The ruins of ancient Ai, the modern Et Tell, are an imposing heap of stones not far from the city of Ramallah. They are found just beside the modern Arab village of Deir Dibwan.
I first became aware of their existence almost 40 years ago when I was one of a handful of students chosen to be part of a Canadian university contingent that was to excavate this important site. We were excited, since this was the first time Canadians would be involved in a major excavation since the legendary Kathleen Kenyon had stopped her work in Jerusalem after the Six Day War.
The site of Ai had first been excavated in the early 1930s by Judith Marquet-Krause, a brilliant, young Jewish-French archeologist who died tragically before she was able to finish her excavations. The site is crucial to the ongoing debate about the historical veracity of the Israelite conquest. The Bible ascribes its capture to Joshua and the Israelite army, but archeology seems to paint a different picture, indicating that the site of Ai had been in ruins since the end of the third millennium BCE.
Attempts have been made to reconcile the two versions, either by describing Joshua’s conquest as an etiology, which means that the story of the existing ruin was ascribed to a more familiar figure such as Joshua, or by saying, as some scholars have done, that the conquest of nearby Bethel was transferred to Ai. Regardless, for me, that summer of 1968 was an amazing adventure.
Living among the Arab population of Deir Dibwan was an eye-opening experience. Once, my cousin Danny, who was an officer in the Israeli army, came looking for me. The Arabs, not knowing that he was my relative, assumed that I was in trouble with the authorities and tried to protect me by disavowing any knowledge of me or my whereabouts. I became an instant hero in the village as a fugitive from the Israelis.
For me, the excavations were more of a concern than my newfound heroic status among the Arabs. And indeed, we did find some amazing things. One of them was a large expanse of wall more than three metres high dating from the middle of the Early Bronze Age, around 2600 BCE. It was a phenomenal find from the dawn of civilization and showed that Canaan had been more than just a cultural backwater between the splendid and awe-inspiring civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt.
We found strong proof of Egyptian presence on the citadel, or acropolis, where the remains of the palace showed evidence of having been fashioned with an Egyptian saw at about the same time as the Pyramids were starting to be built.
Separated by about 3,000 years from the acropolis and located a short distance further down the wadi, leading from the top of the tell to the Jordan Valley, we came upon the remains of a Byzantine monastery. (The term Byzantine refers to the period in Israel after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century CE, as well as to the eastern part of the Roman Empire, including Israel, that survived the fall of the Roman Empire in the West). It was an exceptionally well-preserved complex that revealed much about monastic life from this period, which lasted until its destruction during the Arab conquest in 638 CE.
I got quite a shock when one of our workers pointed to a nearby Arab village and asked if I knew a friend of his from there. I was puzzled as to how I was expected to know a young Arab from a small village thousands of miles from my residence in Toronto until our worker told me the man’s name and I was frozen with horror. This was the home of Sirhan Sirhan, the man who had assassinated Robert Kennedy just before I embarked on my voyage of discovery. The past had come forward into the present for me with chilling reality.