A Time Traveler in Jerusalem: In a Land Where Ancient History Blends Seamlessly with Everyday Life, and Preservation of the Past Is Inextricably Linked to a Celebration of the Spirit, a First-Time Visitor Discovers She Has Truly Returned Home

By Cole, Diane | Science & Spirit, July-August 2006 | Go to article overview

A Time Traveler in Jerusalem: In a Land Where Ancient History Blends Seamlessly with Everyday Life, and Preservation of the Past Is Inextricably Linked to a Celebration of the Spirit, a First-Time Visitor Discovers She Has Truly Returned Home


Cole, Diane, Science & Spirit


[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

I HAD BEEN DREAMING of Jerusalem for decades. It's a city whose very name can as easily conjure spiritual yearning as it can spark political argument, but my dreams always focused on its archaeology. Growing up in Baltimore's tightly knit Jewish community, I learned to read the Bible in the original Hebrew, translating Genesis (albeit haltingly) verse by verse. The ancientness of the language, combined with the mystical stories and archaic events described, instilled in me a primal awe that mixed uneasily with a skeptic's nagging doubts: Did all this really happen? And if not, what did? I became convinced that it was up to the archaeologists to dig up the truth, to use the countless artifacts continually uncovered from Israel's quite literally buried past to interpret and reconstruct the layers of history--and then preserve them for future memory.

In this hope, I was inspired by Samuel Iwry, a professor of biblical archaeology at Johns Hopkins University who just happened to belong to my synagogue and was the father of a good friend. Iwry had been one of the first scholars to help decode the meaning and import of the millennia-old Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in 1947 in the desert caves of Qumran. Decades before radiocarbon dating technology could confirm his hypothesis without damaging the scrolls, he determined, on the basis of his linguistic and literary analysis of the texts, that the obscure radical Jewish sect known as the Essenes had written the parchment documents between the first century B.C. and the second century A.D. It is only by an accident of the caves' natural climate control that those yellowed scrolls, buried in their individual clay jars, have been preserved. Indeed, after they were discovered, unfurled, and brought into normal light and air conditions, it became clear that it was a matter of time before damage would set in. No wonder that the more I heard and read about them, the more synonymous in my mind did a visit to Jerusalem become with a personal pilgrimage to the aptly named Shrine of the Book, the Israel Museum building designed to protect and display a number of the scrolls.

Yet it wasn't until last summer that I made the trip. And it wasn't archaeology that served as catalyst; it was a family wedding. No matter. The celebration itself--at Neot Kedumim, a biblical landscape reserve planted, with the idea of preservation in mind, with the very vines, trees, shrubs, herbs, and flowers described in the Old Testament--would prove no less an embodiment of Israel's inextricable mix of past and present than Jerusalem's own blend of ancient stone and modern concrete. Back home again, I hear the echo of that celebration--a reminder of the possibility for joy in a city whose fragmented nature and fractured history go well beyond archaeology's ability to mend the past's broken artifacts. Or perhaps we need, as British scholar Simon Goldhill puts it in The Temple of Jerusalem, a special sort of archaeology, one that "uncovers not so much rock and dust as the sedimented layers of human fantasy, politics, and longing."

BUT I AM GETTING AHEAD OF MYSELF, EVEN further ahead than the seven hours I advance my watch as I board the flight from New York to Jerusalem. Then again, I could just as easily set the clock backward to any number of archaeological strata from the past. And I absolutely should adjust the cultural-religious channel of my personal mind-set for a journey not just through time zones, but through the dimensions of time itself.

Sitting near the back of the El Al main cabin, I am puzzled by what I take to be a faintly songlike electronic feedback loop coming from the ear buds of my iPod. Only when I remove them and turn around do I realize that it's the murmur of prayer. First in the evening and again in the morning, a group of men--anywhere from a handful to a dozen, mostly dressed in black suits and white shirts and wearing black hats or skullcaps--gather at the very back of the plane and begin to chant in Hebrew. …

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