zaterdag 27 juni 2015

The Eye of God

With all good things in life the rule goes: the longer you put off doing them, the more you regret not doing it earlier. There is a subject that I’ve contemplated writing about for a long time now and I feel the time has come to write about it properly. Perhaps it is also a bit of a confession. This blogpost is all about the Sea of Galilee.

Let’s begin by saving you, dear reader, the trouble of going through a Wikipedia article. The Sea of Galilee is situated in the northern Galilee and lies roughly 210 metres below sea level. This makes it both the lowest freshwater lake on earth and the second lowest lake in general, ceding that place to the Dead Sea in the Judea desert. This immediately creates a big problem: the lake is prone low water levels. The general shape of the Galilee and the high temperatures mean that water can evaporate quickly and it is common for the lake to be covered in a haze during the morning hours. Besides this, the lake supplies a large amount of Israel’s drinking water. All these factors conspire to threaten the Sea of Galilee constantly with high fluctuations in its water level, bringing the close to – and sometimes even over – dangerously low water levels. Despite these concerns, the lake is a very popular tourist attraction. The region has been connected with many passages of the New Testament and consequently the Galilee sees its fair share of both religious tourists as well as pilgrims. Historically the region lies on the crossroads of several trade routes, giving rise to prosperous towns and cities. One of the last stands of the Hasmonean revolt in the first century CE was made on Mount Arbel, which looks out over the Sea of Galilee. In 1187, the Battle of Hattin was fought and Crusader army of Guy de Lusignan was defeated by Salāh ad-Dīn’s forces (the key to victory was denying the Crusaders access to the fresh water supply around the Sea of Galilee). All these events make for an archaeologically interesting region, which brings both archaeologists from all over the world to excavate the ancient remains, as well as visitors to these remains once they are excavated. The lake itself is a popular destination for water sports – in particular windsurfing – due its relatively predictable wind conditions. With many different cultures ebbing back and forth in the region, the Sea of Galilee has gone – and still goes – by a variety of names. Besides the common Sea of Galilee, the area is also known as Kinneret (coming from the Hebrew ‘kinnor’ which is a harp or lyre and refers to the shape of the lake). Another name comes from the Gospel of Luke, who writes about the ‘Sea of Gennesaret’. Flavius Josephus calls it the ‘Sea of Ginnosar’ in reference to the plain of Ginnosar, which Josephus notes for being as close to the Garden of Eden as one can get on earth. Lake Tiberias is a direct reference to the greatest population centre in the region. From the Ummayad to the Mamluk period the lake was known as Bahr-al-Minya, lending its name to the Khirbet-al-Minya site that is next door to our guest house. But its most poetic name (and for the life of me I cannot find the source where it is mentioned anymore) the lake was also known as the ‘Eye of God’, which I think is the most appropriate name of all.
The view from the dig site at dawn.

I have travelled and seen quite a bit of the world, but the Sea of Galilee is still one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited. Seeing the lake in the morning light, with the sun rising over the Golan Heights is a sight I will not forget until my dying day. Seeing the sunrise on the dig makes one appreciate just how old this geographic feature is. But perhaps better than seeing the sunrise over the sea, is seeing the stars shine on the lake. The best time to swim in the Sea of Galilee is at night. Period. Due to the warm air rising at night, any artificial lights you can see appear to flicker, as if they were candles. The main source of all light is the city of Tiberias that is built up against the hills, but there are many tiny candles dotted all along the Galilean hills and the Golan. Combine this with a cloudless night full of stars and a sickle moon can turn patches of the lake into a silvery blanket and what you end up with is a truly magical atmosphere that makes for some of the most memorable nights you will ever experience. There is simply nothing quite like the sheer feeling of awe one gets from coming back the Kinneret Regional Project and seeing this great blue Eye of God emerge from between the Galilean hills. 

Many volunteers and staff members alike cannot resist going for a refreshing dip in the lake after coming back covered in dust and sweat of the morning’s digging. Similarly, a night swim and a cold beer make for a truly irresistible prospect to look forward to when dusk sets in. To me, swimming in the Sea of Galilee is a bit like trying to talk to your crush: for some people it is just a matter of walking up and jumping straight in. Others just need to be with a group of friends to get off their butt and go. For some, it is a matter or shyness and thinking that waiting for the right moment will make all the difference in the world. The risk then lies in postponing for so long that you miss out on having the time of your life. As of last night, I’ve realised that I have spent nine full days of missing out. By putting off swimming in the lake for so long to wait for a cloudless night on which I still have energy to swim, I’ve forgotten that sometimes all you need to do in life is just float in the water and not give a damn about anything else in the world. 

The Sea of Galilee at Night. Photo by Jaakko Haapanen
It is difficult to truly express in words just how much the Sea of Galilee means to me. It invokes feelings of passion and longing you can only feel for your beloved and in many ways the sheer awe-inspiring beauty and sense of fragility of its existence are reminiscent of being in love. She (yes the Sea is a she) is a beauty unparalleled both when the surface of the water is calm and stormy. She’s always in for having fun and fooling around, but also there for you when you need to find peace of mind and collect your thoughts. She soothes with the soft sound of water rippling against the shore and the sight of white herons flying low over the water, contrasting starkly with the wonderful blue and tan of the water and the Golan. One cannot bear to part from this wonderful feeling and can never forget feeling of setting eyes upon her. This weekend, I’m diving in to see the lights of the world around me quiver like candles in the breeze and witness the starlight shine upon the Eye of God once more.

Time to sign off and get my swim shorts

donderdag 25 juni 2015

Like a banana milkshake

I’ve received some feedback about my recent blogposts. Apparently they are a bit on the depressing side and I have to say that indeed, they’re probably a bit too introspective. Therefore let’s start this one off with some good news of the dessert-related kind. The guest house currently has a new flavour of ice cream: banana. The stuff has a taste that’s very close to banana milkshake and probably would make a great base for the dairy beverage. By this point you may be asking yourself “why the hell is this guy writing about banana ice cream!?!” Well, I will tell you: because it’s good. Good food is important in the same way that a cold beer is important. We may joke about the huge amounts of chicken we eat, but this is nevertheless good, tender chicken. Good food equals morale and that is all important for a dig. 

Breakfast during earlier years. We've had everything from near silence to food wars.
An excavation is hard and demanding work for all members involved. Volunteers do a lot of manual work that involves everything from brushing rocks to clean tumble for a picture, all the way up to tearing that pristine tumble up again with a pickaxe to get to the next layer. The staff members and field specialists have very short but very intensive bursts of work, which makes their job feel like interval training. Even members who work in the lab spend most of their time being focussed on their specific field of expertise, often doing little else but stare at pottery or endless lists of files and boxes. With such demanding work it is of great importance that everyone gets good food and a good night’s sleep. That is what our stay at Karei Deshe is all about: the luxury accommodations are there so that everyone can at least sleep relatively well – depending on how many groups of shouting teenagers arrive – and have a good, tasty meal. Everyone on this dig is doing immensely important work and therefore they all deserve to be treated as well as they are.

We are now almost a week into the digging and everyone has gotten into the swing of things. The work is progressing well, as is evidenced both by the rate at which finds are coming into the field lab and by the amount with which the soil- and stone dumps are expanding. In some areas we have picked up where we left off in previous seasons, while in others we have started new work squares. Pottery has started coming in, so the volunteers spend some of their afternoons washing pottery and doing pottery reading. During pottery reading we separate the bottoms, handles and rims to look at what period the pottery appears to come from. This helps our pottery specialist establish relationships between the amounts of pottery and the periods it was made in, so that we can get a better idea of the dating of our synagogue.

We make it look easy, but it's tough old work.
I suppose that the excavation so far has been a bit like a banana milkshake. With all the things that we had to get set up at the beginning of the season, the whole experience feels like we’ve been swirled around for a while. Yet somehow, the end result is very enjoyable.

Signing off

zondag 21 juni 2015

Those sorely missed

We’ve only been in country for five days but it already feels as if we’ve been here for weeks. The staff and volunteers are now arriving in droves and from Monday on we can actually get stuck in with the site itself. In the meantime, all the staff members have been briefed extensively about their various tasks and duties. Some of the specialists are already knee-deep in the research of material collected in previous years. We’ve also used the time to make a few field trips to other projects in the region. On Saturday a small team got up at six in the morning for an excursion to the site at Horvat Omrit. Here stands a Roman temple ruin that shows a variety of building phases that can be easily defined by the typical Roman building techniques. On Sunday morning, just about every one of the staff members travelled to Huqoq to visit the excavation of a 5th century public building. It has been preliminarily identified as a synagogue. The site itself features some beautiful mosaics, as well as an interesting building history that extends all the way into the middle ages. This later phase shows a lot of reuse of the previous building, offering some insight in the creativity of not just the mosaic artisans, but also of those craftsmen that built the later phase.
The ruins at Omrit are a sight to behold...

Although the field work offers plenty of such rare opportunities to learn more about the region, being on such an intensive excavation is not all about fun and learning. For both the staff and the volunteers, being at the excavation means missing important events. The biggest event that the Finns miss is Juhannus. Known to the English as Midsummer Night, the longest night of the year is celebrated in Finland by travelling to the countryside with family and friends. Bonfires are lit and nightly boat rides on the lake are not uncommon, as are singing and getting hammered. The loud and drunken behaviour is said to ward off evil spirits, which is a good an excuse as any. The Juhannus celebration is so important that the capitol city of Helsinki is all but deserted for the weekend. While we do hold a little Finnish celebration to mark the occasion (complete with swimming in the lake), it is nothing like the real thing and it is the biggest event the Finns have to miss, especially because they are missed at home by their family and friends. The Americans are stuck with a similar situation, as they have to miss celebrating Independence Day in the US. Obviously the location is marked by a get-together where people play the guitar, dance the Carolina shag and wave the Stars ‘n Stripes. However it is still not the same without actual fireworks and the familiarity of celebrating the 4th of July with friends and family. 

Sad songs to help fight some of the homesickness

But it’s not just about the big stuff. Many people miss birthdays of parents, brothers, sisters, children, aunts, uncles, friends… or they have their own birthday while being in Israel. Missing the familiarity of those close to you when you’re having a birthday can also be quite depressing. Speaking from personal experience, I have missed both Father’s Day and my brother’s birthday five years in a row now. Missing those events has always been a bittersweet experience, seeing as it does mean I’m at the shore of the Sea of Galilee with both old and new friends. However, it might be nice to be home for both occasions again someday. It’s the eternal quandary of archaeology: whether you go to work or not, you are always away from those who are dear to you. This will no doubt get worse, as today all the new faces are scheduled to arrive. Sharing four weeks of blood, sweat and tears has a tendency to make people bond.

donderdag 18 juni 2015

Homeward bound

It may seem a bit odd to begin a new excavation season far away from home with the words ‘homeward bound’, but of course this is not a normal travel trip. For a veteran of the Kinneret Regional Project, the guest house of Karei Deshe is a home away from home. We arrived on the 17th of June after a flight that required us to get up far too early. However this did allow us to meet up with the Swiss and Finnish staff members of the project during the voyage. We travelled to our home on the shore at the Sea of Galilee together and spent an evening catching up in the wonderful garden of the guest house.

The lab is just about ready to go.
So far, we have managed to build up the shelter lab so that all the staff members can begin working and the specialists will have the space they need to work on their areas of interest. This required us to make a courtesy visit to the Tabgha pilgerhaus and unload the storage room. The sauna-like conditions of the place allowed us to acclimatise somewhat to the conditions which are so typical of the region. Byron McCane and his crew of American students arrived from Jerusalem in the afternoon and a group of staff members was able to empty the shelves in the local gas station during the evening, in their eternal quest for more beer and chocolate milk.

Not everything is going well in the Galilee though. The water height in the lake is only one metre above the red line which indicates severe water shortages. This has made the water withdraw unusually far on the beach of the Sea of Galilee. Because of the lower level, the lake also warms up considerable more. The current water temperature is quite warm for the time of the year. Furthermore, a few nights back there was a fire at the monastery complex of the Church of the Multiplication at Tabgha. Some offices and a large hall were damaged, but the church itself and the mosaics didn’t suffer damage and apart from a few people with breathing problems, everyone was okay. Currently, the suspects for the arson are a group of ultraorthodox teenagers, but the investigation is still ongoing.

The Church at Tabgha.
Despite all this, it feels good to be back. It’s been a year since we were here and longer since we did any actual field work. Everyone is glad to see each other again itching to get stuck in. We're still not enamoured by the thought of five weeks of chicken, but we will have no problem in forgetting that once the finds from a fresh season of digging start coming in. I will be happily clicking away with my camera for all four weeks!

Signing off,