ALEX’S HOLY-OF-HOLIES DESPAIR…

EXERPT 3 FROM MY NOVEL “ARK” *

Once in his study the first thing Alex did was head for the sideboard and pour a generous glass of Dimple. He took two deep slugs then sat down at his large French walnut desk.

He stared at the parcel for a few moments and smiled wryly. Its considerable thickness brought to mind the single-page scrawl Ruiz had sent him that morning back in April.

Alex’s hands trembled slightly as he tore open the package like they had years before when he opened the letter from St Catherine’s College Cambridge bearing the news of his being accepted onto their master’s program. He had a strong sense that whatever was enclosed in Malcolm’s parcel would have at least as equal an impact upon the immediate course of his life.

At the top of a stack of files was an envelope containing a four page hand-written letter from the curator of the world’s greatest general collection of Near Eastern artefacts.

He took another swallow of whiskey and began to read:

Dear Alex

Firstly, my profound apologies for the delay in getting back to you but unfortunately I was away in Melbourne when your package arrived. I was overseeing the “Origins Tour” and the damn thing took up the best part of three months of my time so I was unable to open your parcel until the middle of July. Anyway, better late than never and all that…

I am writing to you with the full backing and cooperation of Ron and Omri. They too send their apologies and you will not be surprised to learn that they were both in the field in April on their latest projects (Ron on the eastern delta and Omri at Tel Aphek) and only returned to their respective offices in August.

In the event we thought it would save further time and avoid needless repetition if just one of us sent you a letter which combines our joint findings. The fact that we three concur on just about every aspect regarding the remarkable samples you sent us (an amazing fact in itself) makes this approach especially logical and practical.

Your instincts regarding the trapezoidal structure (your “canopy”) and the reason you thought that here was material for our particular fields of expertise belies your position as a mere medievalist! Perhaps you should think of changing tack and move up to the higher echelons of pre-Christian Near Eastern Archaeology…’

Alex chuckled as he read these words. His friend often teased him over opting for what Malcolm referred to as the ‘safe option’ of ‘modern archaeology’ where there was ‘nothing left to discover’ and where ‘one ended up as a mere cataloguer of what was already known; a kind of archaeological librarian.’ 

The letter continued with a summary of the main technical reports and test results:

‘All three of us had the timber independently radio carbon tested and dated. Omri at the lab at Bar Ilan, Ron at Nevada of course and I took mine across to Imperial. All three results placed the timber in the late 13th/early14th century. This, as you well know is consistent with the age of the Transito Synagogue but rather interestingly the timber turned out to be cedar; Cedar of Lebanon to be precise and not any old Cedar of Lebanon. The samples actually come from a tree or trees grown and felled in the Levant and most probably Lebanon itself. You will have a better appreciation than any of us of the difficulty not to mention the expense of acquiring such an exotic timber during the 14th century. It seems an astonishing length to have gone to.

However, this is far less astonishing than the lengths gone to for acquiring the masonry!

As I presume you also know the stone is limestone but what you may not have discerned is that in common with the timber it is also of Middle Eastern origin. According to our geological reports it is a highly specific form of yellow limestone known to archaeologists as “meleke”; more commonly referred to as “Jerusalem Stone”.

Omri is the world’s leading expert on meleke and had no doubt the minute he set eyes on the sample you sent him. To be absolutely certain though and to determine the age of the dressing marks and to identify from where the stone originated we all had geological analyses done. Omri had his sample tested at the Hebrew University, Ron sent his to Caltech and I had mine examined at the geology department of the Natural History Museum here in London. Again, all three test results formed a consensus. Give or take fifty years either way, from the nature and wear of the cut markings the stones must have been dressed sometime during the late 10th/early 9th centuries BC. Moreover, the stones were almost certainly quarried in the mountains of southern Judea.

Finally, we were all able to have the gold leaf samples assessed in situ respectively.

While it was impossible to determine the geographical origins of the metal, from its level of purity and consistent colour we suggest it probably originated from somewhere in equatorial Africa. However, to judge from the thickness of the leaf and having done some calculations with regard to the internal surface area of the canopy I estimate that around 600lbs of gold were used; more than twice the amount in Tutankhamen’s innermost coffin! Given this, it would not be going too far to say that pro rata your little canopy has the most expensive wall paper in the world. One can only imagine what such opulence was intended to contain???

Bearing in mind all of the above, the final piece of information I have for you should now come as no surprise at all despite the fact it appears to represent the earliest and potentially most significant inscription from the “Land of the Bible” from the time of the first Hebrew kings.

In short your inscription says something simply amazing. It’s the sort of thing that Omri and Ron have only dared to dream of ever discovering. It is no exaggeration to state that this little scrawl might be the “Rosetta Stone” of biblical archaeology.

With one or two educated guesses vis-à-vis conjunctions etc. Ron and Omri render it thus:

‘‘[By the] grace of [the] hidden one Am[u]n [this] cornerstone [for] Yahweh’s House and [his] holy Asherah [in] the king’s name [in] the name [of] the House [of] David.’’

Alex gasped audibly when he read the translation. His head span. He did not know whether to laugh or cry.

The letter went on:

“The biggest surprise of all was the dedication to the chief Egyptian God Amun rather than the typical “Amen” affirmation (which may or may not be derivative in any event); confirmed by the fact that whoever carved the inscription used the ancient Egyptian designation “hidden one” when describing him. This throws the whole “Hebrew God” debate wide open and I can tell you now there is a small minority group of “out of Egypt” scholars who are going to crack open the bubbly when they learn of this (our own Ron classes himself as a “sympathiser”). I can almost hear the “we told you so’s” already!  In that one little dedication there’s more information regarding the nature of the official Israelite state religion at the time of the early Hebrew Kings than in all the museums and in all the texts throughout the world.

 My dear fortunate Alex, for some weird and wonderful reason you now find yourself sitting on what could be, from a Judeo-Christian perspective the single most important archaeological discovery this century. What you have there in Toledo is an incredible gem of a find. A structure built and decorated exclusively from the same materials alleged to have been used in the First Temple and some of them perhaps actually retrieved from that same building. Your little trapezoid might very well be the key for corroborating the existence of David and Solomon while at the same time confirming that the early Israelites were anything but monotheists. The importance of this find for biblical archaeology and for increasing our knowledge and understanding of Israelite history and the origins of western religion is inestimable.

Finally, I presume you are by now fully cognisant of the implications of your canopy being a trapezoidal structure. That fact taken in conjunction with all our findings is to quote Ron, simply awesome!

You’ll find all the data and all the analyses in our three reports attached to this letter.

Please get back to us as soon as possible. We are desperate to come over and pay a visit to your remarkable canopy. We presume the reason you have not yet published a report on the find has to do with the “intrigue” you referred to in your letter?

In the meantime our continued discretion is assured but we are only human and we are beside ourselves with excitement over your discovery.

Gratefully (and my love and a kiss to your beautiful Elena),

Malcolm

There was a ‘PS’:

‘Omri just this minute phoned to remind me that the debir (the inner sanctum / holy of holies) in the Yahweh temple which you and he worked on in the sixties at Arad was 5ft²; identical dimensions to the internal space of your structure in Toledo. Not to get melodramatic about this old chap, but my goodness me…’

Alex placed the letter down on his desk and sat back in his chair.

All he could visualise at that moment was the JCB and its claw smashing the canopy into a pile of rubble.

He thought of the exquisite gold leaf and the Lebanese cedar wood and the three thousand year old ashlar blocks and finally he remembered the inscription.

Then as his entire body began to convulse he leant forward and put his head in his hands and sobbed. He sobbed dry painful tears like retching on an empty stomach.

‘What have they done?’ he cried out loud. ‘What have those moronic bastards done?’

* Header picture shows the holy of holies of the Israelite/Judahite temple (circa 700 BCE) at Tel Arad (southern Judea/northern Negev).

IS THIS THE FACE OF KING DAVID?

or PERHAPS king saul…?

Since the publication of my book, King Saul in 2007, I’ve occasionally been asked about my cover illustration and the inspiration behind it. I’ve even given talks to universities, and more recently an online presentation, to the Mosaic Reform Jewish Community in which the cover came up, although I never fully explained the thinking behind it.

When envisioning the first kings of Israel of the late 11th and early 10th centuries BCE we have very little archaeological evidence to help us, and that’s why I got so excited the first time I saw a grainy, black and white photo of the limestone bust below. The picture was in Moshe Dayan’s (otherwise unremarkable) book, Living With the Bible, and listed by him as possibly the head of an Israelite monarch – perhaps even king David. However, since then, the academic consensus feels it is more likely an Ammonite relic (Dayan obtained it from a dealer in Jordan), and of a deity, not a mortal ruler. In addition, whereas Dayan dated the bust to the late 11th century BCE, the scholastic majority decided it was of a later provenance – late to mid 8th century BCE.

The bust, as it stands today in the extraordinary Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Nevertheless, there remains a minority of respected academics who agree with Dayan, that this is indeed a “portrait” bust, of a very human king, and from the time of Israel and Judah’s first three kings; Saul, his son and successor, Ishboheth, and David. And although the majority of this minority maintain the bust is Ammonite, and not Israelite, there are a few voices who tentatively suggest this could actually be a likeness of one of Israel’s first kings.

Although, as an amateur biblical historian, I can add little to the debate over dating the relic (although I would say that the stylisation of the beard looks earlier than 8th century BCE to my eyes), as an artist, with a familiarity with the archaeology of the ancient Levant I can dare to say very firmly, that this is definitely a representation of a powerful human being, and not a god. And given that, and the fact it is indisputably Ammonite or Israelite, it must therefore be a likeness of anyone from Saul of Israel (circa 1020-1010 BCE) to Uzziah of Judah (circa, anything from 783-736 BCE).

My cover design, based upon the bust, and assuming the side wings were metallic, like the helmet itself, and not in fact feather plumes.

A major factor in my identifying the bust as a human likeness is the headgear, which seems to me to be a typical ceremonial crown of the time and the region. In my book, I went so far as to describe it – with its central helmet and side-wings – a form of “double crown”, resembling the Egyptian “pschent” worn by the pharaohs, to symbolise their rule over Upper and Lower Egypt – but in this case, possibly symbolising the wearer’s dominion over All Israel – i.e. both Israel and Judah. More recently however, I’ve considered the possibility of it being in fact, and more obviously, a triple crown, with the helmet representing Israel, and the two wings, Judah and trans-Jordan Israel respectively. And in which case, given it’s Ammon-geographical provenance, combined with a consideration of the biblical/historical context (far too involved to go into here), I feel certain that we are actually looking at a likeness of Saul’s son and heir, Ishboheth.

At first, this realisation disappointed me. After all, I had so wanted this to be Saul, even adapting it for the cover of my book. But in retrospect, the irony of this being the bust of the one early king of Israel virtually no one has ever heard of, has it’s own level of satisfaction, and moreover, if Ishboheth looked like his father, which is highly likely, it does offer us a fair idea of what All Israel’s first king looked like too. In any event, given it’s general dating and where it was discovered, at the very least, it gives us a damn good idea of what Saul or David would have looked like, and to someone like me, this is a thrilling concept.

Rembrandt’s famous painting of David playing the harp to sooth Saul’s troubled mind. This was the picture my publishing editor had actually wanted to use originally, forgetting that this was exactly the craven, pathetic image of Saul my book was written to challenge (anachronistic dress and harp notwithstanding!). Fortunately, I got my way, and in a highly unusual gesture, the publisher’s went with my own (the author’s) cover design.
The grovelling profile of King Jehu of Israel – The only known definite representation of an Israelite monarch is this image of Jehu of Israel making abeyance before Shalmaneser III of Assyria (c. 841 BCE), from the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser (to be found in the British Museum).