By Stephanie Hernandez
Nineteen people, most of them strangers to each other, descended on Jerusalem in the last weeks of June. Most met at Newark Airport in New Jersey, others joined the group in the coming days. There were the usual questions: “Where are you from?”; “Is this your first trip to Israel?”; “What do you do for a living?” and the occasional “What was your name again?” But by the end of our two-week journey, friendships were forged that are sure to last a lifetime, with the common bond of Israel and the Lord at there center.
The Associates for Biblical Research’s Temple Mount Sifting Project group participants came from all over America, and even all over the world. But we all shared one common desire: to know the city of Jerusalem where the Lord chose to set as His capital, a place where the grace, wrath, love, hope, and faithfulness of the Lord was revealed to mankind in the past and will continue well into the future. It was the chance to hold Biblically-related history in our hands that interested many in the program. With the exception of a few people, most of the group members had no experience in archaeology or even sifting. Yet by the time they left, each person had a firm grasp of the immense importance of the very soil of the Temple Mount and the land of Israel. “My personal discovery about archaeology,” participant Scott Astbury remarks, “was that it first and foremost provides you with undeniable evidence of existence.”
Our typical day would begin around 7AM with a great breakfast prepared by the kitchen staff at the comfortable and welcoming Gloria Hotel, situated just inside the Jaffa Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem. Gathered around the table, we would talk about the previous day’s events and speak with excitement of what was to take place that day. Most days we toured the city of Jerusalem in the morning and then proceeded to the Temple Mount Sifting Site in the eastern part of Jerusalem, but there were a few days when we went first to the sifting site, and then explored the city in the afternoon. Although the option of a taxi was available to anyone who needed it, almost all of the participants chose to walk to the sifting site every day, through the winding, and sometimes confusing, streets of the Old City. Once outside the gates, we walked along the walls of the Old City, passed people who live in the midst of this multi-religious center, those who have made their homes in the most contentious city in the world. The last stretch of the walk to the site was a difficult one, with a steep climb to the Zurim Valley National Park, where the Temple Mount Sifting Project is established.
No doubt a few were surprised when we were greeted by the sight of an armed guard standing watch over the Palestinian section of eastern Jerusalem, himself responsible for guarding the contended soil from the Temple Mount, which was at the center of an intense legal battle beginning in 1999. On our arrival, we were greeted by Zachi Zweig, who in 1999 called a press conference to bring to light the illegal removal of soil from the Temple Mount by the Islamic Waqf and the subsequent dumping of the soil in the Kidron Valley and elsewhere. We were given an introductory presentation in which the history of the project and some interesting finds were revealed. On another day, Assaf Avraham who is the day-to-day supervisor, gave us a brief lecture on one of the most interesting finds, various-size stone fragments that were used as pavement on the Temple Mount called opus sectile, mentioned by the Jewish historian Josephus in the his epic work The Jewish Wars. Afterwards, we delved into the archaeological matrix that hid millennia-old history in its dust with the help of the Temple Mount Sifting staff.
Sifting the dirt involved dumping a bucket of water-soaked dirt onto a screen, then spraying the dirt with water in order to remove the dirt from the materials, which is often referred to as wet-sifting. Others helped with the dry screening, or the sifting of dry dirt through mesh screens, while others worked the “T-4” pile, a large pile of oversized rocks and debris taken from the Temple Mount. It is in this pile that the pieces of opus sectile were found. After we were finished sifting a bucket, a staff member would check the screen to make sure nothing was missed. By the second week, the staff felt we had a firm grasp of sifting and no longer checked our screens for overlooked artifacts. On several occasions the members would find more uncommon artifacts, such as coins, Roman jewelry, and even a die. These special finds were then given to Tali, one of the staff members, who would tag and register the artifact. Materials such as mosaic tiles, small pieces of ceramics and bone, and pieces of glass were found on a regular basis. Yet although the common site of broken pottery was not an extraordinary find, it reminded us of the words of Isaiah the Prophet, who, in Isaiah 30:14, spoke of a time when Israel’s sin would “break into pieces like pottery, shattered so mercilessly that among its pieces not a fragment will be found for taking coals from a hearth or scooping water out of a cistern.”
I believe that it was during the sifting that we all got to know each other a little better. Bent over dripping screens, the group members began to get to know each other. Be it religion, politics, music, movies, or personal experiences, there was no topic that did not help us to become better acquainted with those whom we shared this amazing experience. Participant Sandy Souza observes, “I agree heartily with [archaeologist] Gabriel Barkay that the best discovery is the people, the ABR team in particular, and also the old and new friends we met in Jerusalem”. Our talks would continue outside the sifting site, usually on the strenuous walk back to our hotel, up the ancient hills of Jerusalem, back through the winding corridors of the Old City. We often stopped along the way, with Gordon pointing out a historical part of Jerusalem and discussing the always important relation to the Bible. Participant Paula Owen agrees, stating, “Gordon successfully created both picturesque and cherished lessons and memories that ultimately left an unforgettable impact on us all!”
Weekends were a little more relaxed than the weekdays. On Shabbat, a bus would be chartered that took us around to the different sites outside Jerusalem, to Lachish, the Elah Valley, Masada and the Dead Sea. Taking in the passing Israeli countryside was met with awe and wonder. The mixture of beauty and peace and glimpses of the wall separating Jerusalem from the West Bank reminded us all that the time has not yet come for Divine peace in this region. But with this realization came the excitement and assurance of knowing the final outcome, where there will be no more tears, no more death or mourning or crying or pain. With that, we sat back and enjoyed the ride.
But there was always time to sit and reflect. Whether it was walking silently through the Muslim Quarter, staring off into the distance on the shore of the Dead Sea, taking in the bustling of Ben Yehuda Street, or listening to the bells from the churches in the Christian Quarter, we came to see the rarity of the city of Jerusalem and the frustration of an imperfect world were the City of Peace does not yet exist. The true Jerusalem, the true Israel, is something that must be experienced for oneself. Words cannot do it justice, and pictures do even less. Through this project we agreed with the Psalmist that “her stones are dear to your servants; her very dust moves them to pity” (Ps 102:14). The Temple Mount Sifting Project and touring of the land of Israel made every single participant come away from the experience with a new, profound understanding and appreciation for the words of the prophets, the kings, and the Lord Himself concerning Jerusalem and Israel, as well as the very stones of Israel itself. It almost leaves me, well, speechless.
Stephanie Hernandez graduated with a BA in archaeology and anthropology from Biola University. She has done field archaeology in California and was the ABR hostess for the 2009 Temple Mount Sifting Project. She has also participated in the Hazor excavations. She will be the ABR hostess for the January 2010 Temple Mount Sifting Project. For more information, see the ABR website.
1978 Jewish Wars. Books 4-7. Vol. 3. Trans. by H. Thackeray. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University. Loeb Classical Library 210.
This article first appeared in the Winter 2009 issue of Bible and Spade, Vol. 22, no. 1, pages 9-11.