Saturday, January 28, 2012

Abraham of Silwan

One of the more abiding memories of our recent trip to Jerusalem has to be our serendipitous encounter with Abraham, whose business card I kept. It reads;
Pool of Siloam Antiquities
Ancient Pottery, Roman Glass, Old Coins
Abraham Siam
Jerusalem, Silwan, PO Box 20230

Not only did Abraham detain us for a pleasurable hour in his shop, but he gave us a human face with which to begin to comprehend the Israeli-Palestinian situation. 

 Evie,  Janna and Abraham in his shop 

I have no doubt that Abraham's penchant for regaling us with tales was aimed in part, at exchanging a small part of his collection of ancient bric-a-brac for our tourist dollars, or even for promoting the interests of his Palestinian community, but he did it in such an endearing way that I could not possibly hold it against him. For the fruit of his labors, I bought my wife a Widow’s Mite pendant; a tiny Herodian coin that he had set in an attractive silver mount. The coin itself would have been like the ones of the subject of Jesus’ observations in Mark 12:41-44  and Luke 21:1-4. The pendant came with a printed card;

Pool of Siloam Antiquities
Abraham Siam
Jerusalem PO Box 20230
This Is To Certify That The Following Are Authentic
Signature [Abraham Siam]

Abraham told us that he was an Israeli Palestinian, whose family had lived in the village of Silwan for at least 150 years. I didn’t ask, but I am fairly certain he was a devout Moslem, because he insisted on reading out a blessing on us from a book with a photo of the Dome on the Rock on its cover (the blessing was gratefully received), and he also had the kind of mark on his forehead that you get when you regularly press your head onto a prayer-carpet, as devout Moslems do.

Abraham also claimed to have been on several digs, including at least one led by Kathleen Kenyon. She was the daughter of Sir Frederick Kenyon, former Director of the British Museum and archaeologist who promoted Biblical archaeology with the firm belief that it corroborated the narrative of the historical records of the New Testament (a belief that has been mostly vindicated by the record). Frederick Kenyon is commonly quoted in his defense of the reliable transmission of scripture; “the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed”. I wonder how these connections with Christian apologetics would have interacted with Abraham’s Moslem faith, but we didn’t get to discuss it. Abraham also told us of his good relationship with one of the local Christian Priests (Catholic, if I recall) who served at one of the many Basilicas in the Old City, and I have no reason to doubt him.

My curiosity piqued at how Abraham amassed his small horde of antiquities. Many years ago, in my previous visit to Israel, I helped with the excavations at Gamla in the Golan Heights. Of course, any glass, coins, flint razors, potsherds that came to light were promptly handed over to the professional archaeologists for logging and preserving. Did Abraham sneak his trophies out in his pockets at the end of a hard days digging and sifting? I doubt it, but the kind of stuff on his shelves was so abundant and commonplace in this part of the world, the professionals might not have been too anxious to keep all of it.

Notwithstanding Abraham's (unconfirmed) Moslem faith, I was impressed at his knowledge and reverence for the Prophet Jesus, and the healing of the blind man at the Pool of Siloam (see John 9). Before you get confused, you must understand that there are two rival sites for the pool, which I will explain shortly. Abraham claimed he had seen at least two healings in “his” pool; one was of a man with a fever who dipped himself in the water and came up well. I have no way of verifying these accounts (were they true miracles or not?), and in a way I have no desire to. If someone’s fever broke during a dunk in the waters, I, like Abraham, thank God. However, I will note my single misgiving, which was the slightest hint that the pool itself was talismanic. Sure, a wonderful event had happened there, but it wasn’t the pool that was special; it was the person who had sent the blind man to it. If I were to talk this over with Abraham, I would plead with him to see that God is not in the pool; He is in the person of His Son, to whom the pool owes it’s special place in history. We all have a tendency to turn God’s visitations into talismans in the hope that the miracle will recur, but that’s a subject for another post.

We chanced upon Abraham’s little shop at the end of a self-guided tour of the City of David. To describe how this inter-relates, I’m going to have to explain some geography, history and some of the messages I perceived along the tour.

David’s City is so called because it’s the ancient Jerusalem that David conquered and made the capital of his dynasty (about 1000 BC). It is located south of the Temple Mount (on which the Dome of the Rock is built), on an unobtrusive spur outside the current city walls which, being medieval, are relatively modern. If you’re at the Western Wall (the “Wailing Wall” and the geographic centre of the Jewish faith) you turn right, go downhill through the Dung Gate and cross a road. Importantly, the spur of David's City is/was occupied by a Palestinian Village called Silwan, which gets its name from the eponymous pool at it’s southernmost tip. Over several thousand years, the City of Jerusalem has migrated north by a few hundred meters, such that David’s City now lies under the Palestinian village of Silwan.

The Israeli authorities have sustained a well-funded archaeological dig into David’s City and tourists like us can enjoy the findings by a well-accommodated self-guided tour. The cost of the tour varies according to your chosen route; it costs slightly less if you follow the dry tunnel, and more if you wish to adventure through the longer wet tunnel.

The tour of the dig starts at the uphill end of David’s City, over the inauspiciously named “Large Stone Structure”. There is, I understand, some debate over whether this is actually David’s Palace (see 2 Chronicles 2:12 etc), so it retains its uncommitted moniker. On top of the stones that could, or could not, have been David’s famous palace, are parts of the walls that Nehemiah built (Nehemiah 2:17-18, Nehemiah 3 etc). Then comes the tunnel, which forks part way through the caverns to the dry or wet tunnels. The dry tunnel is an early Canaanite drift that previously directed water into the Kedron Valley, probably for farm irrigation. The wet tunnel continues to function as Hezekiah intended, by directing water from the Gihon Spring to the Pool of Siloam. Sharp-eyed Bible-students will note that Siloam means “sent” (John 9:7), and I wonder if it got it’s name from the water that was sent to it by Hezekiah’s tunnel.

Coming out into the daylight from the Canaanite tunnel, the tour continues southward along the eastern flank of the spur. Here, the signboards point to the ancient Jewish occupation of David’s City, which includes a Mikveh (ceremonial bathtub) cut directly into the rock. Of course, in order to unearth these ancient structures, the archaeologists had to remove the overburden, which is something I’ll return to presently.

A remarkably anachronistic feature of the tour was the preservation of the Meyuchas House, which dates to 1873 and marks the start of the modern Jewish settlement of the site. I found it overtly political. Why preserve a 19th Century Jewish house, whilst displacing the current Palestinian occupants of Silwan? It seems to me that no small part of the reason for the dig was to legitimize Israeli supremacy in the area, which would explain why the dig was so well supported and promoted by the Israeli authorities. We also passed a couple of groups of Israeli Army recruits, who were seated in circles on the grass to receive an education in the ancient history of their homeland. Perhaps there’s a better archaeological reason for the preservation of the Meyuchas House, but it eludes me; more so after hearing Abraham tell his tales.

The tour ends at the Pool of Siloam within the archaeological precinct. Like most archaeology, it’s disputed. Unfortunately for Abraham, the pool to which Jesus sent the blind man was probably this one and not the Byzantine Pool, adjacent to his shop.

I was disappointed to find that the archaeological precinct made no mention of the Gospel story of the healing. Maybe, its because such a story cannot be regarded as archaeology. Anyhow, I wonder if a small plaque would have been in order because of the pool’s significance to the many Christians who regularly visit the site. Again, I was unable to suppress a sneaking suspicion about the dig’s decidedly pro-Israeli agenda. Perhaps it was prompted by yet another small group of Israeli-Army recruits who were being lectured there (in English) about the brave stand made there by the last of the Jewish revolutionaries during the sacking of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD70. The stories of the ancient Jewish Resistance would have been of more interest to building up army morale, than an unscientific tale of the healing of a blind man.

After visiting the Pool of Siloam, we continued through another excavation, which had unearthed the drainage pipe in which the last of the revolutionaries had hidden from the Romans. Then, up an makeshift staircase to the road, where a minibus promised to take us back up to the top of the spur.

Only, through a gate in the wall opposite, there was another stone staircase that led down to the Byzantine Pool of Siloam. It is probably a pool which was dug as part of a Byzantine Church built to celebrate the healing of the blind man. The Byzantine Church was now buried under the rubble of time, but the pool marks the exit to Hezekiah’s tunnel, and there were plenty of trails of wet footprints to indicate the recent traffic through the site. There were no plaques here to explain the site, which is probably because it lay outside the limits of the archaeological precinct; the same reason why Abraham’s tiny shop continues to trade there.

The relationship between Abraham’s shop, and the archaeological precinct, however, was strained. He railed that the Israeli authorities would not let him erect any signs pointing people to “his” pool or his shop, which had starved him of legitimate business. When we pointed out that someone had taken a spray-can and graffitied the words “Pool of Siloam” on the stonework at the gate to the Byzantine Pool, Abraham returned a knowing smile; it was the only advertising he could do. I can understand his frustration that “his” pool was not part of the official narrative, and hence it, and his occupation, was officially overlooked. Abraham had resorted to drumming up business by spruiking at the gate, which he did with disarming effectiveness.

I don’t have the records, but I feel sure that I passed by Abraham’s shop when I was last in Jerusalem, about 25 years ago. At that time, there were no fences, fees and turnstiles, and the trek through Hezekiah’s tunnel was made hazardous by the potential sewage infiltration from the village above (a problem the authorities appear to have fixed in the intervening years). It might be just my impression, but the Jewish presence seems to have grown, together with its assertion of Jewish supremacy. That was certainly Abraham’s complaint. He felt that he and his family, who had been there for many generations, were being pushed out.

We thanked Abraham for the instant coffee that he insisted on giving us, and for the delight he took in showing us his curios and the stories that they told. We took the minibus back up the hill, which dropped us off at the entry gate. On the other side of the road, the excavation had expanded to consume a whole village block, which was something new since my previous visit. In years to come, I’m sure this area will be fitted out with another trail for us tourists to wander.

Looking through the hoarding that ringed the new excavation, I wondered if they would they find David’s Palace below. As I did so, I also wondered how many Palestinian homes they had to remove to continue their explorations there.

My thoughts came to haunt me a few days later, as we drove to the airport past the security walls and razor wire that separated the Palestinian villages from the Jewish Settlements; and as we waited for our plane at the airport. At the immigration desks, we queued behind a large group of American Youths, presumably on their way home, wearing blue tee-shirts with the slogan “Israel Birthright”. Who told these people, who had been born half way round the globe, that their “birthright” was currently someone else’s home? Did they not know that in order to take up residence in the land of their “birthright”, they might have to displace someone who is not on the official agenda? Reluctantly, I recalled that the nation of Israel draws its legitimacy from the legacies of the Ghetto and Lebensraum (we visited the Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem, on another day), and I hope that the looming irony is not lost on the current generation of Jews, both resident and living overseas.

My loyalties to Jew and Palestinian, which previously veered towards the historic sons of Abraham, never felt more divided. Neutrality is not an option, but neither is the imperative to deal with the issues humanely and with open eyes. Perhaps that’s the only way forward. I pray for the peace of Jerusalem and all it’s inhabitants (Psalm 122:6).

No comments:

Post a Comment