JERUSALEM (Jul. 11)
Just weeks after Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt in 1967, Israeli archaeologists began a series of groundbreaking excavations that continued until the country’s withdrawal from the area in 1982.
Digging in a region that had been virtually ignored by the international scientific community, the Israelis unearthed a wealth of artifacts and skeletons, many dating back over 5,000 years.
In a few months, Israel will return the last of these archeological treasures to Egypt, under the terms of the 1979 peace accord between the two countries.
To usher out the end of an era, the Israel Museum last week launched the exhibit, “Sinai: A Farewell for Peace.” Scheduled to close on September 12, this exhibit marks the first — and possibly last — time that the Sinai artifacts will be displayed to the Israeli public.
Thanks to the region’s dry climate, many of the finds are in remarkably good condition.
Foremost among these are hundreds of cloth and basketry fragments from the 14th century C.E.; painted funerary masks from the 4th-5th century BCE; and a group of “nawamis” — round stone structures that served as burial tombs. More than 5,000 years old, they are the oldest structures in the world to have survived with their roofs intact. Some of the structures contained the remains of entire families.
During a press tour of the exhibit prior to its opening, Israeli archaeologists recalled their “love affair” with Sinai and the unique discoveries made there.
Avner Goren, the archaeologist in charge of Sinai excavations for some 15 years, noted that the initial excavations were borne out of practical necessity.
When Israel gained control of the peninsula, it immediately began to build an infrastructure. “One of our main goals was to protect sites from being destroyed when roads were constructed,” Goren said, “and another problem was curious tourists who explored half-exposed ruins. Truthfully, our work began as a salvation excavation.”
At the time, Goren added, the Israeli excavators felt like pioneers. “Sinai was virtually unknown to archaeologists. Very few sites had been excavated. There was St. Catherine’s Monastery and a few places, mostly along the main road.”
A WILDERNESS ‘WITH A HUMAN TOUCH’
During the archaeologists’ 15 years in the Sinai, “we got to know the place and fall in love with it,” Goren said. “It was a wilderness, but with a human touch. Bedouins live there. My children grew up among the Bedouins.”
It was the Bedouins who helped the Israelis identify potential sites, Goren noted. “They are familiar with the area and helped us very much,” he said.
Once a possible site had been identified, the archaeologists employed a number of high-tech research tools, including satellite mapping,, to determine what lay beneath centuries’ worth of soil and sand.
In all, the Israelis — most notably teams from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, the Israel Antiquities Department and Tel Aviv University — excavated about 19 sites throughout Sinai.
Asked whether he and his colleagues feel some regret handing over the artifacts to the Egyptians, Goren replied, “I do, of course, have a personal attachment to these things, but you must remember that even if they stayed in Israel, I would not keep them in my home. They belong in a museum.
“When you find things, you want them to contribute to a bank of knowledge. When we were in Sinai, we had a small museum at St. Catherine’s,” he said.
“In a way, these things are going back to their rightful place,” Goren added. “They belong to Egypt, and we were aware of it all along. We were working in Sinai like foreign archaeologists work here. Ultimately, the finds belong to the country being excavated.”
In Israel to attend the exhibit’s opening, Mohammed Abdul, general director of Sinai excavations for the Egyptian Antiquities Authority, stressed that the upcoming transfer is an outgrowth of the peaceful, cooperative relations that exist between Israel and Egypt.
Standing next to Goren, Abdul said, “We are not here only to take the objects, but to celebrate the opening with our dear friends and colleagues.”