CHAPTER FIVE: An Israelite with Guile
In the wake of a Hamas attack on his home in Gaza, Sadiq Hadassah joined the ranks of a radical orthodox movement in his native Israel. His parents, siblings and a grandmother had all been reduced to casualty statistics of the massacre. His wife of only a few months also sustained serious and life-threatening injuries, and rather than celebrating his first year of marriage with the blessed birth of a son, he instead spent it sitting shiva, mourning yet two more losses: his beloved Miriam and their unborn child.
Since then, out of work and out of sorts, he’d found solace within the confines of the Sons of Zion, zealous followers of Menachem ben Schlomo. Rabbi Schlomo did not believe that the secular Israeli government represented true or biblical Israel. He considered the Zionist movement a hopelessly compromised mess. Brokering land for peace was folly. True Jews, he espoused, knew that there’d be no peace in the region until Messiah returned. Until that time, they, the true Jews, would stand as sentinels of the land, protecting the holy territory and the biblical prerogatives of their ancestors at any cost, including violence and death.
An orphaned, disillusioned Sadiq had found first comfort and then purpose in the person and teachings of Rabbi Schlomo. At the rabbi’s urging, he began keeping an eye on the plethora of archaeological sites in the region. Observing escalated to policing then stalking. Distrust grew to anger against anyone he perceived to be desecrating Israel and her heritage. On a few occasions he anonymously contacted the IAA with reports of theft. He dutifully reported back to the Sons of Zion who, in turn, gave Sadiq all the moral support and encouragement he needed for his spying operations. He was only instructed to be discreet, to operate with a certain amount of savvy and guile.
His hatred of Palestinians had long ago spilled over to encompass any non-Jew--any non-orthodox Israeli Jew, really. Grace Levine was a case in point. What self-respecting Jewish woman would think she could speak to any man, let alone a rabbi, with such brazenness? And tousling those wild curls about for all to see! He realized that not all Jewish women covered their hair these days, reserving it only for the eyes of their husbands, but, he assured himself, no man of any merit would deign to call her wife. Before he could lose himself in memories of his Miriam’s own black ringlets, he turned his thoughts to his ever-growing roster of suspicious characters.
Ever since the James ossuary debacle, involving some prominent Jewish antiquities collectors as well as dealers, collectors and foreign archaeologists had headed his list. This week, Dr. Art West and Dr. Patrick Stone topped his hit parade —apparently with just cause. Just before joining the Sons of Zion on Ben Yehuda Street, he’d tailed Stone to a mound in Bethany. It was high time he returned to the site to see what havoc the little man had wrought.
CHAPTER SIX: Facing the Artifacts---Easy Come, Easy Go
From the looks of things, Sammy Cohen’s office could have been easily mistaken for that of an American CPA mid-tax season. Filtered by the parchment-colored roller shades, the midday sun added a soft luminescence to the troupes of dust mites dancing in the air. The low hum of the window unit air conditioner did little to disperse the heat, but a fan was out of the question—years of files and reports stood in precarious piles throughout the room, many topped with replicas of ancient scrolls and original artifacts. To an untrained eye, the office could have qualified for national disaster relief. To Sammy, it represented more than twenty years of dedication to the preservation of Israeli history. He knew the contents of each stack, so what did it matter how it looked?
In anticipation of the noon meeting, he methodically reassigned positions to the files inhabiting the chairs around the chipped Formica conference table. Balancing the last file on a new pyramid, he looked up to see the doorway filled by his friend Art West. Setting his camera, notebook and file down on the first flat surface he could find, the American came forward to pull the Israeli official into a bear hug. Before they could even begin their litany of pleasantries, a voice piped up from behind. “And where’s my hug? Don’t I rate anymore?” Art turned to embrace Grace in a more gentle squeeze just as she threw a playful right fist into his arm. “What happened this morning? We said ten o’clock at Sarah’s right?”
“We did. We did. And if I hadn’t been sealed in a tomb I’d have been there!”
“Arthur West. I’ve heard a lot of wonderful stories come out of that mouth of yours, but really, you expect me to fall for that version of the “dog ate my homework”?
“Grace, really, I—,”Art’s explanation was interrupted by Sammy.
“Grace, my dear, wonderful to see you too!” diffused the Director, motioning to the conference table and chairs. “Art’s had quite a morning; let the man tell his tale!”
Art dashingly reached the table in time to ease out a chair for Grace. She could hold her own with the most chauvinist of men, but he also knew she secretly loved chivalry. She flashed him a grin. “It’ll take a lot more than “coats over puddles” to get back in my good graces.”
Art grinned back. “Would a little Turkish Delight pave the way at all, ma’am?”
“Ahem, children. Do I need to sit between you?” Sammy interrupted again. “Art, let’s have it.”
Removing the photos from the file, Art’s heart began to race. He carefully laid all ten on the table for his friends to see. “I took these this morning, on the property of the Church of Mary and Martha.” He gestured toward the first few. “Here you see the inside of the chamber. And here, notice the niche. Now,” he gestured toward a third image, “note the ossuary in the niche and the inscription above.” Fighting to keep from sounding like a toddler on Christmas, he pushed three more pictures towards Grace, “How would you, Dr. Levine, translate the Aramaic?”
Unfolding her red reading glasses onto the bridge of her nose, she examined each of the three close-ups before translating aloud, “Twice dead under Pilate, twice reborn in Jesus in sure hope of resurrection” she confirmed.
“That’s how I read it, before the lights went out!” agreed Art. “Now, look closely at the letters etched on the end of the ossuary.”
Grace shared the three photos with Sammy. “Eliezar son of Simon” she declared. “This is a pretty ordinary ossuary inscription, Art, nothing particularly of note...unless...” The light began to dawn. “Unless you think this refers to the Lazarus!”
Art could only respond with raised eyebrows and a somewhat goofy grin. He wanted to see her go the rest of the distance.
“And if it is the Lazarus, that would make this ossuary, this tomb, a tangible, certifiable, outside-the-Scriptures reference to the idea of resurrection!” she finished triumphantly.
“Almost. A slight correction, if I may, your esteemed professorship. This would actually be our earliest attestation not of the idea of resurrection, but of the actuality of it. But we can save the textual nuances for later!” he teased. “First we’ll need to do the usual testing—date the inscription, determine that the lettering is of the same hand as that on the box, carbon date the whole lot, but knowing what we do about the practice of using ossuaries in this region, this has got to predate AD 70, wouldn’t you agree?”
Sammy, who until now had kept his silence, moaned. “The James ossuary didn’t give us enough headaches? And now this? What’s next? Jesus’ burial clothes?”
“Actually, we may be off the hook there. Remember the Shroud of Turin?” Art sheepishly suggested.
Stifling a snort, Sammy dismissed the idea. “Everyone knows that shroud didn’t carbon date to the first century! Enough. Resurrection or no resurrection, you’ve certainly got something here Art.”
Art protested “Well actually last week there was a new study showing that the carbon 14 dating had been bungled because what was tested was a medieval patch sown on the Shroud after the medieval fire, not the original cloth, but….”
Sammy interrupted. “Enough already, one proof of resurrection at a time! We’d better head up to Bethany now — I only sent a preliminary team when you called earlier.”
“Grace, you’ll join us, no?” entreated Sammy.
“Wouldn’t miss this for all the coffee at Sarah’s.” She threw a wink at Art. “Sammy you’ll ring Moshe with the request for security? What about the lab team? How soon do we want them up there?”
Sammy sighed. The IAA team was replete with type A personalities. “Grace, dear, we’ve been through this drill more than few times. You and Art catch up for a bit, and I’ll make the necessary calls.”
“Before you pick up the phone Sammy, you need to hear this part too. I wasn’t joking, Grace, when I said someone sealed me in a tomb this morning. Someone besides Mustafa el Din, the caretaker there, knew I was digging, knew I’d dropped into the mound. No sooner had I translated the inscription than they dragged or pushed a boulder over the opening. Mustafa saved my life this morning. Literally. I think we need to exercise more caution than usual this time around.”
Grace’s eyes lost some of their laughter and she immediately regretted having given him such a hard time for standing her up. “Art. I had no idea. You know—“
“Grace, relax. I expect nothing less than a good ribbing from you. Thank God, I’m fine. No blood, no foul.” He turned back to Sammy. “So what next, Boss?” He knew the Director could get frustrated as the number of cooks in the kitchen grew, as it did with any discovery. “Got a plan?”
“I will by three. Let’s meet in the lobby at half past two. And I too thank God for your safe egress from the tomb.”
Leaving Sammy to orchestrate the particulars, Art and Grace headed across the street for a quick cup of coffee. He could hear their animated chatter trailing off into the distance as they departed.
CHAPTER SEVEN: THE ARTIFACTS, AND THE ART OF LYING
Kahlil el Asad was an imposing figure. For a start he looked like Omar Sharif with his mustache and big smile, and beautiful olive complexion. For another thing he was 6'3" and had a huge booming voice. Last but not least he was as gregarious as one could imagine. He treated all persons with respect and kindness and so cut quite a figure as a man and as a salesman. He was a Sufi Moslem, a mystic of sorts, and loved the writings of the Egyptian author Mahfouz, and also the Lebanese prophet for whom he was named– Kahlil Gibran.
Largely self taught, though as a boy he had attended a British school in Jerusalem, Kahlil had developed a great love for history and antiquities over the years and had been apprenticed to one of the best Mahmoud Sadat, when he was only a teenager. He had learned to develop a good critical eye when it came to discerning the difference between a clever forgery and a real piece of antiquity.
Asad had earned a reputation with all as a fair trader and an honest man, which was increasingly rare in the antiquities business. He had contacts all over the Middle East, and Moslems, Christians, and Jews all traded with him. As Israeli Law required, he kept a scrupulous log of all he had in his shop, which sat about 200 yards from the Damascus or west gate into the old city of Jerusalem. Kahlil, now some 68 years old but as vigorous as a man half his age, was a widower, and his only child Hannah now 40 something helped him run his shop. All in all, he was quite satisfied with his life.
On this morning he had been in a mood to tease his daughter a bit, so when she had asked “Father, how is it with you on this day?” He had replied using the old Islamic proverb: “Today is much the same as yesterday, only more so.” She laughed out loud, but quickly covered her mouth, since that was not consider appropriate behavior for a Moslem woman in public.
Kahlil could tell it was going to be a hot day and so he had stocked his small refrigerator with his favorite fruit juices, particularly Haifa orange juice. He would have a smoke on his water pipe in the afternoon after prayers. Today was a good day to sit quietly in the shop and take inventory. Kahlil’s antiquities shop sold all sorts of artifacts, but he specialized in stone objects and coins, unlike many other shops which focused on clay pots of various sorts. In the morning he had only had a few browsers in the shop, and had sold a couple of small stone cups, but nothing significant.
Much more interesting was the American customer who showed up about 4 o’clock and wanted some Herodian period coins– the Tyrian half shekel, a widow’s mite, some coins of the various procurators including Pilate and Festus and Felix. He had had an interesting conversation with this fairly young American gentleman who knew a good deal about numismatics and the good-natured haggling over the coins went on for over an hour while they were sitting on a rug and drinking fruit juice and eating wonderful figs and dates. The young man, whose name was William Arnold, was from Kentucky, and they had talked about horses and horse racing, and a host of other topics, steering away from troubling subjects like the Intifadad, terrorism and the like. Kahlil had no stomach and no sympathy for those he called the ‘barbarians’ by which he meant both radical and violent zealots of whatever religion and no religion. In his view such behavior was a betrayal of the highest and best that all three monotheistic religions had to offer.
Finally Kahlil had said to William with a big grin on his face: “You know my friend, if I do not soon sell you these coins, I shall not even be able to afford to pay for all the drinks and food we have been consuming. Surely, you would not want to shame an old man that way would you, by driving too hard a bargain?” “No” said Arnold, “I know a good deal when I see one, and so I will gladly pay you the $400 we have agreed upon.” He reached for his passport carrier to get the money, but all of a sudden there was a commotion at the door of the shop. A short man, quite out of breath, holding some sort of object wrapped in a cloth had burst into the shop. Kahlil could see the man was agitated and impatient and called out from his back room where he and Arnold had been sitting “I’ll be right with you in a moment.” “Make it quick” the man retorted, “I am in a big hurry.”
Kahlil, without rushing took Arnold’s money, and Arnold said “I will leave so you can attend to your next customer”. “Nothing of the kind,” said Kahlil, “Hannah here will carefully pack your purchases and draw up the authentication papers so you can show them to the customs people when you leave the country. Just sit here and enjoy the juice and fruit, and I will be back.”
By the time Kahlil had gotten to the front room, the man was pacing the floor at a rapid rate. He blurted out “I have found something quite remarkable, and wish to sell it. I understand you are the best dealer in town.” “First of all,” said Kahlil, “I must see this object and evaluate it. Secondly, in view of the Law of Israel, I must ask where you got this object and how long you have had it. If it is something of great value and great antiquity, and you have recently found it, then you must turn it over to the IAA.”
This response irritated the little man no end. “I thought I was told you were the best dealer, and were capable of being discrete!” “Discrete yes, said Kahlil, but dishonest, no.” I will not risk my reputation and my life’s work on something suspicious. Nevertheless, show me this object and I may be able at least to appraise it for you.”
The man unwrapped the object which turned out to be a limestone object which looked recently chiseled around the edges, but the surface of which looked quite ancient. Kahlil could not read ancient languages very well, but he could tell this inscription was some sort of Semitic inscription and it looked ancient.
“In my view” Kahlil said, “you must take this object to the IAA, perhaps to Professor Grace Levine first since she is the resident expert in Aramaic inscriptions and their authentication. I cannot take this object off your hands, nor offer you any money for it, I am afraid to say.”
At this the little man ground his teeth, and spat on the floor. “Imbecile, this object is worth millions of dollars. It is a first century inscription about a disciple of Jesus, and I had thought you could broker it for me with a collector and we could both make a tidy sum of money. I see that there is a reason why you are still running such a small business in this God-forsaken part of the city.” He turned in disgust, and left the shop at once, heading off into the covered shopping area in the old city and in the direction of the so-called Wailing Wall.
Kahlil returned to his back room with a frown on his face. “Well that was as unpleasant as our time together has been delightful. Thank you so much for doing business with me.” Arnold shook his hand, and left the shop, shocked at the lack of courtesy of the little man, and apparent lack of familiarity with honor and shame customs in the Middle East.
“Hannah,” Kahlil said, “we must have an early dinner, as I am off to see our old friend Art West tonight. I want to talk to him some more about the James ossuary. Some new things have come to light.
Hannah said “I knew you were going out for some good reason, and so I began the preparing the Shwarma and vegetables already and of course there is hummus and pita bread. We can eat in a few minutes.” Slowly the sunlight was waning in the room and the noise outside in the Cardo, the major market street was abating. While all seemed peaceful on the surface, Kahlil and Hannah were both uneasy about something indefinable, something just on the edge of consciousness. Why was that little man in such a hurry, and who was he?