Shaul Gefen grew up in a miniscule apartment in Dorot, the first kibbutz to be founded in the Negev. On one side of the only sink in the one-and-a-half-room dwelling stood a box of caustic soda for cleaning metal; on the other, a container with paraffin oil for restoration. Both items belonged to his father, Yekutiel, who like many others of his generation was obsessed with the past and spent his free time combing the nearby fields, tels, and wadis for artifacts left behind by long-ago Negev settlers.
As a child, Gefen often tagged along with his dad — but not because he was interested in archeology. It was the joy of picking things up off the ground and seeing the look on his father’s face when they turned out to be special, he says. “Once I brought him what I thought was a tiny bead,” relates Gefen. “My father was thrilled, and told me I had discovered a scarab — an ancient Egyptian amulet decorated with a beetle.”
Today, in addition to his other kibbutz duties, Gefen is in charge of Dorot’s marvelous archeological exhibit. Like dozens of other little-known archeological exhibits scattered throughout Israel, Dorot’s is free to all comers.
Scattered throughout Israel are dozens of archeological exhibits, indoor and outdoor, that anyone can visit at no charge. Each has its own particular charm, history and landscape, and all display their artifacts courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority. That’s because every relic found in this country that is more than 312 years old (dating back to before 1700) belongs to the State.
Each and every ancient object, no matter how small, is catalogued by the IAA, which holds a million or so artifacts in storerooms that are bursting at the seams. Delighted when antiquities are put on display for the general public to enjoy, professionals at the IAA assist in setting up the exhibits, provide historical and technical information, and offer unending encouragement to local staff.
Here are three wonderful exhibits — in Israel’s north, center and south!
South: Kibbutz Dorot was established in 1941. The founders, idealistic young people from Germany, Czechoslovakia and Latvia, had been waiting impatiently at a farming center in Hadera for half a decade. Imagine their joy when informed that land had been purchased for them to settle in the Negev.
Their new little kibbutz, surrounded by Arab villages, was 20 kilometers south of the southernmost Jewish settlement. Nearby stood several man-made hills (tels) where communities flourished thousands of years ago. One of them was Tel el-Hesi, excavated in 1890 by Flinders Petrie; it’s the site of the very first scientific archeological dig in the Land of Israel. (Petrie’s body, by the way, is buried in Jerusalem. But his wife thought his genius deserved analysis, and sent his head to the Royal Surgeons of London for study).
Dorot’s archeology exhibit is found inside half of the kibbutz baby house (beit hatinokot), the only building left from the original settlement. Standing outside is the bottom of a marble chancel screen, or lattice, used to separate priests from simple worshippers in Byzantine churches. Capitals and pillars at the entrance are from a huge Byzantine monastery that stood on a hill only minutes away.
Inside, antiquities are displayed according to the site at which they were discovered, with English descriptions: animal figurines and oil lamps from the Israelite period, flint from the Paleolithic era, human figurines dating back to the Greeks, iron-age cooking pots and Chalcolithic relics such as basalt tools, and flint scrapers.
Among the exhibits on view is an exciting coin collection. It includes a whole package of coins that Yekutiel Gefen’s dad put into the kibbutz safe 25 years ago: it was completely forgotten until recently. Take a look with the magnifying glass, as Gefen explains how the entire history of a city can be read from an ancient coin.
The collection includes a penny from 1896, probably left near the kibbutz in 1917. That’s when the British relentlessly pursued the Turks right through this very area and pushed them out of Palestine. Gefen jokes that the penny probably fell out of the pocket of a British soldier who, when he went to the canteen for a drink, would have been devastated to find he was missing a coin!
Center: During the War of Independence, when former president Ezer Weizman flew airplanes into the fray, he often took off from a little army base in Herzliyah. That army base, including a few of its (renovated) barracks, today hosts the first private institution of higher education in Israel: the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, also known as the IDC, established in 1994 by Tel Aviv law professor Uriel Reichman.
Looking very much like a kibbutz, with mostly low buildings, lots of gardens and a pastoral atmosphere, the IDC offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees in six different areas: international law, business, government diplomacy and strategy, computer science, communications (in a state-of-the-art environment new to Israel) and psychology. The IDC’s international school — also unique to this country — offers the same degrees, but classes are taught in English.
Stressing the importance of mixing the present with the past, Professor Reichman decided students at the IDC should come into daily contact with archeology. It all started small, with a capital or sarcophagus here and there borrowed from the IAA and placed strategically outside of buildings and along the sidewalks. But when construction began on the School of Business, the IDC began methodically planning what kind of relics to display and where to place them.
Soon antiquities relating to trade and government — such as ancient weights, certificates of contract and milestones naming long ago governors of Israel began to appear. And as the concept took wings, more and more artifacts began showing up on the campus, exposing Israeli students daily to their past. The displays also provide foreign students walking through the grounds with a whole new idea of what Israel is all about.
Visitors may enjoy both antiquities and modern art by strolling through the IDC any time that the school is open. Don’t miss the permanent exhibition in the Business School, which includes an authentic letter written by Shimon Bar Kochba to one of his generals, a bronze coin from the Hasmonean era, and a 9th century limestone capital from Samaria.
Look for an enormous ornamental sarcophagus (the largest I have ever seen), and a beautifully sculpted second century bust of Apollo that once stood in Roman Ashkelon. Examine basalt and limestone sarcophagi, granite shafts, parts of a Byzantine oil press, and my favorite: a decorative basalt door to a burial cave that dates back to the Roman era. Next to every relic are outstanding, detailed explanations in English.
North: If I could meet anyone at all from the not-too-distant past, I would probably choose David Torrance. Doctor and missionary, he was an extraordinary man. Indeed, after his death in 1946 the Chief Rabbi of Tiberias remarked that the town had been triply blessed: it had a glorious lake, healing hot springs, and David Torrance!
Torrance got his first look at Tiberias in 1884 when he was part of a Scottish fact-finding delegation to the Holy Land. The young doctor was appalled to find the town falling apart: Israel’s spiritual and intellectual center for hundreds of years and one of her four holiest cities, Tiberias in the 19th century was awash with sewage and disease. Soon afterwards Torrance returned as head of the Scottish Church’s Mission to the Jews. He planned to preach the Gospel, of course, but he would also heal the townspeople.
Immediately, Torrance began treating patients with the tools he had available: Epsom salts, cod liver oil, and his magically healing hands. Ten years later he erected the town’s first medical facility, where he continued to care tenderly for everyone in need regardless of his or her faith. Despite a series of horrendous personal tragedies, and the fact that he failed miserably in his mission to convert the Jews, Dr. Torrance provided half a century of selfless service to the city and was universally revered.
The hospital eventually became a maternity unit which closed down in 1950 when no longer needed. For several decades afterwards the complex operated as a simple pilgrims’ hostel, but a few years ago it was renovated and re-opened as Tiberias’ unique and utterly exquisite Scots Hotel.
Scattered around the grounds are fascinating antiquities from the lake region, items that the doctor would discover when driving around in his horse and buggy. A number of the artifacts were actually gifts from grateful Arab patients, who knew of the doctor’s penchant for archeology.
Visitors are welcome to walk around the gardens on weekdays, viewing and learning about ancient stone utensils used for food preparation, anchors, ossuaries, pillars and other antiquities. Excellent signs in English describe each item and explain its historical background. And, while you are there, why not enjoy a cup of tea in the elegant, second-story lounge?
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel. Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed, tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.
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