A View From Nevo

A tour of Amman and environs shows that the most venerable, beautiful objects in life are never more than an arm's length away

She stared at us as if in wonderment. Proud, white, with a long neck, she was encased between a large clay jar and a row of plastic chairs at the entrance to Amman's Archaeological Museum. (This is a square, plastered house located in a yellow wasteland on Citadel Hill; the exterior resembles a dilapidated health clinic). Madame Zeina Mayan-Razal, a stately 9,500- year-old with a supercilious nose, looks a bit like a prehistoric Barbie doll, with the eyes of an Egyptian Queen Nefertiti - thousands of years before Nefertiti. This madame, and her sisters who can be found behind glass elsewhere in the museum, rank among the oldest artistic creations in the world. Made from thatched reeds, the figures have striking red-orange colors, with their eyes outlined in black.

Think about it for a moment: Some 10,000 years ago, people created figures in their image, sprucing them up them with as much realism as prehistoric technique allowed, then buried them - the respectable lady and her sisters - in the ground, where they waited patiently for their discovery by roadworkers in 1983, when a road was set to be paved in the Ayan-Razal suburb on the outskirts of Amman. The workers' discovery of these amazing figures just goes to show that the most venerable, beautiful objects in life are never more than an arm's length away - yet so many people pass them by, without the faintest clue they are near.

In Paris, at the Louvre, thousands flock to view Leonardo's "La Gioconda." Here in Amman, the museum was almost entirely deserted on this early August day. There were just a man and his child standing next to us beside the glass exhibit case, while my wife explained a thing or two about Stone Age arts. Unexpectedly, the man turned and greeted us in Hebrew: He is a Palestinian Israeli, from a village in the Emek Hefer region. A teacher at an agricultural school, he had come to tour Jordan with his son after his daughter died from a disease. After his father divulged these details, the boy hugged his father's waist as though he were embarrassed; and the father clenched his child's hand. As we approached another exhibit, featuring a skeleton from the Stone Age buried inside a large jar, the boy put his face up next to the glass, as though trying to peer at death from up close. The father pulled him back.

Aminadab's bottle

Dead figures exhibited behind glass at the Amman museum know how to spin tales. There is, for instance, the story of Aminadab, the king of the tribe of Ammon (the ruler is not mentioned in the Old Testament; the Ammonites are always depicted in the Bible as pagans, in contrast to our own Israelite ancestors, people of culture, and yet the opposite might actually have been the case). In wondrous Hebrew, in enigmatic, innovative language worthy of a contemporary poem, this refined, unknown king, Aminadab, ordered that an inscription be put on a small bottle.

Rather than boasting of the glories of war and the decapitated heads of enemies, the inscription extols the monarch's small contribution to world beauty: he built a garden, vineyard and small pool. For having cultivated arts and added beauty to the world, the inscription predicts, the ruler will be rewarded and gratified henceforth, "many days and distant years" into the future. What a compelling phrase, "distant years" - it reflects a desire to stretch the life span as far as possible, and push death back to the edge of the horizon.

This telling inscription etched by the king in eloquent Hebrew dates from 600 B.C.E., and the small bottle, located on a shelf behind glass on the left side of the museum's large hall, proves indisputably that the "Canaanite" poet Yonatan Ratosh was correct when he argued that genuine Hebrew culture is buried beneath the Hebrew Bible, among ancient peoples. All you have to do to find this ancient Hebrew culture is to dig beneath the ruins in our region, Ratosh claimed accurately. Alas, few paid attention to his insights.

Utilizing the same flexible, beguiling Hebrew, some denizen of the ninth century B.C.E. inscribed a message for a peer on the Ammonite citadel, here on the outskirts of modern Amman. The message reads: "Lock the t'door," and thus have "peace, for yourself and your home." The Hebrew error, equivalent to "t'door," was left uncorrected; during the age of the language's genesis, how could one err in Hebrew?

So who needs the Louvre? In this season, thousands flock to view the rear of Venus de Milo; here, in quiet Amman, treasures are to be found out in the open, not only behind glass in a museum. You can touch a fragment of a wall from the eighth century B.C.E. that bears an eloquent Hebrew-Aramaic poem, one that really ought to be known to all of us, as part of our cultural repertoire. But it is not to be found in any collection of Hebrew poetry. This is a vision of the prophet Balaam, the son of Be'or, who is known from the Book of Numbers, along with his talking ass (22:28) and a curse that turns into a blessing.

Here are the first lines of the poem, nowhere to be found in the Bible, but which has been preserved atop a wooden podium here in Amman: "Thus said Balaam, son of Be'or, a man of vision and of God ... and God came to him at night, and he saw a vision of prophecy." Then, the poem relates, the people came to Balaam, and queried "Why do you fast and weep?" Balaam's reply is that the people should "go and behold the work of the Lord."

From this point, the narrative relates a tale of prophecy, to prove God's righteousness; Balaam's story is similar, but not identical, to that of Numbers. The people with whom Balaam is speaking are not the people of Israel, and yet the name of God is the same. What's happening here? Could it be that God is not of our own exclusive creation, and that there were other peoples, ones whose throats were cut by our swords, who called out to God by that name, Elohim, before we got around to adopting the same word, and the same entity?

Approaching Nevo

The museum holds other treasures, such as stunningly preserved copper scrolls, and statues of kings of Ammon, bearded rulers who sag under the weight of their crowns. But, pressed for time, we journeyed southward, toward Madaba and Mount Nevo, along the Dead Sea, before reaching Moab's Wall.

The distance between Amman and Mount Nevo is roughly equivalent to that which separates Tel Aviv and Givat Olga; the distance between Amman and the city of Madaba is comparable to the distance between Tel Aviv and Netanya. You journey out from Amman, and continue until the road is filled with bumps and holes (it's bad, but then again, think of what might happen on a journey between Tel Aviv and Netanya). On the floor of a church in Madaba there is a famed mosaic which depicts our country, the Land of Israel, with Jerusalem shaped as a heart in the middle. The design belongs to some anonymous mosaic artist from the Byzantine era who was commissioned to decorate the floor with a map of the Holy Land. The artist didn't have a clue his task would be momentous (the mosaic's charm derives from this fact).

A group of Spanish pilgrims gathered around their guide; he stood in the middle of the mosaic, and used an iron rod to point out Bethlehem, Hebron and other sites which today bring up associations of gunfire. I wondered what the pilgrims were thinking as they nodded their heads while hearing their guide's explanations - nowadays, whatever they know about these sites is garnered from television reports saturated by women with covered faces throwing their arms to the sky and wailing, soldiers perched atop tanks, and endless funeral ceremonies.

Two women in this group dropped coins in the charity box, and took candles for a short prayer. The blazing sun, however, urged them to leave; and we also received some hints that it was time to go because a baptism was scheduled for the site, and a family was waiting patiently outside. On our way out, we saw members of this family. They were exchanging kisses in the church square and a black robed priest waited at the entryway, a huge gold cross swinging from his chest, with the body of the martyred Jesus on a cross decorated with precious stones.

We did not allow ourselves to witness more of the ceremony; but I imagined the participants streaming into the church and moving across the Holy Land mosaic, with one person striding atop the Dead Sea, the other sauntering over Jerusalem, and a third, a child, standing on the Sinai Peninsula while demanding a lollipop from his mother.

At last, we reached Mount Nevo. My imagination had refused to acknowledge its existence, even though we passed large signs citing the precise distance to the famed site. Nevo seems unapproachable. It symbolizes that which cannot be attained, the destination toward which one journeys but never reaches - or a place at which one arrives at such an advanced age that the arrival seems meaningless. Being an adult who was raised on poems written by Rachel, and included in school textbooks, familiar verses kept running through my mind during the short journey between Madaba and Nevo. (En route to Nevo, on the outskirts of a small village, there stood a mourners' booth, and women were setting up plastic chairs inside it; the men, who had just left a mosque, walked together in a large group on the side of the road, in a formation reminiscent of Orthodox Jewish men leaving a synagogue on Shabbat).

The closing stanza of Rachel's poem "Minegged" (As Against), featuring the line "Ish u nevo lo" ("a Nevo for each person,") rang through my mind. Rachel's poem plays with variations of the symbol of Nevo. In my youth, I thought Rachel's poem was a masterpiece because it translated into readily comprehensible, literary language what I melodramatically thought awaited in life - not to obtain whatever I truly wanted.

Every man and his Nevo: Here, for example, is a busload of French youth standing next to a monument erected on the mountain to commemorate Pope John Paul II's visit to the site in 2000. Each man and his Nevo: A guide haggles with a group of American tourists over the cost of his services. He thinks the tourists gave him too little, and threatens to return the money because "he doesn't need favors."

Each man and his Nevo: We went by the church on the summit (which contains stunning Byzantine mosaics), and beheld the view of Israel that Moses saw before his death, with the Dead Sea looking like an azure platter, some green rising from the Jordan Valley, and desolate waste dominating most of the canvas. There, below a huge iron cross not far away, stood a group of tourists who were seizing a photo opportunity. I thought: Hey you, what are you all doing there, gaping at my country like schoolboy peeping toms watching the woman next door climb into her bathtub.

(Part two of a series)