Digging Up Conflict: Archaeologist & Murder In The Holy Land

My review of SACRED GEOGRAPHY: A Tale of Murder and Archeology in the Holy Land by Edward Fox  In a land as old as murder itself, American archaeologist Dr. Albert Glock lay assassinated on the West Bank doorstep of his favorite Palestinian assistant.  Israeli authorities stationed nearby inexplicably took three hours to arrive at the scene, and now ten years later, have yet to solve the real-life crime.

Reopening the 1992 investigation, London-based journalist Edward Fox pries into a neglected but central theme in the Near East: the role of archaeology in the political, cultural and religious hotbed that is Palestine.  A kaleidoscope of bias awaits and offers us a stark looking-glass, the sum of its shattered parts.  The very phenomenon dogging the archaeology of Palestine and that set Dr. Glock in the crosshairs of an unknown assailant, Fox alleges in SACRED GEOGRAPHY: A Tale of Murder and Archeology in the Holy Land, is what catalyzes and paralyzes the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In this smart and gripping thriller, the author does an admirable job of digging up both the psycho-political terrain, as well as the dirt on the professor from the West Bank’s P.L.O.-funded Birzeit University.

Admittedly not a specialist in politics or archaeology but armed with a graduate degree in Arab language and culture and more than ten years’ interest in Palestine, Fox pored over Dr. Glock’s papers, interviewed his associates, and enrolled at the university where the slain man directed the Palestinian Institute of Archaeology.

In a tale that crisscrosses itself in time, the journalist literally becomes an archaeologist sifting through the artifacts of the case, and putting them into context. Arrogant and undiplomatic 67-year old Glock, an ordained Lutheran minister on the payroll of a missionary group, had cultivated many enemies in his two decades in Palestine, where espoused a controversial form of archaeology emphasizing the tenacity of Arab villagers. Suspects start to pile up faster than Fox can catalog them, from rival archaeologists, Jewish settlers and Israeli hit squads, to neighborhood intifada vigilantes and the military arm of Hamas.

To build context for the case, Fox delves into the history of biblical archaeology, an opportunistic sub discipline founded on the idea that the Bible is a true chronicle of history, its finds shrouded in religious mysticism and light on science. A field replete with religious charlatans and swashbuckling adventurers, its power has been recognized and exploited by generals and statesmen who mined Palestine for biblical wonders to advance their own causes.

It started in 325 A.D. when the first Christian Roman emperor Constantine institutionalized the faith by creating a tradition of relics and pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  The resulting tourism industry in Palestine may now be one of the oldest in the world, but its sacred geography consists of layer upon layer of myth, tradition and pious fantasy, reports Fox. The facts have been obscured by centuries of rewriting history for the benefit of whomever was at the top of its heap.  A particularly dense chapter illustrates the dizzying spiral of zealotry affecting Jerusalem, where holy spots were enshrined, demolished, replaced, wrested from rulers with differing beliefs, and given new histories and new futures.

By the end of the 19th century, most of the world’s powers were drawn to establish national archaeological societies to explore the Holy Land despite the fact that Palestine’s archaeological remains were among the most meager in the Near East.

“This was negative cosmopolitanism in action,” declares Fox, a phrase he coined to mean the identification of many people with one place.  Palestine was left edgy and exhausted by the cultural, theological and political plundering of Americans, French, British, Russians, Armenians, Ethiopians, Germans, Christians, Jews, and Muslims.  The modern state of Israel has been well-served by biblical archaeology’s predilection for making the landscape fit the map, Fox goes on, with archaeological finds legitimizing its right to the land, while the Islamic stake in the Holy Land “has been taken up and developed in recent years by the Palestinian Islamist movement.”

Yet it was Glock's keen interest in history and geography that led him to see that the land did not fit the map. His evolving skepticism in the Bible as history took him from biblical scholar to biblical archaeologist, to an archaeology of Palestine “of interest not to biblical scholars in the United States but to the Palestinian people themselves,” records Fox.  In particular, he was attracted to the long and hidden history of the Ottoman period, a relative golden age for the common man in terms of peace, prosperity and political autonomy.

Knowledge of such a past might invigorate the surly and downtrodden population, Glock mused. He had witnessed their disenfranchisement by the practice of Israel- and Bible-biased archaeology and the way it overlooked Arab and Islamic contributions to history and culture, and in some cases bulldozed it into oblivion.

But restoring a connection to the land would not be easy in an environment where archaeology and the military were inextricably entwined, and where pro-Palestinian archaeology had been literally outlawed.  Since the 1967 Israeli occupation, Fox relates,  Israeli censors stamped out anything that “contained a Palestinian version of the history of the country, and [ruled] that recording the Palestinian past was considered an act of sedition.”  Furthermore, Glock’s determination to dig was met with resistance and hostility from suspicious villagers, and his own students who wanted to provide a more glorious myth of Palestinian statehood.

In this cobwebby tale of bias, the journalist fails to escape its tacky tendency to skew results.  Fox’s prejudices, underscored by a middle-of-the-book admission that  “Like Albert Glock, I took to rooting for the Palestinian underdog,” sometimes make him blind to irony. Regarding the 1954 Hague Convention’s prohibition of excavation in occupied territories, the author gleefully reports the professor’s wily machinations to circumvent the agreement, yet reminds us “all respectable archaeologists” refrained from excavating in deference to the Convention,  “(except the Israelis).”

Even so, Fox the investigator is balanced enough to leave the case unsolved.

As in archaeology, the final answer is delayed by the prospect of a new find changing everything.