Cataloging Ancient Inscriptions

By Ofer Aderet,

An ambitious international project led by two adventurous Israeli classicists aims to analyze and catalog every ancient inscription that has been made in Israel. Their meticulous work includes crawling through caves and cellars and Indiana Jones-style adventures.

Over the last few years. Hannah Cotton-Paltiel and Jonathan Price have spent much of their time far from the comfortable confines of the Ivory Tower, crawling through caves with flashlights in their hands, squeezing into crowded old basements and storage spaces, and rummaging through piles of old stones in private collections, churches, and museums around the world. Cotton-Paltiel, who holds the Shalom Horowitz Chair in classics at the Hebrew University, and Price, who chairs the parallel department at Tel Aviv University, are part of the Israeli arm of a unique international project that bears the scientific title Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaeae/Palaestinae.

Work on the project began in 1999 and is expected to be completed in 2017. When it is complete, all of the ancient inscriptions discovered within the borders of the State of Israel will be gathered together in a single comprehensive scientific series. The seven-volume work aims to organize a sea of information that until now consisted of partial, truncated, and widely-scattered items; to track down inscriptions that have never been published; and to offer the widest range of contemporary interpretations for those inscriptions that are already known to scholars.

Hannah Cotton-Paltiel

“This is a unique project, without any historical precedent,” says Cotton-Paltiel. Adds Price: “The idea has been around for several generations, but it’s being realized only now. The final product will provide an invaluable resource for historical research, one which has been lacking until now.”

Through Sisyphean and meticulous efforts combined with elements of Indiana Jones-style detective work, the researchers have managed to locate within Israel some 12,000 texts written between the 4th century BCE and the 7th century CE. “From Alexander to Mohammed, from the Hellenistic period to the Muslim conquest,” as the two scholars put it.

Jonathan Price

Some of the texts are dozens of lines in length; others have only a single word. They are written in more than 10 languages, of which Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Phoenician and Aramaic are only a partial list. They run the gamut from letters and receipts inscribed on bits of pottery, through names of deceased individuals written on ossuaries, to historic inscriptions that commemorate important events, people and places. For the contributors, this is the project’s most important innovation. It breaks with earlier practice by documenting, side-by-side, multilingual inscriptions that belong to the various peoples that lived in Israel. “Georgians, Armenians, Romans, Greeks, Syrians – everyone who was here was documented,” says Cotton-Paltiel, “not just the Jewish people.”

In similar projects to date it was the custom to sort inscriptions by language and publish each of them separately. “That division is old-fashioned,” Cotton-Paltiel says. “We present them all together, as they are, as an authentic expression of the different societies and cultures that coexisted in our region, and which deserve to be presented in an egalitarian manner.”

Among the inscriptions is one in Greek from the Temple compound in Jerusalem that bars gentiles from entering the Temple Mount, and a Hebrew inscription: “Lebeit hatekiya,” which was placed in the southwestern corner of the Mount, indicating the site where a shofar was blown to announce the beginning and end of the Sabbath.

“Inscriptions are an important and unique historical source,” explains Price. “They provide information in many areas that no other source can provide. It’s not just about documenting empires, but also about the history of family, religion, language, and culture.”

“Some complement, revise, or contradict information that exists in other sources,” adds Cotton-Paltiel. “There are some matters about which there is no history except from inscriptions – information that no literary source could give you.”

One part of the project involves collecting, documenting and cataloging all of the scholarly information that already exists about the known inscriptions. Another part is locating new inscriptions. In several cases, the researchers discovered pieces of the same inscription in different places, and assembled them like a jigsaw puzzle.

“We did not find a personal letter written by Jesus, but from our standpoint,” says Price, “any discovery made of a name we did not know before is an important addition. It is no exaggeration to say that we took people who were completely lost to history and restored them to the written record.”

Language mastery
The nerve center for the Corpus Inscriptionum project is a small and crowded room on the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University. An enormous filing cabinet on one wall holds all of the information that the researchers have managed to unearth about each and every inscription. Over the years they have combed through journals, encyclopedias, books, and monographs going back to the 18th century in search of details about the inscriptions.

Every scrap of information yielded by these sources about any inscription that was ever discovered in Israel is filed here by industrious students. Their qualifications include studying for a degree in classics or ancient history, and knowledge of the relevant languages. Cotton-Paltiel elaborates: “We are not talking about just anyone: These are young people, some of them from abroad, who have mastered Greek, Latin, Aramaic and Syriac, and the Talmud as well.”

The scholars are also attempting to photograph or else obtain photographic documentation of as many inscriptions as possible. “We want to see every inscription that can be seen with our own eyes,” explains Cotton-Paltiel. “It is not always possible. There are inscriptions that have been lost, have disappeared, or been broken, or that were sold on the antiquities market to private hands.”

To this end, the researchers enlisted two photographers who know the country inside and out, with whom they scour all the relevant sites where inscriptions are to be found. A partial list includes churches, museums, private collections, and warehouses. And not only in Israel: Thus, for example, Prof. Price found himself one day in an abandoned wine cellar in Oslo. The story of what brought him there begins at the end of the 19th century, and involves a colorful and eccentric man who became very famous in the port city of Jaffa in those days.

Plato von Ustinov was a Russian aristocrat who became a German Protestant. After getting to know members of the German Templar movement, he moved to Jaffa and built an estate there. Ustinov, whose grandson was the late actor Peter Ustinov, was a well-known antiquities collector. He lived in Jaffa for 30 years and enriched his collection with local antiquities. “The local Arabs learned that there was a mad Russian who paid good money for antiquities,” says Price, “and they would bring him thousands of artifacts that they found in burial caves and local excavations.”

In 1913 Ustinov returned to Europe, where he died a few years later. His collection eventually wound up in Oslo. In the 1970s it was traced to an abandoned warehouse by the late archaeologist and journalist Zvi Ilan. Some of the inscriptions were put on display at a local museum, but many others remained far from scholarly eyes.

“Everyone thought it had been lost. Nobody knew what had happened to that collection,” says Price, whose own research had led him to Oslo, where “they were very excited to hear that there was still someone who was interested in these inscriptions and wanted to publish them,” he recollects. “When we arrived,” Price adds, “at first they thought that we had come to try to return the antiquities to Israel.” After some persuasion, however, they were permitted to arrange and photograph all of the items, a task that took several days.

Off-limits locales
One of Cotton-Paltiel’s tasks was to contact all of the religious institutions in Jerusalem. She says that all of them, including the museum of the Muslim Waqf (religious trust), responded with great cooperation. The Greek patriarch, for example, issued a special permit giving the scholars access to all the churches and monasteries under his supervision, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Accompanied by a priest and an architect, Cotton-Paltiel discovered genuine treasures inside that church, the traditional site of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus. She says they found some stones with inscriptions that had nothing to do with the church, which had apparently been “recycled” from other sites—i.e., used to plug up holes in the wall.

The high point of the visit occurred when they entered a room otherwise closed to the public, whose key is held only by an Armenian priest. “He opened the door for us, and there we saw an awfully famous Latin inscription left by Christian pilgrims,” she reconstructs excitedly. She photographed and documented it, of course.

The instincts that Price and Cotton-Paltiel have developed allow them to easily recognize and weed out attempted forgeries. For example, Cotton-Paltiel has learned from experience that “there is no such thing as a complete inscription on a stone that is broken on all sides.”

Other cases demand more careful scrutiny. “Occasionally you read in the paper about sensations such as inscriptions connected to the brother of Jesus, and so on,” explains Cotton-Paltiel. “We will go check them out for ourselves. In many cases we found that in a place where other people found riches beyond the imagination, there were merely worthless stones.”

Recently, a front-page story in this newspaper included a photograph of an inscription that was discovered of late in a cave beneath a residential building in Jerusalem’s Armon Hanatziv neighborhood. The person who made the discovery is Simcha Jacobovici, a journalist and filmmaker who deals in archaeology. The article said that he believes the discovery is earth-shattering and could potentially change everything we know about Christianity and its founder.
As in similar cases, Price is maintaining a guarded suspicion for now. “I won’t believe it until I see it for myself,” he says.

“There isn’t a museum in the country we haven’t been through or that isn’t on our list,” adds Cotton-Paltiel. “They open the warehouses for us as well and we come there with porters, arrange the findings, and document them.” The Israel Antiquities Authority, for example, cooperates with them regularly. “We have unofficially become an affiliate of theirs. They feel we are a national project.”

In addition, she says they “are in contact with every museum in the world that has antiquities that originated in Israel.” Some of them, such as the British Museum and the Louvre, demand payment for the information they provide.

The sea is the only place they have yet to search. “We don’t have enough time, but there are loads of things there—inscribed jars and weights, for example,” Cotton-Paltiel says.

Renowned scholars
As one might expect, the project comprises renowned scholars in a variety of fields, who complement each other’s knowledge. Thus, historians work alongside philologists and archaeologists. The distinguished list of participants includes: Benjamin Isaac, professor of ancient history at Tel Aviv University; paleographer Dr. Ada Yardeni, author of The Book of Hebrew Script and designer of a Hebrew typeface that bears her name; Dr. Haggai Misgav and Dr. Leah Di Segni, both epigraphers from the Hebrew University’s Institute of Archaeology; and Prof. Alla Kushnir-Stein, an expert on Land of Israel history and epigraphy from Tel Aviv University.

The project’s digital database contains a record of the written and photographed material and its scholarly analysis. It already contains several thousand gigabytes of material. After the material has been collected and analyzed in Israel, it is sent to the University of Cologne, location of the second arm of the project. Leading the German branch are professors Werner Eck and Walter Ameling, historians and epigraphists who are considered the leading experts in their field worldwide. Working alongside them is Marfa Heimbach, who built an electronic database customized to the needs of the project. Funding for the project also comes primarily from Germany. The DFG, the German Research Foundation, has already provided some 1 million euros and is expected to continue to fund the endeavor.

So far, two of the seven projected volumes in the series have been published: the first section of the first volume on Jerusalem inscriptions and the second covering Caesarea and the mid-coastal area. In the near future, a second section of the volume on Jerusalem will appear, and it will be followed by, among others, volumes on Jaffa and the southern coast (between Tel Aviv and Rafah ); the Negev (including Nabatean inscriptions and inscriptions in the language of desert tribes ); Ein Gedi and Masada; the Jerusalem environs; and the Galilee.

The work on the Galilee region is the biggest and most important part of the project, encompassing the largest numbers of churches and synagogues—”a massive amount of work, a significant share of which has never been published,” Cotton-Paltiel says. Once the entire series has been published and the issue of copyright has been settled, it will also be made available online.

And what about inscriptions situated in sites within the Palestinian Authority? “At an early stage, efforts were made to bring Palestinian scholars onto the team of editors for the project,” responds Cotton-Paltiel. Despite the initial enthusiasm, for reasons not in control of either party, the cooperation “did not reach fruition.” Hence, she acknowledges, “At the moment our project is limited to the State of Israel.” In the future, she hopes, the project’s scholars or their successors will be able to complete the job also in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The World’s Worst Religious Persecutors

By Nina Shea

In March, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its 14th annual report, which it is mandated to do under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. The report identifies the world’s worst persecutors and makes foreign-policy recommendations, which are non-binding, to the administration and Congress. Its decisions are based on the agency’s visits to foreign countries, and a wide array of other sources, including the State Department’ s own excellent annual compilation of worldwide religious-freedom violations. The commission is distinctive because it is an independent federal agency, and it is to make its name-and-shame lists and policy recommendations unburdened by foreign-policy considerations other than the defense of religious freedom.

This year, USCIRF named 16 countries as the most egregious and systematic religious freedom violators in the world and recommended them for official “Country of Concern” (CPC) designation by the U.S. State Department. They are:

Burma, China, Egypt, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, (north) Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam.

I thought Afghanistan should be on the list as well and said so in my dissent, which is excerpted further down in this column.

Christians, Jews, Baha’is, Mandeans, Ahmadiyas, Rohingya Muslims, Yizidis, Alevis, Shiite and Ismaili Muslims in Saudi Arabia, African traditional believers in Sudan, Uighur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, Falun Gong practitioners, Sufi Muslims, Pakistani Hindus, independent Buddhists in Vietnam, Cao Dai, and many others groups and individuals are persecuted in these 16 countries. They suffer arrest, torture, imprisonment, and even death for religious reasons, as well as other pressures. All these groups are covered in the USCIRF report.

Christians are far from the only religious group persecuted in these countries. But, Christians are the only group persecuted in each and every one of them. This pattern has been found by sources as diverse as the Vatican, Open Doors, Pew Research Center, Newsweek, and The Economist, all of which recently reported that an overwhelming majority of the religiously persecuted around the world are Christians. Globally, this persecution is experienced by all Christian faith traditions from Pentecostal and evangelical to Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox.

Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, calls this the “Ecumenism of the Martyrs.” As the Cardinal put it: “While we as Christians and as churches live on this Earth in an as yet imperfect communion, the martyrs in their celestial glory find themselves in full and perfect communion.”

In many cases the persecution is at the hands of the government, as, for example, in China, Burma, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, but often, in places like Nigeria and Iraq, it is committed by religious extremists and vigilantes in the society who operate within a climate of impunity. In Pakistan and Egypt persecution is sponsored by all three — the authorities, extremist groups, and vigilantes.

Persecution is intensifying now in the Muslim world, as documented throughout the USCIRF report. Each year, the report’s cover reflects a signal event in the global landscape of religious persecution. This year’s bears a photo of Egyptian mourners gathered in central Cairo on October 13, 2011, in honor of some 25 Coptic Christians killed days before by the Egyptian military during a demonstration over an attack on a church. The commission decided it was important to single out the Copts. There are rising fears for them now that Egypt will be governed by Islamists, some of whom, notably from the sizeable Wahhabi or Salafist parliamentarian faction, have openly declared their intent of religious cleansing.

Perhaps there is no more poignant and symbolic an assault on Christianity as a bombing attack against a church full of worshippers on Christmas, or on any Sunday. In recent years, we’ve seen the rise of just such attacks on churches in Egypt, Iraq, and Nigeria. Nigeria’s Catholic bishops report that some 200 individuals, mostly Catholic worshippers, were killed in coordinated Christmas bombings in 2011. In Iraq, there have been 70 documented church bombings over the past eight years.

Turkey, a democracy and NATO member, often held out as a model for the Arab Spring, was put on the USCIRF CPC recommendation list for the first time this year.

This may surprise some. After all, Turkey’s methods of religious control and repression stand in contrast to the bloody, un-self-conscious crackdowns found in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and North Korea.

These days, Turkey uses more sophisticated, subtler measures that are resulting in the elimination of its Christian and non-Muslim minorities. The cudgel is a dense tangle of bureaucratic restrictions that thwart the ability of churches to perpetuate themselves and, in some cases, even to meet together for worship.

Turkey’s Ambassador Tan predictably protested the listing as “unfair.” More surprisingly, after the State Department was tipped off by a USCIRF commissioner who was appointed by Pres. Obama, assistant secretary for human rights Michael Posner “reached out” on Turkey to another commissioner, resulting in his changing his mind after the report was put to bed. The Turkey decision resulted from a new analysis that will stir controversy.

As USCIRF chair Leonard Leo explained, “Some of the countries we recommend for CPC designation maintain intricate webs of discriminatory rules, requirements, and edicts that can impose tremendous burdens for members of religious minority communities, making it difficult for them to function and grow from one generation to the next, potentially threatening their existence.”

In casting my vote to put Turkey on the USCIRF black list, I could not forget the urgent words of a senior Christian religious leader in Turkey, who, out of fear, requested anonymity: “We are an endangered species here in Turkey.” Despite ten years of rule, despite its revolutionary measures in other spheres, such as in the economy, and despite its powerful mandate from the 2011 elections, AK Party’s government has failed to take critical actions in favor of religious freedom. Specifically, it has failed to rescind the regulatory regime that is contributing to its Christian minorities’ steady decline into statistical insignificance, now numbering a mere 0.15 percent.

Turkey’s Christian minorities struggle to find places in which they can worship, are denied seminaries in which to train future leaders, are barred from wearing clerical garb in public, see the trials of the murderers of their prominent members end with impunity, and, above all, lack the legal right to be recognized as churches so that their members can be assured of their rights to gather freely in sacred spaces for religious marriages, funerals, and baptisms, and otherwise carry out the full practice of their respective religions.

Turkey’s laws, aimed at promoting extreme secular nationalism, also encourage a culture of animosity toward Christians, who are seen to undermine “Turkishness,” despite Christianity’s 2,000-year presence there. Even starting a discussion about the genocide of Christians that occurred 100 years ago is a criminal offense in Turkey. Armenian editor Hrant Dink, who was assassinated in 2006, was himself convicted of “insulting Turkishness” for trying to do so.

Last year marked the 40th year that the Greek Orthodox seminary of Halki remained closed and in government hands. The Greek Orthodox community now numbers less than 2,000, and remains unable to educate and train its clergy. Indeed, none of the Christians groups in Turkey is permitted to train its leaders in the country. The Armenian Church is anxious to train more priests, and, in 2006, petitioned the education minister to allow the establishment of a state university faculty on Christian theology including instruction by the Patriarchate. Their request was ignored again throughout the past year.

The Syriac Orthodox community continued to be denied permission to have a second church to accommodate its flock of 20,000 in Istanbul, where the group has gathered for security after having been driven by violence out of its traditional lands over the last century. In 2010, the Supreme Court had granted the state’ s treasury parts of the 1,600 year old Mor Gabriel monastery, a site that is a second Jerusalem for the Syriacs. In November 2011, the government removed from museum status St Sophia church in Iznik — where the first Christian Ecumenical Council had met in A.D. 325 — and turned it into a mosque.

In a recent interview, Protestant Association chair Zekai Tanyar expressed their frustrations with government meetings in trying to navigate the regulations to open a church:
These visits do not go beyond polite stalling. . . . Churches find themselves shuttled between municipalities and governorships in their search for a solution to this problem. Even if one municipality responds positively, often the state Governor does not give approval. Sometimes the authorities respond with ridiculous excuses saying “there are not enough Christians in the neighborhood.” So are we supposed to do head counts and form ghettos?

Another describes the relentless pressure faced by Christian converts, who are officially supposed to be legal:
They have to contest for every inch of legal territory. They are constantly surveilled by national-security agencies. They have been threatened, attacked, hauled into court on bogus charges, and even brutally murdered by ultra-nationalists linked to a nationwide plot to destabilize the Turkish government. It is a disheartening, and sometimes dangerous, environment in which to worship and share one’s faith. Although many Turkish congregations meet quietly and safely on a Sunday, no group anywhere in the country meets without carefully taking the measure of each new person who walks through the door.

The AKP government points to some improvements for Christians, including the addition of worship services allowed for a particular church, citizenship for the leaders of another, and accurate national-identity cards for converts. But, overall, the downward trajectory continues for Turkey’s Christian communities.

* * *

I believe that Afghanistan, too, belongs in the ranks of the world’s worst religious persecutors. Apart from the depredations of the Taliban, Afghanistan’ s government under President Karzai fails to respect religious freedom, and its violations are egregious, ongoing, and systematic, thus meeting the statutory standard for CPC designation. The State Department’s recent religious-freedom report on Afghanistan found:
The government’s level of respect for religious freedom in law and in practice declined during the reporting period, particularly for Christian groups and individuals.

An example was the razing of that country’ s last remaining church after its 99-year lease was cancelled, as the State Department reported last September. This event did not draw the international protest that accompanied the Taliban’ s detonation of the Bamiyan Buddhist statues in 2001, but, with respect to the status of religious freedom, it is equally emblematic.

Afghanistan, therefore, has now joined the lonely company of hardline Saudi Arabia as a country with no churches. The millions of Christians in Afghanistan, including some very beleaguered and oft-jailed converts, must hide their faith and seek the protection and secrecy of walled embassy compounds to pray in community.

Furthermore, we learn from the State Department report that, in addition to Christians, particular “targets of discrimination and persecution” are Hindu and Sikh groups.

The one synagogue, located in Kabul, is shuttered because Jews dare not venture there.

The USCIRF report itself states:
Conditions for religious freedom are exceedingly poor for dissenting members of the majority faith and for minority religious communities. The Afghan constitution fails explicitly to protect the individual right to freedom of religion or belief and allows other fundamental rights to be superseded by ordinary legislation. It also contains a repugnancy clause stating that no law can be contrary to the tenets of Islam, which the government has interpreted to limit fundamental freedoms. Individuals who dissent from the prevailing orthodoxy regarding Islamic beliefs and practices are subject to legal action that violates international standards, for example prosecutions for religious crimes such as apostasy and blasphemy. In addition, the Afghan government remains unable, as well as at times unwilling, to protect citizens against violence and intimidation by the Taliban and other illegal armed groups.

The Afghan government’s slide into extreme intolerance accelerated this month when, at the behest of his senior Islamic advisers, President Karzai publicly backed their statement that women should not mingle with men in workplaces, schools or other areas of daily life, and should not travel without a male relative, according to a March 6 BBC report.

For anyone concerned about human rights and religious freedom, the USCIRF report is unsettling but important reading.

— Nina Shea is a commissioner on the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom, and director of Hudson Institute’s Center on Religious Freedom.

Iran Claims It’s Reproducing Captured U.S. Drone

By The Associated Press

Iran claimed Sunday that it had reverse-engineered an American spy drone captured by its armed forces last year and has begun building a copy.

Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, chief of the aerospace division of the powerful Revolutionary Guards, related what he said were details of the aircraft’s operational history to prove his claim that Tehran’s military experts had extracted data from the U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel captured in December in eastern Iran, state television reported.

Among the drone’s past missions, he said, was surveillance of the compound in northwest Pakistan in which Osama Bin Laden lived and was killed.

Tehran has flaunted the capture of the Sentinel, a top-secret surveillance drone with stealth technology, as a victory for Iran and a defeat for the United States in a complicated intelligence and technological battle.

U.S. officials have acknowledged losing the drone. They have said Iran will find it hard to exploit any data and technology aboard it because of measures taken to limit the intelligence value of drones operating over hostile territory.

Hajizadeh told state television that the captured surveillance drone is a “national asset” for Iran and that he could not reveal full technical details. But he did provide some samples of the data that he claimed Iranian experts had recovered.

“There is almost no part hidden to us in this aircraft. We recovered part of the data that had been erased. There were many codes and characters. But we deciphered them by the grace of God,” Hajizadeh said.

He said all operations carried out by the drone had been recorded in the memory of the aircraft, including maintenance and testing.

Hajizadeh claimed that the drone flew over Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan two weeks before the al-Qaeda leader was killed there in May 2011 by U.S. Navy SEALs. He did not say how the Iranian experts knew this.

Before that, he said, “this drone was in California on Oct. 16, 2010, for some technical work and was taken to Kandahar in Afghanistan on Nov. 18, 2010. It conducted flights there but apparently faced problems and (U.S. experts) were unable to fix it,” he said.

Hajizadeh said the drone was taken to Los Angeles in December 2010 where sensors of the aircraft underwent testing at an aerospace factory.

“If we had not achieved access to software and hardware of this aircraft, we would be unable to get these details. Our experts are fully dominant over sections and programs of this plane,” he said. “It’s not that we can bring down a drone but cannot recover the data.”

There are concerns in the U.S. that Iran or other states may be able to reverse-engineer the chemical composition of the drone’s radar-deflecting paint or the aircraft’s sophisticated optics technology that allows operators to positively identify terror suspects from tens of thousands of feet in the air.

There are also worries that adversaries may be able to hack into the drone’s database, as Iran claimed to have done. Some surveillance technologies allow video to stream through to operators on the ground but do not store much collected data. If they do, it is encrypted.

Media reports claimed this week that Russia and China have asked Tehran to provide them with information on the drone but Iran’s Defense Ministry denied this.