Ashtoreth


Working in the Pottery Lab complex is one of several unexpected pleasures I’ve been experiencing on this excavation. As a microcosm of Israel itself, our Lab is international. Yolanta, who knows all the pottery of each age in this region, is Jewish, of Polish descent. Rachel Ben Dov, well-known metallurgist and archaeologist, is a native Israeli, born not long after Israel became a nation in 1948. Sarcon, an artist and computer graphics expert, is a Turkish Muslim. Rauna, the builder and maintainer of Tel Akko’s rather magnificent database, is Danish, married to an Israeli.

Each brings seasons of experience, intelligence, multiple PhD’s, creativity, humor, and good nature to their work. I look forward to heading there, every day, after digging in the morning.

In the early afternoon, around 1pm, the rest of the crew returns from the excavation, and a small cadre of area supervisors come in with the special finds, and the “Find of The Day.” This year, we seem to have uncovered a treasure trove of horse heads and female figurines. Both have intriguing implications.

The horse heads originally belonged to a horse-and-rider combination. “According to Dr. Adi Erlich of the University of Haifa, the use of horses in the Ancient Near East was greatly increased during the Iron Age. Chariots are mentioned in several ancient literary accounts including Pharaoh’s pursuit of the Israelites in Exodus, and Deborah and Barak’s battle against Sisera in Judges. Erlich says that “Horse figurines were common in the Land of Israel in the first millennium BCE,” including horse-shaped vessels used for holding liquids.” (That link will send you to a short and fascinating story about horse heads being discovered near Akko)

It is thought, at least in our Pottery Lab, the horse-and-rider figurines came from Bronze Age graves perhaps disrupted during Crusader times and used as landscaping fill when they planted vineyards and orchards on top of the Tel.

The several female cylinder figures and sculpted women’s heads we’ve been discovering are even more provocative. Rachel Ben Dov, who wrote a three volume series on the Tel Dan excavation, sent me an article she’d written on similar statuettes. Evidently, it is thought these figurines represent Astarte/Ashtoreth. They typically depict a woman with long, flowing hair, holding what seems to be a dove. Others hold what seems to be a tambourine, or hand drum, and still a third variety hold what seems to be a cake. The style is Phoenician (which makes complete sense, considering Akko began as a Phoenician sea port). Evidently, statuette manufacture was centered in Tyre and Sarepta, but the figurines were distributed up and down the coast, being found in Akhziv, Akko, Kaisan, and even farther south, into ancient Israel.

These pottery figures’ heyday was in the 8th to 6th centuries BCE, when production seemed to dwindle down (and consider, that is about the time the Assyrians came riding through, conquering and terrorizing everything in sight, with deportation on Israel’s itinerary).

We know worship of Ashtoreth was a regular source of contention between God and His people during this time frame. According to Wikipedia, she was “a foreign, non-Judahite goddess, the principal goddess of the Sidonians or Phoenicians, representing the productive power of nature.” (That link takes you to Wikipedia). Ashtoreth was the goddess of sexuality, fertility, and war, and among her several symbols was the dove.

It is generally accepted that the Masoretic “vowel pointing” adopted c. 135 AD, indicating the pronunciation ʻAštōreṯ (“Ashtoreth,” “Ashtoret”) is a deliberate distortion of “Ashtart”, and that this is probably because the two last syllables have been pointed with the vowels belonging to bōšeṯ, (“bosheth,” abomination), to indicate that that word should be substituted when reading.  The plural form is pointed ʻAštārōṯ (“Ashtaroth”). The biblical Ashtoreth should not be confused with the goddess Asherah, the form of the names being quite distinct, and both appearing quite distinctly in the First Book of Kings. 

The biblical writers may, however, have conflated some attributes and titles of the two, as seems to have occurred throughout the 1st millennium Levant. For instance, the title “Queen of heaven” as mentioned in Jeremiah has been connected with both (in later Jewish mythology, she became a female demon of lust; for what seems to be the use of the Hebrew plural form ʻAštārōṯ in this sense, see Astaroth).”

Here’s where it get’s hinky:

“Inscriptions from several places including Kuntillet ‘Ajrud have the phrase “YHWH and his Asherah”. Because the Jews combined El with YHWH, it is understandable that many inhabitants of the land of Israel, linked El’s wife Asherah with YHWH.”

Makes it even easier to see why Asherah was both wildly popular, especially among women, and why God was so grieved over her worship.

Al Jazaar Mosque


[Al Jazaar mosque street entrance, by Erik Törner | https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/]

Even as I sit here and type these words, I can hear the muezzin singing out the Adhan from the minaret of Al Jazaar mosque, the final of five calls to prayer throughout the day.

God is great

There is no god but Allah, Muhammad is the messenger of God.

[The Five Pillars of Islam | Xxedcxx [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)]

This statement of faith is called the Kalimah, and is the first of the Five Pillars of Islam. We, along with all Akko, hear these words at 4 in the morning, Fajr, the dawn prayer. Then, there is Dhuhr, the early afternoon prayer, Ast, the late afternoon prayer, Maghrib, the sunset prayer, and now Isha’a, the night prayer. As I listen to the muezzin chant, I wonder what it would be like for my spirit to stop what I am doing, and commune with God in such an intentional way, five times a day. 

A brief history of Al Jazaar mosque is easily accessible on most Akko tourist sites. “It is the second largest Mosque in Israel after the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The mosque was built in 1781 on the ruins of a church that was built on the ruins of a mosque from the early Muslim era. The mosque is named after the ruler of Acre at the end of the 18th century.

[Al Jazaar mosque inner entrance, by Erik Törner | https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/]

The Ottoman Empire ruled the Middle East for four hundred years, from 1517 to 1917, but after a short golden age the empire gradually declined. The central government was weak and local rulers controlled large areas. When Dhaher al-Omar, a Bedouin ruler of Galilee, appropriated too much authority and started establishing connections with hostile European empires, the sultan in Istanbul decided to put an end to Dhaher autonomy. Al Jazzar, a Bosnian officer that was known for his cruelty (Al Jazzar means “the butcher” in Arabic; his real name was Jezzar Pasha), was sent to assassinate Dhaher. After completing the task he became the governor of Acre. At the time of his rule he fought against Napoleon.

The mosque was built during the reign of Al-Jazzar, and he is buried next to it. Once a year, at the Eid al-Fitr celebration, a hair – which according to tradition comes from the beard of Mohammed – is presented in the mosque.”

Younger than Christianity, Islam itself does not appear in the Bible. However, the Qur’an points to Ishmael as the true first son of Abraham. He is considered a prophet, and the ancestor of Muhammad. According to Islamic texts, Abraham brought Hagar and Ishmael to Mecca in response to God’s command, and later returned to build the Kaaba, house of God, making Mecca a holy city.

That’s me, covering my hair and shoulders out of respect for this holy space to the Muslims

As Abraham left, Hagar asked him to whom he was entrusting herself and Ishmael, and he said, “I am entrusting you to God,” to which she responded with her own trust that God would guide them. The overlap in this story with the biblical account is Hagar’s and Ishmael’s terrible thirst in the desert, and their miraculous rescue with the provision of water.

Most Muslims believe that Abraham was told to sacrifice his son, Ishmael, though the Qur’an does not mention the name of the son. The holiest day of the year, Eid al-Adha, celebrates Abraham’s willing obedience to God in this, during which every observant Muslim family  slaughters a lamb in his honor.

[Al Jazaar mosque inside | MartinVMtl [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

As Dave and I went into the mosque, looked at all the beautiful calligraphy on the walls, words from their holy book, and the rich burgundy prayer rugs on the floor, all pointed towards Mecca, we thought about those whom we hold dear who know Allah as their god. Inwardly we pointed our own hearts heavenward, prayed to the God whom we know, trusting in His great love for all those who seek to know Him.

[Cover Photo, Al Jazaar mosque entrance | Chadica from Jerusalem, Israel [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

We Went To Prison Today


The Akko prison intersects the Crusaders with the Ottoman empire, the British Mandate, and the Jewish resistance movements throughout Palestine. Today, the 12th century Crusader Hospitaller Center bears evidence of the 18th century Muslim fortress with military barracks and palaces, and the 19th century British prison. During the British Mandate, there were three major prisons: Jerusalem (Russian Compound and Kishle); Akko; and Bethlehem (women’s prison).

Most famously housed within Akko’s prison walls is one of the Bahai’s holy sites, the cell which held Baha’ullah. Today, only Baha’i may enter into that sacred space.

The other inmates celebrated in this now museum are the Jewish underground resistance fighters, from three main groups: the Haganah, the Etzel, and the Lehi, and most especially Zeb Jabotinsky. As we walked through the displays, set in what had been the prison cells, we read about the Zionist movements that formed throughout Palestine and Europe. It was a somber moment to enter the gallows room, and come face-to-face with the reality of execution. Nine Jewish fighters were executed in that grim room, hung by the neck, as the rest of the prisoners sang the hymn that became Israel’s national anthem.

Afterward, we heard a lecture on the themes the museum display seemed to be designed around:

  • Building Israel
  • Being strong

According to our speaker, the traditional perspective of Jewish history was as an account of a passive, weak people who had been unwilling or unable to defend themselves. Zionism sought to communicate strength and heroism as redemptive qualities

Our speaker continued by saying the depiction of unity and cooperation was emphasized, with the value of building a nation. The narrative holds the three resistance groups were willing to work together and deserved joint and recognition and honor for creating the state of Israel. Each of the three displays were equal in size, verbiage, display, giving each group equal respect.

Indeed, these themes were easily recognized in the steel girders, blossoming trees, and pictures of verdant fields, houses, and families in the backgrounds of each of the didactic panels telling the stories of the prisoners.

Our speaker also pointed out the narrative that was missing, and asked what impact that might have on the community of Akko as a Mixed City, and what greater implications this museum’s choices may indicate for a nation as diverse as Israel, with nearly 25% of its population as Arab.

Probably the most significant missing piece to the Akko prison’s story is the fate of the Arab prisoners—thousands of Arabs were imprisoned, and hundreds executed in Akko. There is only one plaque mentioning Arab prisoners. The Arab cells contain no displays, no explanatory plates, no pictures…really no indication at all of who might have been incarcerated there. Also missing is the often contentious, even vitriolic, conflict between the various Jewish resistance groups in the early 20th century. Their story has been cleansed and revised to reflect a more heroic view. In reality, this is a museum dedicated to the lives and stories of underground Jewish fighters, rather than a museum of the Akko Prison.

As New York Senator William L. Marcy famously said, “To the victor belong the spoils.” History is often written by the victors. Even today, when we read a news article about conflict among peoples, we are being guided in how to view each side—are they terrorists, or are they freedom fighters, are they rebels or revolutionaries? The tactics are the similar, but the narrative is very different.

Jerusalem


“On that day you looked to the weapons of the House of the Forest, and you saw that there were many breaches in the city of David, and you collected the waters of the lower pool. You counted the houses of Jerusalem, and you broke down the houses to fortify the wall. You made a reservoir between the two walls for the water of the old pool. But you did not look to him who did it, or have regard for him who planned it long ago.” (Isaiah 22: 8-11, NRSV)

Part of the Tel Akko Excavation’s Total Archaeology approach is to take in the larger context of the dig—the present day city and its history, the surrounding landscape, the people groups and cultures, the land of Israel and its history. Today, to get a better understanding of the unique challenges Israel faces, we visited the capitol city, Jerusalem, another of the six “Mixed Cities” and filled with spiritual pilgrims from three of the major religions in the world: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.

As we walked through the Jewish Quarter during Saturday Shabbat, it was very quiet. The only activity was in the grand courtyard adjacent to the Western Wall of the temple mount, where many Jews from all kinds of denominations had come to pray: men to the left, women to the right, and on the other side of a rampart, the egalitarian section where families could pray together. Cutting through this area is what seems to be a cobbled together tube, completely enclosed, heavily guarded, rising up to the temple mount. No Jew is permitted access, so passports are necessary to enter.

As we walked to the Christian quarter to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, we passed an impressive excavation of the wall that surrounded the old Jerusalem during what’s called the First Temple Period—when Solomon’s temple still stood, and Judah had not yet been conquered and exiled by the Babylonians.

The wall is massive, 147 feet long, 23 feet thick—you can read a little more about it on the Rova Yehudi site.

Looking at it, it really came home to me, the reality of the stories we so easily read in the Bible. This wall was built hastily, workers tearing down all the nearby houses to not only clear the way, but to reuse the stones. It was a life-and-death matter. And here it now is, a silent reminder of the ancient, and turbulent history of this city.

All we had to do next was turn a corner, and the quiet, empty streets were suddenly vibrant with color and aromas, stall after stall of brilliant textiles, gleaming gold and silver objects, brilliant ceramics, filled with people, and noise, and commotion. For the Christian quarter, Saturday is not sacred, so everyone was bustling about, tourists, shop owners, students, tour guides, families, and lots of kitty cats darting everywhere. As we made our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, we were told a little of its contentious history, and the millions of devoted believers who go there to worship.

If the streets of the Christian corner were filled, they were nothing in comparison to the Church. The lines were three and four people broad, and so long they curled around each other like conch shells. They waited patiently to touch, kiss, and rest their hands and heads

[Wknight94 talk [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

…on the rock upon which Jesus’ cross stood

Woman praying on the Stone of Anointing, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old city of Jerusalem. Seen from the Golgotha.
[Guillaume Paumier [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D

…the stone where His body was laid before being interred

[israeltourism [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D

…and the fresh grave where His body lay for three days

[Church of the Holy Sepulcher | Matt0962 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

…are all housed in this one, massive 11th century building, that was pretty much crumbling before our very eyes.

We didn’t have time to enter the Armenian or Arab quarters, but I hope Dave and I will get our chance next week.

[Cover Photo: Church of the Holy Sepulcher | israeltourism from Israel [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D

Things That Go Without Being Said


In every culture, every society, there are things that go without being said. We don’t even realize those things exist, not really, because we don’t talk about them, we don’t even know we’re doing them, in our native culture. Yet, when we enter a new culture, a great part of what’s called “culture shock” is trying to navigate in a place where you know you don’t know the things that go without being said….and the things you expect without realizing you expect it, just aren’t there.

Today, as I was walking to the grocery store with one of the students, we both wondered out loud if we should, or could, tip the person who has been taking care of all the laundry, all the meals, all the arrangements, all the everything that has to do with the basics of living. We found out it is a grave insult, here, to tip. It is considered demeaning. Whoa, right? In the U.S., it would have been considered stingy, rude, and ungrateful to not tip. Culture shock. The things that go without being said.

The little microcosm of archaeology has some things that go without being said, too. Things like knowing how to use an Israeli hoe, how to use a pickax, when to use a soft brush and when to use a hard one. Tip 1: get the hard brush with bristles that narrow to a thin line on each edge. You’ll thank me later.

Knowing what kind of gloves to wear (pay the ten dollars, and get form-fitting ones), what kind of pants (REI fancy, lightweight hiking pants) and boots (over the ankle so scorpions and snakes get no purchase), shirts (short-sleeved is better) and hats (light, floppy, wide-brimmed).

Knowing to bring work goggles to protect from flying dirt and other bits. Knowing to bring a water bottle and really take breaks to hydrate, even though you don’t think you’re thirsty. Wearing a face mask if you asthma. In fact, the list is long. Every day I’ve been making mental notes to myself of how I will pack differently for the next dig.

Tip 2: Hard-boiled egg with salt, 2 anti-inflammatories, and 12 ounces of water with electrolytes for 5am breakfast. Truly. You will thank me

Excavating the past requires a lot of squatting and bending over, and always swinging or scraping something. Some dig directors prefer trowels, others prefer picks. I prefer picks and brushes, hands down. Tip 3: if you’re serious, spend the money and get your own trowel or pick with nice balance, strong steel, and the right size for your hand and arm.

Taking in the whole experience may not seem to make sense at the time, like washing pottery day in and day out, when you do everything you can to avoid washing the dishes when your at home. Like going to dinner with everyone, every evening, rather than cut out to a restaurant or the beach, or hole up in your room with a book. But, it’s that very experience, all of it, which works its way into your mind and spirit, revealing not just the mysteries and material world of the ancient past, but truths about sharing that discovery as a community.

There are all kinds of tasks necessary to do this well, so finding your niche will make the experience deeply satisfying. I’ve discovered I am not going to be the Paul Bunyan of Archaeology. Oh well. But! I can articulate stones like a house on fire, oh yes I can. That’s my niche, and I love it. Some are sifters, others are hewers, some are collectors of tiny things under a microscope, poring over trays of dirt. Some are sweepers, others are sandbag fillers, and so on. It’s a community of workers, discovering the ancient past together, each contributing a vital part of the work.

Huh. Might be a Bible verse in that!  “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” 1 Corinthians 12:12-27, NRSV)

Reconstructing the Past


Who knew?

Pottery was a part of everyone’s daily life for thousands of years, and is key to dating the age of an excavation’s level.

(By the way, spell checker thinks these are called “shards,” and some people, as in the picture title below, do use the word “shard.” But in actuality, archaeologists call them “sherds.” This is short for “potsherd,” which is the specific label for a fragment of pottery from antiquity.)

[“Uncovering Pottery shards” by LollyKnit| https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/%5D

At Tel Akko, I think I would not be far wrong in saying, tens of thousands of pottery sherds have been unearthed to date.

[Broken pottery sherds courtesy Pixabay]

I have washed hundreds of them myself in the last three weeks!

I have also learned what happens to these thousands of pieces from the past….

It all begins when, as I’m brushing loose earth away, I see a sherd. Next to me are three buckets: One for dirt, to be hauled away for sifting, then pouring into a sandbag, to use in the excavation site when we prepare to leave, the end of next week.

The next bucket is to collect shells, bones, and whatever else interesting I may find, like gold coins, jewels, and (far more likely) a bead or a bullet.

My third bucket is for pottery sherds.

All items are very carefully tagged, so each bucket has a tag describing the square (I’m working in square “Z”), the locus within the square, and the number of the bucket I’ve been designated. Buckets are now beginning with the 80 thousand and 90 thousand series, to give you an idea….

At the end of the dig day (5:30am to 12:30pm) all the buckets are brought down to the field school, filled with water, and left to soak in the sun for 24 hours. 30-40 diggers. Everyone has at least one bucket.

Next, we wash the pottery sherds. Sherds come in every size, but mostly they come in “little” and “teensy weensy,” though nearly every bucket also has what are called “diagnostic” finds within them–recognizable aspects of a pottery vessel of some kind. One of the students wrote about washing pottery, here, with some pretty spot-on pictures of what it’s like.

After that, the pottery PhD’s gather in the sherds and register them. That is to say, they transfer all the information about the sherds (site, bucket number) onto a fresh form that will slowly get filled in as the sherds continue through the system. They will be “read,” dated and described, then written on to identify them for those who will later be researching them.

Well, that is to say, some of them. Most of the sherds, at this point in the process, will have divulged all the information they can, and will be returned to the Tel for some future generation of archaeologists who might have more sophisticated information extraction techniques. Back they will go, into buckets, and carried up the hill, to be poured onto a growing mound of returned pottery (remember, the buckets are now in the 80 and 90 thousand series).

The other sherds, the “diagnostics,” will be carefully recorded in the Tel Akko data base (especially designed for this ongoing project), individually marked with the excavation’s license number, year of the dig, and bucket number, then transported to Haifa University to wait until a PhD student pulls them out for dissertation research.

I am working on one aspect of the excavation, the “Survey.” What is currently being dug is only a small part of the whole Tel. There is much more still waiting to be discovered, so the survey team methodically digs shallow, square trenches over the rest of the site, just to see what potential there might be. Every day, the survey team brings back a good fifty or sixty buckets of samples, all of which need to be read, registered, written on and packed up.

Today, we found an an intriguing piece with a strange, black skin on the pottery. If it was resin, it was on the wrong side. Resin was routinely used to seal amphorae and storage jars for wine and olive oil portage.If it was a glaze, it was either really unsightly (unlikely to have been done on purpose), aged, or damaged.

So, we lit a flame to a small sample of it. It didn’t melt, and it had no odor–ergo, not resin, must be glaze. Science!! Gotta love it.

We’re working hard to register all the survey pottery before the excavation closes next week.

Tyrian Purple


Scattered all over the Tel, found at the Persian to Hellenistic period, are these delightful, beautiful shells. About 2,500 years ago, these and thousands more murex shells provided the raw material for Akko’s prosperous manufacture and commerce in purple dye. (The link  sends you to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, where you can read about the history of purple dye).


Tyrian purple (aka Royal purple or Imperial purple) is a dye extracted from the murex shellfish which was first produced by the Phoenician city of Tyre in the Bronze Age. Its difficulty of manufacture, striking purple to red colour range, and resistance to fading made clothing dyed using Tyrian purple highly desirable and expensive.

The Phoenicians gained great fame as sellers of purple and exported its manufacture to its colonies, notably Carthage, from where it spread in popularity and was adopted by the Romans as a symbol of imperial authority and status


The dye was stored and transported in special containers called “amphoriskos.” The one pictured below came from the island of Cyprus, circa 750 to 600 BC. Similar amphariskos to the one depicted here have been found at Tel Akko.

[Cypriot Amphariskos | Metropolitan Museum of Art [CC0]]

You can see from the map how close Akko was to Tyre and Sidon, the origin of Tyrian purple

[Map of the coastal Levant | ExploretheMed [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

Of course, the Biblical person who leaps to mind is Lydia, purveyor of purple dye, whose story is found in Acts 16. She was most likely born into a Greek nobleman’s home, and raised in the wealth and bustle of Thyatira, a Turkish city world-renowned for its dyes and textiles industry. In fact, Thyatira was home to more artisans and guilds than any other city of its day, including the dyes guild, of which Lydia undoubtedly later became a member.

An outlier in her time, Lydia made a name for herself in the Tyrian purple market, establishing her own business and household, and enjoying a level of independence only a small minority of women in her day were able to experience. The images below all come from my visit to the Hecht museum, which has a display of murex shells and the beautiful dye Tyre, Sidon, and Akko were known for.

Lydia must have come in contact with some of the many Jews who lived in Thyatira, for she seems to have developed a longing to know the one true and living God.

At some point in her life, she decided to relocate her business to another wealthy town, Philippi, situated in the foothills of Mt. Orbelos in Greece. Philippi was actually a Roman colony, a “Rome away from Rome.” Settled by mostly retired military and their families, its citizens were rewarded with not having to pay taxes so long as they remained loyal to Rome, obeyed all the laws of Rome, and kept a basically Roman presence in this conquered area of the Empire.

The map below shows Thyatira, Lydia’s hometown in the region of Lydia (where she may have gotten her name), and Akko, the chief port city in the Levant at that time. Philippi is not on the map, for it was even farther west, near Greece.

[Map of the ancient near east | William Robert Shepherd [Public domain]

The apostle Paul’s pattern was to bring the gospel “to the Jew first, and then the Gentile.” But, when Paul and his companions arrived In Philippi, they discovered the Jewish community was so small there was no formal synagogue. Ever resourceful, Paul knew the Jewish custom was to locate synagogues outside the walls of Gentile cities, and somewhere near water, for ritual purification. So Paul led his team through the city gate to the bank of the Gangites River, about a mile and a half outside of town.

To his surprise, he saw a group of devout Jewish women—most likely the wives and daughters of retired Roman soldiers—and at least one God-fearing Gentile (the notable Lydia) who were gathered there to worship and pray.

Without a thought to tradition or propriety, Paul and his companions straightaway sat with these godly women, prayed and worshiped with them, then proclaimed the life-giving news of the Gospel.

[Cover image: A murex shell from the survey excavation I’ve been working on the last few days. The fingers belong to the survey supervisor, Brett]

Baha’i’s Most Holy Place


I never expected to visit a Baha’i holy place in Israel, let alone the most holy site in the Baha’i religion. Yet, here it is. Akko is the most holy place, and Haifa, just across the Bay, is the holy place. The founder of Baha’i, Bahá’u’lláh, was imprisoned in the old Akko Crusader dungeon, and at the end of his life was permitted to buy a house of his own within the city, where he spread the faith to those around him. From those humble beginnings Baha’i has grown to over 7 million adherents in 221 countries today.

In 1844, when Bahá’u’lláh was 27 years old, he “became a follower of the Báb, a Persian merchant who began preaching that God would soon send a new prophet similar to Jesus or Muhammad.” (That’s a quote from the wiki link embedded in his name.) Persia is Iran. So, the Iranian government tried to stamp out this renegade religion by executing the Bab and thousands of his adherents, but Bahá’u’lláh was spared. In 1863 he identified himself as the prophet the Bab had been predicting.

Today, people of the Baha’i faith consider Bahá’u’lláh to be a manifestation of God, the fulfillment of both Christianity’s and Islam’s endtime prophecies, and it was his grave site in Akko we visited yesterday. (The Bab was re-interred in a similar garden in Haifa, the second most holy place in the Baha’i religion.)

As I stood contemplating Bahá’u’lláh’s resting place, I thought of Jesus, and His grave. Bahá’u’lláh succumbed to the sting of death. Jesus Christ is risen.

But, I do not say this in disrespect to Baha’i, it is only what came to me as I stood by Bahá’u’lláh’s resting place. These people of a young religion have much to be respected for, and to learn from. At the heart of their practice, they are living out the Lord’s teachings in a manner Christians often have not, historically.

The Baha’i believe in one God. The difference is, “God is considered single and all-powerful. However, Bahá’u’lláh taught that religion is orderly and progressively revealed by one God through Manifestations of God who are the founders of major world religions throughout history; BuddhaJesus, and Muhammad being the most recent in the period before the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh. Bahá’ís regard the major religions as

fundamentally unified in purpose, though varied in social practices and interpretations. There is a similar emphasis on the unity of all people, openly rejecting notions of racism and nationalism. At the heart of Bahá’í teachings is the goal of a unified world order that ensures the prosperity of all nations, races, creeds, and classes.”

There are a lot of links embedded in that quote from wiki, and if you’re curious, they provide some interesting reading. What I am interested in is not their form universalism, which is unlike what Jesus taught in the gospels. What strikes me is the way they see God, people, and the world around them.

The see God as one God, the God of all people everywhere in every age, whether or not they acknowledge Him. They feel God is too vast to be fully known and understood, so He reveals something of Himself through various prophets over time.

According to Baha’i, our purpose, the purpose of every person, is to “learn to know and love God through such methods as prayer, reflection, and being of service to others.” Remember when Jesus taught on the greatest commandment? Wiki goes on to say “Bahá’ís are taught to practice spirituality while engaging in useful work. The importance of self-exertion and service to humanity in one’s spiritual life is emphasized further in Bahá’u’lláh’s writings, where he states that work done in the spirit of service to humanity enjoys a rank equal to that of prayer and worship in the sight of God.”

Baha’i are committed to bringing equality, harmony, peace and beauty into the world, to—in my language as a Christian—live out a life of grace and shalom.

What would it be like if followers of Jesus, who walk the Way and live filled with God’s love and grace by His indwelling Spirit, were to embrace what that really means? Would we commit to bringing equality, harmony, peace and beauty into the world, to the praise of God, for His glory, and for the good of all those whom He loves?

[All images come from our Saturday tour of the Baha’i Gardens in Akko]

A Startling Image


The Tel Akko Excavation is actually a field school, with an excellent program called Total Archaeology. The idea is not only to dig up the past, but to understand the past’s context, to understand the artifacts, structures, and other data unearthed, and to get a broader understanding of archaeology itself, the science and methodologies.

A typical day, then, includes excavating in the morning, a couple of hours’ break, washing pottery (and bone, and shell, and whatever else comes up), then a lecture, then dinner. It’s a full day, but so incredibly enriching. Weekends are given to visiting other sites, and continuing education in a variety of settings.

This week we visited the holiest site in the Baha’i faith first, then the Hecht Museum, and ended with a jaunt over to Caesarea (That link is in Hebrew, so you’ll need to ask Google to translate it for you).

The Hecht Museum is an illustration of the balancing act archaeologists now navigate–getting fascinating finds published and on display for everyone to learn form and enjoy, and making sure the science of archaeology is protected. Provenance is a huge deal. Where did that juglet come from? What was it found near? What historical layer did it come from? What area in Israel? In fact, a dig has very precise measurements for how the excavation is conducted, with a grid outlining really  rather small loci within a larger, but not that large, square. Dirt is removed layer by careful layer, so the maximum possible is learned.

Earlier excavations were not always as careful with the science of archaeology, and pretty regularly artifacts found their way into private collections, or the museums of other countries.

The Hecht Museum has a central display of things that were found in an archaeologist’s suitcase which got lost en route!

Inside, we saw many of the kinds of things we’ve been digging up in Akko, amphorae, giant storage jars, ancient glass, and all kinds of pottery. We also saw finds from other local sites, and this one arrested my attention mid-step:

Inside, we saw many of the kinds of things we’ve been digging up in Akko, amphorae, giant storage jars, ancient glass, and all kinds of pottery. We also saw finds from other local sites, and this one arrested my attention mid-step:

Even his face shows the heavy burden of resignation.

As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. Then the Lord said to Abram, ‘Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years;but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions.‘” [Genesis 15:12-14, NRSV]

The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites,and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.” [Exodus 1, NRSV]

[Cover picture courtesy of PxHere]

Mary of Magdala


Refusing to abandon Jesus in His darkest hour, all four Gospel accounts describe Mary of Magdala’s faithfulness and courage, remaining with Jesus, at the foot of His cross, until His death. She had accompanied Jesus and those who had come to know and love Him, on His way to Jerusalem for the last time, to celebrate the Feast of Passover.

Mary, along with a few other faithful women, watched as Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus lowered Jesus’ body from the cross. She took note of what spices and precious oils they brought to embalm Jesus’ body. Following from a distance, she and the other women marked where Joseph and Nicodemus interred Jesus’ body. Knowing the Sabbath was about to begin, Mary, and these few devoted women disciples, determined to purchase and bring the rest of the spices and ointments needed to complete Jesus’ embalming. They remained and kept watch as the temple guards and Roman soldiers arrived to seal the stone rolled across Jesus’ grave.

At the soonest possible moment, 4:45 a.m., just as dawn was breaking on the first day following the Sabbath, Mary, along with Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and Salome the mother of James and John, hurried to Jesus’ tomb, carrying all the necessary supplies to complete His burial. At 5:15 in the morning, sudden and severe aftershocks rumbled through the countryside, following the major earthquake the day of Jesus’ crucifixion. Yet these steadfast women were undeterred as they carried their burdens of precious spices and oils to the Garden tomb.

Unbeknownst to them, Jesus had been raised to life in that earth-rocking moment. Angels were rolling back the great, sealed stone to Jesus’ tomb, and the entire detail of Roman soldiers and (or) temple guards were falling on their faces, briefly immobilized by terror. Quickly recovering, these frightened men ran back into the city of Jerusalem to the temple mount where Pilate had temporarily headquartered himself and a garrison of soldiers. The temple guards went to the priests, the soldiers to Pilate, to report what they had seen.

Mary had begun running ahead of the other women to ask one of the guards to roll back the stone—did she hopeher status as a wealthy and prominent citizen of Magdala would perhaps persuade them? But when she arrived, no one was there, the stone was already rolled away, and Jesus’ body was missing. In horror, Mary sped back to where Peter and John were staying, to tell them the awful news.

Not long after, perhaps 5:30 in the morning, the other women, Joanna and Mary mother of James, completed their walk from Bethany and arrived after sunrise. They also found the stone rolled away. Of course, they entered the tomb and found it empty. As they stood there, emotionally overcome by the disappearance of Jesus’ body, an angel appeared to them with an amazing, hard-to-believe message for the disciples, which they quickly agreed to deliver, and left without delay.

In a kaleidoscope of movement, Peter and John had already just heard a startling and unsettling report from the breathless and distraught Mary of Magdala. Together, the three of them ran back to the Garden tomb to verify her fears. It only makes sense that Peter and John got there far ahead of Mary, who had already run the distance, and was spent from physical and emotional exhaustion. When she finally got back to Jesus’ burial site, Peter and John had long since arrived, assessed, and returned to Jerusalem.

Alone in the empty tomb, it seems Mary of Magdala was utterly devastated, and could not control her anguished and heaving sobs. It was in that moment, when she had once again reached the nadir of heartache and despair, Jesus would draw her out from her darkness and into the sweet light of freedom and life. The apostle John later wrote that an angel called out to her and asked her why she was crying? She must have looked up, startled, thinking she had been wholly alone. And she must have followed the angel’s gaze to someone standing behind her…

Still focused on her own profound sense of grief and loss, Mary mistook Jesus for the gardener, and demanded he show her where Jesus’ body had been taken. It took only one word—her name in His voice—for Mary to realize here was her Lord, her Savior, her beloved Jesus.

What is most precious about this story, to me, who has battled darkness of my own, is Jesus’ choice of Mary, a woman, freed from demons, to be the first to see Him as risen Lord. It is a new story of a man and a woman in a Garden.

This story begins in death and ends in life, in this story the Tree of Life is chosen, instead of the undoing of all that is good, it is the restoration of Shalom, of peace, harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, welfare and tranquility. Once again, the woman holds the seed of life within her, life that will move out and out and out, a powerful life, the very life of God, His Holy Spirit, being breathed once again into all those who will have Him. And Mary, who had known hell, was the first to experience the realness, the concrete physicality of the Kingdom of Heaven.

[Cover Image: James Tissot [Public domain]

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