Category Archives: Archaeology

Ascension, then and now


On the whole Mount of Olivet there seems to be no spot higher than that from which the Lord is said to have ascended into the heavens, where there stands a great round church, having in its circuit three vaulted porticoes covered over above. The interior of the church, without roof or vault, lies open to heaven under the open air, having in its eastern side an altar protected under a narrow covering. So that in this way the interior has no vault, in order that from the place where the Divine footprints are last seen, when the Lord was carried up into heaven in a cloud, the way may be always open and free to the eyes of those who pray towards heaven.

For when this basilica, of which I have now made slight mention, was building, that place of the footprints of the Lord, as we find written elsewhere, could not be enclosed under the covering with the rest of the buildings. Whatever was applied, the unaccustomed earth, refusing to receive anything human, cast back into the face of those who brought it. And, moreover, the mark of the dust that was trodden by the Lord is so lasting that the impression of the footsteps may be perceived; and although the faith;of such as gather daily at the spot snatches away some of what was trodden by the Lord, yet the area perceives no loss, and the ground still retains that same appearance of being marked by the impress of footsteps.

Further, as the sainted Arculf, who carefully visited this spot, relates, a brass hollow cylinder of large circumference, flattened on the top, has been placed here, its height being shown by measurement to reach one’s neck. In the centre of it is an opening of some size, through which the uncovered marks of the feet of the Lord are plainly and clearly seen from above, impressed in the dust. In that cylinder there is, in the western side, as it were, a door so that any entering by it can easily approach the place of the sacred dust, and through the open hole in the wheel may take up in their outstretched hands some particles of the sacred dust.

Thus the narrative of our Arculf as to the footprints of the Lord quite accords with the writings of others–to the effect that they could not be covered in any way, whether by the roof of the house or by any special lower and closer covering, so that they can always be seen by all that enter, and the marks of the feet of the Lord can be clearly seen depicted in the dust of that place. For these footprints of the Lord are lighted by the brightness of an immense lamp hanging on pulleys above that cylinder in the church, and burning day and night. Further in the western side of the round church we have mentioned above, twice four windows have been formed high up with glazed shutters, and in these windows there burn as many lamps placed opposite them, within and close to them. These lamps hang in chains, and are so placed that each lamp may hang neither higher nor lower, but may be seen, as it were, fixed to its own window, opposite and close to which it is specially seen. The brightness of these lamps is so great that, as their light is copiously poured through the glass from the summit of the Mountain of Olivet, not only is the part of the mountain nearest the round basilica to the west illuminated, but also the lofty path which rises by steps up to the city of Jerusalem from the Valley of Josaphat, is clearly illuminated in a wonderful manner, even on dark nights, while the greater part of the city that lies nearest at hand on the opposite side is similarly illuminated by the same brightness. The effect of this brilliant and admirable coruscation of the eight great lamps shining by night from the holy mountain and from the site of the Lord’s ascension, as Arculf related, is to pour into the hearts of the believing onlookers a greater eagerness of the Divine love, and to strike the mind with a certain fear along with vast inward compunction.

This also Arculf related to me about the same round church: That on the anniversary of the Lord’s Ascension, at mid-day, after the solemnities of the Mass have been celebrated in that basilica, a most violent tempest of wind comes on regularly every year, so that no one can stand or sit in that church or in the neighbouring places, but all lie prostrate in prayer with their faces in the ground until that terrible tempest has passed.

The result of this terrific blast is that that part of the house cannot be vaulted over; so that above the spot where the footsteps of the Lord are impressed and are clearly shown, within the opening in the centre of the above-named cylinder, the way always appears open to heaven. For the blast of the above-mentioned wind destroyed, in accordance with the Divine will, whatever materials had been gathered for preparing a vault above it, if any human art made the attempt.

This account of this dreadful storm was given to us by the sainted Arculf, who was himself present in that Church of Mount Olivet at the very hour of the day of the Lord’s Ascension when that fierce storm arose. A drawing of this round church is shown below, however unworthily it may have been drawn; while the form of the brass cylinder is also shown placed in the middle of the church.

This also we learned from the narrative of the sainted Arculf: That in that round church, besides the usual light of the eight lamps mentioned above as shining within the church by night, there are usually added on the night of the Lord’s Ascension almost innumerable other lamps, which by their terrible and admirable brightness, poured abundantly through the glass of the windows, not only illuminate the Mount of Olivet, but make it seem to be wholly on fire; while the whole city and the places in the neighbourhood are also lit up.

Excerpts by St Adamnan of Iona of the description of the Imbomon Church at the peak of the Mount of Olives, site of the Lord’s Ascension, written by a certain Bishop Arculf, who visited Jerusalem, who also drew the original of the above diagram circa 670 AD. A translation of all the excerpts from Arculf is here. The reconstruction plan is from Jerome Murphy O’Connor, The Holy Land: And Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 124. I’ve rotated both images, so that north is to the top. The dashed octogon in the reconstruction drawing indicates the outline of the currently standing dome illustrated below.

Such was the beauty of the ancient Imbomon Church. The victory of the Muslim Saladin led to the church being transferred to the ownership of some of his retainers, who stripped it of its beauty, covered it with a dome and added a mihrab to the south wall (visible in the interior photo), making it a mosque, which it is to this day, unfortunately. The following pictures date to between 1900 and 1920, and are from the online Library of Congress collection of the Matson Photo Archives.

Thou hast ascended in glory, O Christ our God, and gladdened Thy disciples with the promise of the Holy Spirit; and they were assured by the blessing that Thou art the Son of God and Redeemer of the world.

Troparion, fourth tone, for the Feast of the Ascension of the Lord

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More on Nimrud Treasure Photos

Several months ago I posted on the extraordinary photographs of the Iraqi Museum treasures hidden in the flooded bank vault. Please see there for a link to the presentation. Photographer Noreen Feeney has commented. For those of you who have been keeping up more recently with well-illustrated introductions to Mesopotamian art, I was hoping that you could recommend a book or two for Noreen that would describe for her what were the items that she photographed. She didn’t know what they were, their ages, their importance, or any of that information which some of us take for granted, yet look at the amazing, indeed almost loving, attention that she paid the artifacts in her detailed photography, hands-down better than any photography of the items in history. So, if anyone can help out by recommending some well-illustrated books, please leave some titles for Noreen in the comments here or there at the older post. I recommended Pritchard’s ANEP, but that’s only black and white, and quite dated, though it should cover all or most of the Sumerian items and give at least a bare-bones idea of what they were. Something better than that would be more appropriate, I think.

As a note of appreciation in the very least, for her participation in documenting the rescue of all these precious items, it’s the least we can do. Thanks again, Noreen!

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Nimrud Treasures

There’s a stunning set of photos of the Nimrud treasures on the Iraq Museum website. In the left column, under Exhibitions, click The Secret of Nimrud. The first seven sections (347 photos!) cover the opening of the flooded bank vault in which these and other treasures (including the gold helmet of Meskalamdug, and the headdress of one of the “female attendants,” and at least one of the gold bull’s head harp decorations, all found in Ur) were hidden, and which are shown being unpacked from sodden crates. Sections 8 and 9 show the items cleaned and on display in the museum. All should be thankful for the beautiful photography of Noreen Feeney, especially in her extreme closeups, showing us in unprecedented detail the extraordinary Nimrud finds, especially. Wow!

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Thoughts on the Tel Zayit abecedary

Or should that be abgad? Nevertheless, there is an obvious interest in this building stone from Tel Zayit, now playing at a blog near you. While the importance of finding any literate inscription from the ancient world is a cause for celebration, I’d like to state my reasons for caution in making any conclusions regarding this particular inscription vis-à-vis biblical historiography.

1.) Regarding the skill of the writer:
I don’t see that anyone should deny that this was written by a scribe, whether a newly trained one or one of hoary experience. Throughout the history of writing in the ancient near east, we know that scribes did the overwhelmingly majority of all writing. However, this particular inscription appears to be scratched onto a stone with a completely unprepared surface. You try scratching, with a bronze or iron stylus, a modern alphabet into rock like that and see how far you get without slips, mistakes, and a result that resembles much more the scrawl of a juvenile scribal pupil than your typical (hopefully) elegant penmanship.

2.) Regarding the purpose of the inscription:
Now, if my understanding of the reportage of the find is correct, the stone was inscribed prior to its placement in the wall, as the entire inscription was not able to be read in that location. In the wall above this inscribed stone was another non-native stone of onyx. These were situated so as to be opposite the entrance to a room, the function of which is indeterminate. I think the only two conclusions possible to draw from this placement of two unusual stones in one prominent place is that they are there for either a.) apotropaic, or b.) decorative. For case a.), the apotropaic usage, those placing the stone there may have seen the inscription and recognized it as writing, but not known what it said, if they were illiterate, and perhaps dealt with it as a kind of amulet, displaying a somewhat primitive awe of writing. I find that more likely than that an abecedary was considered apotropaic. For case b.), the decorative, well, interesting scribbles on rocks can be decorative, I suppose. A big chunk of onyx in the wall sounds rather nice. But again, this doesn’t sound as though it indicates literacy on the part of the people who placed the stone in the wall. For my part, I consider the abecedary inscription on the rock to have possibly been scribal practice, perhaps practicing to do an inscription on some similar stone, now lost. Certainly a 40 pound stone is not a very practical practice tablet for scribal teacher or student! This stone, found on the site by an illiterate builder, undoubtedly generated enough interest for it to be considered as striking as the chunk of onyx above.

3.) Phoenician or Hebrew?
Here lies the crux, and the great interest in the inscription. The answer can come from two directions: paleography or archaeology.
a.) Paleography: To be perfectly honest, I think that we need a greater selection of data for comparison, a greater selection which has simply not been discovered yet, indeed may never be discovered due to preservation issues. This especially in the case of earliest Hebrew, and how it diverges from the more northern Phoenician, and how specifically it would differ from southern, strictly Canaanite (southern coastal Palestinian) inscriptional letter forms (of which I recall none, though I hope someone will correct me, if I’m wrong on that). This Tel Zayit inscription (if Hebrew), the Gezer calendar, and the Izbet Sartah inscription do not appear to be in a trained hand. Using them as paleographical reference points (even as nice as the Gezer calendar hand is) doesn’t seem as wise as using something clearly done by a full-fledged professional scribe under ideal conditions, like the Ahirom of Byblos sarcophagus or the Mesha of Moab stele. It’s all unfortunately to our loss that the scribes of Canaan and Israel appear to have favored papyrus over clay for their documentation, as the majority of the exemplars from which a truly representative set of data could’ve been found.
b.) Archaeology: From the reportage, apparently there’s evidence of a change in material culture with the particular layer of occupation to which the building with this inscription is assigned. The earlier layers indicate connections with the coast, while the inscription building’s layer displays connections to the hills. That’s quite interesting. At this point, I have more questions at this point than suggestions. Is the site large enough to have had the resources to be considered strong enough to have made such switches of allegiance on its own terms? If not, is it not logical that either a coalition of eastern towns or a larger eastern city took it from under the hegemony of a coastal coalition or city? (That is, after all, the former, and some would argue current, way of the world.) Does such a change of culture indicate or require an ethnic change? How clear is the connection to hill country and the difference from coastal? Could it be, after all is said and done, that the two lines of evidence, paleographical and archaeological, reinforce one another in this hill country connection, a hill country which we probably have seen called Israel prior to this time (in Merneptah’s stele; I say “probably” because the precise location is debatable, though Chris very well describes the standard reading and possibilities), and know is called Israel from later inscriptions (Mesha’s stele, the Tel Dan stele) and the descendants of that culture’s own writings?

Beyond all of this and the initial excitement and all the flutter, I await full and exhaustive publication. No doubt several of my questions/objections will be answered, and those of others. All talk of “nail in the coffin” seems really quite premature.

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