Read an Excerpt
By Richard Ben Sapir
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1983 Richard Ben Sapir
All rights reserved.
Beyond the Limits
The young American spotted it first.
No bigger than a knuckle it was, appearing after another monotonous stroke of a straw whisk in a morning of monotonous strokes of the straw whisk. He stopped.
It was the same yellow-brown limestone from which much of Jerusalem was built, giving the city a golden presence under the sun.
But that was three stories above, in modern Jerusalem, where the group had started at the end of June in a spot north of Damascus Gate in the Old City walls, 11.6 carefully measured meters above where now there was the late summer heat, and car honking and fumes and tourists and food and all the sense rattling of a living city.
Down at the bottom of the archaeological dig it was cool beyond the seasons, a minimum of fifteen hundred years down into the sediments of civilizations.
Down here more limestone was supposed to mean the end of man because it was supposed to be more bedrock.
They had been told that when they had exposed all four corners of this dig to bedrock, they could be assured that everything there was to find of man in this scholarly hole had been found.
By then everything would have been sketched, photographed, locused, and cataloged, hopefully adding another precise shade of history to the place. Done for others to refer to as data.
But this small exposure of limestone was just slightly different from the bedrock the young American had been seeing for the last two days. It had a smoothness. He whisked away more hard-packed earth. The fragment became larger, the size of his palm.
He tucked the straw whisk into his belt next to his hand pick and withdrew the camel's-hair brush, a finer, gentler tool that would scratch nothing.
He cleaned to the edge of the fragment, dusting away dry centuries. All of it was as smooth as the first knuckle-sized piece.
His feet rested on the downward slope of bedrock, but this smooth piece did not slope. And staring close, he knew what he had seen. The smoothness meant worked stone. Chisel blades had worked that stone. He could spot that now.
He was a volunteer and he had come a long way this summer. He could sit on his haunches for hours now without pain, and he knew when the presiding archaeologist should be called and when she should not.
He thought about her as he looked at the stone. His name was Mark, and he played Frisbee and went to the University of Michigan, and he believed in Jesus Christ, Son of the Almighty God, Messiah of all men, Jews included, whose time would come only when the entire world was saved.
He had wondered when he arrived in Israel for the dig whether Jesus would come when he was there. He was sure the Second Coming was going to happen in Israel, where the first had happened.
And he was sure it was soon. The Bible said the Jews would return to Israel just before the Second Coming, and here they were, according to the Bible. Here was everything according to the Bible, although Sharon, Dr. Golban, had warned him specifically that the best way to prove the Bible was to be a proper archaeologist first.
Sharon was a Jew, an Israeli, and her family had come from Persia and had been there since Nebuchadnezzar, and that was in the Bible, too. She was right about the Bible: it was all around here and true. Not like true in Flint, Michigan, where it was a story, where you had to believe it or not; but it was right here in your face, all around in the rocks and places and people. You could see the stones of Herod. It wasn't a story. It had all happened.
Which in a way took some of the wonder out of it. But as Dr. Golban had said at the beginning of the dig:
"A known fact, a pottery shard which we have discovered, and how and when it was fired, is greater than all the imaginary universes that ever were."
"Do you believe the Bible, then, is a fairy tale?"
"No. I don't."
"Do you believe the Bible is one hundred percent true?"
"I believe what you call the Bible, which is really Greek for book, biblion, or what you call the book, is a collection of books."
"And that means what?"
"That they are documents."
"I know you don't believe in Jesus. Do you believe in Moses?"
"I believe Moses existed. That God talked to him, well, who knows?"
"Is it 'cause you can't get married?"
"Who told you that?"
"Everyone on the dig knows. They say you were married, and even though everything wasn't your fault, you still can't get married in Israel because it's against religious law."
"If you were a Christian you could get married again. I'd marry you."
"If I were a Christian?" She had said that, laughing. She was beautiful. She was thirty-two, twelve years older than Mark, and she was beautiful, with eyes as dark as midnight dreams, golden skin and rich black hair, and a beautiful body with trim legs, which, when she wore shorts, and she did that a lot, made Mark think how he would like to stroke her thighs. And he didn't like to think those thoughts. When she wore a shirt, sometimes it would be unbuttoned and he would try to stop himself from looking down and seeing how healthy and tan the breasts were where they met the sharp white-cloth bra line. He tried to stop himself from looking, and that meant he was always looking.
She was the chief archaeologist on the dig, and he was sure he loved her. He didn't care what she believed. He could always save her soul later.
"I'd marry you, period. I think you're beautiful," he had said.
"Now, Mark, lying is a sin."
"You are beautiful."
"Come, come, Mark." And she laughed and kissed him on the cheek, and he wasn't sure he should kiss back. That she didn't for some reason believe she was beautiful was just part of her beauty.
But she was beautiful, even if she wouldn't let him say it to her, and even if he couldn't talk God to her. She had taught him when something was important and when it was not.
And looking at the stone, Mark, the young American, had little doubt that this was important enough to call her down to take a look. He dared not go farther alone.
He looked up to Haneviim Street and the twentieth century and called out: "Something. Sharon, I think we have something."
There was no answer.
"Something," yelled Mark again, standing up on his feet, straddling what was now the platter-sized top of the stone. It was definitely not bedrock.
"You know enough now," came the voice of Dr. Sharon Golban from above. The people at the dig spoke English because it was the most common language of the volunteers. "Label it. You're at Locus II B."
"I think you'd better come down."
"I'll be down in a minute, Mark," Sharon called down into the dig without peering in.
"A serious delay?" asked the Arab businessman she had been talking to. There was worry in his eyes. He spoke in Hebrew, although they had often conversed in Arabic. She answered in the same tongue. It was not her first language.
Farsi was that and Hebrew was her daily tongue while English was the universal language. She had taken Arabic as her one elective language in school while others studied French, not only because she thought Arabic was more beautiful than French but because she thought ultimately her country should look to that part of the world.
Like her languages, she was between worlds. A Persian beauty fit for a tapestry, yet she dressed in the hard practical clothes of the West, shorts, blouse, sandals, and sometimes sunglasses.
She thought Western, yet often felt Eastern. She smoked too much and was too direct, yet with Mr. Hamid she understood his concerns. She was quite precise in shaking her head and making sure she explained the situation thoroughly. He deserved that.
"No. No. No. There are delays and delays. If it's a stone fragment, we'll have it labeled and sketched and photographed and then go on," she said in Arabic.
"And if it's not?" asked the businessman.
"It probably is. We have been at bedrock for a day. It should all be over soon. We are just following the slope, as I have told you."
"And I was just digging a basement," he said with a pained smile.
Sharon took a deep pull on her cigarette, holding the sharp, burning smoke in her lungs, trying to get filled with it before she went down again. She would not smoke at the bottom of any dig for fear of grinding an ash accidentally into an object with a foot, and then when the object was unearthed fully and if it were carbon-dated it would come back reading not 200 B.C.E., or so, but last Thursday, plus or minus a century.
Mr. Hamid was right. Both of them were trapped here because he had wanted to build a basement for his new appliance store. He could not build it until the Department of Antiquities was assured he was not pouring any new cement over any old historical treasures, and Sharon was the one who had to do the assuring, when she would rather have spent a summer on digs inside the Old City walls. That was where important work was being done.
It had been a sequence of bad luck for Mr. Hamid, or inevitability if one knew how things worked in modern Jerusalem.
He was successfully overseeing the preparation of the foundation when a bulldozer cracked out part of a blue and gold mosaic floor two meters down.
One of the laborers knew where he could secretly sell a melon-wide piece of the tile floor. He took it to an antiquities dealer off Via Dolorosa, in the Old City, named Zareh Tabinian, and this would not have been so bad, except this dealer was suspected of selling an especially proscribed antiquity, which meant he was in danger of losing his "grapes."
And this fear of losing "grapes" ultimately would lead to a basement becoming an archaeological site.
"The grapes," as they were called, was a decal of two ancients carrying an oversized bunch of blue grapes, which the Ministry of Tourism granted businesses that met government standards. To be without one's "grapes" meant a merchant virtually had to give up the influx of American dollars, because Americans, in a blizzard of oriental strangeness, trusted only those official decals on shop windows.
For an antiquities dealer to give up the American tourist dollar meant doom. Israelis just did not have the kind of extra moneys that would pay for antiquities. When they did have money, they didn't buy oil lamps from the hallowed rebellion of their hero Bar Kochba, or ancient shekels or lustrous Roman glass. They bought television sets.
So to protect his livelihood, Zareh Tabinian righteously took the piece of tile to the Department of Antiquities and announced that he would forgo this piece, even though he had paid for it with his own money, money he knew he stood to lose by submitting the tile.
"No, no," said the woman at the Department of Antiquities. "This is a common Byzantine floor. You know yourself better than anyone that what you sold, Mr. Tabinian, was not just a proscribed antiquity, but the most proscribed."
And he did know. For while all antiquities were legally proscribed for sale, the authorities, for the sake of tourism, would overlook small infractions if they were pieces of pottery or mosaics or oil lamps, especially since most antiquities sold throughout Israel were imported by the many shops from Jordan, Egypt, Greece, and Cyprus. They were not Judaean at all.
But never would the authorities allow the sale of something with the written word on it found in the land of Israel. More valuable than gold or statuary was the word, in clay or stone or papyrus.
And Tabinian had sold an ostracon with Hebrew on it to a German professor who had more experience in annotation than subterfuge. For while he had promised to disguise whom he had bought it from, when his article appeared in print, everyone who knew antiquities and who sold what, and what things tended to be found where, knew the shop had to be Tabinian's, off Via Dolorosa.
And while there was no legal evidence for this, nothing that would survive an Israeli court, there was, in the daily business of all antiquities shops, so much against the law that the Department of Antiquities could get Tabinian convicted on a dozen provable counts, and thus get the Ministry of Tourism to yank his grapes.
"You've got to give us more, Mr. Tabinian," said the woman in the antiquities department. "Where was this found?"
"I don't know where. He was just a laborer," said Tabinian, whereupon the woman suddenly noticed a corner of a cross on the piece of mosaic tile.
"A cross. This floor had to be before 430 A.D.," said the woman.
Both of them knew that any floor with a cross on it anywhere in the eastern Mediterranean had to have been laid before that date, because that was when the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius decreed the cross was too holy to be walked on.
"Why is it," said Tabinian, "that when I surrendered this paid-for fragment of a floor, it was considered to be valueless. But when I tell you I am not sure of where it was found, then it becomes valuable?"
"You have a good point, Mr. Tabinian," said the woman, smiling, the woman who could get his grapes removed.
"Haneviim Street," said Tabinian, with a shrug. "Nasir Hamid is building a basement to an appliance store."
And with those words, Zareh Tabinian made an enemy of an old Jerusalem family, which he didn't want to do, stopped the basement on Haneviim Street, gave Nasir Hamid a new partner and Sharon Golban a summer dig.
For no work could be continued until the Department of Antiquities made sure that nothing remained under that sign that could be of historical value. An archaeologist had to supervise a registered dig to bedrock.
"When will you start?" were the first words Nasir Hamid had asked of Dr. Golban.
"I am sorry, but we have to wait for the beginning of summer. Then there is less chance of destructive rains, and then we have the use of so many volunteers."
He begged her to be swift. She assured him she would. When he tried to press money into her hands, she refused in such a way as not to demean his dignity, always showing the utmost respect.
She kept him informed of daily progress and gave him estimates of how long they would be at the site. She worked with good speed, mostly because she didn't want to have to spend another summer at this site. She wanted to get back with one of the major digs, inside the walls of Jerusalem.
But so grateful was Mr. Hamid for her courtesy that he gave her a fine necklace with several glistening opals. This was too personal a gift to refuse. She had to take it, and she did, saying in Arabic, which she knew well:
"This is such a beautiful gift, please do not shame me by anything more because I can never repay such generosity."
Legally it was a bribe, and her story would have been laughed at by most Ashkenazi, Israeli Jews descended from those who came from Europe. But she knew she had done right, and she made certain he saw her wear it, even though it was too pretty a thing, she felt, for her.
Nor would she give it away ever, because it was not given as a bribe, but as a very fine gesture.
Mr. Hamid, too, had learned a bit about archaeology during this summer, and when the American, Mark, called up that he had found something, Mr. Hamid saw himself paying full city taxes on a vacant lot for another year.
Sharon put out her cigarette.
"I will be back soon."
"You have my prayers," said Mr. Hamid.
"As God wills," she answered in Arabic, which she said only as a courtesy.
She descended by ladder through the recent British occupation, the Turkish rule, down beyond the Mamluks, the brief Crusader kings, the Arab rule, and the Byzantine level, where an entire floor had been removed by covering it with gauze to bind it, and then carefully sawing it into numbered squares, and then carefully carting it to a warehouse to wait for a university somewhere to ask for it, if one ever did, because there was already an overabundance of these floors, and every time another one was discovered it was preserved in the same way.
The descent, like the dig, was vertical. City space was too valuable to allow leisurely ramping for a dig of this minor importance. It went straight down, like an excavation for a slender skyscraper, and so did Dr. Sharon Golban until she was on bedrock, which she had labeled II B.
Everything down to the Byzantine floor was Locus I, and everything beneath it, Locus II. Nothing significant enough had been found to warrant establishing another level until she walked up to Mark, who stepped back into the small group of volunteers that was now waiting around Mark's find.
Excerpted from The Body by Richard Ben Sapir. Copyright © 1983 Richard Ben Sapir. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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