Virtual Walking Tour of Temple Mount

Some months ago I learned about a new Virtual Walking Tour of al-Haram al-Sharif (the Temple Mount), but being short of time, I filed it for later.  Today seems to be a slow news day and so I started it up and enjoyed the tour.  It is excellent.

Created by Saudi Aramco World, the tour focuses on the present Muslim structures at the site, but it does not deny the previous existence of the two Jewish temples.

The tour begins with a five-minute narrated introduction (which you can skip) and then includes 32 360-degree panoramic views, each of which is explained both by an audio recording and a written transcript.

The visitor starts with two views of the Temple Mount from the east and west before surveying the grounds of the complex with approximately 18 more scenes.  A particularly unique image is #25, taken atop Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Tourists to Israel today can see most of these views if they visit during the open hours of the Temple Mount (approximately Sun-Thurs, 7:30-10:00 am, 12:30-1:30 pm), but since 2000 the holy buildings have been closed to non-Muslims.  Thus the images inside the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque will be especially appreciated by those who have been denied entrance.

A couple of practical comments: 1) You can turn the audio off and read the text; 2) the full-screen view is very high quality, but may be slow on your internet connection; 3) to get “inside” the Dome of the Rock, select #8 and new options will become available; 4) to get “inside” Al-Aqsa Mosque, select #26.

The creators did a fantastic job with this.  The photography is superb, the narration is helpful, and the location is one of the most religiously (and politically) important in the world.

Dome of Rock from southwest, tb122006949dxo2 Dome of the Rock from southwest

Drawing Israel’s Borders

The Jerusalem Post has an interesting article on the modern map of Israel and the man in charge.

Most Israelis and Jordanians are probably unaware that the border between their countries isn’t really fixed. The boundary runs directly through the center of the Jordan River, but should the river naturally change its course, so too will the border. It is one of many secrets held by Dr. Haim Srebro, director-general of the Survey of Israel center. For decades, Srebro has been working to give the State of Israel its final borders. When the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan were signed, Srebro and his Arab counterparts worked behind the scenes, away from the limelight and photo-ops of leaders shaking hands, to draw up some of the Middle East’s best-known frontiers. "The Jordan River is constantly changing. If it alters its route naturally, according to our agreement with the Jordanians, we recognize the change. But if the river is redirected artificially and suddenly, the border remains fixed," he said this week, speaking from his spacious office at the Survey of Israel’s Tel Aviv headquarters…. Jordan is now working to develop a $27 million complex in Aqaba, complete with hotels and lagoons, funded largely by investment from the Gulf states. The proximity of the development to the Israeli border means that Srebro and Sagarat have had to be called in for advice. "The border fence isn’t actually on the border. It’s on Israel’s side, meaning that the Jordanians could have crossed into Israel without knowing it. That’s why they are now building a border fence on their side, too," Srebro explained. During the 1979 peace negotiations with Egypt, Srebro employed the cutting edge technique of using bridged straight aerial photographs (known as orthophotos) to draw up a new border between the countries following Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula. "I told the Egyptians, we’ll do something together. Let’s set up a committee, so that you can check on us and we’ll check on you," Srebro recalled. At first, the Americans, who were brokering the talks, handed both sides an abstract map of the new proposed border, but Srebro said the map, which lacked any physical features, was useless. "For the first time in a peace treaty, aerial photographs were used to plan a border," he said. The Egyptians were so pleased with the result that they sent Srebro a statue of Nefertiti to thank him.

The complete article is here.


The Petra of Saudi Arabia

Madain Saleh is a beautiful Nabatean site that few know about because of restrictions from the Saudi Arabian government.  The AP has a good article about it, and you can see some beautiful photos at

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Much of the world knows Petra, the ancient ruin in modern-day Jordan that is celebrated in poetry as “the rose-red city, ‘half as old as time,'” and which provided the climactic backdrop for “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”
But far fewer know Madain Saleh, a similarly spectacular treasure built by the same civilization, the Nabateans.
That’s because it’s in Saudi Arabia, where conservatives are deeply hostile to pagan, Jewish and Christian sites that predate the founding of Islam in the 7th century.
But now, in a quiet but notable change of course, the kingdom has opened up an archaeology boom by allowing Saudi and foreign archaeologists to explore cities and trade routes long lost in the desert.
The sensitivities run deep. Archaeologists are cautioned not to talk about pre-Islamic finds outside scholarly literature. Few ancient treasures are on display, and no Christian or Jewish relics. A 4th or 5th century church in eastern Saudi Arabia has been fenced off ever since its accidental discovery 20 years ago and its exact whereabouts kept secret.
In the eyes of conservatives, the land where Islam was founded and the Prophet Muhammad was born must remain purely Muslim. Saudi Arabia bans public displays of crosses and churches, and whenever non-Islamic artifacts are excavated, the news must be kept low-key lest hard-liners destroy the finds.

The rest of the article is here.

HT: Agade via Joe Lauer


Proto-Sinaitic Inscription Found at Timna

Stonewatch/Arad Academy e.V. has announced the discovery of a proto-Sinaitic inscription in Timna, Israel, about 20 miles north of Eilat.  The press release, via ANE-2:

The engraving, measuring ca. 12 x 16 cm, was found by "Stonewatch / Arad Academy e.V.", an institution based in Germany, that has been conducting surveys of rock art in Timna and worldwide for many years ( Dr. Stefan Jakob Wimmer, an Egyptologist and ANE epigraphist at the University of Munich – who is not related to Stonewatch – is studying the engraving and working on a scholarly publication. He has preliminarily suggested to identify the writing as Proto Sinaitic: "… The right oval shows signs that are identical with characters of the Proto-Sinaitic script, and can in my view quite easily be read as a West Semitic personal name. In the left oval several signs will need more consideration. Some features of the inscription are especially remarkable: The suggested personal name in the right oval ends with the sign of a seated man. The adoption of a personal determinative has to my knowledge not been observed in other PS inscriptions, but is easily conceivable and should by no means contradict the identification of the inscription as PS. The upper character in the left oval could in my view be a variant of the image of the sun with two uraei protruding on either side, reduced to the uraei, and may shed light on a roughly similar sign in the Wadi el-Hol inscriptions. It will have to be examined if the oblong frames were inspired by cartouches. As an alternative one might think of stylised footprints…. The constellation of Egyptians and Semites in the context of mining activities is attested at two places: Serabit el-Khadim/Sinai, where almost all PS inscriptions were found (with the only exception until now of Wadi el-Hol near Luxor), and Timna. … The importance of the discovery of this inscription – if indeed Proto-Sinaitic – is obviously considerable. It is hoped that its common ground with the inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadim, and also Wadi el-Hol, and even more its new, variant features, may substantially contribute to the study of the early alphabet." We can add that the location of the inscription (which will not be disclosed until the necessary measures to protect the engraving from vandalism have been taken) corroborates a connection with the Egyptian copper mining activities at Timna. It is not, however, in close vicinity to the Hathor sanctuary. The possibility of a modern "hoax" can safely be excluded due to clear signs of erosion and the identical colour (patina) of the grooves with the stone surface. For more rock art from Timna including what may be other examples of yet undiciphered inscriptions, go to our free downloads: (Catalogue of Rock Art in Southern Israel Timna Valley) Josef Otto
Stonewatch / Arad Academy e.V.

A photograph is available at


Capernaum Synagogue, Then and Now

Today visitors to Capernaum are impressed by the white limestone remains of an ancient synagogue. 

Archaeological excavations indicate that this synagogue was built over the remains of an earlier synagogue dating from the time of Jesus.  Thus we can say with some measure of confidence that this is the place where Jesus healed the demon-possessed man (Mark 1:21-28) and preached the sermon on the bread of life (John 6:25-59).

Capernaum synagogue from Peter's house, tb060105618

Capernaum synagogue, view from Peter’s house, present day

Visitors may not be aware that the synagogue did not survive in this condition since ancient times. 

The photograph below shows what the synagogue looked like in the early 1900s.  The staircase in the foreground of the photo below is on the far right (middle) of the photo above.

Capernaum, ruins of synagogue, mat10654sr

Capernaum synagogue, early 1900s

The second photograph is one of 600 high-resolution images in the new Northern Palestine CD, volume 1 of The American Colony and Eric Matson Collection. Photo: Library of Congress, LC-matpc-10654.


Israeli PM Visits Palestine Exploration Fund Offices

The ground-breaking work of the Palestine Exploration Fund in the 1800s continues to be a most useful source of information to scholars today.  I mentioned recently the online availability of many of the volumes of the Survey of Western Palestine, and a few years ago I created an electronic version of the Survey of Western Palestine Maps.  But the Palestine Exploration Fund archives contain much that has never been published, and yesterday Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the offices in London.  From the Jerusalem Post:

Netanyahu, who mentioned the visit during his press conference with Brown, waxed poetic about it at a briefing with Israeli reporters, enthusing over the organization’s collection of maps, pictures and documents of Palestine dating back to the mid-19th century. "This is a treasure, it is something you all must see," he told reporters, as he kept returning to the subject and talking about the archival information there, and about the knowledge of the geography and topography of pre-state Israel housed in that building. The PEF was founded in 1865 and is the oldest organization in the world created specifically for the study of the Levant, the southern portion of which – as the organization’s literature makes clear – was conventionally known as "Palestine." The organization publishes an internationally respected journal, the Palestine Exploration Quarterly, and brings the latest archaeological findings and research to the public in a series of regular lectures. The PEF archives houses some 40,000 photographs of Palestine, Jordan and Syria dating as far back as 1850, and also includes archaeological artifacts, natural history specimens, maps, manuscripts and paintings.

The full article is here, and the website of the Palestine Exploration Fund is here.


Alexander the Great Carving Found at Dor

From Arutz-7:

Excavations in Tel Dor have turned up a rare and unexpected work of Hellenistic art: a precious stone bearing the miniature carved likeness of Alexander the Great. Archaeologists are calling it an important find, indicating the great skill of the artist.
The Tel Dor dig, under the guidance and direction of Dr. Ayelet Gilboa of Haifa University and Dr. Ilan Sharon of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, has just ended its summer excavation season. For more than 30 years, scientists have been excavating in Tel Dor, identified as the site of the Biblical town of Dor. The town’s location, on Israel’s Mediterranean Sea coast some 30 kilometers south of Haifa, made it an important international port in ancient times.
“Despite the tiny proportions – the length of the gemstone (gemma) is less than a centimeter and its width less than half a centimeter – the artist was able to carve the image of Alexander of Macedon with all of his features,” Dr. Gilboa said. “The king appears as young and energetic, with a sharp chin and straight nose, and with long, curly hair held in a crown.”

The full article is here and includes a small photo.

UPDATE: Joe Lauer sends along direct links to two beautiful photos:

  • Tel Dor, aerial view at the end of the 2009 excavation season
  • The gem of Alexander the Great, photographed using binocolor

New Moody Atlas

Another excellent atlas has been revised and is due out October 1 of this year.  The second edition of Barry Beitzel’s work is entitled The New Moody Atlas of the Bible and, according to the description, its “one hundred thousand words provide useful commentary for more than ninety detailed maps of Palestine, the Mediterranean, the Near East, the Sinai, and Turkey.”  I have long used the first edition of this atlas as required preparatory reading for seminary courses in Israel.  To give but one example, Beitzel’s discussion of climate in the Holy Land is excellent. 

Since I mentioned the cover photos on another atlas recently, I’ll say here that I like two of the three images selected.  The Capernaum synagogue and the Caesarea aqueduct are not only interesting visually, but they have a connection to the biblical record.  My preference would be to avoid shots, especially close-ups, of the Dome of the Rock on the cover of a book about the Bible.  But I understand why design artists are attracted to it.


The Copper Scroll, Code Cracked?

The Copper Scroll is certainly one of the most intriguing of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  The only text inscribed on two copper sheets, it lists the location of sixty treasures apparently in Judah in the period before the First Jewish Revolt in A.D. 70.  Many scholars believe that the list is authentic, but despite numerous efforts of the years no one has ever found any of the treasure.

The Jerusalem Post reports on an Oklahoma fire marshal named Jim Barfield who believes that he knows the location of not just one or two hiding places, but 56 of them.

After looking at the scroll for five minutes he deciphered the first location, and twenty minutes later he identified the next four locations. He and his wife took their first trip to Israel to confirm whether the sites and places that he had identified actually existed. “I wanted to make sure I wasn’t just imagining things,” Barfield said. It took six months for Barfield to crack the code for the rest of the locations.

This guy is pretty good.  He was able to figure out the locations without ever being to Israel, without knowing the language that the inscription is written in, and without having any background in archaeology or geography.

It’s nice to know what others think about his discovery:

He says that all of the archaeologists, rabbis, and historians presented with his research have been convinced. “It is so simple.” He says. “They just all thump their heads.”

Unfortunately, we only get it in Barfield’s words.

I don’t know enough to say that this guy is a fraud, only that he sounds like one.  If he actually has found something, he should go dig it out and then report on it.  But if he’s a publicity hound, I can write the script for the next few years: initial attempts will be stymied by various obstacles, during which time he’ll do many interviews and attempt to raise lots of money.  When he finally digs at one of his spots, he’ll find nothing – no treasure and no indication that any treasure was ever hidden there.  He’ll claim that it was stolen in antiquity (another round of interviews and appeals for cash) and start planning for a second excavation.  Efforts to dig will be hindered by various obstacles, during which time he’ll do many interviews and attempt to raise lots of money.  Etc.

The article itself is worth reading as it provides interesting and accurate information about the Copper Scroll.  You can find an introduction to and translation of the scroll in Florentino Garcia Martinez, The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated, 2nd ed., pages 459-63.  An excellent reference is the Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls (2 volumes).


Ein Harod, Then and Now

This is the first in what I plan to be an extended series of blog posts illustrating the value of historic photos using examples from The American Colony and Eric Matson Collection.  I’ve written much elsewhere about how the biblical lands have been altered in the last 100 years, but there’s no better way to illustrate this than with photographs.

A good example of how the land has changed in the last hundred years is Ein Harod, also known as Gideon’s spring.  Here the timid warrior gathered thousands of Israelites to fight the Midianites, but the Lord gave him a plan to sift the men by separating the lappers from the kneelers (Judges 7). 

Today the spring has been nicely “improved” so that it’s very difficult to understand how such a selecting procedure would have occurred.

Ein Harod spring cave, tb011400101srEin Harod spring cave, present day
(Source: Pictorial Library of Bible Lands)

One hundred years ago, there was no fence to keep tourists out and no paving stones to walk across.  Not only that, the flow of the spring has apparently been greatly diminished because of modern wells in the area.  It is likely that the way the spring looked like in A.D. 1900 is the way that it looked in 1100 B.C. when Gideon brought his men here.

Ein Harod, Gideon's Fountain, mat01077 Ein Harod, 1900-1920

George Adam Smith described it this way: “It bursts some fifteen feet broad and two deep from the very foot of Gilboa, and mainly out of it, but fed also by the other two springs, flows a stream considerable enough to work six or seven mills” (Historical Geography of the Holy Land [1909]: 397-98).

This is one of 600 high-resolution photographs in the new Northern Palestine CD, volume 1 of The American Colony and Eric Matson Collection. Photo: Library of Congress, LC-matpc-01077.