Jerusalem

Israeli Art

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Confession: Today was the first time I ever visited the Israel Museum and did not enter the archaeology wing. Soon after entering I fell into a group tour focused on Jewish art. While I didn’t alway appreciate every piece, I appreciated the stories and interpretive prompts. Rosalind did a wonderful job of guiding our little group through stylistic developments in paintings from the socialist realism of the early 20th century to our own day.

In case you are wondering, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem was founded in 1965 and is an important repository of cultural artifacts from the prehistoric period to the present. Their collection is enormous and needs to be on the bucket list of every Bible Land Explorer.


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Vincent Van Gogh’s Corn Harvest in Province (1888) is one of a number of works currently on display in the Israel Museum.

We try to include an afternoon visit to the museum on each of our trips. If you are interested in experiencing the culture of the biblical Heartland for yourself, consider joining us in the future. We have open seats for several trips in 2020 and 2021. We are booking new groups for 2022. Shoot me a note at markziese@gmail.com or see our full list of study-travel opportunities at the link here.

Lecture hall learners

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Sometimes I wonder how effective the big lecture hall lectures are.

I try to channel my inner undergraduate as I wax eloquently on narrative construction techniques, explore the interplay between history and language, and rise to the challenge of hearing God in the text. Sometimes the feedback suggests “I get it.” Those are moments of celebration! At other times I just get stony stares.

Oh well. We keep at it.

The stony stares pictured above are not coming from lecture hall learners but from third-century (AD) funerary busts recovered at the site of Beth Shean (Scythopolis). This Heartland site was the leading city of the Decapolis and a real treasure trove of Late Roman life in the Lower Jordan Valley.

In this case, we are learning from them.

Funerary busts were erected over tombs across the Greco-Roman world, but they are rare in this part of the world. Carved in soft limestone, they display a mix of traditions, east and west, local and imported. Hair styles, jewelry, and clothing suggest a measure of personalization. Names in Semitic and in Greek languages are engraved on some and give flavor to the cultural blend that marked life in ancient Scythopolis.

You can find this display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.


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If you are a museum-lover you really can’t miss the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. It contains a treasury of cultural artifacts from thousands of years of history.

We’ll visit the IM several times during our 2019 travel season. If you would like to join us, there are seats available. Find the dates here that fit your schedule and shoot me email me at markziese@gmail.com. I’ll do my best to work you in.


Then and now

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Jerusalem’s el-Ghazali Square doesn’t look like much. It doesn’t smell too good either. Today it is used as a car park and as a temporary storage place for local garbage. However, thousands of years ago this area contained a large water reservoir. The reservoir was likely built (or improved) in the second century after the time of Christ. Some would date its original construction still earlier.

The reservoir is often called Birket Israel or “Pool of Israel” although it has been confused with the nearby Pool of Bethesda.

el-Ghazali Square is located immediately to the left as one enter’s the Lion Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City walls.

Bible Land Explorer Patrick Furgerson took the photo above on our recent visit. Compare it to this one taken in the 19th century before the pool was infilled.


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I’m in Israel-Palestine right now with a group from Chantilly, Virginia. Today we visited Bethlehem and Beit Sahour, sites associated with the story of the birth of Jesus.

Consider this your invitation to participate in a trip of adventure and renewal. For a complete list of travel opportunities, see our 2019 schedule here. Contact me at markziese@gmail.com if interested.

Memorial Day, Haredi-style

The site of Al-Nabi Samwil rises between Jerusalem and Ramallah and offers splendid views to each. According to tradition, the spot marks the burial place of the prophet Samuel (as my students know, the "king-maker" and "king-breaker" from the biblical book). Archaeology hardly bears this tradition out, however. Ruins date to the Iron II period and beyond. Today, a single stone structure dominates the hilltop. Inside, Muslim worshipper pray at ground level; Jewish worshippers pray in the basement below. I prefer the roof for the view.

We found ourselves at Al-Nabi Samwil yesterday (by accident!) at the time of an annual holiday. The activity closed the road and the adjacent Arab village. Ultra-Orthodox gathered by the hundreds to remember the memory of the prophet. 

A leader in the field

Volkmar Fritz (1938-2007) was the director of the German Protestant Institute of Archaeology in Jerusalem between 1994 and 1999. He was a leader in the field, a generous scholar, and an encourager of prompt publication. Here, he discusses the finer points of a site on a fieldtrip with Albright fellows Justin, Mark, and Ann.

For those interested in biblical archaeology, his The City in Ancient Israel (1995) is a must read.

Treasure beneath domes of gold

The Church of Mary Magdalene on the Mt of Olives is one of Jerusalem's most distinctive landmarks. Seven "onion"-domes bequeath a Muscovite flavor to the skyline. Beneath those golden domes, however, one finds an even greater treasure: a sisterhood of nuns who worship, sing, care for the grounds, and make handicrafts for sale. The sisterhood is a part of the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission.