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Archeology politicization common in Mideast

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Dan Bahat [Paul Lungen photo]

TORONTO — Zionists have been accused of politicizing archeology, but that critique is hardly unique to the Jews, according to a prominent Israeli archeologist teaching in Toronto.

Archeology is “a very political science,” acknowledged Dan Bahat, who is teaching several courses as a visiting professor at the University of Toronto. “Everyone wants to show his sources in the country and uses archeology as an excuse.” Criticism of that practice, often levelled at Jews digging in Israel, is just as applicable to Egypt and Turkey, as those governments attempt to solidify their attachment to the land, he said.

Bahat is a distinguished and colourful archeologist with a particular interest in Jerusalem. He excavated the Western Wall tunnel that runs 1,600 feet alongside the ancient Jewish temple’s retaining wall. He recently presented the first annual memorial lecture for Larry Levenstein at the Shaarei Shomayim synagogue on the subject of archeology and Zionism. Levenstein was an ancient Judaica and archeology buff.

Bahat suggested the governments of Egypt and Turkey use archeology to give them greater legitimacy and link them to ancient inhabitants of the land. Contemporary Turkish archeologists are excavating Hittite sites, but the Hittites were an Indo-European people who create an empire in the Bronze Age, about 4,000 years ago. The modern inhabitants of Turkey have no ethnic or linguistic connection to the Hittites, Bahat said.

They originated in the steppes of Asia – today’s Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. The Turkish invasion of modern day Turkey is well documented, going back to the Seljuks in the 11th century and the Ottomans a few hundred years later.

In Egypt, the government attempts to draw connections between current residents and the people of Pharaonic Egypt, Bahat said.

“But today’s Egyptians are not descendants of Pharaonic Egypt. Those are the Copts, and I don’t have to tell you what they’re doing to the Copts,” he said.

The politicization of archeology and ancient history was a tactic undertaken by Yasser Arafat, Bahat continued. He made the “childish” claim that Palestinians were descendants of the Canaanites. Post-Oslo, the Palestinians staged a performance in Samaria claiming they were returning home. “It was a nice Purim,” he said with derision.

In neighbouring Jordan and Syria, the biblical Moab, Western archeologists have been asked by local authorities not to refer their findings to the Bible, he said.

“Zionists also use archeology as a tool right to today,” he said. “Every synagogue, ritual bath we discovered is important for us. To this very day every Israeli archeologist wants to find a new synagogue in his lifetime.”

Bahat accomplished the feat in 1972, when he unearthed a house of prayer in Beit Shean. He also found evidence that a passage in the Gemarah, part of the Talmud, was corroborated in ancient stone.

The Gemarah, he said, asserts that people from Beit Shean, Tivon and other communities should not be called to read the Torah, as they cannot distinguish between the Hebrew letters aleph and ayin, and heh and chet.

“That’s what I found in an inscription there,” he said. The letters were mixed up and used improperly.

Bahat, who served as chief archeologist of the Jerusalem Region for the Israel Antiquities Authority, said excavations in Jerusalem can be traced back to the 19th century, but Jews didn’t join the effort until just before World War I. “Intellectual Jews from France decided Jews should dig the place,” he said. “The result was an excavation initiated by French Jews and for the work they took Raymond Weill, financed by Baron Rothschild.”

The results were an impressive list of findings, including Hezekiah’s tunnel and other water installations, “possibly royal tombs of the Davidic dynasty and …a lot of excavations showing a Jewish connection to the city.”

Archeology continues in Jerusalem with “a lot of excavations” demonstrating a Jewish connection to the city.

“Today,” he continued, “we are completely objective and we dig with the same joy an Arab monument as a Christian or Jewish monument.”

Why the change? “It started with the foundations of the state, because we achieved what we wanted.”

A statement by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, calling Israel the land of Mohammad and Jesus and denying Jews’ ancient ties “are part of their effort to deny the Jewish rights to the country,” Bahat said.

However, recent finds just add to the evidence of an ancient Jewish presence. A drainage ditch has been found dating back to Herodian times (2,000 years ago) along with cisterns that go back to the First Temple Period (3,000-2,500 years ago).

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