Tunneling Into Hyrcania

When Israeli archaeologist Oren Gutfeld was approached by an American named Bob for help with a mysterious dig in the Judean Desert, he was skeptical. So many people around the turn of the millennium seemed to be moved by messianic epiphanies. But when he saw what Bob had already unearthed, Gutfeld couldn't say no.

Danny Rubinstein
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Danny Rubinstein

On an autumn day in 1999, an American man of about 50 arrived at the Archaeological Institute of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and asked to see the man who was then its head, Prof. Amihai Mazar. He introduced himself as Charles Robert Morgan - known by everyone as Bob - a pilot with Continental Airlines. He had with him a recommendation from Gus Van Beek, a well-known American archaeologist, from Washington, D.C.

Mazar had a short conversation with Morgan, who, it turned out, wanted the archeological institute to join him in an important excavation in the Judean Desert.

The visitor was most mysterious, and refused to give details of the site where he was planning to undertake his research. Mazar took him to a laboratory located in the ground floor of the institute, where he introduced him to a young archaeologist by the name of Oren Gutfeld, who had just completed his master's degree and was working together with Prof. Ehud Netzer in the excavation at Herodion, the famous fortress on the edge of the desert, to the east of Bethlehem.

Since Bob had spoken about an excavation in the Judean desert, Mazar thought it would be fitting to have the two meet. Gutfeld wasn't so sure. On the one hand, the man seemed serious - a pilot with a well-known U.S. airline, with a recommendation from a respectable American archaeologist. On the other hand, his story sounded strange, and in those days before the turn of the millennium, many strange people had started coming to Jerusalem and to the institute, speaking about "important and secret" information that they had; usually it contained details from some messianic epiphany.

Bob suggested that he and Gutfeld leave immediately for the site, where he would fill him in on all the details. When he described the location, however, Gutfeld explained that it would not be possible to go there then, as it served as a firing zone for the Israel Defense Forces, and tank maneuvers were then taking place there. Eventually they decided to visit the site on the coming Friday, since there were no training exercises over the weekend. At 6 A.M., Bob appeared with maps and notes at Gutfeld's Jerusalem home. He had rented a car, and the two headed off in the direction of Jericho.

Gutfeld recalls that from the very beginning, he wanted to change his mind about the entire matter. Bob drove the car as if it were a plane and did not stop at the red light at the French Hill junction. When they got to the Nebi Mussa junction, they turned south onto a bad road that was used for access to an army camp, and then continued on to the Hyrcania valley. The area is named after the remnants of a Hasmonean fortress, apparently built by Yohanan (John) Hyrcanus toward the end of the second century B.C.E., as part of his fortifications along the border of the Judean Desert.

Herod added to this series of fortifications, and the fortress at the top of the mountain, which had never been excavated in orderly fashion, is known in Arabic as Khirbet el-Mird, a name that recalls the Aramaic word for fortress, "mirda." A few kilometers past the army camp, Bob turned right in the direction of Hyrcania, and drove along a dirt road until the rental car threatened to break down, at which point they were forced to continue on foot. Thousands of young Israelis are familiar with the Hyrcania valley from their training during regular military service or reserve duty. Many refer to the roads in the area as "powder" or "talc" roads, because of the dust that is kicked up, and that blocks one's lungs, when traveling along them.

'This is the place'

Bob and Gutfeld entered a narrow wadi, a dry river bed called Nahal Sekhakha, after the same name Biblical town. The river bed crosses the Hyrcania valley in the direction of the Dead Sea, and then continues as Nahal Qumran, which leads to the site where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. Some people identify Sekhakha with Qumran. The pair advanced a bit along the narrow riverbed, until Bob pointed to an opening cut in the rock at the bottom of the mountain where the Hyrcania fortress stands, and said, "This is the place."

Gutfeld peered into the hole and was surprised to see a long set of stairs carved into the rocks and descending at a steep decline into the mountain. The two men entered the opening and descended. After some 30 meters, the tunnel was blocked by earth but there was a burrow and Bob climbed inside. Gutfeld waited for him. When he returned, Bob told him he had been digging at the site for a long time, and still hadn't reached the end of the tunnel. He didn't feel he could continue on his own, and so wanted to request that the archaeological institute join him and do an organized excavation.

A now-enthusiastic Gutfeld hurried to check whether there was mention of the tunnel in the professional literature. He learned that it was indeed mentioned a few times but that the site had never been thoroughly investigated. He also found out that several dozen meters to the east of the riverbed, there was a second tunnel, similar to the first, and that it too had never been explored thoroughly. Bedouin in the area, who for years had been looting archaeological sites, knew about the two tunnels. One of them, an old acquaintance of Gutfeld's, told him that according to friends, no one had ever been able to get to the end of the steep tunnels because they were guarded by a demon.

Bob told Gutfeld he would take care of everything needed - money, volunteers, equipment - and that he could coordinate with the authorities and the Israel Defense Forces and get the required permits.

It turns out that the study of the tunnels dug into the mountain at Hyrcania has been the lifework of Charles Robert Morgan. For 10 years already, he had been digging at the site without authorization, twice a year, exposed to the fire of Israeli tanks and in danger of being arrested. When asked what leads a person from a small town in Missouri, in the American Midwest, to invest all his energies and money, and to even risk his life, in such an endeavor, he had a one-sentence answer: "The Treasure of the Copper Scroll," a 1960 book written by the archaeologist John Marco Allegro.

The strange document

Allegro was born in Manchester, England, to a family of Italian origin. He underwent training for the priesthood and studied Semitic languages. In 1953, when he was 30, he arrived in East Jerusalem to work with the international team set up to study the scrolls found in a cave near the Dead Sea. It soon became clear that Allegro was an unusual figure among the researchers. He was quicker than the others and also rushed to publish, but most of his colleagues attacked him for sloppy research filled with mistakes. Magen Broshi, the former curator of the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum, says that Allegro did one useful thing connected with the puzzle of the tunnels dug into the Hyrcania hills. It was he who assisted in opening and deciphering the most strange document of all those found in the Qumran caves:the Copper Scroll.

While almost all the Qumran scrolls (which number about 1,000, most of them fragmentary) are written on parchment, and a minority on papyrus, the letters of the Copper Scroll were imprinted on a bronze tablet 240 cms long and 30 cms high. The scroll was found in March 1952, at the opening of an alcove in cave no. 3 at Qumran, rolled up and rusted. It was clear that any attempt to open it would lead to its disintegration. Allegro initiated its transfer to Manchester, to an institute with advanced technology that made it possible to open the scroll and read its contents.

To the disapproval of his colleagues, he hastened to publish those contents, and when he did, it became clear that the uniqueness of the scroll also extended to what was written on it. The form of the letters dates it to the 1st century C.E. It is, therefore, similar from a historical point of view to the other scrolls, but its content is most surprising, containing as it does a list of some 60 sites where valuable treasures were said to be buried: huge quantities of gold and silver coins as well as various tools, the total weight of which experts calculate would reach some 100 tons.

The descriptions of the burial sites of the treasures are vague; though the language is full of hints, it is also obscure. Treasure no. 8, for example, is described as being buried "in the turret in the yard of the wooden houses in which there is a well with tools and 70 silver coins." Neverthless, it is clear from what is written that most of the treasures were buried in the desert between the Dead Sea and Jerusalem.

No sooner was the list of treasures contained in the scroll published than scholars began to argue: Was the list real or imaginary? If they were authentic, why was the description of their hiding places inscribed on a bronze tablet, making it possible for any finder to search for and possibly find the bounty? And if it was fictional, why waste so much precious bronze on creating it, and invest so much effort in engraving it?

Allegro was of the opinion that the list spoke of real treasures. He struck up a friendship with King Hussein of Jordan, and convinced him to give him permission and assistance in seeking the treasures. He organized a special expedition, and headed out on a search in the wake of the scroll's obscure and vague descriptions. He did surveys that led him to excavate at several spots in the Judean Desert, East Jerusalem and along the shores of the Dead Sea.

In March 1960, Allegro's team arrived at the Hyrcania fortress and Wadi Sekhakha. The Copper Scroll says the following about Treasure no. 1: "In Haroubha that is in the Valley of Achor, under the steps that go eastward, 40 rod-cubits: a strongbox of silver and its vessels, a weight of seven-KEN talents." The word "KEN" is added in Greek letters. (Based on English translation by Meir Bar-Ilan, of Bar-Ilan University.) The Valley of Achor is mentioned in the Bible, in Joshua 7:24, and scholars have identified it as Hyrcania. In addition, both the town of Sekhakha and Wadi Sekhakha are mentioned in the Book of Joshua. They are also mentioned several times in the Copper Scroll as burial places of treasures - for example, Treasure No. 24 can be found "under the tomb in Wadi Kafa on the way from Jericho to Sekhakha."

In 1960, Allegro's team discovered two tunnels dug into the rocks in Wadi Sekhakha, north of the Hyrcania fortress. They excavated and cleared some 30 meters of the western tunnel, uncovering some 50 steep steps. Although they understood they had not reached the end of the two tunnels, they left the site. Allegro also dug in several other locations, in the hope of finding one or another of the Copper Scroll promised treasures, including at a site close to Zechariah's Tomb, in the Kidron Valley in Jerusalem, as well as at Herodion. He did not find any treasures.

Allegro published the story of his searches in a book that struck the imagination of Charles Robert Morgan, a former helicopter fighter pilot who served in Vietnam. Bob came to Israel for the first time in 1986, equipped with maps and notes. He rented a car and drove straight to Jerusalem, and from there to the Jericho road and on to the Hyrcania valley. He walked alone in the desert valley, and with the help only of a description Allegro had given him by phone, he found the Hasmonean fortress and Wadi Sekhakha. He located the western tunnel dug into the rock, and amazed by the find, returned to the U.S.

A sudden death

A short time later, Bob returned to Hyrcania, this time accompanied by a friend, and together they tried to excavate and clean the tunnel. Bob also had an appointment to meet Allegro, in Manchester, but on the eve of the planned meeting, in 1988, Allegro who was then 64, died suddenly.

In the meantime, Bob had stirred up the interest and enthusiasm of several of friends in the project, and they signed on to help out. He explained to them: We have the "Achor Valley," which is the Hyrcania valley; and the place called "Haroubha" can be identified with the Hasmonean fortress. And there is Wadi Sekhakha and the steps that are mentioned at the beginning of the Copper Scroll. And above all, there are the tunnels with the steep steps that are dug into the mountains, which no one has succeeded in reaching the end of. What could they be if not a trove for treasure? From 1988 until the autumn of 1999, when Bob went to the archaeological institute and met Gutfeld, he traveled from the U.S. to the Hyrcania valley 18 times. Israel itself did not interest him. At Ben-Gurion airport, he always rented a car, and was joined by a friend or two before heading directly to the Hyrcania valley to resume digging. He hired a few Bedouin in the vicinity of Jericho, and workers from East Jerusalem, and with them he excavated in secret, mainly at night. During the day, they would hide in the tunnels or the surroundings so that the IDF, which was carrying out exercises in the area, would not notice them.

During a decade of digging in this fashion, Bob and his friends managed to make some progress in the western tunnel, but they did not manage to reach its end. A major part of their work was in vain, because each time they left for a few months, inevitably there would be a flood in Wadi Sekhakha, and the water would drag a great deal of sediment into the tunnel, causing it to refill with earth and stones.

Bob realized he had to find a more orderly way to work, and he attempted to interest research institutes in the U.S., but to no avail. Archaeologist Gus Van Beek, from the Smithsonian Institution, agreed to see him for 10 minutes. He was so amazed with the story that their meeting went on for two hours. At the end of that meeting, the American referred Bob to his Israeli colleague, Amihai Mazar.

In March 2000, Gutfeld and Morgan began their first season excavating in the two tunnels with the steps, at the foot of the Hyrcania fortress. Archaeologist Jacob Kalman, who had a lot of experience in Sinai, and was a friend of Gutfeld, joined them. Bob fulfilled his pledge, providing money, volunteers and equipment. He brought 20 friends, some of them pilots who work with him. He pestered the president of Continental, until he agreed to fly both the volunteers and equipment to Israel for free. The latter included a generator, air compressors and a special mechanism for removing earth.

The dig was not without its ups and downs. Breathing was difficult in the tunnels; Bedouin tried one night to steal the generator, and injured Bob; one digging season was lost on disposing of sediment from a flood that had blocked what was excavated in the previous season. The intifada, which broke out in September 2000, also interfered with their work. The IDF withdrew the permit they had given the group to stay in the area. They discovered shards in the western tunnel, dating from the Second Temple period, and in one spot, the tunnel widened and at a distance of a few hundred meters from its entrance, split into two.

At a certain stage, Bob and his American friends despaired. In the meantime, he had gotten married and the wedding ceremony took place at the entrance to the tunnel. Gutfeld decided to continue on his own. Because of the sponsorship of the Archaeological Institute of the Hebrew University, the Israel Exploration Association and the IDF, they were able to raise donations and get student volunteers.

A clay pot, a skeleton

Under Gutfeld, another three seasons of excavation were held at the site, the most recent of which ended at Passover, two weeks ago. At first, they reached the end of the western tunnel that split. The entire passage is a steep slope of steps carved into the rock at an angle of about 35 degrees. Along its entire length are little nooks in the wall, into which they placed candles, so that they could see what they were doing. No findings were uncovered that served to substantiate the purpose of the tunnel.

The diggers reached the final stage of excavation of the second, eastern tunnel by the deadline they had set for themselves, the intermediate days of Passover. Their findings included a clay pot from the Hasmonean period that was almost completely intact and, at a distance of 42 meters from the entrance, the skeleton of a man aged about 35. It was not obvious how he got there, though it is possible that he was washed away by a floods. At a distance of 53 meters from the entrance, the second tunnel, with steep steps at a slope of about 50 degrees, ended. Nothing else. No treasures, no burial places and no water holes.

During the last dig, about two weeks ago, I joined Gutfeld on a visit to the tunnels, in the company of American experts equipped with electronic apparatus capable of detecting cavities in the walls. So far, no results.

Who dug these tunnels and for what purpose? The archaeologist Hanan Eshel, of Bar-Ilan University, who has researched the Scrolls and had a great deal of experience excavating in the region, agrees that the puzzle remains unsolved. He supports the theory that the Copper Scroll is a literary-folkloristic document, rather than a handbook for treasure-seeker. (He has written an article on the subject, together with Zeev Safrai, which appeared in the scholarly journal Cathedra, issue 103). Gutfeld explains that there is no parallel in the country and the region for the phenomenon of digging step-tunnels to such a depth without a clear purpose. These are not tunnels for hiding, nor are they mining tunnels or water channels. Perhaps they were prepared as burial tunnels, and maybe there was a site here for hard labor for prisoners who were jailed by Herod in Hyrcania, and the tunnels wer dug only for the purpose of punishment. Evidence that Herod imprisoned his enemies at Hyrcania can be found in the writings of Josephus Flavius.

Even one who has not been trained as an archaeologists can see, on a visit to the site, that the tunnels were not the minor undertaking of a private individual. The deep carving of the narrow tunnels required the employment of hundred of slaves. Bob, Gutfeld and their friends and colleagues who climbed down into the tunnels did so with modern equipment that was able to supply oxygen to the depths. There is no doubt that many of the diggers from the Second Temple period would have suffocated during the work. In other words, whoever initiated and dug the tunnels had to have a great deal of authority. Who knows? Perhaps a thorough excavation of the Hyrcania fortress at the top of the mountain will yet help solve the mystery.



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