The mother of all Palestinian modern-day curses
During a Dead Sea-area dig in 2002, Prof. Yizhar Hirschfeld discovered two small packages wrapped in cloth. The contents of one of them, just recently made public, was a scathing curse aimed at Israeli leaders.
"Oh God almighty, I beg you God to destroy Ariel Sharon, son of Devorah, son of Eve." Thus opens a unique text, written in eloquent Arabic, on parchment found more than two years ago at the bottom of the Dead Sea.
"Destroy all his supporters, loyal aides and confidants, and all those who love him and whom he loves among the human beings and among devils and demons," the anonymous writer continues with his curse.
The Dead Sea leaves those who visit it with a doleful impression. It is evaporating fast and needs artificial resuscitation. The once grand inlet in its southern part now has dry patches. Sinkholes are opening around it, endangering anyone walking on the shore.
The Dead Sea at various times has been a bustling center of human activity. Hebrew University Prof. Yizhar Hirschfeld spent years studying the region. In August 2002, he started digging near Matzad Kidron (Hirbat Mazen in Arabic) in the remnants of a magnificent fortress that belonged to Hasmonean King Alexander Yanai from 103 to 76 BCE, south of the Einot Zukim reserve. The fortress' walls are well-preserved, rising five or six meters high.
This fortress was, in fact, a shipyard and housed Alexander Yanai's royal ship, Hirschfeld says. In his book "Longing for the Desert: The Dead Sea Valley in the Time of the Second Temple," he explains that the fortress' location was chosen for its solid land, as opposed to the swampy shifting land north of it. This meant boats could be brought close to the shore and towed to the shipyard.
The Dead Sea's rapidly sinking level, an ecological hazard, is a blessing to archaeologists. At certain points, the sea has receded up to 200 meters from the beach, and explorers are now digging in the exposed land. In August 2002, Hirschfeld and his team dug up 2,500 bronze coins inscribed "King Jonathan," Alexander Yanai's Hebrew name. These coins are part of what is known as "the Dead Sea treasure" - hundreds of thousands of coins that may have fallen from one of the king's ships. They were discovered more than 15 years ago, and several others have been discovered since.
"The people who worked with me searched a few dozen meters offshore and kept finding more and more coins," Hirschfeld says. One of his aides, Yoav Lupen, found something else 20 meters from the shore - two small packages of parchment wrapped in cloth, soaked in a preservative substance with a pungent odor resembling turpentine, and folded in sheets of lead. The packages were handed over to antiquities' preserver Orna Cohen, who opened one of them. It contained a modern, astonishingly venomous curse script.
"Destroy them all, small and big, male and female, free men and slaves, kings and subjects, leaders and flock, soldiers who are all satans," the parchment says in tidy, closely-written Arabic script. Hirschfeld says it was absolutely clear what had been found. "We realized at once, even without understanding the content, that this is not ancient paper or historic cloth. This is a modern curse script written by Palestinians," says Hirschfeld, who recently decided to make the discovery public.
"Destroy, oh God, and annihilate Uzi Landau, the minister of public security in the Israeli Zionist entity, son of Eve, and Tzachi Hanegbi, son of Geula Cohen, daughter of Eve, and also Shaul Mofaz, son of Eve, the Zionist chief of staff, Fuad Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, the captain of the host of the Israeli enemy," the script says.
Other Israeli figures are also mentioned - President Moshe Katsav, Silvan Shalom, "the new chief of staff" Moshe Ya'alon, Shin Bet head Avi Dichter, and even "Yigal from intelligence" in the East Jerusalem minorities' unit, and James, the Israeli intelligence official in charge of the holy sites in Israeli intelligence.
"Oh God, destroy all their security and policing apparatus, the computers, the electronic and listening equipment," says the script.
It is not clear who wrote the curse, but the text provides clues pointing to his identity. For example it is reasonable to assume that he is a resident of East Jerusalem, since he refers to the Israeli security forces posted in that part of the city. The fact that the text refers to the "new chief of staff" Ya'alon indicates it was written between March 2002, when Ya'alon's appointment was approved, and August 2002, when the parchment was discovered on the bottom of the sea. It may also be assumed that the immediate motive for writing the curse was Operation Defensive Shield, which began in March 2002.
After writing the curse, in which the author mentions names of prophets from Muslim history and extinct nations mentioned in the Koran, the writer wrapped the parchment in preservative and lead, went to the Dead Sea shore and threw the two little packages as far as he could into the sea, where they sank into the deep water.
"The amazing thing is that history doesn't change. Alexander Yanai, the Hasmonean king, also spent his entire life fighting over territory," Hirschfeld says. "Just like the Palestinians and Israelis of today."
The map then was slightly different - in Alexander Yanai's days, the kingdom of Judea became a regional power, ruling over the land between the Carmel in the north to the Egyptian border (excluding Ashkelon). The kingdom also included territories on the eastern side of the Jordan, where the Hasmonean army subdued the Nabatians and took over the central trade routes.
The most famous "curse scripts" were found in upper Egypt in the previous century. Writing on pottery utensils and images between 1900-1700 BCE, the ancient Egyptians wrote the names of their enemies and wished them dead.
Amulets with magical incantations and inscriptions were also discovered in Syria and Israel, and the Palestinian curse script may be a modern version of them. "Anthropologists will surely be very interested in this discovery," says Hirschfeld. "However, as an archaeologist, it concerns me less. At least it's not an act of war." He has not opened the second package to this day. "Perhaps they should be returned to the sea," he muses.