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ANCIENT HOLY LAND

Reprinted by permission from "Artifacts of Ancient Civilizations" by Alex G. Malloy

The term “Holy Land” has been used rather loosely by scholars and laymen alike. It is often to refer to the modern state of Israel, e.g., “visit the Holy Land on El Al airlines.” In addition to this usage, the area of Syria and Palestine known in Biblical times as the land of Canaan is sometimes called by Biblical scholars “the Holy Land.” For this reason in Jewish and Christian popular usage, this land of Canaan is also known as the Holy Land or the Promised Land. In the art world today the term Holy Land most often today refers to an area which encompasses in whole or in part the modern countries of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the Sinai area of Egypt, and Israel. This area is referred to as the Holy Land by students of ancient art because most of the major events of the Judaeo-Christian Bible occurred within its borders and it is thus the focus of Biblical archaeology. For example, the Kingdom of Israel under David and Solomon when it reached its greatest extent included most of this area.

As we noted above the Bible sometimes refers to the area or various parts of it as the land of Canaan. In Biblical times, Canaan was usually defined as the part of Syria and Palestine lying between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River where Israel arose c. 1200 B.C. The name is probably derived from a term meaning “maker or dealer in purple-dyed goods.” In the Bible, Canaanite sometimes has the technical meaning of “merchant” (see Isaiah 23:8 for example). It was inhabited by a number of different peoples and tribes mostly of Semitic origin. The Bible mentions the Jebusites, Hivites, Amorites, and Hittites, among others. The culture of these “Canaanites” extended back to at least the Neolithic period as excavations have shown. Important Biblical sites such as Beersheba were established as early as the Chalcolithic period. Canaanite culture was, by no means, as uniform as Egyptian culture. Canaanite are was eclectic in nature. Although many of the ornaments are Egyptian, the figures wear Asiatic dress, and the many depictions of lions found are a feature of Assyrian or Hittite art. The famed Megiddo ivories dating from the 13th century B.C. are a good example. They reflect the same mixture of styles, plus a strong Aegean influence as well. Canaanite civilization for the most part did not produce great monuments like those found in Egypt and Mesopotamia, but its physical remains, pottery, bronzes, jewelry, etc., shed much illumination on the life of its people. It reached its height in the Bronze Age when the mythic epics of the Canaanite deities such as Baal, Astarte, and local deities such as Melqarth formed the basis of the synchristic religion of the people throughout the area. Political power was for a new cultural identity, although much of the materials artifacts showed little change. This was probably because Canaanite culture, including the material culture and art forms, its Semitic language, and literary forms, as well as some religious ideas and practices, were shared by the concurring Israelites. Other aspects of the Canaanite culture were anathema, such as sacred prostitution and human sacrifice. For this reason the Bible tells us that the Lord commanded the Israelites to destroy the Canaanites. According to the Biblical narrative, following the conquest the great Canaanite city states lay in ruins and the belief in monotheism, which was at the core of the Hebrew religion, gradually took a firm hold on the people. Soon after Israel’s emergence in Canaan, three new terms tended to replace Canaan in general usage: Israel for the interior highlands, the stronghold of the Israelites; Phoenicia for the northern coast which maintained its “Canaanite” character; and Philistia for the southern coast which had been conquered by the “Sea Peoples,” the Philistines of the Bible.

The Kingdom of Israel was the name both of the United Kingdom of the Israelites under Kings Saul, David, and Solomon (c. 1020-c. 922 B.C.) and of the political unit formed by the ten northernmost Israelite tribes (Asher, Dan, Ephraim, Gad, Issachar, Manasseh, Naphtali, Ruben, Simeon, and Zebulun) when they revolted against the Davidic dynasty after the death of Solomon. The territory of the latter included what was left of the Davidic dynasty’s holdings east of the Jordan River and extended south to a few kilometers north of Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, where the Davidic dynasty still held power. The Northern Kingdom’s own capital moved several times until King Omri finally established it permanently at Samaria c. 875 B.C.

The first king of Israel, the Northern Kingdom, was Jeroboam but he failed to establish a firm dynasty. Throughout its short history Israel was continually rocked by bloody dynastic changes. The small nation was constantly harassed by strong enemies and experienced only two brief periods of expansion in the 9th and 8th centuries before it was destroyed by Assyria in 722-721 B.C.

When King Solomon died in 922 B.C., ancient Israel was divided into the Southern Kingdom of Judah and the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Comprising the tribes of Benjamin and Judah, the Southern Kingdom outlasted its Northern rival, perhaps because of the strength of its capital, Jerusalem. Judah collapsed in 587 B.C. when it was overrun by the Babylonians remains of Solomon’s temple, for example), their cultural and religious legacy was great.

Phoenicia was the ancient Greek name for the area extending from Mount Carmel north to the Eleutherus River in Syria. The Phoenicians were linguistically and culturally related to the Canaanites.

Already inhabited in Paleolithic times, Phoenicia developed into a manufacturing and trading center early in Near Eastern history. Cedars from its mountainous hinterland were imported by the Old Kingdom Egyptians c. 2800-c. 2200 B.C. By the 2nd millennium B.C. a number of Phoenician and Syrian cities achieved preeminence as seaports and vigorously traded in purple dyes and dyestuffs, glass, cedar wood, wine, weapons, and metal and ivory artifacts.

Divide by the Lebanon Mountains into small, loosely leagued city-states, Phoenicia was never politically strong. During Phoenicia’s period of independence, individual Phoenician cities interacted with the rising state of Israel. In the 10th century B.C., King Solomon employed men and materials supplied by Hiram of Tyre to build his temple at Jerusalem. He joined with Hiram in sending sailing expeditions into the Red Sea and possibly also into the Mediterranean. The Bible also records personal and political contacts between the kings of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and Phoenician rulers.

During the early years of the 1st millennium B.C., Phoenicians explored the Mediterranean and perhaps even farther. During this period the Phoenician culture reached its peak. The Phoenician alphabet, devised in the 2nd millennium B.C. and adapted by the Greeks about 800 B.C. or earlier, was subsequently transmitted to Western Europe through Rome.

Phoenician art represents a direct extension of pre-existing Canaanite traditions and, as such, displays much eclecticism, drawing forms and motifs from the art of contemporary civilizations. This blending of motifs of diverse origins to create original and aesthetically unified art objects is a basic characteristic of all Phoenician art. The art of the Phoenicians in the west shows a similar blending, with an admixture of local ideas. Skilled in most media, Phoenician artist excelled in glass making, ivory carving, metal engraving, ornamental sculpture, and gold jewelry, as well as pottery and terracotta sculpture. Much material finds its way into the art market from modern Lebanon, and Phoenician art is sought after by many astute collectors today.

In the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine periods the art of the Holy Land reflected the tastes generally prevalent in the times. As a somewhat provincial area, however, they are often not in the highest style. The crafts were, however, highly developed; for example, some of the finest glass in the Roman Empire has been found in the Holy Land.

As can readily be see, the art of the Holy Land, both in the pre-Biblical and Biblical periods, and even in the post-Biblical periods, often does not exhibit the technical sophistication and grander of the art of other ancient cultures. It does, however, have a special historical and cultural significance. Many of the “great” finds of Biblical archaeology, like the Dead Sea Scrolls, are noted more for their historic value than their artistic merit. The material remains which do survive, however, particularly those of the common people of the Holy Land, provide endless fascination for the scholar and collector alike.

AMULETS, SEALS AND SCARBS

Seals, scarabs and other small amulets are some of the most interesting items frequently found in the Holy Land excavations. Most amulets are of stone and often represent various animals. They are often highly stylized but realistic types are found as well. Amulets in other materials such as faience are found with some regularity. Seals are usually of the stamp variety often in steatite or other soft stones, but other stones and materials are also found. Cylinder seals in various materials are found with some frequency as well. Many of the scaraboids from the Holy Land date, not surprisingly, to the Hyksos period and are usually made of steatite; in fact, some of the finest Hyksos scarabs known were found in the Holy Land. Scarabs and scaraboids of other periods, some of which exhibit local peculiarities in various materials, are also fairly common.

TOOLS AND WEAPONS

Stone tools and weapons, such as arrow and mace heads, weights, celts and the like, were in use from the Neolithic period onward. Metal arrowheads and other weapons are found in large numbers from the Bronze Age onward and can be easily dated by style and workmanship.

POTTERY

Pottery finds in all periods from the Chalcolithic on are usually extensive, and pottery is the tool archaeologists use most in the Holly Land to date finds. Much work was done by archaeologists to establish the dating of Holy Land pottery and it is now very well established. Although the pottery was often rather simply decorated, sometimes with a nice slip or incised geometric pattern, some periods, such as the bichrome period in the Bronze Age, saw the production of beautifully painted pottery.

TERRACOTTA

Terracotta sculpture, although not as varied as in other areas, was quiet popular in the Holy Land, particularly in the Bronze Age and Greco-Roman Periods. The Bronze Age sculptures are usually rather stylized but the later sculptures are realistic in the Greco-Roman manner. Most represent various deities as usual.

STONE AND GLASS

Stone objects are many and varied from Holy Land excavations, ranging from beautifully decorated ossuaries and sarcophagi to finely modeled stone vessels. Stone sculpture was also common in many periods. Softer stones such as limestone and alabaster seem to have been preferred and local volcanic stones were also in use. Some of the finest glass from Greco-Roman period comes from the Holy Land. Some of the glass makers were so famous they signed their works much as painters do today.

LAMPS

The use of oil lamps in the funerary ritual was an important part of funerary practice in the Holy Land from very early times. Thus literally tens of thousands of lamps were preserved in sealed tombs and graves. For this reason we have a better record of the development of the oil lamp from the Holy Land than we do from many other areas. Lamps were usually of clay, the early ones were in the shape of shallow dishes or shells. By the Greek period, lamps became closed vessels, and in Roman times they were highly decorated with molded scenes. We can learn much about religious beliefs, both pagan and Judaeo-Christian, from the decoration on these lamps. Holy Land oil lamps are much in demand, both by lamp collectors and collectors of antiquities in general.

WRITING

Some of the most important antiquities found in the Holy Land were these written records. This is because any written records from the area might shed some light on the Bible. This is true of a name found on a seal as much as it is of a Dead Sea Biblical scroll. Many different languages and forms of writing were in use during various periods and in various parts of the Holy Land. Texts have been found written on leather, papyrus, and other materials including various metals in a number of languages and scripts, written on clay tablets in cuneiform script, inscribed in ink on pottery shreds (ostraca), stamped as seal impressions (bulae), or inscribed on the seals themselves, inscribed on objects of various materials particularly metal and glass, carved on stone monuments, and painted on walls and other objects. Since the Holy Land was one of the major crossroads of trade and travel in antiquity, almost every type of writing in use in the Mediterranean area at one time or another is found languages such as Greek and Latin. Needless to say, any written objects is highly desirable to most collectors.

JEWELRY

Jewelry, made both of precious metals and based metals, is often found in Holy Land excavations, particularly graves, since it was the custom to bury the deceased with his or her finery. Grave robbing was not the millennia-long industry it was in Egypt, perhaps because there was no centralized burial ground for royalty like the Valley of the Kings to constantly inspire tomb robbers with visions of untold wealth. Many intact and relatively intact burials have been found, albeit mostly of ordinary people rather than nobility, but even common people had some form of personal adornment in most periods of antiquity.