Text size

Respect for the corpse According to what you say, that earth was corrupted and cut off from its archaeological context. Why excavate earth that was dumped?

"If someone is murdered in your family, heaven forbid, it is impossible to bring him back to life, but one can treat the body with respect. That body lay on the slopes of Kidron Valley in total neglect, like a carcass rotting in the field. I think it was the duty of the State of Israel, using state funds, to sift through that earth. It was not something that I should have had to do by personal initiative. I initiated the project together with a student of mine, Zachi Zweig, and since November 2004 we have been engaged in sifting that earth. Even if I do not know the depth each object came from, even if 90 percent of its value has been lost, the project still has a great deal of value. Archaeologists conduct a survey when they collect data from the surface, without a primary context, and reach historical conclusions. Here I have data that is not located in any context. It is definitely possible to reach historical conclusions albeit, limited ones, regretfully."Why did you get involved in this?

"Because the earth was there. If not me, someone else would have redeemed it. There was fill in large quantities from an area that is totally unknown to archaeologists. It was obligatory to do it."

Yet Barkai himself says that other archaeologists are not eager to get close to the Temple Mount or even to Jerusalem. "The Temple Mount is terra incognita. It is amazing. To this day not one shard has been published from the Temple Mount. There has never been a controlled, normal scientific dig within the Temple Mount. I will tell you more: We have controlled Jerusalem for more than 30 years, but we do not even have an archaeological survey of surface data. No one ever bothered, from the start of the researching of Jerusalem, to collect potsherds inside the mount."

One of the reasons he cites for the absence of archaeological activity on the mount is that "in Jerusalem everything you touch is political, and the Temple Mount is super-political, and people flee from it like a fire. You will see people in departments of archaeology in Israeli universities who do not know the first thing about the archaeology of Jerusalem. The politics of Jerusalem scares them off. The politics of the Temple Mount is twice as scary. There are no problems like that in excavating at Beit Shemesh or at Tel Megiddo."

Should Israel have excavated the Temple Mount?

"I don't know. Maybe it should have. In 1967 it was possible to do things that you cannot do today. Maybe it was possible to excavate the Temple Mount, too. The problem was that there was opposition from circles inside not only Haredim [ultra-Orthodox Jews], who are frightened of the Temple Mount like fire, but even national-religious people."

Today, he adds, excavating there is not possible. It is so sensitive that just to raise the idea would spark riots. "On the other hand," he says, "it was possible to conduct surveys on the Temple Mount, which we were not smart enough to do."

Your attitude toward the mount seems almost religious.

"No. My attitude toward the Temple Mount is the same as it is toward any place of tremendous cultural importance. I am an archaeologist, not a theologian. I attribute importance to the mount because it was the heart of the activity ... I am a Jerusalemite, I am a proud Jew and I live here. I am preoccupied with the archaeology of this land."

The 1960s saw a debate between the minimalist archaeologists, led by Kathleen Kenyon, who maintained that Jerusalem in the First Temple period included only the City of David, and the maximalists, who said it had also extended to the western hill (where the Jewish Quarter of the Old City now stands). That debate was largely decided in the 1970s, when Prof. Nahman Avigad discovered the broad wall from the First Temple period on the western hill. Today there is agreement on the maximalist theory, holding that the First Temple city covered the entire southern half of the present-day Old City, approximately as far as the Street of the Markets and the Street of the Chain.Barkai, though, describes himself as a super-maximalist. His doctoral dissertation sets out to prove that the suburbs of Jerusalem at the end of the First Temple period its satellite neighborhoods, outside the wall, extended as far as today's Muslim Quarter and Christian Quarter that is, the northern half of the Old City. He bases this theory on various finds, mainly shards from the First Temple era, which were found in these areas, on a number of biblical texts, and on an analysis of the burial sites of the period.

The truth is that there is no dispute over the facts Barkai cites that settlement north of Jerusalem existed during the First Temple period. However, most archaeologists believe that it was a scattered agricultural settlement. Barkai says there were genuine neighborhoods: "Everything fits in beautifully. I think there are enough data to present the super-maximalist position and to accept it."

Ten years ago, Barkai was fired from Tel Aviv University (TAU). It is extremely rare for a university lecturer to be dismissed after 27 years of work, certainly if he is an archaeologist with an impressive achievement such as the Ketef Hinnom dig.

"I was at TAU for many years, and when Israel Finkelstein became head of the department I was simply fired," Barkai explains, "from the moment that I did not broadcast on the same wavelength as that group. Afterward I was at an age when I was not going to get on the staff anywhere. Things are good like this. At Bar-Ilan I am an external teacher with no prospect of getting a position. Any idiot on the staff will reach full professorship ahead of his pension. I know people who are professors and cannot hold a candle to me. I went through a difficult personal crisis when I was fired. I recovered and that very year I directed an excavation at Kiryat Ya'arim."

Ami Mazar, a professor of archaeology at the Hebrew University: "Barkai is a veteran archaeologist with many achievements and is very learned. He has taught thousands of students and is an excellent teacher and an excellent guide. The fact that he is not a professor that is due to the circumstances of life. In my opinion, he deserved to be."

Prof. Israel Finkelstein, from TAU, notes that Barkai's dismissal "was not on a political background and not on a personal background. It is impossible to fire people from the university for political or personal reasons. This is a large and ponderous institution. You have to set up committees and consult with experts. There are rules of the game in the university, and those who do not play by them and above all, do not publish cannot get ahead and find themselves outside. The truth is that the university was not satisfied with Barkai 20 years beforehand."

According to Finkelstein, the reason you were not promoted is that you publish too little and too slowly.

Barkai: "That is an allegation that was invented in order to justify what was done against me. There were many people who published less and their status is unassailable. He wanted to put a friend of his in the slot I held and I did not dance to his tune, so he seized on that. He also organized the students against me. He does not have one teacher at my level of instruction. But I think I am the only one who has a letter affirming that he is a bad teacher. Isn't it idiotic to discover that I am a bad teacher after 27 years? It's nonsense. It is all fatuous nonsense. I do not want to get into this gossip, it is beneath my dignity."

Barkai says there are people who published less but were not fired.

Finkelstein: "If there are people who published less than he did, complaints would be lodged with their universities. A university in which the researchers do not publish is a university of the Central African Republic. It is noteworthy that no other university thought differently than we did: None of them leaped at the chance to offer him a regular slot."

Barkai thinks his dismissal was the price he paid for not being part of what he calls the "postmodernists" in archaeology. "I think that they are in fact speaking to their contemporaries and are also being quoted today, but their opinions will be forgotten quickly. I do not think that the existence of David and Solomon can be invalidated on the basis of archaeology."

Sacred cows are being slaughtered in every field, why not in archaeology, too?

Barkai: "To slaughter all the sacred cows and to uproot everything that was believed in only because it is fashionable? I do not accept that ... In the postmodern world the facts make no difference. What makes a difference is what I think about the facts. There are many espousers of the new line of thought which is so fashionable today who say, don't confuse me with the facts."

'I didn't say secular'The earth and rubble that 70 trucks carried to the sifting site supervised by Barkai was sorted into four sizes by machines from quarries. The bigger finds are examined to determine whether they are sculptured or bear inscriptions or drawings. The mounds of other fill are sprayed with water and undergo a filtering process. "We do not stop in the winter; we are building a hothouse here," Barkai notes. "This year we will also heat it."

How much does all this cost and who is paying for it

"That is a good question. It is expensive. I decided that we would start even without funding and I believed that funding would arrive. Because of that several archaeologists who worked here at the beginning left me. They did not believe that I would be able to raised the funds. We funded it with donations from private people, good-hearted people who care about the issue."

I did not get an answer to my question.

"Okay, that's like the question of how much someone earns. I am not obliged to reveal that. It is no one's business."

Why not? Is there anything to be ashamed of here?

"I am not ashamed. I am not ashamed. These are public funds and I try to be as economical as possible and to manage them honestly and fairly. We are always short."

Recently Elad, a (right-wing) association that is behind the Jewish settlement in the City of David area, took the sifting project under its sponsorship.

"That is very convenient for me, because I do not have to engage in administration and fundraising."

But Elad is a political body.

"Certainly. Whatever I will do in Jerusalem is political... I take money from whoever helps me, whatever their motives. There is nothing in my contract with the Elad association that obliges me to support settlement at the City of David. I am against settlement at the City of David. I think all the settlers should be evacuated from there, and all the Arabs, too, and the place turned into a national park of the first order. There are also some things I agree with [in regard to Elad]. I am a proud Jew. I do not think we have to kowtow. On the other hand, I am a realist and not a messianic."

Can't a person be a secular messianic?

"I didn't say secular. I did not use that word."

Why not?

"Because that is not my world view."

Then what are you?

"A Jew. The history of the Jewish people is very important to me. I feel responsible for the previous generations. I am a Holocaust survivor and that has an influence. I was born in the Budapest ghetto. My approach is very clear. It does not belong either to the Haredi world or to the post-Zionist world. I see myself as part of the good old Zionist high road."

You have told me in a number of ways that you are not an extremist messianic. Have people tried to pin that label on you?

"There are some like that, people who pin labels on everyone who is occupied with the subject of Jerusalem or who does not engage in post-Zionist thinking as they do. If you deal with the Temple Mount, it is not hard for others to pin one of these eccentric labels on you Temple Mount loyalists and identify you with them, though I am many light-years away from them."

What you are actually saying is that it is very difficult to study Jerusalem without cooperation with right-wing elements.

"Anyone who takes an interest in these subjects today - the only ones who tour Jerusalem and its sites today - are the schools that have the girls with skirts that sweep the floor, the various groups that wear knitted skullcaps and the wavers of the orange ribbons. You do not see the others. The nation of Israel is keeping away from Jerusalem. Last month a conference of City of David studies was held. Hundreds of people attended. The great majority of them are very right wing. That's how it is: They are the ones taking an interest. They are the ones who remain."

Archaeology has lost its social status in Israel, Barkai continues: "It used to be a kind of national hobby, everyone's baby. Thousands of people attended conferences of the Society for the Study of the Land of Israel and its Antiquities. All the country's leaders and senior officials took an interest in archaeology. The discoveries of Masada, Hatzor generated national excitement. Today, who knows the archaeologists? Who has heard of them? What is their place in the society? Today it is like any other profession, and less. The people of the trees and the stones, people who take an interest in unimportant matters."

He looks tired, perpetually tired, and not from lack of sleep. "I am full of energy," he insists. "An exterior appearance should not mislead you. I am ready for battle."

Aren't you tired of the battles?

"I am not eager for battles and I do not like battles. But if necessary, I fight."

Dr. Gabi Barkai's greatest accomplishment indeed, perhaps the most important finding in the archaeology of Jerusalem in the past half-century is the discovery of the silver amulets at Ketef Hinnom, the "flank" or "shoulder" of Hinnom.

"Between 1975 and 1994 I excavated seven seasons at Ketef Hinnom - a name I invented myself," he relates. "It is related to a verse from the Book of Joshua that the border between the patrimony of Judah and the patrimony of Benjamin passes through the flank (ketef) of the Jebusites after Hinnom Valley. I took the words 'ketef' and 'Hinnom' and put them together."

At present the Begin Heritage Center stands on the site, between St. Andrew's Church (also known as the Scottish Church) and the Jerusalem Cinematheque. Barkai relates that he decided to dig at Ketef Hinnom, across the valley from Mount Zion, because he thought that much of the extra-municipal activity of ancient Jerusalem might have taken place there.

"[Ketef Hinnom] was a small-scale dig," he says, "but the richness of the finds was astounding. We have a huge church, whose existence was previously unknown, there is a crematorium of soldiers from the Tenth Roman Legion, a phenomenon that was previously unknown. We found a series of seven burial chambers from the First Temple period. In one of them we found something that was definitely a surprise: an intact tomb containing more than 1,000 items within one room, with a great deal of jewelry, 125 silver objects, a large number of shards, many other prestigious items and about 40 arrowheads."

Barkai also found two tiny silver scrolls, "which were used as amulets. They were opened after a very long time and much agonizing in the laboratories of the Israel Museum, and it turned out that they contain the most ancient Hebrew inscription of Bible verses that we have. They are from the First Temple era, from the seventh century B.C.E."

Both amulets contain the Priestly Benediction, which appears in the Book of Numbers 6: 24-26. "The benediction is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful texts we have and it is in use in synagogues to this day," Barkai explains. "There is something of personal symbolism in this, because I was born in the stricken Diaspora and I remember my father blessing me with those words when we returned from the synagogue in my early childhood, in Budapest, in his thick Ashkenazi accent, 'May the Lord bless you and keep you.' I remember those words well, very well."

Barkai does not believe in coincidence. "The first word we deciphered in the amulets, in 1983, was YHWH the name of the God of Israel. That too was symbolic, because it is the first time in Jerusalem that we had the name of the tenant of the Temple from the First Temple period."

In the week in which the story leaked to the press, he adds, "we read the weekly Torah portion of Naso in the Shabbat service, which is the chapter of the Priestly Benediction. In other words, there is some sort of interesting intentionality at work."

Further tests done on the amulets in the United States and using more advanced methods, found "beyond any doubt that they also contain verses from Deuteronomy." Thus, says Barkai, "We have here the earliest Bible verses. They predate by more than 300 years the earliest verses we know from the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran. It is of tremendous importance that we have Torah verses from the First Temple period, because many today say that the Torah was composed later."

And do the verses prove that the text of the Pentateuch was composed during the First Temple period and not during the Second Temple period, 538 B.C.E. to 70 C.E.?

"No. it does not prove that. But it does prove that at least the text of the Priestly Benediction existed during the First Temple era. I do not know whether the whole of Book of Numbers existed. But I can say that there is a possibility that what is called the Priestly Source [one of the sources of the texts in the Bible] may date from the First Temple period, as is claimed by some researchers who are known as the Jerusalem School, headed by Prof. Avi Horovitz. In my opinion, he is right."

Why is that important?

"It is serious. It is important. Because the antiquity of the biblical text is hanging in the balance. The prestige of the Jewish religion is also at stake." According to Barkai, if someone maintains that everything that is written in the Bible was composed "during the Second Temple period, with the aim of seizing control of parts of the land, then you are dealing with a nation that invented a fiction, and this also has modern political implications that I do not want to get into."