How the Blind See the Holy Land
As every blind person knows, he can “see” what he can touch.
Archaeology, the study of the material remains of ancient cultures, can be touched and therefore “seen” by the blind. Two experimental programs applying this principle have been developed by BAR’s Jerusalem correspondent, James Fleming, to make the Holy Land “visible” to the blind.
The first program is a one-semester course for blind high school students in the history and archaeology of Jerusalem. Monthly field trips are the high point of the course. But before the students leave the classroom, they know where they are going. Fleming uses specially designed, highly accurate relief maps to teach the students the geography of the site. The students feel their way across the city before they leave the schoolroom.
The students’ first trip is to Hezekiah’s tunnel, an S-shaped labyrinth which winds its way beneath the original site of Biblical Jerusalem, also known as the City of David. King Hezekiah of Judah dug the tunnel from both ends, through the rock of the hill of Ophel, to provide Jerusalem with water from the Spring Gihon during the siege of Sennacherib which Hezekiah astutely foresaw. The siege occurred in 701 B.C. and is described in 2 Kings 19–20 and 2 Chronicles 32. The Bible specifically refers to Hezekiah’s tunnel. Because they were well supplied with water, the Jerusalemites were able to withstand the siege and Sennacherib ultimately withdrew.
Fleming has made a clay model of the serpentine water tunnel which the blind students study with their hands. The model contains 25 niches which represent the major points of interest the students will examine when they walk through the tunnel, including the source of the spring water and the original location of the famous Siloam Tunnel inscription commemorating in paleo-Hebrew letters the successful meeting of the two crews of tunnelers who started from opposite ends (see p. 29). The blind students can also feel on the model where the 8th century B.C. tunnelers made mistakes and tunneled in the wrong direction, then corrected themselves; they too were working in the dark.
By the time they are ready to make their field trip, 042the students have memorized all 25 points of interest and know all about the Biblical and archaeological background of Sennacherib’s unsuccessful siege of Jerusalem.
Together with Fleming, the students walk into the Kidron Valley where the tunnel begins. Before entering the tunnel, the group pauses to listen to the sounds reverberating in the valley. From these sounds, they can “see” the Arab village of Silwan on the hill opposite the City of David. “Down here in the bed of the Kidron,” Fleming explains, “it’s easy to hear the hum of life in Silwan. No wonder Rabshakah could terrorize the Israelites by shouting his ‘surrender-or-else’ speech across the valley.”
The speech, as recorded in 2 Kings 18:19–35, is then read:
“Tell Hezekiah that this is the message of the Great King, the king of Assyria: ‘What ground have you for this confidence of yours? On whom do you rely for support? On Egypt? Egypt is a splintered 043cane that will run into a man’s hand and pierce it if he leans on it’ … Now make a bargain with my master the king of Assyria. I will give you 2,000 horses … Do you think that I have come to attack this place and destroy it without the consent of Yahweh? No, Yahweh himself said to me, ‘attack this land and destroy it.’”
The Israelite spokesmen asked the Assyrian general not to speak Hebrew “within earshot of the people” (2 Kings 18:26). The Israelite spokesmen knew that the Assyrian general was really speaking not to his Israelite counterparts, but to “the people sitting on the wall” (2 Kings 18:27) who could easily hear the Assyrian as his voice reverberated in the valley.
In response to the Israelite’s request, the Assyrian “stood up and shouted to the people in Hebrew … Do not be taken in by Hezekiah. He cannot save you … make peace … ” (2 Kings 18:29–31).
Once inside the tunnel, the blind students feel the water from the Spring Gihon gurgling into the waterworks; they feel the pick marks of Hezekiah’s workmen; they follow the frenzied turns of the tunnel created as the two crews of workmen each sought to join up with the sounds of the other a few feet away; finally, they feel the walls at the spot where the two crews of tunnelers met, thus bringing into the city the water which would save it from the Assyrian siege.
At each of the 25 points in the tunnel, Fleming explains to the student immediately behind him what is to be felt, and then guides the student’s hands to features carved in the rock almost 2700 years ago. This student stays at that station and explains to each of the students who follow what Fleming has just explained. A different student is stationed at each of the 25 points of interest until all pass through the 175-foot tunnel. Thus do the blind lead the blind, explaining and helping each other to feel the features of this ancient engineering miracle which once saved Jerusalem.
A second program taught by Fleming is for veterans who have been blinded in Israel’s wars. Some of the men were injured in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Others were blinded in the Six Day War in June, 1967. Still others have lived in darkness since Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. The veterans first study relief maps of Jerusalem with their hands. Then they take excursions on bicycles built for two, with a sighted veteran in the front seat. Sometimes the sighted veteran, because of his injuries, is unable to pedal. So he provides the eyes, and the blind veteran behind provides the pedal-power. The blind veteran can feel the terrain from the pressure he must exert on the pedal. Every rise, dip and curve helps him visualize his surroundings.
For sighted tourists, Fleming leads walking tours of Jerusalem in conjunction with the Plaza Hotel. As a result of Fleming’s work with the blind, the Plaza has now become interested in providing tours for blind tourists.
Fleming’s work in the teaching of archaeology and geography to the blind is a natural extension of his scholarly interest in relief maps. Fleming’s Ph.D. involved the creation of exceptionally large and accurate relief maps of Israel in which each square inch duplicates the actual physical area it is designed to represent. The maps are then painted in the same colors as the terrain. Both the maps and photographs of the maps are widely used as teaching aids in the study of Biblical history and geography.
“When the student looks at the original model maps—or photographs of the originals—it is as if he or she were standing in the place of the Biblical figure, looking in the direction of history,” Fleming says.
One of Fleming’s maps, 3 ½ by 8 feet, stands in the main lobby of the Plaza Hotel where tour guides use it to explain the geography of Israel. It is electrified with 40 bulbs at different points of interest. A button with the name of the site can be pressed to turn on a light at the site on the map and orient a visitor to the geography of the area.
Fleming will lead BAR’s 1979 Summer Seminar in Bible and Biblical Archaeology.
Fleming also hopes to develop additional programs for the blind. “Archaeology,” he says, “is the ideal contact point between the blind and Biblical history.”
As his blind students handle artifacts from the Biblical world, Fleming reads to them a passage from the great English archaeologist, Sir W. M. Flinders Petrie, who in 1890 was the first man to excavate a Palestinian tell stratigraphically:
“Every tablet, every little scarab, is a portion of life solidified … When we look closely into the work we seem almost to watch the hand that did it; this stone is a day, a week of the life of some living man. I know his mind, his feeling, by what he has thought and done on this stone. I live with him in looking into his work, and admiring and valuing it.”
As every blind person knows, he can “see” what he can touch.