Read an Excerpt
Part 1: The Celebration
November 29, 1947
"I know that God promised all of Palestine to the children of Israel. I do not know what borders He set. I believe they are wider than the ones proposed. If God will keep His promise in His own time, our business as poor humans who live in a difficult age is to save as much as we can of the remnants of Israel...."
David Ben-Gurion, 1947
Chapter 1: The Discovery
"Antikas! Antikas!" the old Bedouin shepherd shouted as Ellie Warne entered the mahogany-paneled study of her uncle's home. After six months in Jerusalem she understood the word well enough. For an unsuspecting tourist lost in the maze of the Old City souks, it usually meant that a piece of the true cross or the actual crown of thorns was being offered for sale to the highest bidder.
"Antikas!" The old man smiled a broad toothless smile and whacked his young companion on the shoulder in hopes of making him a little more enthusiastic.
Ellie rubbed a hand wearily across her forehead and resisted the urge to turn around and go straight back to bed. What, she wondered, had old Miriam been thinking of when she let these two con-artists into a room filled with actual archaeological antiquities? Not to mention the fact that she had roused Ellie out of bed with the worst case of flu ever, just so she could look at what was most likely phoney junk. For three days Ellie had stayed home from her work at the dig. Sick and weary, she wanted only to rest, to sleep. Her uncle Howard Moniger, after all, was the archaeologist; she merely photographed the finds.
Not a half-bad job, shethought, if a girl likes taking pictures of 2,000-year-old jar handles. It beat waitressing in Long Beach while all the prime photojournalism jobs were snapped up by GI's returning home from Europe and the Pacific. Even with a B.A. in photojournalism from UCLA, she was lucky to have a job, she knew that. Good old Uncle Howard had really come through on this one. Her pay with the American School of Oriental Research was miniscule but steady. Nothing in her education, however, had equipped her for this.
"Antikas! Antikas!" the old Arab repeated, gesturing wildly toward the battered leather pouch he carried slung over his bony shoulder.
"All right! Just wait a minute!" She motioned impatiently for them to sit, then muttered, "Stay right there; I'm going to strangle a sweet little old lady; then we'll take a look at the treasures you've brought." She turned and glanced toward the open door into the hall. "Miriam!" she shouted. "Come in hereimmediately!" Ellie turned back to look at her two unusual visitors. Rigidly seated in straight-backed leather chairs, they stared wide-eyed at the walls of books and the displays of artifacts that filled the room. They look like artifacts themselves, Ellie thought, on display among the potsherds and Bronze-age tools in Uncle Howard's glass cases.
As the Bedouins investigated the room, Ellie looked them over. Wonderful photographic studies they'd make, she thought. Both were dressed in the traditional sandals and long robes, and were crowned with the keffiyah, the head covering of nomadic tribes in Palestine. One looked to be about eighteen or nineteen years old. His scruffy beard framed a thin face, with a nose hanging between his eyes like a large beak. The older had a curly gray beard and high cheekbones; he reminded Ellie of a roosting buzzard blinking in the sun.
"Miriam!" she shouted again, and Uncle Howard's old housekeeper finally appeared in the doorway. "I think I'm going to need you" she gestured vaguely in the direction of the two shepherds, still sitting erect, still waiting, watching.
When Ellie turned back to them, they apparently had changed tactics for their sale. The older of the two sprang to his feet and whacked his young companion sharply across the head. Ellie, at 5'5", towered over the old man. The younger, tall and stoop-shouldered, rose to his feet a bit more slowly.
"Salaam." Both men spoke in unison and bowed majestically to Ellie.
"Salaam," Ellie returned. The three of them stood for an awkward moment until Ellie broke the silence. "Please sit down," she said. "The professor is not here, but he will return in the next few days ..." Her voice trailed off as the two continued to stand, smiling at her.
"Antikas" the elder began again.
"Miriam" Ellie pleaded, looking toward the door where the old woman stood.
But before Miriam could translate, the old Arab man suddenly dashed between Ellie and the door. He pushed the battered leather pouch toward her. "Antikas!" he insisted. Then he raised his palm toward her solemnly, like an Indian chief, and motioned for her to stop.
"All right," Ellie groaned. "Let's see what you've got. The silver chalice? The very nails from ..." Before she could finish, the wizened brown hand pulled from the pouch an object that looked like a miniature mummy. It was about ten inches in height and several inches thick, and seemed to be wrapped in shreds of linen. Her sarcasm diminished, replaced by cautious curiosity. The old man smiled a toothless smile and reverently held the object out to her.
"Antikas," he repeated quietly and sincerely. "You see, real antikas."
Suddenly ashamed of her flippancy, Ellie stared at the object for a long moment before she put her hands out tentatively, looking at the old man to see if he meant for her to take it. He nodded at her and smiled again.
"Yes, you look. Truly." He put it carefully into her hands and backed away.
Even Ellie's untrained eye could see that she held a scroll. It was surprisingly heavy. Tan in color, the edges seemed to be crumbling; indeed, it had the appearance of something very old. In the field of archaeology, however, the term "old" was quite relative. She had been around long enough to know that something a mere two hundred years old was of little value.
"Very old," the man encouraged.
Ellie looked up at him and smiled. There was no way to tell if what she held had existed for a hundred years or a thousand.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I just don't know enough about it. The professor is gone and won't be back for several days ..."
"Open," insisted the old Arab, snatching it away from her. As he grabbed it, fragments from the edge broke off and fell to the floor. "Look, antikas." He laid it down on the broad surface of the desk and unrolled it without ceremony. "There," he said beaming. "Very old."
The inside of the scroll was covered with columns of neatly ruled writing in what appeared to be Hebrew. Pieces of the scroll were stitched together and Ellie guessed that the material was leather. She looked carefully at it and tried to remember what Uncle Howard's colleague had told her about the Hebrew scrolls that were stored in genizahs after they were worn out. This might be just such a scroll, its value insignificant. But still, there was something about the shape of these letters. They were different than anything she remembered Moshe showing her before.
"Yes, very nice," she nodded to the Arab.
He turned to his young companion and beamed triumphantly.
"Two hundred English pound," he announced. "Cash."
"Listen," Ellie tried to explain. "I can't. I mean, I don't know anything about this sort of thing. My uncle, the professor ..."
"Two hundred English pound," he said again.
"Where did this come from? Where did you find it?"
"Cash," he replied, holding out his upturned palm.
Ellie looked first at the gnarled hand outstretched before her, then at the eyes, filled with the delight of greed. "What we have here is a communication breakdown, my good man. You are looking at the Betty Boop of the archaeology world. No. No. A thousand times no." She blew her nose and motioned impatiently to Miriam, still standing in the doorway. "Explain this to him, Miriam." There was no talking to a man whose entire English vocabulary consisted of "antikas, very old," and "cash."
Miriam pried herself away from the doorway as the old Arab rattled off a stream of words, jabbing at the air with one hand while he held the other still outstretched for the money. Miriam rattled back at him in response, and Ellie noticed an instant change in his demeanor.
"Bah!" he spat, lowering his itching palm. He glared at Ellie as if she were an interloper in the world of high finance, then began to gather up the scroll like an angry executive stuffing disappointing quarterly statements into his briefcase.
"Miriam!" Ellie shouted. "Don't let him do that!Don't do that," she told him, hurrying over to the desk.
"Bah!" he spat again, not even looking at the upstart.
Miriam began talking rapidly, mowing down his obstinance with a barrage of Arabic until, midsentence, he pulled the scroll out of the leather pouch once again, sniffed indignantly, and gazed steadily at Ellie as Miriam finished speaking.
"Hmmm," he said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "Hmmm." Then his toothless smile reappeared. He whacked his young companion on the shoulder and the two of them once again took their seats.
"There," said Miriam to Ellie. "You see, one simply must know how to talk to these desert peasants."
"What did you tell him?" Ellie asked, awed.
"I tell him that you are the most utmost authority on ancient scrolls and that you will not pay him until you can see them all."
"Authority!" repeated Ellie miserably. "All? You mean there are more of these things?"
"He did not tell you?"
Miriam gave the ancient shepherd a good tongue-lashing, which he followed by a tirade of his own while Ellie groped her way to Uncle Howard's massive leather desk chair and sank down into it.
"Well," Miriam sniffed, "this lying dog says he tells you there are more. He says he tells you how his son finds them in jars in a cave when he goes to find a lost goat."
"He might have," shrugged Ellie. "I couldn't understand a word."
Miriam's eyes narrowed and she shook her head. "Ha!" she barked at the shepherd. "Speak the King's English, please."
The old man looked at the young shepherd beside him who had been gazing intently at a case of ancient tools. Then the old man slapped him on the arm. "King's English, please," he snorted, then mumbled a few Arabic curses.
The young man cleared his throat nervously and rubbed a dirty hand across his lips as if to loosen up a frozen tongue. Then he drew a deep breath and began. "My pardon, ma'am." He nodded to Ellie. A decided trace of British accent in a deep and pleasant voice tempted Ellie to look over her shoulder for the ventriloquist who might be throwing such educated tones into the mouth of this sack of bones and dirt.
"My father is quite an ignorant man," he explained. "He told me he must handle this enterprise himself, and I must learn." A smile cracked his lips as he looked out of the corner of his eye at his brooding father beside him. "He means no harm."
"Obviously, since you speak so well, you must also understand that I am not the authority the housekeeper makes me out to be."
Miriam turned to leave. "I'll bring tea," she announced in an injured tone.
"Thank you, Miriam," Ellie called after her. "And, Miriam" The old woman paused. "Thank you."
The young shepherd's eyes followed the old woman. "She did well. My father would be gone to the antique dealers in Bethlehem if he knew."
"Tell me how you came by this." Ellie leaned her aching head back on the leather chair.
"My youngest brother, Mohamed the Wolf, found a cave filled with jars and some scrolls such as this. Many were in pieces, and there were many broken jars and fragments. He had lost a goat, you see, and tossed a stone into a cave to see if it had wandered in. He heard the sound of breaking pottery and fetched me. We found this and six others whole."
"Where is this cave?"
"There are many caves in the desert," he replied with an evasive smile. "This is one of many by the Dead Sea. I know where it lies, but this is not the time to say."
"I see." Ellie understood his meaning. Until he was paid, he would say nothing. The old man, thought Ellie, would have done well to take lessons from his son. "You know I cannot promise you anything until the professor sees this."
"Then perhaps we should go to Bethlehem to the dealers," he replied with a sigh.
"No. Let me keep it until you bring the others."
"Alas, no. I fear that we will be gone many days to the desert. Two weeks until we return to Jerusalem. We leave in the morning." He began to stand.
"No, wait." Ellie motioned him to sit down. "I am the photographer for the archaeological team. If I weren't ill, I would be with the professor now."
"May Allah grant you health, blessed be His name." The shepherd bowed his head.
"Well, He hasn't, and I'm here," she said under her breath. "So, would you let me keep the scroll overnight? I can photograph it and show it to the professor when he returns. If he likes what he sees, then perhaps you can let your father complete the transaction?"
The young man cleared his throat thoughtfully. "Excuse me, please," he said to Ellie, then addressed the old man, who was staring suspiciously at her. For a period of several minutes they argued back and forth in Arabic, debating the wisdom of leaving such a valuable item in the hands of this red-haired, unveiled, infidel woman who could not even speak the language of the country she now resided in. In the end, Ellie pulled a five-pound note out of her pocket, and the discussion swung decidedly in her favor.
"Tell him this will be a deposit. Good faith, you know." Ellie said as the old man eyed the bill. "He can have the scroll back in the morning, but I want the money back too."
"No, a thousand times," replied the young shepherd, shaking his head firmly. "He keeps the money, and we take the scroll in the morning."
"But you promise to return two weeks from today with the rest of the scrolls?" asked Ellie. "And the five pounds is off the purchase price if the professor decides to take them." Her eyes narrowed shrewdly as she tried out her bargaining ability.
The young man repeated the offer to his father who immediately was lost in deep thought. After a moment of coy considerationmore show than substance, Ellie thought, amusedhe snatched the bill from her hand, rejoicing in a torrent of happy Aramaic. Just as Miriam entered with the tray of steaming tea, he embraced his son energetically and strode out of the study and through the front door, triumphantly waving the five-pound note. Scroll rental, thought Ellie. Something new in Palestine.
"Tomorrow morning, then." The young Arab bowed and took his leave.
"Yes, if I'm still breathing," moaned Ellie, laying her head on the desk.
"May our gracious Lord will it so," said Miriam matter-of-factly as she set the tray on the desk. "Will you have tea in bed?" she inquired.
Ellie raised her head and peered at the old woman. "No, Miriam. Tea in the photo lab."
As Ellie prepared the scroll for photographing, moving about the lab to gather up materials, she mused over her earlier confrontation with Miriam. The eighty-year-old housekeeper fancied herself in charge, determined to make a respectable young woman out of the professor's flighty, unconventional niece. Eccentric, dominant, yet solicitous of Ellie's welfare, Miriam had taken upon herself the responsibility of the red-haired photographer.
"I told them you were not well," Miriam had said when she woke Ellie to meet the Bedouin shepherds, "but it is very important they speak with you. Utmost urgently. For if they go they may not come again for some time. Drink your tea and I will help you get dressed." Miriam had shuffled over to the closet and begun sifting through Ellie's clothes. "So many beautiful dresses that you have, yet never wear," Miriam chided.
"You want me to wear an angora sweater to the dig?" Ellie sniffed defensively.
"Should we not share our abundance? If you do not wear these things, there are so many Jewish refugees at the docks. Poor women ..."
"I'm not planning on rooting around Palestine forever. When I'm done here I'm going to Europe. Paris and London. Civilization, you know." She blew her nose and sat up. Catching a glimpse of her reflection in the mirror, she groaned and sank back to her pillow. "Look at me, Miriam. I'm death warmed over. I can't see anybody ..."
"No matter how you look. This is only Jerusalem. The men who wish to see you, only Bedouin shepherds. They are very ignorant. All day they look at goats. They will think you are beautiful." There was an amused twinkle in the old woman's eyes as she selected a pair of khaki trousers and a shirt to match. "It is more important you look like an archaeologist right now I think." She laid the clothes on Ellie's bed.
"You're getting me up to see Bedouin shepherds? Out of bed?"
Miriam placed a cool hand on Ellie's forehead. "The professor shall be much relieved that you have no more fever."
"If you like I shall bring the Bedouins here to your bedside?" Miriam suggested mildly.
Ellie sat up and swung her legs out from the covers. "This better be something, Miriam. It better be." She had been helpless under Miriam's firm gaze.
Ellie chuckled as she remembered the bluff, her hands moving expertly to load the film and set the light meter.
As Miriam came in with the tea, Ellie was spreading out the scroll across the large table in the center of the laboratory.
"Jesus looks out for you, my Ellie," Miriam said, "but you got to help yourself as well. Come, have tea. And here" she offered Ellie a box of tissues.
What I wouldn't give right now, Ellie thought, for American Kleenex! The toilet paper was bad enough, but the stuff these people blew their noses on was a hybrid of cornhusks and sandpaperguaranteed to scrape away the germs, skin and all.
"Thanks," Ellie grunted, her tone not at all evidencing any thankfulness. But she sniffed appreciatively at the scent of the tea and sat down heavily, cup in hand, to examine the scroll.
Miriam lightly touched the back of her hand to Ellie's forehead. With that, the old woman shuffled out the door and closed it behind her.
Where in the world, Ellie wondered, did Uncle Howard ever find Miriam? This Arab woman could hold her own with the best of her nation's bargainers, yet her sharp tongue was tempered by her instinct to mother anyone who needed her care; she was a woman who, to Ellie's amazement, believed in God and spoke of Him as if He were real. Most of the Jews in Jerusalem had given up the hope of Messiah; those who still held on to their hope expected a military zealot. But Miriam, this ancient Arab, believed in Yeshua, and took Him as her Allah.
Wiping her hands on her khaki slacks, Ellie gently touched the fragile scroll. Ellie believed little of religion for herself; indeed, she had rarely thought deeply enough to come to the right questions.
She sighed and looked up at the wall, where hung a random scattering of photographs she had taken during the last few months in Palestine. She studied the faces of those she had met in the crooked streets of Jerusalem. They weren't bad as photographs go. Professor Tierney back at UCLA might have packaged them up and sent them off to National Geographic, or at least had them mounted for display in some Graduate Middle Eastern History class. All things considered, Palestine was a photojournalist's heaven. An armed Arab dressed in flowing robes and a tarboosh was better than a picture of a sorority girl at the prom any day of the week. And the cobbled alleyways of the Old City were in every way superior to Westwood Boulevard for photographic interest. For some time now, Ellie had quietly nursed the suspicion that anyone with an ounce of ability could take fantastic photographs in this place. Moshe disagreed. Praising her talent, he told anyone who would listen that she was the Rembrandt of the world of film; that no one had ever captured Jerusalem as she had.
"Something you capture in the faces," he would say, his voice trailing off. "There is something ..."
Ellie was flattered, of course, but she had the feeling Moshe knew about as much concerning photography as she knew about Babylonian cuneiform writing. Still, as she gazed back at the silent eyes looking down at her, there was enough life and soul in those faces that she longed to speak to these she had seen only through the camera's eye.
What was it they all had in common? An Arab merchant framed in the doorway of his shop, a veiled Bedouin woman with a water jug steadied on her head, an Orthodox Jew standing by the Wailing Wall, a small Jewish boy, one of the refugees, standing proudly with his first orange in handsomehow they were all the same picture. They spoke of the samethe same something ... What had made her snap the shutter? She stared at their eyes, and then she knew. These people all belonged somewhere. Not like her. Not like David. They were all like Moshe; all somehow in focus.
Moshe! The thought of him brought a smile to Ellie's lips as she remembered not only his praise of her work, but the lovely richness he had brought to her life. Moshe Sachar was an archaeological linguist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Tall and slender, with rough-hewn features and a deep tan from the sun of his native land, this Jew was a striking contrast to Ellie's fair skin sprinkled finely with freckles, copper-colored hair and green eyes. He was at home among both the souks and the cabbis of the Old City. Arab merchants called out to him and he answered in their native tongue while Ellie stood by bewildered and impressed by the haggling. As often as not, the bargaining centered around her. Rarely did a stroll go by without Moshe being offered twenty camels in trade for the red-headed woman who wore no veil. A deal no sane man would refuse, in the opinion of the male Arab population.
"You're never even tempted?" Ellie teased.
"What? For twenty camels? You're worth at least fifty, and a couple of goats besides," he said, dodging her playful blow.
At age thirty-two, Moshe was unmarried and absolutely devoted to his profession. He was, in fact, the most in-focus man that Ellie had ever known. They had met the same week Ellie arrived in Jerusalem, when Uncle Howard had invited him to dinner to discuss the discovery of jar handles inscribed with the name of the ancient town of Gibeon.
Ellie had heard such excitement in a man's voice only when her brothers discussed the Rose Bowl or laid odds on whether the war would end before they could enlist. For three hours Ellie sat quietly while Uncle Howard and Moshe mulled over the possibility that they had indeed found the ancient site where the men of David and the men of Saul had done battle. Ellie was about to yawn politely and excuse herself when Moshe looked up at her with the deepest brown eyes she had ever seen and said, "I must apologize. For me to babble about ancient battles is sacrilege in the presence of such a beautiful woman. I am afraid I do not provide much of interest to normal conversations."
Ellie had gazed back into the deep pools that looked at her so searchingly and felt herself melt. "Oh, no, Mr. Sachar," she fibbed. "I find it all extremely interesting. Please tell me more about it." A sweet smile and fluttering eyelashes were all it took. The next few months had been filled with heavenly discussions about Babylonian cuneiform writing and the benefits of leather scrolls over copper ones. She found herself actually becoming interested in the subject as well as her teacher.
She truly liked Moshe; maybe their friendship was moving on toward something deeper. Most importantly, when she was near him she never thought about David, never daydreamed of the way he used to hold her or what he had meant in her life.
Ellie's eyes regained their focus on the cryptic writings before her. What, she wondered, would Moshe think of these scrolls? Most likely, she thought, I've just paid five pounds for the Brooklyn Bridge.
The Gates of Zion (THE ZION CHRONICLES) by Bodie Thoene
Copyright © 1986, Bodie Thoene