There has been no way to escape the bad news coming out of the Middle East over the last few years. The details may be complex, but the gist of it is simple: terrorism, bombings, war. Which begs the question: Is it safe to go digging in the Middle East?

The perceived risk is great enough for the U.S. State Department to maintain Israel on its advisory list of places to avoid. Indeed, in 2001–2003, in tandem with a big drop in tourism, the number of Americans participating in digs in Israel fell considerably. According to George Washington University professor Eric Cline, the number of American-run programs digging in Israel dropped from dozens to almost nothing. American involvement in Israeli programs vanished; excavations were put on hold.

Although some archaeologists have reported a serious decline in the number of volunteers, others, like Jodi Magness of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, insist that the problem isn’t getting volunteers but coaxing American universities to sponsor programs. Because of the State Department advisory, nearly all universities have suspended their participation in archaeological projects rather than expose themselves to the risk of lawsuits in case a student were to be injured. American archaeologists are left with the decision of whether or not to work around the ban by having their students sign on with Israeli-sponsored programs and then meet them “accidentally.” Some American professors, including Cline, have done this. Others, like Ken Holum, of the University of Maryland, followed his university’s preferences and declined. For although all agree that the danger of terrorism at a dig site is minimal, dig directors cannot control what students do during their free time, on weekends or in the days and weeks immediately following a dig. More often than not, students leave the dig site to explore the rest of the country, thereby exposing themselves to greater risk.

How much risk? According to most observers, the risk is small and growing smaller, a phenomenon attributed above all to the construction of Israel’s security wall/fence. Indeed, 2004 saw far fewer terrorist attacks than 2003. Tourism has certainly picked up: Israeli officials note a 58% increase in the number of visitors in the first half of 2004 compared to the same period in 2003, and they predict that 1.5 million tourists will have visited the country by year’s end. Israelis themselves are going out at night and returning to restaurants and cafes. Hotel occupancy, though not anywhere near its 2000 level, has risen, and the rental car agencies boast of increased business. Finally, everyone is confident that pop superstar Madonna’s highly publicized participation in a September mysticism conference in Israel, along with 2,000 other devotees, will go a long way to dispel people’s fears. “I realize now that it is no more dangerous to be here than it is to be in New York,” she said at a Tel Aviv press conference, a comment worth more than the millions of dollars Israel spends on tourism-related advertising.

And what of Jordan? Jordan is not on the State Department’s advisory list, and most describe the kingdom as astonishingly quiet. P. M. Michèle Daviau, of Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, who directs the excavation at Khirbat al-Mudayna, says that neither she nor her students have any qualms about walking around and interacting with the residents of Madaba, where they reside. “It’s clear that we’re Westerners,” Daviau reports, “but the attitude is very receptive.” She does, however, warn students to be careful in Amman and to avoid potentially dangerous situations such as demonstrations. Jordan is safe, she says, although, like everywhere, people need to be smart.