By Jason Alster
While sitting in a movie theatre in Israel it came to me like a spark. Intuition, about of creativity, a decision to take action, doesn’t always hit you light a bolt of lightning, but can be more subtle. In my case, the idea jelled while I was watching the movie Under the Tuscan Sun. The movie initially caught my attention because a neighbor of mine took his wife to Tuscany, Italy for a wedding anniversary and enjoyed it there. I was now wondering if I should vacation there too. In the movie, an American woman named Francis decides to purchase a home in the Tuscan countryside and begin her life anew. Keeping a positive attitude, she was determined to acclimate with the locals, overcome the hurdles associated with moving, find the fulfillment she was seeking, and even meet the man of her dreams.
During the movie I realized that I have had similar experiences while moving and living in a Mediterranean country. I too started anew, acclimated with the locals, and had funny and enlightening encounters with the characters I met. I became conscious that I am now really a part of this corner of the world.
Couldn’t I write a book about it? ‘Chasing The Ark of the Covenant.’
I am wondering where to begin this book. Should I start from the beginning of the adventure and make it chronological, or should I start from the more pertinent?
While having my daily look at the news from my other home, Israel, a country frequently compared to the state of New Jersey because of her shape and size, an article stood out. For once, what I read wasn’t about politics and conflict. With all of those horrible news stories, beautiful little Israel had come to symbolize a place of strife and intifada instead of “a land of milk and honey.”
The news I found was of an archaeologist named Tudor Partiff, a British Professor of Modern Jewish Studies. A real-life Indiana Jones, Partiff is chasing after the biblical Ark of the Covenant – in Africa. Whatever happened to the ark after the Romans captured it in 70 AD is one of the world’s greatest unsolved mysteries.
In the article, Partiff claims to have found a remnant of the ark in a museum in Harare, Zimbabwe, hiding in plain sight on a dusty shelf. Partiff feels the ark was simpler than what we were led to imagine. He argues that Moses and his people were just recently freed slaves and could not have had the ability to mold an ark like the ones recreated in books of the Bible. Instead, the ark was more humble, small like a drum and made of wood, possibly once covered in gold. I hope I understood that one correctly?
I later saw a television documentary on Partiff. His story sparked a light bulb in my head, for I had some questions of my own about the Exodus story. If the Israelites built the cities in Egypt and were thus witnesses to Egyptian art, why did they not copy Egyptian art in the land of Israel or even build pyramids of their own? All in all, Partiff’s story is what finally got me inspired enough to put pen to hand. After all, some people who made aliyah to Israel joined archaeological digs in search of lost treasure and biblical “facts on the ground.” I had that spirit too – to uncover my roots in the Holy Land and make an adventure out of it.
Within my first months in Israel, I volunteered to join an archaeological dig on the Gamla Mountain atop the Golan Heights. Gamla, which is “camel” in Hebrew, resembles the humps on a camel’s back. The Gamla overlooks the Sea of Galilee, has its own waterfall, and is surrounded by two rivers: the Nahal Gamla and the Nahal Dalyot. On Gamla, there is a walled Jewish city with a synagogue etched sideways on a high, rocky, mountain cliff. Josephus Flavius was the Jewish Commander of Galilee and in 66 CE fortified Gamla as his main stronghold on the Golan Heights. The Israelites of Gamla revolted against Roman rule in 67 AD as part of the Jewish Wars against Rome.
For that, Gamla was set to siege and destroyed by the Roman legion general Vespasian who later became a Roman emperor. At Gamla, reminders of the revolt and destruction were all around. I saw stone cannonballs, ballista, and bronze or copper Roman arrowheads – a rare find in the Middle East indicating a ferocious battle took place. There was a tower with a breach in it and a large spearhead sticking out at the base. On my trip, I also uncovered Jewish coins, clay lanterns, and Roman glass. Reminiscent of the history of Masada, legend tells that the Jews from Gamla committed suicide rather than be captured by the dreaded Romans.
According to this tale, the Jews from Gamla jumped off the cliff into the ravine, yet one of the great Israeli archaeological mysteries is that no human bones have ever been found at the bottom of the cliff anywhere on Gamla. It is thought that wild boars dragged them away for a meal, but no one knows for sure. Shemarya Gutman, a famous Israeli archaeologist who was one of the first people to discover Gamla after the Six Day War, was there on the dig that I had joined.
He looked like Ben Gurion and was from that generation too – same hairdo. He told me, and the rest of the volunteers on the dig that day, that any coins found buried on Gamla are historically valuable. Since no other city is known to have been built atop Gamla and since no bones have been found in the area, the coins are the best clues to find to prove the legend of Gamla is true.
I brought my first Israeli girlfriend with me to Gamla to join me for the week at the dig. I met her at an aliyah absorption center where I was staying at in Herzliya by the coast. She made aliyah from the south of France, and like me, made aliyah on her own, while her parents were still living in France. One of her parents was French and the other Tunisian.
At the time I met her, Bridget was serving in the Israel army and going to the dig with me would be her vacation. She spoke English with a British accent and sounded allot like Kyle Minogue. Bridget smoked European cigarettes, looking like someone out of a foreign film. Her hair was long, wavy, and light golden brown. What the Israelis call “gingi.” But most of all, she was French and knew more about the affairs of men and women more than me.
I enjoyed meeting a European woman. The word was that European women were not in a gender war with their men like American girls and were supposed to be better at supporting relaxed relationships. That part was debatable.
At Gamla, we dug early in the morning before the hot sun came out. I found Roman glass, pottery, a few encrusted coins, and half a signet ring. The coins are probably sitting in a museum somewhere.
Every now and then, an Israeli Cobra helicopter would patrol the narrow and steep ravine below us. They flew so close and below us, that if I threw a stone I would have hit the top rotor blades.
In the afternoon, after digging, we hiked down to the stream Nahal Dalyot – and dunked ourselves in the water. There were fish in there that looked like trout, but when I threw a piece of bread on the water, they grouped and devoured it like piranhas.
When we returned to the camp, we sat for dinner on picnic tables under tents provided by the dig organizers. There was that cowboy atmosphere. The food came by jeep from a local kibbutz a few miles away. It was hot dogs, baked beans, bread and famous Israeli chocolate spread with plenty of apples and oranges. The Israeli hot dogs were skinnier but spicier than the American version. One of the kibbutz members who supplied us walked barefoot all the way over from the kibbutz. Wearing only khaki shorts, he was tall, blonde, toned with striking good looks; undeniably a natural poster child for a kibbutz advertisement. One of the young girls on the dig, a tourist, tried to start a conversation with him and asked if his feet hurt. He said he had strong soles and had been walking barefoot since he was a child. This reminded me of barefoot Greek marathon runners. I let them be.
There was so much food brought in the boxes that they must have been expecting an army of volunteers. Alternatively, the antiquities authority had to buy a minimum amount from the kibbutz to get supplied. That night, the leftover food was thrown down the same cliff the early defenders jumped off. Suddenly, pairs of small bright red lights shined out of the dark from the distance. It was the eyes of wild boars making their appearance for the feast. Could the theory of the wild boars stealing the ancient skeletons be true? Were the early settlers really carried away by the ancestors of these boars? It remains an open mystery.
On my last day of the dig, after lunch, I bit into an apple and left it on the table, enjoying the beautiful scenery. The workday was already over. There was no afternoon digging because of the heat. Quietly, a green chameleon crawls up onto the wood table. Its eyes, each one a cone shape, are looking in different directions. One eye looking at me, and the other eyed my apple. Is the chameleon going to eat my apple? A fly then landed on the apple oblivious to the chameleon, which now had the color of the table, grey.
Zooop! A long and fast sticky tongue darts out from the chameleon’s mouth. The fly is lunch. Soon, another unsuspecting fly lands on the lonely apple, and disappears without leaving any evidence at the crime scene. Zooop again! The chameleon, whose tongue hits its prey in about 30 thousandths of a second, made a meal of at least five or six flies. I picked up the chameleon and it hung to my finger with its curled tail. I never saw a chameleon in action before, actually I never even saw a chameleon and now we were friends.
There I was, young, in Israel with a lady friend on an archeology dig enjoying sunshine, beautiful scenery, good food, exotic animals, and adventure. All of this in one package, I could hardly ask for more. Till that moment, it was the best day of my life!
Jason invites readers to see his video book trailer http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4i9V5RAXGvw