dinsdag 21 juli 2015

A heart of stone

All things must come to pass: there’s probably none who know the weight of these words better than those working archaeological excavations. However, with our focus so firmly fixed on the far end of history, it is easy to forget that the same law holds true in our own age. All things must come to an end, and so too has this excavation season. This is not simply a sad time because all your friends have left, but because you shared a special experience with them in excavating an ancient synagogue. An excavation is a very unusual kind of project to be a part of and it is sometimes described as being a mix between a summer camp and a prison camp. People volunteer to do hard manual labour and have a grand old time doing it. For some of them it still feels mostly like a summer camp, while others still consider it closer to a prison camp. However, I haven’t talked to a single person who hasn’t enjoyed being part of the project for one reason or another or made at least one new friend during their stay.

You get attached to a great many things during a season. The beautiful sunrises over the Golan are an obvious one, as is the night view of Tiberias from the lake. But you also get attached to the typical dig humour, the bad jokes, and the “back to work!” calls. Even the sounds of the various accents become comfortably familiar. You get used to the southern drawls from the US, the blends of soft and sharp from Switzerland and the cooled staccato from Finland.  We may all communicate in English, but this is by no means the ‘unified language’ of the dig. That is made up by the universal, intrinsic understanding we have of what we mean when we speak to one another. It makes us understand phrases such as “it’s that thing up on the thingy” perfectly. To me, it is this kind of thing that makes the excavation is a living entity, composed from the many facets that make the Kinneret Regional Project so unique. From the camp manager that can move mountains through sheer willpower, to the wacky stories shared during breakfast, to songs like The Ballad of Michael Dustpanhands, to smoking hookah on the steps outside the Damascus gate during the free weekend. At the very heart of all these memories stands the synagogue of Horvat Kur. It is the core around which everything revolves. It is our heart of stone. I will miss the walls that we have excavated over the years just as much as all those people who have helped us excavate it.

Yet, there is a shimmer of light on the horizon. We have had a wonderful season with truly amazing finds and we are far from done. We came from our homes spread across the globe to our home on the shore of Lake Kinneret. Now, we are all ready to go home and return to the normal world, where our friends and family await. Even though we will be all at peace again and able to rest our weary bodies, we know that one day perhaps this home of ours on the shore of the lake will call to us once more. It will ask us to come home to it and explore the history of Horvat Kur even further. Ultimately this is the greatest thing about being at home everywhere: in the end you are always homeward bound.

Dear fellow people of Horvat Kur. It has once again been a tremendous honour and a great pleasure to spend these weeks together with you. Thank you for all the laughs and the good times spent at the site, the breakfast tent, the lab, the lakeshore and on the stairs. Know that with each of you leaving to go back home, chips of my heart have fallen off to make room for you all inside it. For some of you, I’ve even began expanding the accommodations. May you all find beautiful lamp fragments on the road of life and I hope that one day our paths will cross again. When we do, you should lose track of your timing and have a drink beside me. I’ll be buying.

Signing off

zondag 12 juli 2015


As exciting as a field excavation can be, it is also a very taxing endeavour. So halfway through the season, the volunteers and the staff get a long weekend off to unwind a little bit. This year, the destination for most of them was the Holy city: Jerusalem.

Dome of the Rock. THE landmark that characterizes the old city
As a place of religious importance to the three great monotheistic religions, Jerusalem is a city with an interesting dynamic. The Old City, confined within walls that have been torn down and rebuilt a dozen times, is bound by a strict set of rules ranging from who can live where to what type of stone you must use to build or renovate in the city. There are four well-defined quarters for various religions, yet they all seem to merge fine within the crowded streets. The streets themselves busy and noisy but follow a side street and you end up in a small square or patio that is all but deserted.

Compared to the Old City, the New City appears to be worlds apart at first glance. Whereas you have to barter fiercely with shop owners to avoid being ripped off in the souk, the New City is all about the price tags and attempting to barter is not considered funny. The limestone and plaster within the walls is a far cry from the concrete and glass of the postmodern architecture outside. In the evening the Old City closes down for the night, whereas bright spots of bars and hangouts light up in the New City. Yet there are some similarities to be found between both the city within the walls and the one outside of them. The Old City is considered to be at the heart of culture, but the New City is littered with galleries and street art throughout, putting it on equal footing in terms of cultural diversity. Furthermore, life in both sections seems to run more on people time, rather than clock time. Both areas are also equally suited if you enjoy ‘people watching’. Just sit down on a crossroad or square with some coffee and watch the broad plumage of humanity that calls the city home, whether it is only for a few days, or for the rest of their life. 

Celebrating the building of the light rail
Jerusalem has a very particular charm to it. The bells of the churches and the adhan of the mosques sounding at the same time have the appearance of a shouting match, with each trying to outdo each other. This is just one example of why Jerusalem seems like a surreal paradox: it is a city wrought by conflict since the first time someone decided it would be nice to have a wall around the place, but also a crossroad of many cultures that share more similarities than some wish to admit. It is a city of both spirituality and trade, of old and new, of habibi’s and enemies, of peace and violence. It is a history that can be read on the visage of the city and the people that live in it.

Umbrella installation. Both beautiful and functional
But more than its sights or sounds, I will always remember Jerusalem by its scents and smells. The Old City is a giant souk and as such it gives one the impression of walking through clouds of scents at every new street and shop. The bouquet ranges from the sugary sweet smell of candy to the nauseating stench of meat going bad. The New City smells like the hot steel of the light rail on Jaffa street. It smells of the sweat of volunteers taking a wrong turn and making a scorching detour along the sun-baked streets. It smells of strawberry slushies that are the perfect treat after a long hot walk. It smells of freshly ground coffee and of melting chocolate in the corner store. It smells of hookah smoke on a balmy night outside the Damascus gate. It smells like a vacation. 
Signing off