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

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