Biblical Archaeology in Focus
A tribute to photographer David Harris
There is no denying that a stunning site shot or an artistic artifact photo can make the past come alive in ways that writing alone cannot. We’ve worked with the world’s foremost photographers, museums and stock houses to illustrate BAR with the best possible photos, but we focus here on one man whose camera masterfully captured the development of a discipline.
Last year we were shocked and saddened by the untimely loss of renowned photographer David Harris, who died at age 78 after being hit by a car in Jerusalem.
During his lifetime, David Harris and his camera captured many defining moments and finds in Biblical archaeology.
Harris spent several years at the Jewish Agency’s publicity and information department, where his photographs served to document a very difficult time in the growth of Israel, while portraying it in an optimistic light.
He began his freelance photography career in 1959, working for the press, archaeological excavations and commercial institutions, which he continued in Jerusalem until his death.
In 1961, Harris received a special assignment to be head photographer for the Judean Desert excavation directed by Yigael Yadin, and in 1965 the Israel Museum hired Harris to photograph its growing collection of art and artifacts. His photographs have been featured in numerous books, exhibitions and publications, including countless dozens in the pages of BAR.
As we said in our September/October 2008 obituary for Harris, “he lives on in his many beautiful photographs of the city, country and people he loved so much.” So as a special tribute, we present here ten of his magnificent photographs and the ways they’ve given us insight into the world of Biblical archaeology.
Even though it stands only 5.5 inches tall, David Harris was able to capture every exquisite detail in his photograph of this ivory cherub carving that received its first publication in the pages of BAR. It is now part of 054the core collection of the Bible Lands Museum, Jerusalem.
Although it was part of an ivory collection acquired on the antiquities market in 1954 by famed collector Elie Borowski (who later founded the Bible Lands Museum to exhibit his vast collection), it is widely agreed that this cherub and the rest of Borowski’s unprovenanced ivories belong to the Arslan Tash ivory hoard (dated to 850–800 B.C.), which was excavated in 1928 by a French expedition to Arslan Tash, in northern Syria.
Unlike the angelic chubby-faced infants depicted in so many Renaissance paintings, cherubim (the Hebrew plural of cherub) were mythical hybrid creatures that played an important role in the Hebrew Bible and the rest of ancient Near Eastern culture. Although depictions varied, cherubim usually contained elements of four creatures: human, lion, eagle and bull, as described by the prophet Ezekiel (see Ezekiel 1, 10). The combination of a human head, eagle’s wings, a lion’s body and a bull’s hindquarters brought together the valuable attributes of reason, swiftness, strength and procreative potency in one powerful figure.
According to some scholars, cherubim were, to the ancient mind, suitable symbols of God’s omnipotence, omnipresence and wisdom. Even in Christianity, each of the four Evangelists were assigned the symbol of one of the cherubim’s components: the man for Matthew, the lion for Mark, the bull for Luke, and the eagle for John.
Indeed, these protective cherubim have an important place in the Hebrew Bible as well. After expelling Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, God placed cherubim to guard the way to the tree of life (Genesis 3:24). Their images were woven into the Tabernacle tapestries and the Temple veil and carved throughout the Temple (see Exodus 36–37; 1 Kings 6–8), and two pairs of cherubim of gold and olive wood stretched out their wings over the Ark of the Covenant in the inner sanctuary of the Temple (Exodus 37:7–9; 1 Kings 6:23). It was there in the Holy of Holies that God’s presence resided, and the Biblical writers refer to the Lord numerous times as the one who “sits enthroned on the cherubim” (2 Samuel 6:2; Psalm 80:1).
The ivory cherub from Arslan Tash was carved from a single elephant’s tusk and wears the double crown of upper and lower Egypt on its human head, as well as an Egyptian skirt draped over the front of its lion’s legs. The wings stretch out to their full extent, and although the back portion of the cherub is damaged, it bears tell-tale evidence of a bull’s legs and tail. In addition to the attire, the elegant almond-shaped eye and the lotus flowers surrounding the cherub show clear Egyptian influence, but the profile stance indicates Phoenician style and origin (as opposed to the front-facing stance of Assyrian styles).
This piece was almost certainly part of a pair or larger scenic group of ivory inlays used to decorate a wooden bed in the palace of an Assyrian governor. The prophet Amos speaks harshly of this very type of extravagant furniture in Israel (Amos 6:4).
According to the Bible, the Phoenician king Hiram of Tyre provided Solomon with materials and men to construct his Temple in Jerusalem (1 Kings 5; 2 Chronicles 2). No doubt this resulted in significant Phoenician stylistic influences in the new Israelite Temple. This small ninth-century ivory piece gives us a glimpse of the masterful craftsmanship and theological symbolism that went into Solomon’s Temple.
The Western Wall Plaza
This photo shot by David Harris above the plaza of the Western Wall was taken on Jerusalem Day, the annual Israeli holiday that commemorates the unification of East and West Jerusalem following the 1967 war. Throughout his career, Harris strove to document Jewish life and aspirations in the modern State of Israel, and he often used venerable and hallowed backdrops such as the Western Wall to capture moments of national pride and reflection.
The Western Wall is a site of immense importance to the Jewish faith. For centuries it was thought that the wall was the last vestige of Solomon’s Temple and thus Jews came to this spot to mourn and weep over its destruction, first by the Babylonians and then by the Romans. We now know that the Western Wall was neither built by Solomon nor part of the First or Second Temples, but the wall remains the holiest site in all of Judaism and, as seen in this photograph, a powerful symbol of Jewish identity and Israeli pride.
The wall was actually built by Herod the Great in the first century B.C. as the western retaining wall of his Temple Mount, the massive podium that supported Herod’s grand Second Temple complex. This immense construction still serves as the foundation of the present day al-Haram al-Sharif (“Noble Sanctuary”) upon which sits the iconic golden Dome of the Rock.
Today only the bottom seven courses of the visible Western Wall—constructed of distinct stones with carefully cut margins and flat central bosses—are remnants from Herod’s time. The rest of the wall was rebuilt repeatedly with far smaller and cruder blocks in the 20 centuries since. Hidden beneath the pavement of the Western Wall plaza, however, archaeologists have discovered another 19 courses of Herod’s wall that extend almost 70 feet below the surface and are made of enormous stone blocks, some weighing more than 500 tons. The largest of these blocks, found in a narrow tunnel that extends north underneath the city along the edge of the podium’s western wall, are known as the Master Course. This course is made up of a series of huge stones, each 11 feet high and between 25 and 42 feet long. Scholars believe these massive stones functioned to buttress the western wall against structural forces elsewhere in the Temple Mount.
Together with the other impressive structures and artifacts that have been unearthed in the vicinity of the Western Wall dating to Herod’s time (see “Temple Mount Shops” later in this article), it is clear that Herod’s Temple Mount was an incredible architectural achievement that had few, if any, rivals in the ancient world.
Hadrian in Bronze
In 1975, an American tourist exploring the Jordan River valley found much more than the ancient coins he was looking for. When Morton Leventhal’s metal detector indicated the presence of metal, he dug down to find a larger-than-life bronze bust of the second-century Roman emperor Hadrian. He brought the statue fragments to a nearby kibbutz, where Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist Gideon Foerster retrieved them. The scholar immediately recognized the familiar features of the famous Roman emperor, whose visage is among the most prolific images of the Roman Empire in the second century. David Harris photographed the stunning bronze portrait for the Israel Museum, where it now resides. What makes this piece so rare, however, is the material of which it is made. While marble sculptures of Hadrian are comparatively common, there are only two other bronze candidates.
Bronze statuary and architectural pieces were not rare in antiquity, but the fact that bronze was often melted down and recast by people in later periods has made ancient examples exceptionally rare today. The discovery of this bronze bust near Tell Shalem, an ancient site approximately 8 miles south of Beth Shean, prompted the Israel Antiquities Authority to conduct further excavations in order to place the remarkable statue in context. Five years earlier, an inscription had been found near the site that read VEXILATIO LEG VI FERR, the Latin name for the Sixth Roman Legion, nicknamed the “Iron Legion.” The legion had been stationed in Syria and was ordered south by Hadrian to aid the hard-pressed Tenth Legion during the Second Jewish Revolt, or Bar-Kokhba Revolt (132–135 A.D.).
Subsequent excavations revealed part of a Roman military camp, including a building thought to belong to the principia, the headquarters of the fort. Pottery and coins recovered from the site confirmed the second-century date of the camp, placing it at the time of the Second Jewish Revolt. The excavators also uncovered a dedicatory inscription from the same period, most likely from a triumphal arch that was erected to celebrate the successful suppression of the revolt.
Other bronze pieces were found at the site, including the life-size head of a boy, which could have been part of a single composition that included the emperor’s bust. Some scholars speculate that the bronze statue was cast in several pieces in Rome and then shipped to the fort in order to be assembled and placed in a shrine. In piecing together the 42 fragments of the Hadrian statue, conservators at the Israel Museum discovered that the emperor was originally depicted standing, with his right arm raised—a typical pose in Roman imperial images. It has been speculated that the original piece portrayed the emperor with his foot on the head of a crouching boy, the symbolic representation of the conquered enemy.
Born Publius Aelius Hadrianus in 76 A.D. in Italica, Spain (near modern Seville), Hadrian ruled the Roman Empire from 117 A.D. until his death in 138. Upon the death of his predecessor and distant relative Trajan, Hadrian succeeded to the throne and immediately set about solidifying the boundaries of the empire that Trajan had spent most of his own reign expanding. He traveled extensively throughout the empire, including a visit to the eastern provinces in 129–130 A.D., where he stopped in cities of Judea as part of his iter principis, or “itinerary of the prince.” It was around this time that Hadrian put down the Second Jewish Revolt and rebuilt the city of Jerusalem, conferring on it the status of a Roman colony and naming it Aelia Capitolina.1 Aelia came from his own name, Aelius, while Capitolina refers to the Capitoline Triad in Rome—the three primary deities of the Roman religion—Jupiter, Juno and Minerva.
Scholars disagree about whether the construction of Aelia Capitolina was the cause of the Bar-Kokhba Revolt or the result. What exactly Hadrian built on top of the Temple Mount is also a subject of debate. However, it is known that Jews were barred from entering Aelia Capitolina by imperial edict—except once a year, when they were allowed to mourn the loss of their Temple.
Archaeological evidence suggests that Hadrian’s city was confined to the northern half of the area that is now the Old City.2 The southern portion was most likely occupied by the Tenth Roman Legion, a permanent garrison stationed there by Hadrian after the Second Revolt to prevent further insurrection.
Although the architectural remains of Hadrian’s Aelia Capitolina are scant, the suppression of the Bar-Kokhba Revolt and the subsequent banning of Jews from Jerusalem had effects that reverberated through the following centuries. Jerusalem would not be a center 058of Jewish political, cultural or religious life again until the modern era.
Wadi Feiran and Mt. Sinai Candidate
It was here, in the verdant oasis of Wadi Feiran in the southern Sinai, that Moses gave the tired, thirsty and ever-faithless children of Israel a much-needed break from their 40-year journey through the desert. Surely, the sight of the oasis’s sweet springs, lush canopy and abundant grasses—all beautifully captured in this David Harris photograph—would have caused even the most cynical tribesman to reflect on Yahweh’s greatness.
According to Exodus 15:27, the oasis of Feiran (or Elim, as it is referred to in the Bible) was the second encampment of the Israelites on their long and tortuous journey across the Sinai. Elim, with its “twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees” was no doubt far more attractive to the Israelites than their first encampment at Marah, where they complained angrily to Moses that the brackish water was too bitter to drink (Exodus 15:22–25). But at Elim—the largest and most fertile oasis in the Sinai desert—the Israelites would have found comfort under 059nearly 3 miles of palm-covered shade and enough pure spring water to satisfy both themselves and their herds for months. According to local tradition, Feiran is also believed to be the spot where Moses struck a stone with his staff, causing water to miraculously flow from the rock (Exodus 17:3–7).
In the distance, looming ominously above the serene tranquility of this earthly paradise, are the jagged spires of Mt. Serbal, the fifth highest mountain in the Sinai range and a possible candidate for the Biblical Mt. Sinai. At least a century before the Emperor Justinian (483–565 A.D.) had established St. Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of the higher peak of Jebel Musa, a group of early Christian monks had already identified Serbal as the ancient Biblical mountain. Even today, one can still visit the ruins of the small monastery they built at the base of the mountain or climb the rocky path that allowed the monks to ascend the peak’s lofty heights.
Temple Mount Shops
David Harris had a keen eye for archaeology, and as a professional archaeological photographer, his work provided vital visual documentation of the artifacts, sites and scholars of Biblical archaeology. In this photograph of the southern part of the Western Wall excavations in Jerusalem, Harris managed to capture in a single frame the complex mechanics of a modern dig: the systematic removal and sifting of earth and debris, the constant struggle to understand a site’s stratigraphy, and the ongoing discussions among excavators about the meaning of artifacts and features.
Perhaps more important, Harris’s photograph captures the visual remnants of an ancient world that only archaeology can reveal. Dominating the scene is the wall of the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount—part of the great retaining wall originally constructed by Herod the Great to support his vast and opulent Temple compound. At the top left of the photo, one can spot part of the remains of Robinson’s Arch, a huge springing arch that once supported a monumental staircase leading to the compound above.
It was the area under the grand staircase, however, that provided archaeologists with their most intimate portrait of ancient Judean life and worship. In antiquity, a broad, well-paved avenue ran along the entire length of the western wall of the Temple Mount. As archaeologists excavated below the tumbled ruins of the staircase, they found that not only had this street continued under Robinson’s Arch, but that it had also been lined with a variety of shops and stalls, the blockish remains of which can be seen near the center of Harris’s photo.
Inside the small cellular compartments, archaeologists found many of the typical items of ancient commerce: coins, weights and pottery. But they also recovered a fragment of a small vessel that had been inscribed with the Hebrew word korban (“sacrifice”) and two crudely drawn birds. In ancient Judea, birds were regularly sacrificed as ritual offerings, especially on the occasion of the birth of a child. It is possible that such vessels were sold to families as ready-made offerings of thanksgiving that could then be deposited at the Temple.
Amid the ruins of the arcade, archaeologists also discovered a smoothed and beautifully inscribed stone slab. The well-cut stone, with 060its rounded upper edge and prominent bevel, had clearly fallen from the edifice of one of the buildings above, possibly when the Romans sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple in 70 A.D. The Hebrew inscription, which unfortunately is broken at the end, reads, “To the place of the trumpeting to [or for] …” Although the text at first appears to be an enigma, Josephus informs us that during the days of King Herod, the Temple priests would signal the beginning and end of the Sabbath with a trumpet blast from the roof of their quarters on the Temple Mount. The stone and its inscription, therefore, may have once marked the direction to the spot where the priests of Jerusalem announced the Sabbath.
In this evocative photograph of the Israelite fortress of Tel Arad, David Harris captures the imposing view that would have greeted visitors to the fortified citadel nearly 3,000 years ago. The shot’s low, horizontal perspective and dramatic contrast in colors convey both the enormity of the ancient edifice and its eerie solitude within the barren wastelands of the Negev desert.
The Arad fortress, which is situated upon a narrow hilltop in the northern Negev, was an important strategic and commercial outpost guarding the southern approaches to ancient Judah. Its impressive walls and commanding towers were first constructed by King Solomon in the tenth century B.C. and, over the next 350 years, were continually rebuilt and reoccupied by Israelite forces.
Until Israeli archaeologists under the directorship of Yohanan Aharoni began excavating Arad in the 1960s, no site within Israel had produced a continuous archaeological profile of the entire Iron Age period (1200–586 B.C.). With the excavation of the long-lived fortress, however, archaeologists were able to see first-hand how Israelite culture changed and transformed across the centuries. They discovered how the walls and gates of the fort were constantly strengthened and reinforced to withstand new threats, how water was supplied to those inside and, of course, how tastes in pottery changed and evolved over time.
The most fascinating finds, however, came from inside the mighty walls of the fortress. In the northwest corner of the fort, Aharoni and his team uncovered the only Israelite temple ever discovered in an archaeological context. But much to their surprise, the small desert sanctuary shared few of the features of the more famous Jerusalem Temple constructed by Solomon and described in detail in the Bible. The main sanctuary in the Arad temple was approached not through a long-room like the heikhal of Solomon’s Temple, but through a far more intimate broad-room that gave almost immediate access to the Holy of Holies—a small niche projecting out of the room’s back wall. And perched atop the small platform within the Holy of Holies that formed the focal point of the temple was not the Ark of the Covenant as found in Jerusalem, but rather two unadorned standing stones, one slightly larger than the other. While it is impossible to say which god or gods were represented by these massebot, the fact that the entire temple was programmatically buried during the religious reforms of King Josiah would suggest that the stones were indeed images of the Israelite God Yahweh and his Asherah.
Equally important for the study of ancient Israel was the discovery at Arad of more than a hundred short inscriptions written in black ink on pottery sherds, or ostraca. The hot, dry weather of the Negev had preserved the barely legible ink for nearly 3,000 years, but it was Aharoni’s innovative technique of “dipping”—dousing all excavated sherds in water before a fuller cleaning—that allowed his team to recognize the texts before inadvertently scrubbing them away. The result was the largest single cache of Iron Age Hebrew inscriptions ever discovered within Israel.
The ostraca, some of which may date to as early as the reign of Solomon, provide a fascinating glimpse into the daily administration and upkeep of an Israelite frontier outpost. Particularly enlightening are a series of brief messages addressed to Eliashib, commander of the Arad fortress in the late seventh and early sixth centuries B.C. A number of the letters request that Eliashib release food rations and supplies (mostly wine, flour and bread) to the various military contingents under his command, including a group of mysterious Cypriot mercenaries known as the Kittiyim. Another letter, likely written on the eve of the fortress’s final destruction at the hands of the Babylonian-backed Edomites, implores Eliashib to send reinforcements to the nearby area of Ramat-Negeb. The letter ends with the chilling command, “[Get] the men to Elisha, lest Edom should come there.”
The Abisha Scroll is one of the oldest Torah scrolls in existence—and certainly one of the most elusive. It is the prized possession of the Samaritans, who claim that the text was scribed by one Abisha, great-grandson of the Biblical Aaron. The scroll is rarely removed from a safe in the sect’s main synagogue in Nablus, on the West Bank. In fact, visitors to the Samaritan community in Nablus are often shown a decoy—another scroll passed off as the original—so this photo by David Harris provides a rare glimpse of the real manuscript. Even scholars have had a hard time getting a look at the actual scroll.
The Samaritans, who call themselves Shamerim (from the word meaning “guardians [of the Law]”), claim that the scroll is more than 3,000 years old; the best scholarly evidence, however, points to approximately a 12th-century A.D. origin.a The scroll itself appears to be a patchwork, the work of various scribes over the centuries.
However, with its origins sometime between the third century B.C. and the first century A.D. (or possibly earlier), the Samaritan Pentateuch is crucial in the field of Biblical studies. The Samaritan Pentateuch is roughly contemporaneous with the Septuagint (a second-century B.C. Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible), the earliest copies of which date to the fourth–fifth centuries A.D. The earliest copies of the traditional Jewish text of the Hebrew Bible, known as the Masoretic text, date only to the tenth century A.D., although it is also based on much earlier texts. There are approximately 2,000 instances where the Samaritan Pentateuch prefers the Septuagint reading over the Masoretic text. Elements of the Samaritan version of the Bible can also be traced to the paleo-Hebrew texts of Exodus 062and Leviticus found among the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Numbering only in the hundreds of people, the Samaritan community is now centered at the foot of its holiest site, Mt. Gerizim. This mountain—along with its twin peak, Mt. Ebal—is designated in Deuteronomy 11:29 as the place where God’s blessings and curses are to be publicly pronounced, an event described in the Book of Joshua (8:30–35). To the Samaritans, however, Mt. Gerizim is more: It is the very site God chose as his holy mountain. Whereas the standard Hebrew Pentateuch refers to an unnamed place that God “will choose”—meaning Mt. Zion, or Jerusalem—the parallel verses in the Samaritan Bible refer to the “place that the Lord your God has chosen,” referring to Mt. Gerizim. Indeed the Samaritans built their temple on Mt. Gerizim, and the community, with its rival sanctuary and its variant scriptures, split from the Jerusalem-focused Israelite and later, rabbinic, traditions.
Nevertheless, Samaritan ritual often resembles Jewish practice. Like Jews, Samaritans use hand-scribed scrolls as opposed to bound books, or codices, for public Sabbath and holiday readings in synagogue. The sect also uses a scroll during its Hag, or pilgrimage, up the holy mountain.
Although by the second century A.D. the Samaritan shrine on Mt. Gerizim had been destroyed by various political leaders, the Samaritans never stopped regarding the mountain as sacred, and it maintained its status as the sect’s central pilgrimage site. A 14th-century A.D. text mentions that the community would carry the Abisha Scroll to the top of the mountain as part of the pilgrimage ritual. The use of the precious Abisha Scroll in this practice was, however, likely discontinued after a mishap—possibly an earthquake—resulted in the near destruction (and subsequent restoration) of the text.
The Abisha Scroll itself might not have been written by Aaron’s great-grandson 3,000 years ago, but parts of the text are quite old; it is certainly among the oldest known Torah scrolls in the world. And the literary traditions reflected in the text are indeed ancient—in some parts, possibly more so than the traditional Masoretic text.
Masada: The Last Stand
Viewed from above, the diamond-shaped mountaintop of Masada seems impregnable—a completely unattainable summit rising from the desolate western shore of the Dead Sea. It was its very desolation and unassailability that prompted Herod the Great to build a palace/fortress on top of it at the end of the first century B.C. It was constructed by the Judean king as a place of refuge in case his citizens deposed him or in the event of aggression by Cleopatra’s forces (the Egyptian queen had long had designs on adding Judea to her kingdom). Though the palace structures, baths, cisterns, storerooms and fortifications were constructed during Herod’s time (37–4 B.C.), the most dramatic and final chapter of this site was to come decades later, during the First Jewish Revolt against Rome.
At the beginning of the revolt in 66 A.D., a group of Jewish Zealots took control of the fortress and barricaded themselves and their families within its almost-impenetrable walls. Masada became the last bastion of Jewish resistance after 70 A.D., when Jerusalem was sacked and Herod’s Temple was destroyed by the Roman legions. As far as history is concerned, that destruction of Jerusalem marks the end of the First Jewish Revolt, and yet an extraordinary and tragic addendum to the event played out for another three or four years on the isolated summit of Masada.
It is a testament to the determination and resilience of the Zealots, as well as to the original architects of Herod’s fortress, that this desperate band of Jews was able to hold off the Roman army for three or four years after the fall of Jerusalem. Led by General Lucius Flavius Silva, Rome’s Tenth Legion numbered 10,000 strong and outnumbered the inhabitants of Masada 10:1, according to the historian Josephus. Yet Silva and his army first had to contend with the fortress’s defenses, not the least of which was the 7-mile siege wall that ran along the plateau’s perimeter. In order to strengthen the siege wall and render it even more impregnable against the Roman battering rams, the Zealots constructed an ingenious wood-reinforced earthen wall inside of the existing siege wall.
It was, however, only a matter of time before the superior forces, technology and resources of the Roman army enabled it to build a ramp to the wall and eventually break through, pouring into the fortress. The army entered cautiously, expecting to meet resistance, but what they found, Josephus tells us, was silence—and the 064bodies of almost 1,000 people who had chosen mass suicide over death or slavery at Roman hands.
According to Josephus, the Zealots chose collective suicide when they realized that their siege wall was close to being breached by relentless Roman forces. The leader of the group, Eleazar Ben Ya’ir, is described as delivering a speech the night before the wall breach, in which he exhorts his fellow rebels to perish willingly by their own hands rather than by those of the Romans. Josephus contends that several children and two old women managed to escape death by hiding, and that it was from one of these that he heard the tale.
According to Josephus, the defenders resolved to commit suicide in a very methodical manner. Each man was responsible for dispatching his own family, after which ten were then selected to kill the remaining men. Of the remaining ten, one man was chosen by lots to kill the other nine. The final task that remained to him was to set the citadel on fire before turning his sword on himself.
While Josephus is quite clear about the events of that fateful night, archaeologists have not corroborated the account through their continued excavations. Yigael Yadin was Masada’s foremost excavator and scholar in the 20th century, until his death in 1984. One of his expeditions turned up 11 potsherds, each inscribed with a different name, including that of Eleazar Ben Ya’ir. It has been speculated that these were the very lots used to determine who would be the man to kill his comrades. Archaeologists have also detected evidence of fire throughout the compound, perhaps the very conflagration described by Josephus. However, no evidence of a mass suicide, or a mass grave, has been found.
What is certain, however, is that the account of the Zealots’ resistance and ultimate demise has resonated through almost 2,000 years of history to modern times. The desolate mountaintop of Masada has come to symbolize Jewish freedom and autonomy—a memorial that would have made Eleazar Ben Ya’ir and his followers proud.
The Rock Beneath the Dome
Sitting beneath the soaring dome that bears its name, es-Sakhra (Arabic for “the Rock”) is arguably the holiest patch of ground in the whole world, claiming significance in all three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The 43-by-56-foot area of bedrock is the highest natural point on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
This view, captured by David Harris’s camera in the late 1960s or early 1970s, is one that few people get to see in person—not just because of the dramatic aerial perspective of the shot, but because access to the Dome of the Rock has become strictly limited in recent years by the Muslim religious authorities who control the Temple Mount.
One of the oldest traditions associated with this spot is that it was the site of the Jewish Temple—from Solomon’s first construction in the tenth century B.C. to the destruction of Herod’s Temple in 70 A.D. by the Romans. Many scholars believe that es-Sakhra was the location of the debir, or Holy of Holies, where God’s presence dwelled and the Ark of the Covenant was kept. Still others believe that the great altar or possibly another part of the Temple stood here. Many informative and detailed discussions have been published in BAR over the years—from the exact resting spot of the Ark of the Covenant to the layout of the entire Temple compound—but little is known with certainty, as it is impossible to date the numerous cuttings on the surface of the Rock, and archaeological excavation in or around the Dome of the Rock is prohibited for religious and political reasons. Even so, the consensus among scholars and thousands of years of tradition (with the exception of some recent denials by Arab political leaders) point to es-Sakhra as the site of the Jewish Temple.
The history of the Rock does not begin with the Temple, however. The Bible says that King David bought this land from Araunah (or Ornan) the Jebusite, who had used it as a threshing floor, in anticipation of Solomon’s later construction of the Temple (1 Chronicles 21–22). In 2 Chronicles 3:1, the site is identified as “Mount Moriah,” which has traditionally been linked with the mountain in “the region of Moriah” where Abraham was told to take his son and offer a sacrifice (Genesis 22:2). The Rock, then, was not only the site of the Temple but also the very spot where Abraham nearly sacrificed his son to God before his hand was stayed by an angel of the Lord. Jewish and Christian scriptures say that it was Isaac who was spared on Mt. Moriah, but Muslims believe that it was Abraham’s other son, Ishmael, born of the maidservant Hagar and ancestor of the Arab people.
The Book of Jubilees (known from the Dead Sea Scrolls and the canon of the Abyssinian Church) locates the Garden of Eden here, while other traditions 065mark it as the burial spot of Adam and Eve. Still others describe the Rock as omphalos mundi, the center (literally “navel”) of the world. It is from here that the Last Judgment will take place and that the chosen will enter paradise. The cave beneath es-Sakhra is sometimes called the well of souls, where the souls of the deceased await their final judgment. One scholar has suggested that this cave was part of a larger burial complex in the first part of the Middle Bronze Age (2200–2000 B.C.).
There is little certainty about who or what—if anything—sat atop es-Sakhra and the Temple Mount in the centuries after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. But one thing is certain: After the Arab conquest of the city in 638 A.D., the Ummayad caliph ‘Abd al-Malik (685–705) built the Dome of the Rock over es-Sakhra as a Muslim shrine.
The octagonal shape of the building 066suggests that it was intended to commemorate a holy site (much like the house of St. Peter in Capernaum; see “Ten Top Discoveries”). Although the Rock is now celebrated as the spot from which the prophet Muhammed ascended to heaven on his steed el-Bureq during his famous night journey, there is no mention of the site in the Qur’an, and that tradition seems to have developed several hundred years after the Dome of the Rock’s construction. Various accounts through the ages suggest that Muslim reverence for the figures of Adam, Abraham, David and Solomon, as well as their distaste for the Christian ruling predecessors, led the Arab conquerors to build a grand memorial that would outshine the existing Christian monuments, reconsecrate the Jewish holy site and essentially resurrect Solomon’s Temple on the very Rock where it once stood.
Yigael Yadin and Crew Make a Discovery
When Yigael Yadin set out to excavate a cave in Nahal Hever in 1960, his prospects were hardly exciting. After all, the cave had already been excavated by his rival Yohanan Aharoni, who had come on the heels of Bedouin looters. Nevertheless, potsherds had enabled Aharoni to identify what he believed to be three distinct dates of habitation: the Chalcolithic period (4500–3300 B.C.), the first century A.D. and the second century A.D. In addition to pottery fragments, Aharoni’s team had also made a rather gruesome discovery: a skeleton pinned under a fallen boulder. The same cave-in that presumably killed the individual also made it impossible for the archaeological team to retrieve the skeleton, but the excavation was nonetheless wrapped up, and no further investigation was undertaken until the arrival of Yigael Yadin.
Aharoni had been in search of additional Dead Sea Scroll fragments, and Yadin’s expedition to his colleague’s former site was part of a larger project to do the same. With the continual arrival of Dead Sea Scroll fragments on the antiquities market, Israeli authorities had decided to preempt looters by staging a large-scale investigation of the area. Because of the site’s previous excavation history, Yadin’s expectations weren’t very high. One of Yadin’s protégés, David Ussishkin, recalled that “[Yadin] just went along as if it were a kind of picnic, to spend two weeks in the desert looking at the view.” As Yadin’s team was to quickly discover, it was to be a rather remarkable picnic.
On the second day of the expedition, one of Yadin’s team members headed off to the back of the cave to do some exploring, and he came upon a crevice in which the remains of three men, eight women and six children were eventually identified—an extraordinary discovery indeed, but it would prove to be just the beginning. Approximately 5 feet beneath the cave floor, a basket was excavated in which a collection of bronze cult objects were found. Yadin’s penchant for showmanship had led him to bring along expedition photographer David Harris, who photographed the entire process of discovery. Surrounded by his team, including Yoram Tsafrir (upper left) and David Ussishkin (top center), who would become two of Israel’s most distinguished archaeologists, Yadin pulled the objects one by one from the basket for Harris to photograph. Harris would later remember the experience as “the greatest in my life as a photographer.” As exciting as the moment must have been, more spectacular finds were just around the corner.
One of the most significant finds within the cave was the discovery that eventually gave it a new name: a bundle of papyri comprising correspondence between Bar-Kokhba, the leader of the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome (132–135 A.D.), and his commanders. Yadin had hypothesized early on in the expedition that this cave had been used by Jewish rebels during the Second Jewish Revolt. Indeed, Aharoni had concluded the same and had even located two Roman camps on a plateau above the cave that had presumably been used by Roman soldiers to lay siege to the cave’s inhabitants. However, with letters written by the leader of the revolt himself in hand, Yadin could now firmly declare that the newly named “Cave of Letters” had in fact been one of the last bastions of the doomed Jewish rebels.
These letters, 15 in all, proved to be invaluable primary source material in deciphering the events and key figures in the Bar-Kokhba Revolt. The First Jewish Revolt against Rome in 66–70 A.D. was well recorded by the first-century historian Josephus. We have no such historical source for the Second Revolt, so these letters provide us with a valuable record of this event.
After such a discovery, any archaeologist could have happily called it a day, and the excavation would have been written up as a resounding success. However, there was more yet to come the following year, when Yadin 067and his team returned to the cave for a second excavation season. In the same cave, which was now literally a treasure trove of information and artifacts, a second cache of second-century documents were eventually excavated. These documents revealed much about daily life during the Bar-Kokhba Revolt. Called Babatha’s Archive for the woman whose documents they were, this find included almost three dozen legal documents. These texts addressed legal questions over property that she had inherited from her father, as well as the legal guardianship of her sons. The careful concealment of these documents, presumably by Babatha herself, indicates that she had expected to return to the cave someday to retrieve them.
The value of Babatha’s Archive can be measured at several levels. That it brings into our modern world a portrait of a woman who would otherwise have remained anonymous is significant, but what it tells us about Babatha’s world is perhaps even more so. This cache reveals a Jewish society that adhered to religious law but also conformed to Roman law with regard to financial matters. Rarely do archaeologists and historians have the opportunity to study such vibrant voices from the past, and the voices of Bar-Kokhba and his followers have shed a great deal of light on the events surrounding the revolt and the historical context in which it took place. Yadin’s discovery, and Harris’s visual documentation of it, became one of the benchmark excavations of early Israeli archaeology.
All photos reprinted here are courtesy of David Harris’s wife, Rivka Harris.
There is no denying that a stunning site shot or an artistic artifact photo can make the past come alive in ways that writing alone cannot. We’ve worked with the world’s foremost photographers, museums and stock houses to illustrate BAR with the best possible photos, but we focus here on one man whose camera masterfully captured the development of a discipline. Last year we were shocked and saddened by the untimely loss of renowned photographer David Harris, who died at age 78 after being hit by a car in Jerusalem. During his lifetime, David Harris and his camera captured […]