For two weeks in July, I was privileged to participate in something that has been on my bucket list for years – an archaeological dig in the Holy Land, preferably in Jerusalem. The opportunity came to dig on Mount Zion, Jerusalem, mentioned numerous times in the scriptures.
For Jews and Christians in the last hundred years or so, biblical archaeology in the Holy Land and other biblical lands has played a major part in shedding light on our understanding of the Bible. (In my previous life, visiting and learning at such sites was very much part of the pilgrimage or study tours that I would organize for groups, but I never had the opportunity to dig.) The dig site itself is on the eastern slope of Mount Zion, near Zion Gate, on the south side of the city. It is just outside the current walls of Jerusalem, rebuilt by Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in the 14th and 15th centuries. In the time of Jesus, the site was in the very heart of Jerusalem.
Excavations began in 1997 and closed temporarily, resuming in 2007 under the purview of the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Charlotte. The program is directed by well-known biblical archaeological scholars Dr. Shimon Gibson, professor of archaeology at UNC and a senior fellow at the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem, Dr. James Tabor, professor of ancient Judaism and early Christianity at UNC, and Prof. Rafi Lewis of Haifa University in Israel. Our group of around 50 came from all over the world. We stayed at a quaint pilgrim’s hotel in the Christian Quarter of the Old City, near the New Gate – one of eight gates of the city. Our week of digging lasted Sunday through Thursday, from 6 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. We had Fridays and Saturdays off, so there was plenty of time to explore Jerusalem or take day trips to other places.
Our day began at 5 a.m., arriving downstairs in the lounge of the hotel for a cup of instant coffee and a piece of cake (sometimes chocolate). Armed with a trowel, kneeling pads, a hat, gloves, sunglasses and lots of water, we left the hotel at around 5:15 a.m. To get to the site, we had to walk to Zion Gate, over some slippery cobblestones, then descend a concrete stairway of some 70 steps. We would make our way through the narrow streets of Jerusalem that, by that time, were coming alive with two-way traffic and the odd rabbi on his way to prayer, whizzing by on his bike, robes flying in the breeze. I often made the 15-minute walk on my own – for me a coveted time of prayer.
On arrival at the site, we made a human chain to convey all our picks, hoes, buckets and gufas (wicker baskets) from their storage place across a busy street to the site. The early-morning scenery from the site was spectacular: looking north and east, one could see the sun rising over the Mount of Olives, and, just adjacent to the site, the lights of the City of David. Dr. Gibson would give us a daily briefing of what the goals of the day were and, with his famous words “let’s get cracking”, off we went to our assigned locations to begin digging.
For the first three hours, we slugged it out – picking, hoeing, sweeping and uncovering ancient treasures and special finds. They were identified by the archaeologists on hand, then documented and sent off to be washed and catalogued. Breakfast was an interesting feature of the day. At around 9 a.m., volunteers were needed to climb up the 70 steps to pick up our breakfast, which a truck from the hotel delivered as close as it could get to the site. The well-deserved meal was an elaborate spread of cakes, jams, jellies, halva (a sesame seed and honey treat), breads with hummus, babba ganoush, cheeses, hard-boiled eggs and a tuna salad with black olives (which I loved) and more. There were cold juices as well as lots of hot black tea and Arabic coffee to wash it all down. We gathered under the breakfast tent and sat on massive dusty stones to eat our meal. (No doubt, we also consumed some of the dust that was everywhere!)
The site being excavated is an elaborate mansion that was in the heart of Jerusalem 2,000 years ago – the time of Jesus. It is located near the excavated home of Caiaphas, the high priest involved in the trial of Jesus that led to his crucifixion (John 18:13-28). It is believed that the wealthy, priestly ruling class of Jerusalem lived in this neighbourhood. “Caiaphas was the son-in-law of Annas, who had six sons who were high priests. He (Annas) ran the show for about 60 years, putting his sons in one after the other, and his son-in-law Caiaphas, along the way. So perhaps these are the homes of that extended priestly dynasty,” Dr. Tabor said. The mansion had its own cistern, a mikveh (a Jewish ritual bathing pool), a barrel-vaulted ceiling and a chamber with three bread ovens. A bathtub carved out of the bedrock with its ceiling intact was found – an extremely rare luxury that commoners of the time could not afford. “It’s clear from the finds that the people living here were wealthy, aristocrats or even priests,” said Dr. Gibson.
One of the highlights of the day was the popsicle break. It came at around 11:30 a.m. Some local boys who did small chores around the dig distributed popsicles of various flavours. I have never looked so forward to seeing a popsicle! By this time, the sun was right overhead and streaming through the holes, here and there, in the worn tarp over us. One was hot and covered with Crusader and first-century dust from head to toe! And, did I tell you that there happened to be a heat wave in Jerusalem at the time? By the time our day ended at 1:30 p.m. and we formed another human chain to return all our tools to the shed (across the busy street, with each passing car blaring its horn), the temperature was hovering near 40C. For me, the only dreaded part of my day was climbing up those 70 concrete steps, walking over those slippery cobblestones, through Zion Gate, then making my way through the crowded streets of Jerusalem – mostly uphill – back to the hotel, in the heat and covered in ancient dust!
Seriously, though, it was a very small price to pay for the invaluable learning experience and awesome blessing of digging on Mount Zion of the time of Jesus.