By Gil Zohar
TZIPORI, Israel – Remember the romance of The Source, James Michener’s blockbuster 1965 novel about an archaeologist excavating in the Holy Land? While Michener’s description of Tel Makor was wholly imaginary, in Israel real-life sagas of archaeology offer more adventure than any fiction possibly could. Forget Harrison Ford who as Indiana Jones – Hollywood’s romanticized conception of an archaeologist – swashbuckled his way through Egypt in the 1981 hit movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. And meet the Mona Lisa of the Galilee.
The lady, whose enigmatic smile and mysterious provenance earned her the comparison to Leonardo da Vinci’s famous canvas, is the piece de resistance of an exquisite 40-square-metre third-century mosaic from a Roman villa in the ancient city of Sepphoris, once the regional capital and largest city of the Galilee, known in Hebrew as Tzippori. The mosaic was discovered in August 1987 by an expedition led by Eric and Carol Meyers, husband and wife archaeologists, both professors at Duke University in Durham, NC. Digging with them was Ehud Netzer, a locally trained archaeologist who teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
In Israel, most excavations are conducted in the summer months, when universities around the world are closed and Near Eastern Studies professors are freed from their lecture halls. While the weather in the semi-arid eastern Mediterranean is unpleasantly hot for those labouring under the sun with picks and trowels, the summer offers the advantage of dry conditions. It doesn’t rain in Israel between April and October, guaranteeing optimal conditions for archaeological spadework.
However, the winter rains may be torrential and erosion threatens every site uncovered in the dry summer. At the end of the 1987 season, the Meyers re-interred the masterpiece they had uncovered. That academic year they sought financing for its preservation. The parents of an interested student generously provided the funds for the mosaic to be transferred to the preservation lab of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
But how does one move a vast and fragile work of art composed of thousands of tiny stone cubes? A layer of gauze and burlap was glued to the mosaic, which was then cut into seven pieces and rolled up onto wooden drums. In Jerusalem, the sections were unrolled onto a new underbedding, after which the glue, gauze and burlap were removed and the sections seamlessly pasted back together again.
The mosaic became a major attraction while temporarily on exhibit in Jerusalem. The Israel Museum’s gift shop sells an 80 cm by 80 cm silk scarf emblazoned with the Galilee Mona Lisa for US$60.
Meanwhile the Jewish National Fund (which engages in afforestation and other infrastructure work in Israel) developed the excavation as a tourist attraction, and built structures and roofed enclosures to protect the antiquities. Today it is a national park.
The mosaic’s central portion consists of 15 panels all executed on an extremely high artistic level. The panels depict the life and times of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and revelry, also known as Bacchus in the Roman empire. Divans ringed the mosaic on three sides, and the parlour itself was presumably a drinking salon in keeping with the theme of the mosaic floor.
One wonders whether orgies took place here, or is that too part of Hollywood’s mythology?
Ms. Mona Lisa is at one end of the mosaic, within a circular series of medallions, most of which depict flora and fauna. Since the work was not signed nor is there an inscription, the identity and origin of its artist remains under debate. He could have been local, though not likely a Jew since the second of the Ten Commandments prohibits making graven images (Exodus 20:3). Or he could have been an itinerant artist from Greece or Rome.
Similarly, the portrait could depict the mistress of the house, or be a stylized picture of feminine pulchritude.
One thing is clear; the Mona Lisa has been attracting a lot of visitors since she was returned from Jerusalem to her Galilee villa. The site, 5 km northwest of Nazareth and 32 km southeast of Haifa, was opened as a national park in 1992. Other archaeological attractions in the forested park include a Crusader fortress rebuilt by Dahr al-Umar – the 18th century Bedouin warlord who controlled the Galilee – a 4,000-seat Roman amphitheatre, a church and monastery, water system and a plebeian residential district. Several other mosaics, equally exquisite, have also been unearthed including one depicting the Nilometer – the gauge used to measure the height of the spring flood of the Nile in the days before the Aswan Dam was built.
Sepphoris is the Greek/Latin name for Tzipori, a city which according to legend has existed since the days of Joshua Ben Nun over three millennia ago. The archaeology record, however, only goes back some 2,100 years to the Hasmonean period. Christian lore calls the city the home of the Virgin Mary’s parents Joachim and Anna, and a resting spot for the three Magi on their way to Bethlehem (Luke 13:32).
Unlike most cities in the Galilee, Sepphoris did not join in the Jews’ revolt against Rome in 66 CE – a catastrophic uprising which led to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem four years later. Thus Sepphoris was spared the destruction of so many other cities in Israel by Rome’s legions.
The undestroyed metropolis soon became a flourishing centre for Jewish scholarship, and from 170 to 200 CE was the famed seat of the Sanhedrin – the 71-member ancient parliament of rabbis. Several synagogues and academies were established, while the pagan population favoured the diversions of the theatre. It was here that Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi (the prince or president of the Sanhedrin) compiled the Mishna or Oral Teaching about 200 CE. The sage was concerned that centuries-old lore, said to have been received by Moses on Mount Sinai and passed down by word of mouth since, would be forgotten as political turmoil prevented students from their mnemonic task of memorization.
Yehudah ha-Nasi was buried in Sepphoris. But unlike Michener’s novel The Source, real-life archaeology is not a fairy tale come true. His grave site has yet to be discovered.
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