Up in Smoke

When a fire swept through an antiquities warehouse near the Beit Shean archaeological site earlier this month, thousands of artifacts were destroyed. Now it is clear the fire was set deliberately, but no one knows why.

Avihai Becker
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Avihai Becker

It was apparently just another routine fire. Two weeks ago Wednesday, the Beit Shean firefighters were called to a structure next to the local mall that was engulfed in flames. The time was 7:57 P.M. Within two minutes, word of the fire reached the regional fire station in Afula as well. Two fire engines, a water tanker and a control car carrying veteran officer Avraham Tal rushed to the scene. When Tal arrived, he found that the basalt structure, 30 meters long, was burning from end to end and its ceiling was collapsing. Frantic onlookers told him that the structure was an antiquities warehouse.

The fire kept growing and from experience, Tal could tell right away that it had been deliberately set. Fearing that his men could be hurt by the heavy stones that were coming loose due to the intense heat, he decided not to forge inside into the flames, but to spray jets of water from the sides to the windows and from the top of the tall ladder to the roof. In firefighting terms, the level of danger to those involved in battling the fire was 3.5 on a scale of 5.

The firefighting effort concluded at 12:30 A.M., according to the daily log. The crews returned safely to their stations and when they'd relaxed a bit over a cup of coffee, Tal said to his men: "You should know that this thing isn't over. I smell something rotten here." From random conversations in the field he picked up stories about disputes, about supposed threats from workers who'd been dismissed from their jobs at the Beit Shean national park directed at their former employers at the Nature and Parks Authority and the Antiquities Authority. He put the details together: "An area that's in tough shape, a population that is among the most screwed socio-economically, an unguarded antiquities warehouse - it all should have set off a red warning light a long time ago. As soon as I saw the fire, and the way it spread, it was obvious to me that this was no innocent incident."

"Eighteen years of excavations down the drain" was the title of the joint press release issued by the Antiquities Authority and the Nature and Parks Authority. Amos Sabag, commander of firefighting and rescue services in the Jezreel region, sent fire investigator Miki Cohen, who found "at least two separate fire centers, with no connection between one and the other," as he wrote in his report. "The main entrance door to the structure was broken into," he added, and the lock was found to be broken. "I did not find any signs of an electrical short or of materials that could spontaneously combust," Cohen wrote. "I used a machine to test for gas fumes, which detected a relatively sharp odor next to the two fire centers, indicating the use of a flammable substance." The conclusion was "premeditated arson." The Beit Shean police went into action.

Station commander Sarina Yehuda's response doesn't shed much light on where the investigation actually stands today: "We are exploring a number of avenues, focusing on the question of who would have had a reason to commit this deed. At this stage, we have no suspects, and the investigation is focusing on the intelligence plane. Up to now, we have collected testimony from eyewitnesses and from people from the Antiquities Authority and the Nature and Parks Authority. I am very hopeful that we will find those involved and that we will have enough evidence to charge them. In any event, this is a very serious crime of great public interest."

The Beit Shean national park had actually been seeing a bit of an increase in visitors, after an unprecedented drop in wake of the intifada: Only 25,000 visitors came in 2002 and 40,000 in 2003, compared to 296,000 in 1996. In recent months, says Nissim Badus, the director of the site, there was a 60 percent rise in visitors compared to the same period in the previous year.

Badus, who was born and raised and lives in Beit Shean, has held this job, with brief breaks, since 1982, when he was studying geography and tourism at Bar-Ilan University's branch in Tzemah. He's passionate about his work and when he talks about his "baby" - as he gives a tour of the Roman theater that dwarfs the one in Caesarea, of the breathtaking bathhouse that extends over seven dunams and at the monumental colonnades lining Palladius Street - he gets truly carried away. The words pour out of him. He and the national park are one.

After his daily walk, he was sitting in Eli Luzon's barbershop, waiting for his turn, when he received a phone message about "flames erupting from Beit Hanekhut." A police jeep picked him up, and when he helplessly watched the fire, he felt like he was being stabbed. He ran back and forth, urging the firefighters to work with greater energy, frustrated by their unruffled composure, which he interpreted as a lack of determination. They vainly urged him to calm down.

Beit Hanekhut, which was converted into an antiquities warehouse 18 years ago, is a piece of nostalgia for Beit Shean residents who were around in the early days of Israel's statehood. There was once a modest museum here that was faithfully tended by Nehemia Tzuri, an archaeologist with a strong attachment to the place. The institution was called Beit Hanekhut and by that name it is etched deep in his heart. Before the start of the excavations, in which the public center of the city of Nisa-Scythopolis (Beit Shean of the Roman-Byzantine period) in all its glory was revealed, the local children would bring Tzuri coins and pottery shards that they'd collected in the area, and he rewarded them with a cup of tea and handfuls of candy. To them, it was an unbeatable deal, and they all remember him as a paternal character.

When they became teenagers, they would gather on the roof of Beit Hanekhut to watch the soccer games that were played on Saturdays at the foot of the hill. Pairs of lovers who wanted to be alone would come here at night. Today an antiquities warehouse, yesterday Beit Hanekhut, but the structure was originally built as a mosque that was used for prayer until Bisan - the Arab name of Beit Shean - was conquered in 1948 by IDF forces and its 5,000 inhabitants fled across the Jordan. What remains of its minaret is still visible from afar, and over the threshold is an elaborate Arabic inscription from the 17th century: "Renovated during the time of Sultan Abdel Hamid II as a popular mosque." The foundations were laid in the Umayyad period, about 1,000 years ago.

Arfan Najar of the Antiquities Authority, a resident of the village of Daburiya at the foot of Mount Tabor, has spent half his life at the site. He has been in the field for 18 years and is now the head of the preservation team. He started from nothing, as soon as he graduated from Ben-Gurion University with a degree in archaeology. He was fortunate enough to be taken on right away to work on the excavation project that was just beginning then, in 1986.

"Now there's an empire here," Najar says, without concealing his pride at having been a part of this enterprise. He identifies so closely with the place that he even named his daughter Bisan. "It's not enough that you have Bisan at work, you couldn't do without a Bisan at home too?" his friends in Daburiya kidded him.

The fire, of course, hit him hard, too. He was entertaining guests at home when Badus called him, hysterical, with the news. Najar dropped everything and hurried to Beit Shean. He was beside himself when he saw the flames enveloping the antiquities warehouse in which all the pottery found at the site had been painstakingly collected. Millions of numbered and sorted shards, carefully catalogued according to the loci of their discovery. When he rushed out of the house at 2 A.M., he was still hoping deep down that many artifacts had been saved from the fire.

He returned the next day at 6 in the morning. When he peeked in the windows and saw the inside of the structure was still smoking, his heart skipped a beat. "The fire consumed everything. For me, this is an inconsolable blow. I was stunned. Beit Shean has been through two traumatic events," he sighs. "The first was the earthquake that destroyed the city in the year 947. The fire wasn't fatal, but in terms of the scientific research, the damage is irreversible."

The whole community pitches in

"The Beit Shean national park is the most ambitious archeological project ever undertaken in Israel," explains Gabi Mazor of the Antiquities Authority, who directed the excavation project together with his colleagues from Hebrew University, professors Yoram Tzafrir and Gideon Foerster. His previous position in the Antiquities Authority was chief archaeologist for the northern district. A native Jerusalemite, after the army he settled on Kibbutz Revivim and became a teacher in the Ma'aleh Habesor regional school. Among other places, he has excavated in Halutza, Mamshit and Tel Dan. In the coming months, he will be working with an American group excavating at Omrit to uncover a temple whose construction is attributed to Herod. The work in Beit Shean is especially dear to him.

"Some NIS 220 million was invested in the project. During peak periods, we employed 240 people," says Mazor. "The idea began when Yitzhak Moda'i, the finance minister at the time, wanted to find a way to ease the severe unemployment problem in Beit Shean. The initiative gained momentum thanks to a tremendous lobbying effort led by Amir Drori, who headed the Antiquities Authority then, which made it possible to develop it as major tourism project according to a five-year plan that we put together.

"The thing that moved me the most over all the long years of the project was the way in which the workers really dedicated themselves to it. The whole community pitched in. The message we tried to get across was `This project is yours. When we (archaeologists) finish the work here, we'll go back to our homes in Jerusalem, but you'll always be here. The national park is an opportunity to change the face of Beit Shean.' That's what we told them. Happily, a lot of the local people answered the challenge."

The tourist site based on the excavations became Beit Shean's oil well. One good thing seemed to beget another, and as it turned out, the year in which the number of visitors to the park reached a peak was also the best season ever for the local soccer team. The 3-2 come-from-behind victory over Maccabi Haifa at Kiryat Eliezer in the closing round of the 1995-96 season is remembered as a high point in local history. These days, Beit Shean would consider it an accomplishment to escape demotion to the fourth league.

The city's economic situation is just as gloomy. In histopographical treatise Kaftor Vaferah, written in 1322, Ashtori Haparhi writes that Beit Shean is "blessed and sated with joys - an opening to Paradise." A vast chasm exists between this heartwarming description and the present reality.

Beit Shean's archaeological treasures are on a par with the most impressive artifacts found in cities of the eastern Roman and Byzantine empires, says Mazor. He even equates it with Jerash in Jordan, with Pergamon in Asia Minor and with Leptis Magna near Tripoli. In the fourth century, it was declared the capital of what the Romans called Provincia Judea. In its golden age, it was home to a population of 40,000-50,000, according to Mazor. Modern Beit Shean is home to just 17,000 people.

In the summer of 1989, the spectacular colorful medallion-shaped mosaic that was 80 centimeters in diameter and featured a likeness of Tyche, the Roman goddess of good fortune, who was known as the city's patron, was brutally removed and stolen. The figure wore a crown with the walls of the city on it, and held the horn of plenty in her hand. For Badus, and not only for him, it was an especially black day. He says it hit him as hard as the present disaster. "They're just rocks," the policeman on duty tried to console Badus when he reported the theft at the police station. Badus reacted angrily.

He draws some encouragement from the fact that the Tyche mystery was solved after about two years. After a concerted detective effort, the mosaic - worth about $300,000 - was discovered buried in the yard of a Beit Shean resident. The thief was tried and convicted. Tyche is now on display at the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem. But now, in contrast, even if the arsonist is found, there can be no happy ending, because the damage that has been done is irreversible.

The only bit of consolation left is the realization that the damage could have been much greater. "Statues, coins, inscriptions, glass, artifacts of some significance and worthy of restoration were already sent to our labs in Jerusalem," says Mazor. "Everyone knew that in the warehouse there were no items of great financial value. The main worry, if there was one, was that they would steal columns and capitals - fantastic things that were scattered around. But they didn't touch those."

The motive, therefore, if not money, was simply a desire to wreak destruction. "I can't remember any other acts of vandalism and so I am genuinely surprised," says Mazor. "Valuable artifacts, the kind that are displayed to the public in the various museums, are not here. So what's the problem? The answer is that while the shards that were stored here weren't destined for museums, they were crucial for scientific research and for use in writing scientific articles. Luckily, I'd already finished processing most of the raw material I needed for a summary report on the excavation, which will be published starting next year. Unfortunately, this is not the situation for two other groups involved in the project. The direct damage done to their work is worse than it is to mine."

And that's not all. "A researcher - either tomorrow or 20 years from now - who wants to examine the validity of the publication and authenticate the data upon which the conclusions were based will need to have all the pottery available. Because of the fire, all this documentation is lost to us."

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