrative is familiar to any student of the Bible. A young shepherd named David from the tribe of Judah slays the giant Goliath from the enemy tribe of the Philistines, is elevated to king of Judah following the death of Saul at the close of the 11th century B.C., conquers Jerusalem, unites the people of Judah with the disparate Israelite tribes to the north, and thereupon amasses a royal dynasty that continues with Solomon well into the tenth century B.C. But while the Bible says David and Solomon built the kingdom of Israel into a powerful and prestigious empire stretching from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River, from Damascus to the Negev, there's a slight problem—namely, that despite decades of searching, archaeologists had found no solid evidence that David or Solomon ever built anything.

Then Mazar sounded her trumpet. "She knew what she was doing," says fellow Israeli archaeologist David Ilan of Hebrew Union College. "She waded into the fray purposefully, wanting to make a statement."

Ilan himself doubts that Mazar has found King David's palace. "My gut tells me this is an eighth- or ninth-century building," he says, constructed a hundred years or more after Solomon died in 930 B.C. More broadly, critics question Mazar's motives. They note that her excavation work was underwritten by two organizations—the City of David Foundation and the Shalem Center—dedicated to the assertion of Israel's territorial rights. And they scoff at Mazar's allegiance to the antiquated methods of her archaeological forebears, such as her grandfather, who unapologetically worked with a trowel in one hand and the Bible in the other.

The once common practice of using the Bible as an archaeological guide has been widely contested as an unscientific case of circular reasoning—and with particular relish by Tel Aviv University's contrarian-in-residence Israel Finkelstein, who has made a career out of merrily demolishing such assumptions. He and other proponents of "low chronology" say that the weight of archaeological evidence in and around Israel suggests that the dates posited by biblical scholars are a century off. The "Solomonic" buildings excavated by biblical archaeologists over the past several decades at Hazor, Gezer, and Megiddo were not constructed in David and Solomon's time, he says, and so must have been built by kings of the ninth-century B.C.'s Omride dynasty, well after David and Solomon's reign.

During David's time, as Finkelstein casts it, Jerusalem was little more than a "hill-country village," David himself a raggedy upstart akin to Pancho Villa, and his legion of followers more like "500 people with sticks in their hands shouting and cursing and spitting—not the stuff of great armies of chariots described in the text.

"Of course we're not looking at the palace of David!" Finkelstein roars at the very mention of Mazar's discovery. "I mean, come on. I respect her efforts. I like her—very nice lady. But this interpretation is—how to say it?—a bit naive."
Now it is Finkelstein's theory that is under siege. On the heels of Mazar's claim to have discovered King David's palace, two other archaeologists have unveiled remarkable finds. Twenty miles southwest of Jerusalem in the Elah Valley—the very spot where the Bible says the young shepherd David slew Goliath—Hebrew University professor Yosef Garfinkel claims to have unearthed the first corner of a Judaean city dating to the exact time that David reigned. Meanwhile, 30 miles south of the Dead Sea in Jordan, a University of California, San Diego professor named Thomas Levy has spent the past eight years excavating a vast copper-smelting operation at Khirbat en Nahas. Levy dates one of the biggest periods of copper production at the site to the tenth century B.C.—which, according to the biblical narrative, is when David's antagonists the Edomites dwelled in this region. (However, scholars like Finkelstein maintain that Edom did not emerge until two centuries later.) The very existence of a large mining and smelting operation fully two centuries before Finkelstein's camp maintains the Edomites emerged would imply complex economic activity at the exact time that David and Solomon reigned. "It's possible that this belonged to David and Solomon," Levy says of his discovery. "I mean, the scale of metal production here is that of an ancient state or kingdom."

Levy and Garfinkel—both of whom have been awarded grants by the National Geographic Society—support their contentions with a host of scientific data, including pottery remnants and radiocarbon dating of olive and date pits found at the sites. If the evidence from their ongoing excavations holds up, yesteryear's scholars who touted the Bible as a factually accurate account of the David and Solomon story may be vindicated.

As Eilat Mazar says with palpable satisfaction, "This is the end of Finkelstein's school."

A busy highway, Route 38, crosses the ancient road that follows the Elah Valley en route to the Mediterranean Sea. Beneath the hills on either side of the road lie the ruins of Socoh and Azekah. According to the Bible, the Philistines encamped in this valley, between the two towns, just before their fateful encounter with David.

The battlefield of legend is now quiet and abounds with wheat, barley, almond trees, and grapevines, not to mention a few of the indigenous terebinth (elah in Hebrew) trees from which the valley derives its name. A small bridge extends from Route 38 over the Brook of Elah. During high season, tourist buses park here so that their passengers can climb down into the valley and retrieve a rock to take back home and impress friends with a stone from the same place as the one that killed Goliath.

"Maybe Goliath never existed," says Garfinkel as he drives across the bridge and up to his site, Khirbet Qeiyafa. "The story is that Goliath came from a giant city, and in the telling of it over the centuries, he became a giant himself. It's a metaphor. Modern scholars want the Bible to be like the Oxford Encyclopedia. People didn't write history 3,000 years ago like this. In the evening by the fire, this is where stories like David and Goliath started."

Beneath Garfinkel's bald, scholarly exterior and gentle sense of humor—which reveals a jagged edge when the subject is Israel Finkelstein—lurks a man of unmistakable ambition. He first learned from an Israeli Antiquities Authority ranger about a nine-foot-high megalithic wall looming over the Brook of Elah. He began digging in earnest in 2008.

The wall, Garfinkel discovered, was of the same variety seen in the northern cities of Hazor and Gezer—a casemate of two walls with a chamber in between—and it encircled a fortified city of about six acres. Private houses abutted the city wall, an arrangement not seen in Philistine society. After shoveling out the topsoil, Garfinkel uncovered coins and other artifacts from the time of Alexander the Great. Beneath that Hellenistic layer he found buildings scattered with four olive pits, which carbon-14 analysis dated to around 1000 B.C. He also found an ancient tray for baking pita bread, along with hundreds of bones from cattle, goats, sheep, and fish—but no pig bones. In other words, Judaeans, rather than Philistines, must have lived (or at least dined) here. Because Garfinkel's excavation team also uncovered a very rare find—a clay pottery sherd with writing that appears to be a proto-Canaanite script with verbs characteristic of Hebrew—the conclusion to him seemed obvious: Here was a tenth-century B.C. complex Judaean society of the sort that low chronologists like Finkelstein claimed did not exist.

And what was its name? Garfinkel found his answer upon discovering that the fortified city had not one but two gates—the only such site found thus far in the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. "Two gates" translates into Hebrew as shaarayim, a city mentioned three times in the Bible. One of those references (I Samuel 17:52) describes the Philistines fleeing David back to Gath via the "road from Shaaraim."

"You have David and Goliath, and you have our site, and it fits," says Garfinkel simply. "It's typical Judaea, from the animal bones to the city wall. Give us two arguments why this is Philistine. One argument is because Finkelstein doesn't want us to destroy low chronology. OK, so give us a second reason."
Here would be a second reason to be skeptical of Yossi Garfinkel's conclusions: He announced them, swiftly and dramatically, despite the fact that he had only four olive pits on which to base his dating, a single inscription of a highly ambiguous nature, and a mere 5 percent of his site excavated. In other words, says archaeologist David Ilan, "Yossi has an agenda—partly ideological, but also personal. He's a very smart and ambitious guy. Finkelstein's the big gorilla, and the young bucks think he's got a monopoly over biblical archaeology. So they want to dethrone him."

Better still, from the perspective of other interested parties: Once Finkelstein retreats from the throne, King David returns to it.

He has persisted for three millennia—an omnipresence in art, folklore, churches, and census rolls. To Muslims, he is Daoud, the venerated emperor and servant of Allah. To Christians, he is the natural and spiritual ancestor of Jesus, who thereby inherits David's messianic mantle. To the Jews, he is the father of Israel—the shepherd king anointed by God—and they in turn are his descendants and God's Chosen People. That he might be something lesser, or a myth altogether, is to many unthinkable.

"Our claim to being one of the senior nations in the world, to being a real player in civilization's realm of ideas, is that we wrote this book of books, the Bible," says Daniel Polisar, president of the Shalem Center, the Israeli research institute that helped fund Eilat Mazar's excavation work. "You take David and his kingdom out of the book, and you have a different book. The narrative is no longer a historical work, but a work of fiction. And then the rest of the Bible is just a propagandistic effort to create something that never was. And if you can't find the evidence for it, then it probably didn't happen. That's why the stakes are so high."

The books of the Old Testament outlining the story of David and Solomon consist of scriptures probably written at least 300 years after the fact, by not-so-objective authors. No contemporaneous texts exist to validate their claims. Since the dawn of biblical archaeology, scholars have sought in vain to verify that there really was an Abraham, a Moses, an Exodus, a conquest of Jericho. At the same time, says Amihai Mazar, Eilat's cousin and among Israel's most highly regarded archaeologists, "Almost everyone agrees that the Bible is an ancient text relating to the history of this country during the Iron Age. You can look at it critically, as many scholars do. But you can't ignore the text—you must relate to it."

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