Thursday, April 28, 2011

An Archaeological Battle Over Tel Shiloh

Yisrael Medad
My Right Word
27 April '11

Seems Tel Shiloh (yes, with an "h" as it is written in Hebrew as שילה - shin yud lamed hey) is in the news.

First, the good news:

New Archeological Effort Seeks To Unearth Mishkan's Secrets

The Israeli government has authorized a large scale archeological dig at Tel Shiloh, the ancient biblical site that housed the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and served as the Jewish nation's spiritual capital under the leadership of Joshua and the Judges for nearly 370 years.

Tel Shiloh, which is located north of Beit El in the Binyamin Regional Council (Samaria), adjacent to the modern settlement of Shilo, has become a popular attraction for local and foreign tourists.

While the goal of the dig is to showcase the life and times of ancient Israel, Tzofia Dorot, manager and public relations director of the Tel Shiloh tourist site, acknowledged that the location (in the heart of the Ephraim Hills) could prompt an international uproar.

"No doubt, this is going to make political waves, on a local and international scale," she told The Jewish Press. "And it couldn't come at a more crucial time with everything that is going on in the region, with the international community clamoring for Israel to make concessions.

"The effort to discredit and delegitimize our connection to the Land of Israel is gathering steam. It has been particularly intense since Arafat denied that the Jewish Temple ever existed in Jerusalem. But even before the announcement of the large-scale dig, we were been seeing more and more local and foreign visitors here every day. I am certain that once we begin the actual work the interest and visits will increase exponentially."

Remnants of ancient Shiloh's ramparts were uncovered in previous excavations, including parts of the city walls, homes, wine and oil presses, cisterns and huge warehouses containing enormous earthen jars that once contained oil, wine and flour destined for use in the Mishkan.

A number of residents of modern day Shiloh, which was re-established in 1977 [8 actually], have picked up where their forefathers left off, engaging in a variety of agricultural endeavors. Several boutique wineries in the region have been lauded by local and international wine experts as being among the best in the country.

Dorot is actively engaged in raising funds for a new Tel Shiloh educational and historical visitor's center in anticipation of headline-making discoveries. "Recently," she said, "we had three companies present their ideas for development of a major visitor center. I believe that once we've uncovered the secrets buried here for over 2,000 years, many people will come forward to help us create a magnificent center."

And here is the negative news:

Moves by the Israeli government and settler movement to appropriate historical sites undermine Palestinian cultural rights and highlight how Israel exploits archaeological claims for colonial ends. October 2010, while researching a guidebook to Palestine, I found myself increasingly confused about a number of historical sites scattered around the occupied West Bank. None of them had the religious and historical importance of the Ibrahimi Mosque or Rachel’s Tomb, but they had their own place in Palestinian history and architecture. They were places mentioned in Palestinian tourism publications such as the locally-published Alternative Tourism Group travel guide Palestine and The Palestinians, the official Palestinian Authority Ministry of Tourism website, Jericho Municipality’s tourist listings or the "Places to Visit" section of the PA’s diplomatic mission to Japan website. This implied that they were recognized by Palestinian sources as being part of the country’s heritage. But the information about them was hazy, as if their existence was being acknowledged but at the same time they weren’t being incorporated into the itineraries of the growing Palestinian cultural tourism industry. Palestinian tour organizers I spoke to dismissed my inquiries, saying only that "I’ve never been there" or "we don’t take groups there." There was, I soon found, a very good reason for this...

...A second example lies in the green, intricately curving hills of the central West Bank. On the road between Ramallah and Nablus, near the village of Luban al-Sharqiya and the small town of Sinjel, is Khirbet Seilun, or Tel Shiloh. The layers of habitation deposits at the tel (an archaeological term referring to a hill made up of centuries of building remains) show that people have lived there since at least the Canaanite Bronze Age, and there are significant Roman, Byzantine and Islamic remains.

Khirbet Seilun is regarded as sacred by some Jews because is has been identified by some historians as the Biblical Shiloh, where the Ark of the Covenant was kept for a period on its travels north from Mount Sinai. Excavations in the early 1980s uncovered remains from the Canaanite and Israelite periods, but nothing resembling the Tabernacle, the building which may have housed the Ark at Shiloh. More recent archaeological digs have been controversial because they have uncovered a spectacular Byzantine mosaic which some settlers want to move so they can continue searching for the Israelite sacred remains they believe lie beneath the three Byzantine churches and two small mosques on the site.

Unlike the Khan al-Ahmar and monasteries of St. Euthymius and St. Martyrius, a visitor center at Tel Shiloh is already functioning. Rather than being managed by the INPA, the Tel Shiloh site is run by the extremist settlers of Shiloh who, journalists and human rights groups report have been responsible for innumerable attacks, including shootings and arson, against neighboring Palestinian villages and olive farmers. The Shiloh settlement was founded in the 1970s by the Gush Emunim terrorist group, which exploded car bombs against the mayors of several Palestinian cities in 1980, seriously injuring Bassam Shakaa, then mayor of Nablus (see "Shiloh: An Obstacle to Peace," Time, 13 February 1978 and Nur Masalha, Imperial Israel and the Palestinians, 2000, p 123).

Shiloh and the archaeological remains it has appropriated are now marketed as a destination for pilgrimages and religious tourism but, perhaps unsurprisingly given the beliefs of the settlers here, some non-Jewish tourists report being turned away.

Controversy over the archaeological heritage of Khirbet Seilun looks set to escalate. Last month, The Jewish Press reported that the Israeli government had authorized large-scale new excavations at the site. The aims of the excavations were explicitly said by the paper to be "to showcase the life and times of ancient Israel," which suggests that the archaeologists carrying them out have specific intentions as to what they will find – or not find ("New archaeological effort seeks to unearth Mishkan’s secrets," 23 March 2011). The article did not name the director of the new excavations, but previous digs at Khirbet Seilun have been led by Rachel Ehrlich, a hard-line settler who, in a profile on one Christian Zionist website, was described as being "determined to put the site [of Shiloh] on the map [as] the place where the people of Israel first entered the land, where religious life for the Jewish people was centered for the 369 years the Tabernacle stood there" ("Uncovering our Past, Christian Friends of Israel Communities).

Tzofia Dorot, the manager of the Shiloh visitor center, made some telling comments to The Jewish Press about the importance to settler public relations of Israel’s appropriation of heritage sites. She claimed that Shiloh has been "seeing more and more local and foreign visitors" and that three companies with proposals for a "major visitor center" had visited the settlement. This activity occurred in spite of the skepticism from archaeologists about whether Dorot’s "headline-making discoveries" were really likely to be made.

Tzofia Dorot’s comments to The Jewish Press illustrate why the expropriation of Palestinian heritage sites – whether by the State of Israel or by settler groups acting as its proxies – has a significance well beyond the loss of individual buildings or artifacts. In the eyes of settlers and their supporters, in Israel and beyond, stealing Palestinian archaeological and architectural heritage isn’t just about attracting tourists with open wallets. It’s about asserting settler claims to the land, by emphasizing Jewish history over and above that of the peoples and faiths who came before and after them in Palestine. It is also about presenting the Jewish people as the legitimate custodians of Palestine’s Christian heritage, diverting attention from Israeli oppression of the world’s oldest and longest-lived Christian communities and reinforcing misconceptions about the Palestinian struggle as a religious rather than anti-colonial movement.

As Dorot sees it, the international "effort to discredit and delegitimize our connection to the Land of Israel is gathering steam." Thus, showing settler archaeology to gullible tourists, she believes, will be vital in countering "the international community’s clamoring for Israel to make concessions."

Meanwhile, Palestinian heritage organizations such as PACE and Riwaq are increasingly using models of community participation to raise awareness of the value of archaeological remains and the importance of protecting them (Ghattas J. Sayej, "Palestinian archaeology: knowledge, awareness and cultural heritage, Present Pasts, Vol 2, 2010). In Jerusalem, the Centre for Jerusalem Studies and Emek Shaveh are fighting official and settler expropriation of cultural and historical sites. But defending Palestine’s cultural heritage from the Israeli state and settlers is still low on the priority list.

Imagine that. Those uppity Jews, exploiting archaeology to prove who was here first and who has a better claim based on science rather than mythology (like a midnight horse ride from Saudi Arabia to Jerusalem).

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