Prominent Israeli Archaeologist Yoram Tsafrir Dies

In addition to his archaeological exploits, Tsafrir was noted for his strong opposition to the politicization of archaeology.

Yoram Tsafrir, while director of the National Library in 2007.
Alex Levac

Prof. Yoram Tsafrir, one of the most important archaeologists in Israel, passed away Monday in a Jerusalem hospital. For years, Tsafrir excavated the old city in Beit Shean, researched Jerusalem and the Land of Israel in the Roman and Byzantine periods and was frequently at the forefront of battles against damaging archaeological sites. Last year he was awarded the EMET prize for Art, Science and Culture.

Born in 1938 in Kfar Azar, Tsafrir studied archaeology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and wrote a doctoral thesis about Jerusalem during the Byzantine period. He was seriously wounded in the Six-Day War, only returning to the university and to excavations after lengthy rehabilitation. He described his experiences in his book “Injury,” for which he was awarded the Itzhak Sadeh prize for military literature in 1976.

During his long career Tsafrir was director of the National Library and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He also became famous for his criticism of the exploitation of archaeology for political purposes. In the 1990s, he headed a petition against the controversial archaeological organization Elad over its intention to build a large neighborhood on the historic tel of Jerusalem. In recent years, he headed a public battle against the plan of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation to build Beit Haliba, a large office building, on the Western Wall plaza, at the expense of an important archaeological excavation that exposed a street from the Roman period.

Tsafrir also protested against archaeological work methods in the City of David and the pace of the work, which he said was dictated by political considerations. “An archaeologist must not be guided by emotions,” he told Haaretz. “He is bound by professional criteria. He has to be like a surgeon, to work with professionalism. One day there may be peace here, and the Palestinian inhabitants will agree to an orderly excavation. Political needs cannot dictate our pace.”

Tsafrir wrote dozens of articles and books and taught generations of students who are teaching today in all the universities in Israel. For his outstanding achievements, especially the study of the early Church, he was awarded the Frend Medal from the Society of Antiquarians of London. Prof. Erella Hovers, the head of the Hebrew University Institute of Archaeology, said: “We mourn the passing of a beloved teacher, a sworn lover of the Land of Israel and one its greatest scholars, and a person with a social conscience and public courage. Prof. Tsafrir was involved in scientific activity until his last days. He left behind him a research and educational legacy that his students will be proud to continue.”