Archeology has fascinated me since I was a young boy living in Israel many years ago, not long after the founding of the state in 1948.
At that time, archeology was a national pastime in the young state. It was small wonder, since a number of prominent Israelis were involved in the discipline. Among them was Yigael Yadin, chief of operations for the Haganah during the War of Independence, and his more famous contemporary, Moshe Dayan, who would go on to become chief of staff of the Haganah and defence minister of the fledgling nation.
Both men had a passion for archeology, but Yadin’s was scholarly in nature. In addition to his work on the Dead Sea Scrolls, Yadin went on to excavate a number of prominent sites that grabbed the popular imagination. The best known was Masada, which Yadin excavated in the early 1960s. Masada’s heroic resistance during the first Jewish Revolt against Rome has raised it to iconic status, not only in Israel, but throughout the Jewish world.
However, Yadin also excavated other sites that were not as well known publicly, but just as important historically. Chief among these was the site of Hazor, in the upper Galilee, which Yadin excavated in the late 1950s. In addition to serving as a training ground for the next generation of Israel’s leading archeologists, it also shed light on one of the most important problems in Israel’s early history – the conquest of Canaan, (or the lack thereof, as some scholars now believe).
As all of us know, that conquest was preceded by the Exodus from Egypt and the theophany at Mount Sinai, two of the most pivotal events in our history as a people. For many of us of a certain age, these events were immortalized by Cecil B. DeMille in his epic film, The Ten Commandments.
Films such as DeMille’s The Ten Commandments added to my fascination with our past and led me to spend my life studying it. DeMille was a master of the biblical epic and had also made Samson and Delilah in 1949. (Interestingly DeMille’s mother was Jewish). This film dealt with the formative period of the Judges, which is one of most fascinating eras in Israel’s early history from both an archeological and historical point of view.
When I was growing up in the 1950s Hollywood was producing a whole slew of “sword and sandal” epics, as they came to be called. These films, corny as they may have been, were a source of both fascination and inspiration for a generation. They were an introduction to our phenomenal history and helped to instil in some of us a sense of pride in our inspirational past.
After the horrors of the Holocaust, Hollywood and the new State of Israel showed the world that Jews were capable of heroic acts in both the past and the present.