A few weeks ago, while leading a pilgrimage tour to Israel, I couldn’t wait to bring the group to one of the greatest museums in the world: the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Packed with artifacts from the biblical period, it’s a treasure trove for anyone interested in the material remains of salvation history.
The museum also houses one of the more important archaeological finds of recent years: an artifact that has bolstered our confidence in the veracity of the Old Testament accounts of the kingdom of David, his son Solomon, and their successors.
Biblical “minimalists” had long contended that King David did not actually preside over a kingdom that originated circa the tenth century B.C., as the Bible states. Indeed, these scholars alleged that David, Solomon, and in fact the entire line of Davidic kings chronicled in the Old Testament, are nothing more than fictional characters invented by the writers of the Hebrew scriptures.
In favor of the “minimalist” argument was the lack of any evidence of David’s existence outside the Bible.
But here’s where archaeology came to the rescue. During the 1993-94 excavations at Tel Dan, in northern Israel, a stele (a stone slab bearing an inscription) was unearthed. Made from basalt, a volcanic rock plentiful in the region, it bears an account of a military victory. Scholars have postulated that the inscription commemorates an Aramean king’s defeat of Israelite forces. It may have been commissioned by Hazael or Ben-Hadad III, his son (cf. 2 Kings 10:32, 13:3, 22; 2 Chron. 22:5).
The key line on the monument, the stunning find, is the mention of the “House of David.” There it was, written in stone—independent confirmation of David’s existence and of a line of kings so powerful that defeating armies from this “House” warranted a public brag of sorts on this stele, for all passersby to read and marvel at.
Analysis of the stele dates it to the mid-ninth century BC, right around the time when, according to Scripture, David’s dynasty would have been flourishing. It appears that the stele was broken by the Israelites after they recaptured the area some time later, and was eventually repurposed into building blocks for the city wall.
After this discovery, as chronicled by Craig Evans, the minimalists changed their approach. “Okay, okay,” they admitted, “maybe David existed after all. But he was a nobody. A local tribal chief, at best, certainly not the originator of the vast, Iron-Age kingdom described in the Old Testament.”
At this point, faced with what seems like special pleading, one is tempted to respond like Jerry Seinfeld: “Really? Really?”
But don’t despair—again, archaeology is our friend here.
First of all, if David had been merely a small-time local yokel, what on earth were his descendants doing fighting battles all the way up north, near the modern-day border that separates Israel and Syria, far from his allegedly tiny operation in Jerusalem?
Also, a vast, centralized complex of buildings—in all likelihood, a government compound—has been unearthed in the Old City of Jerusalem, and can be seen on tours today. It’s located in what’s known as the “City of David” and dates to approximately the tenth century B.C.; once more, the time when Scripture says that David and Solomon were establishing their empire. Again, this seems fairly excessive if we’re talking about an insignificant tribal chieftain, but it does fit the biblical narrative of David’s expansive realm.
To this our minimalist might say, “I’ll grant you that David existed, and perhaps he did preside over a significantly large kingdom, but we still can’t trust what the Bible says about him. The people of David’s time would not have been significantly literate enough to record his exploits or those of his descendants”.
This last objection is at least partially answered by—you guessed it—yet another archaeological discovery. In 2008, an ostracon (an inscribed piece of pottery) dating to the tenth century B.C. was disinterred at the ancient fortress city of Khirbet Qeiyafa, which was the only fortified Judahite city during the reigns of David and his predecessor, King Saul (in fact, the Qeiyafa ostracon is the only extant relic that mentions Saul).
The famed French epigrapher Émile Puech regards the inscription as the earliest writing narrating the transition of Israel from a people ruled by judges into a kingdom. It shows that the people living around David’s time were literate, and in fact, more than capable of recording (and passing on) the annals of David’s dynasty, such as we see in the biblical books of Kings and Chronicles.
The Tel Dan stele and the Qeiyafa ostracon are just two examples from the multitude of archaeological discoveries in Israel that have bolstered our understanding of, and in many cases substantiated the reliability of, biblical records of history. Since only roughly five percent of all biblical sites have been excavated to date (which is unbelievable considering how much has already been found), It’s truly exciting to think of how many more such finds may be unearthed in the years to come.
by Cale Clarke, in catholic.com
The Bible offers a pretty comprehensive answer to the question ‘WWJD?’: what would Jesus do? But, as Christians observe Easter and the Last Supper another question arises: what would jesus drink?
To answer this question, the location and timing of the final meal that Jesus had with his disciples before he was crucified is key. And three of four of the accounts of Jesus’ life in the Bible – known as the Gospels – suggest that it took place on the last Thursday celebration of Passover in around AD 30, Father Daniel Kendall, Professor of Theology and Scripture at the University of San Francisco told wine app Vivino.
“Unlike John the Baptist, Jesus drank wine,” explains Father Kendall, adding: “From the descriptions it was most likely a Seder meal. Since it was and is the most important of Jewish feasts, wine would have been part of the festivities.”
While grape varieties may not have been named and identified as they are now, wine had been made in this part of the Middle East since around 4000 BC.
Archaeological evidence suggests that around the time of the last supper, rich, concentrated wines were popular, says Dr Patrick McGovern, Adjunct Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania and director of Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia.
In Judah more specifically – near Jerusalem where the Last Supper is said to have taken place – archaeologists have found a jar inscribed with: “wine made from black raisins”. This means that winemakers may have used grapes dried on the vine or in the sun on mats to create sweet, thick drinks. At sites nearby in the region, jars labelled “smoked wine” and “very dark wine” have also been found.
While it was common to water down wine at the time, there was a taste in Jerusalem for rich, concentrated wine, according to Dr McGovern.
Spices and fruits – including pomegranates, mandrakes, saffron and cinnamon – were used to flavour such wines, and tree resin were added to help preserve them. So, the wine drank at the Last Supper, then, might resemble the mulled wine some of us drink at Christmas.
Today, comparable bottles would include Amarone, which is made in Northern Italy with grapes dried on straw mats.
While it’s unclear exactly which wine Jesus drank at the last supper, Dr McGovern jokes: “If someone can find me the Holy Grail and send it to my lab, we could analyse it and tell you.”
in The Independent
A sharp drop in annual rainfall in the northern Galilee region over the past three years has caused the lake’s waters to recede.
On the shimmering Sea of Galilee, where the Christian gospels say Jesus walked on water, 150 Nigerian pilgrims aboard a river boat sing and dance to an African beat. Their pastor, Reverend Samuel Tunde Ogunmodede, said he and his congregation had come to the biblical lake to see what they had, until now, only read about in the scriptures. “We came here to seek the face of God, pray to God as he did in the time of the disciples. We will pray here so that he will do the same in our lives,” he said on board the boat. About one million tourists from abroad visit the Sea of Galilee, also known as Lake Tiberias or Kinneret, each year, according to the Israeli tourism ministry.
Stretching about 65 sq miles (170 square km) from the foot of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, the Sea of Galilee (actually a fresh-water lake) spills into the Jordan River, where Jesus is believed to have been baptised. On a crisp winter day, worshippers from Singapore, Nigeria and Germany perform their own baptism ceremonies in the waters. The gospels tell of Jesus walking on the lake to comfort and save disciples as their ship was foundering in a storm and miraculously producing huge catches of fish for their nets. But the Sea of Galilee may need a few more miracles these days. A sharp drop in annual rainfall in the northern Galilee region over the past three years has caused the lake’s waters to recede, according to Israel’s Water Authority. It is now at its lowest in five years.
Receding water levels means higher salt levels, which harm the eco-balance and could render the water unusable. In an effort to control the damage, only a 10th of the annual average quantity of water supply has been drawn from the lake this year, a water authority spokesman said. In a complex operation, salt water springs are found and their flow is diverted out of the lake. To better keep the eco-balance and maintain water quality, the lake is stocked with millions of fish every year. The Sea of Galilee has, in the past, provided up to a third of Israel’s water. Israel now relies on the more expensive methods of desalination and recycling for more than half its water supply.
Saint George is traditionally considered the patron saint of England. His legendary victory over the dragon is seen as symbolic of the power of the English people to subdue their powerful enemies. His red cross on a white background is the basis of the British Union Jack flag. In earlier years it was carried into battle as a standard. The image of George the dragon slayer has been used since the 1800s on English gold coins. However, none of the stories connected with this figure describe him as coming from the British Isles. The story reached England in the medieval period – the time of the Crusades. People were attracted to this tale of bravery and chivalry. In the course of time its foreign origins were forgotten and it began to be seen as an English tradition. It is not a coincidence that George has been the second most popular name given to English monarchs.
The George and the Dragon story
There are several versions of this story. Usually it is set in North Africa. One story recounts how the brave knight arrived in Libya after a very long and arduous trip by land and sea. Here he met a hermit who told him about a terrifying dragon that was terrifying the people of Libya. The dragon had an unpleasant habit of devouring young maidens. The problem the country faced was that all the young maidens had been eaten with the sole exception of the king’s daughter. It was her turn to be the dragon’s lunch tomorrow. The King of Egypt was offering his daughter in marriage to any brave knight willing to rid the land of this dragon.
This was exactly the kind of challenge George was searching for. He galloped off the valley where the beast lived just in time to see the princess of Egypt being led to this grisly death. He comforted her with the news that he was off to kill the dragon and she need not fear. True to his words he rode on to the cave where the dragon lived. The huge beast with a fifty foot long tail and a huge head was understandably furious at this intrusion on its territory. It came out of its cave roaring like thunder. George charged at the dragon and speared it but its scales were so thick his spear broke. George was dismounted but found refuge under a magical tree conveniently on hand for some emergencies. The tree’s magical powers shielded him against the dragon’s poison. When he had recovered from the failure of the first attack he went after the dragon again with his sword. The dragon doused him in poison and his armour fell apart. Everything was almost lost but George noticed just in time that there were no scales under the wings of the beast. He struck it under its wings with his sword and at last succeeded in dispatching the monster.
On the most basic level George and the dragon is an attractive fairy story. We learn about the triumph of good over evil in a manner that leaves no room for alternative interpretations. On a deeper level it is easy to detect in the persona of the dragon a symbolic representation of our fears of the unknown, or situations we perceive as very threatening. The dragon can be seen as almost insurmountable obstacle or approaching terror threatening our very existence. The conquest of the dragon shows that we have the abilities to overcome our most dreaded enemies with sufficient determination and courage. These ideas appeal to individuals. They also clearly held appeal for an island nation fearing invasion from its more powerful Continental neighbours.
If you want to connect the dragon slaying with some episode in early history, there is no evidence that Saint George is modelled on a person whom we know lived in a certain historical period. However, it is interesting to note that many cultures have stories featuring dragons. Some scholars suggest that one explanation for this maybe the survival of dinosaurs into a much later period than we used to believe. The theory has always been that dinosaurs died out before man came on the scene. These scholars postulate that early man might have seen dinosaurs and conceivably needed to defend himself against them. If this really was the case there may have been a real prototype for Saint George – an ancient warrior who fought and killed one of these prehistoric monsters. His exploits would have been talked and sung about for generations and so this story may have a germ of truth in its origins. More prosaically the stories of dragons may have been sparked by the discovery of dinosaur skeletons, which would certainly have the power to terrify a superstitious and uneducated farmer. In truth, we will probably never know.
By: Zoran Krdzic in newhistorian.com
Originally dictated in a Genoese prison cell, ‘The Travels of Marco Polo’ straddles the line between travel literature and adventure story. The teller of the story, Marco Polo, claimed that the work was based completely on fact, compiled from his travels around the world. The book was hugely popular in Medieval Europe, despite being widely referred to as ‘The Million Lies’.
Marco Polo was not the first European to venture into Asia, but he traveled much further to the East than any before him, and, according to the book at least, became much more integrated into the cultures there. The real key to the work’s success is the imagination and energy put into the descriptions of Asia, Africa and the Mongol Empire. The work often seems fantastical, partly because some of the things Polo described were indeed made up, but also because the language used is so colourful it seems unbelievable.
The adventure to the East actually started when Nicolo and Maffeo Polo, Marco’s father and uncle, set off for Constantinople in 1260. From this journey they ventured into the lands of the Mongolian tribes, eventually reaching the court of Kublai Khan. The Polos returned to Europe, eventually arriving in their home city of Venice in 1269. Upon his return, Nicolo discovered he had a son, Marco Polo. The Polos, who had promised Kublai Khan they would come back to Mongolia with Catholic missionaries, eventually set off on their return to Asia with Marco and two Catholic friars, in 1271. Although the friars eventually gave up on the journey, the Polo’s returned to the Khan’s court, where Marco became a confidant of Kublai Khan.
Marco Polo remained in the Khan’s court for seventeen years, and was sent on a variety of missions and errands, allowing him to travel in previously uncharted territories. Through his service he explored much of what is now China, as well as venturing into India, and crossing over to Sri Lanka. A recently revealed map, attributed to Polo and signed for authenticity by his three daughters, is believed to sketch out the coast of Japan and Alaska. The origins and veracity of the map have not been confirmed, but some researchers have claimed that it proves Polo’s travels actually took him as far as the shores of North America.
‘The Story of Marco Polo’ details his experiences in this period of his life. It includes descriptions of the journey from Acre (in what is modern day Israel), through Persia and then onto the Khan’s palace in what is now Beijing. The Polos traveled over a series of overland trader’s routes, what would eventually become known as the Silk Road. As well as providing detailed descriptions of Polo’s experiences in the Khan’s court, the book is just as crucial for its depiction of the journey along the Silk Road, providing information on the cultures and landscapes the Polo family encountered.
Some critics question the validity of the text, pointing out that there is no mention of Polo in the detailed records of the Khan’s court from the thirteenth century. They also point out that despite Polo’s extensive stay and travels in Asia, he never made reference to major landmarks, such as the Great Wall, or distinctive cultural traits, such as eating with chopsticks or foot binding.
Polo himself eventually returned to Europe in 1295. He became involved in a conflict between Venice and Genoa, during which he was captured and imprisoned. While incarcerated he met Rustichello, a writer from Pisa who started to write down Polo’s stories.
Whether these stories were a complete fabrication, or just heavily embellished by Polo or Rustichello, they remain a fascinating document. The book was pivotal in shaping opinions on Asia and the Mongol Empire, long after its publication. Whether the book is factually accurate or not, it cannot be denied that the stories within, as well as the history of Polo himself, make it a fascinating read.
By: Daryl Worthington in newhistorian.com
Military history is often obsessed with innovation. Length of spear or range of firearm are viewed as decisive factors in the rise and fall of civilisations. If one group gains a particular advantage, they gain in power and conquer those reliant on an outdated method of fighting. This is, however, not always the case.
In Iran, incredibly few military innovations occurred in the 800 years after the year 550 CE. We must understand this period as one of essential functionality in terms of the military system. It would be incorrect to view Medieval Iran as a dysfunctional society, under continual upheavals as a result of constant military innovation.
Eduard Alofs has been examining this period of Iran’s history. He notes that by understanding Medieval Iran as a stable and well-functioning military system, we are able to view how Iranian soldiers behaved. “It also opens up the possibility of using the vast amount of sources from this period to reconstruct this military system,” Alofs writes in the report of his findings, published in the most recent edition of the journal War in History.
One of the most enduring images of Iranian warriors is of the mounted horse archer. It was these fearsome warriors who defeated Roman legions when they ventured eastward into Arabia.
Of course, the Iranian military did not solely consist of mounted archers. Alofs notes that numerous sources from Medieval Iran attest to a large contingent of unarmed support personnel.
“The armoured horse archer, could only function in battle with his full equipment, some of which might be his personal property,” Alofs explained. “[Numerous sources describe] clerks carefully [noting] the equipment each soldier had brought at his own expense, so that he would be compensated and the deficiency would be supplied from the government arsenal and stables.”
Throughout the Medieval period, the equipment of Iranian mounted archers remained incredibly consistent. Reports of what weapons and armour each soldier had reveal that every horseman was required to carry a bow and lance; swords were also common. For protection, a metal shirt, helmet, and armour for both arms and legs were worn. Round shields were used frequently and armoured hoods were commonly worn underneath the helmet as added protection for vulnerable areas. Horses, also, were usually well protected.
Alofs notes that large numbers of support personnel were required to facilitate large, heavily-armed cavalry forces. These included “various kinds of craftsmen, such as masons and bricklayers to repair or erect fortifications, carpenters to build artillery, bowers and blacksmiths to repair the arms and armour of the soldiers, and tailors, cobblers, and saddle-makers to repair their other equipment.”
It is clear that the mounted archer, prevalent in Medieval Iran, was a formidable fighting force. For 800 years they were the most effective military entity in the Arabic world, as evidenced by their continuity throughout the Medieval period.
Alofs’ work allows us to properly glimpse their full power, as shown through their fearsome array of weapons and armour. He also emphasises that these warriors required significant support from unarmed personnel.
This stratification of people in the Iranian military allows us to glimpse the social structure of the time: those who could afford arms and horses were superior to those who could not. Interestingly, these lower ranks were expected to follow armies on campaign, providing support and maintaining the army.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user: Yaan
By: Adam Steedman Thake in newhistorian.com
Memo to visitors to Israel: If you get a chance, don’t miss the crusader fort at Acre, a ride of about an hour and a half from Jerusalem. You’ll spot it on the map (it’s alternately called Akko) a little north of Haifa on the Mediterranean coast. To understand what you’ll see there, here’s a short history of the port – starting with a meeting in the 11th century thousands of miles away.
Nov. 27, 1095, was a red letter day in medieval history. Actually, it was a red cross day, that symbol having been proclaimed by Pope Urban II as the icon of a planned crusade to retake the Holy Land from its Muslim invaders.
Speaking at the Council of Clermont — a meeting of hundreds of clerics, noblemen and onlookers in southern France — the Pope hoped to recruit fighters with this pitch: “Here (you) are poor and miserable sinners; there, (you) will be rich and happy. Let none hesitate; (you) must march next summer. God wills it.”
So in the fall of 1096 a crusader army of tens of thousands of knights, vassals and serfs went charging off to the Holy Land using “God wills it” as their battle cry. Three years later, after slashing their way across Europe, Constantinople and the Mediterranean coast of the Holy Land, the Christian forces not only took the city of Jerusalem but went on to create the Kingdom of Jerusalem – a 360-mile-long strip of land stretching from Lebanon south through modern-day Israel and western Jordan down to the Gulf of Aqaba – among several crusader states.
Fast-forward two centuries, through seven more major crusades (and several smaller ones) and many more battles. During this period Muslim armies recapture the Kingdom of Jerusalem, then lose part of it again during the Third Crusade led by King Richard the Lionheart. The crusaders carve out another kingdom, but fail to take Jerusalem. Instead, they build a new capital at the Mediterranean port of Acre.
But things go south for the crusaders again, and by the late 13th century the conquest of the Holy Land has pretty much fizzled out. The caped knights have been booted out of just about every place they took, and now they’re down to their last “God wills it” stronghold — at Acre, where the cross of the crusaders had been flying (on and off) since 1104.
The crusaders’ last big holdout crumbled in 1291 when the flag of the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt was raised over Acre. Later on, the Ottomans captured the port and held on to it until the onset of World War I, when the Brits took over. The Union Jack flew over the port until the State of Israel was created in 1948.
Visitors to Acre will see the remains of all these cultures – and before them those of the Romans, Greeks and Canaanites, among others – in what’s left of their walls, battlements, churches, mosques, baths and courtyards. Tours of the city typically wind up in an underground labyrinth of domed halls and walkways, once the home of monastic military orders such as the Knights Templars and the Knights Hospitallers.
Among subterranean eye-poppers awaiting tourists is a 1,150-foot-long stone tunnel used by the Templars as a protected passageway between the fortress and the port. Also featured down there is a commercial street that passed through the Hospitaller quarter, high-domed knight halls, a huge dining room and a central courtyard – all painstakingly restored to offer a jump back in time to the days when guys wandering around with crosses on their tunics ruled the roost around these parts.