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Inside the Middle East
December 28, 2011
Posted: 1032 GMT

A newly discovered 2000-year-old coin-sized clay seal is shedding light on one of the most significant periods of Jewish history, Israeli archaeologists announced Sunday.

The seal was found in an ongoing archaeological excavation taking place along Jerusalem’s Western Wall and carries an Aramaic inscription, which researchers say translated as “Pure for God.”

The find dates back from between the 1st century B.C. to 70 A.D, the period in which the second of two Jewish temples was destroyed by the Romans during the course of a Jewish revolt.

In a statement, the Israeli Antiquities Authority, which oversees archaeological excavations in the area, said it represented a first-of-its-kind discovery and constitutes “direct archaeological evidence of the activity on the Temple Mount and the workings of the Temple during the Second Temple period.”

Haifa University archaeologist Ronny Reich, who has spent four decades digging around the Old City of Jerusalem, said the seal revealed details about some of the administrative procedures used by temple officials to oversee religious offerings.

"If you wanted to give a drink offering to the temple you went and bought an impressed seal from one person, a priest obviously, and then gave him the money,” Reich explained. “You went to the other man and received against this coupon lets call it a drink offering. And then went to the temple to offer it.”

The excavation is taking place beneath the religious compound know as the Temple Mount to Jews and the Noble Sanctuary to Muslims. The site is revered by both religions and previous archaeological activities in the area have sparked violent confrontations between Israeli and Palestinians.

At the press conference to announce the find, archaeologists were flanked by two government ministers from the right-wing Likud party who used the discovery to press Jewish claims of sovereignty over Jerusalem.

“The works of the digs are uncovering our roots,” said Education Minister Gideon Saar. “They could not be carried out if Israel was not the sovereign in control of Jerusalem and emphasized the work in this area.”

The international community does not recognize Israeli sovereignty over East Jerusalem, where the excavation is located, and Palestinians consider the eastern part of the city as the capital of their future state.

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Filed under: Archaeology •General •Israel •Jerusalem •Judaism •Palestinians •Religion •Video


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June 26, 2011
Posted: 1209 GMT

By Aroub Abdelhaq and Neil Curry

Tune in to watch the show on Wednesday 7 July.

Egyptians after the revolution:

There are plenty of warm smiles to complement the heat of the Cairo summer but behind the traditional hospitality of the Egyptian people there is a division between those who tell you that they believe the revolution is the beginning of a positive change for their country and those who say life simply goes on as before. There are many – such as those working in the country’s vital tourism industry – who still welcome the revolution but face an uncertain future with a fragile economy, longing for the day when the visitors will return to the pyramids.

Rima Maktabi and producer Neil Curry go over scripts under the Egyptian sun.
Rima Maktabi and producer Neil Curry go over scripts under the Egyptian sun.

Tourism affected:

On the day we visit Giza the tourists are around 10% of their usual numbers – we have that information from a man who knows better than anyone. Dr. Zahi Hawass is officially Egypt’s Minister of Antiquities but inevitably, as one of the world’s best known archaeologists he’s unofficially known as Egypt’s Indiana Jones. His ever-present “Indy” style hat does nothing to detract from such a title.

Dr. Zahi Hawass, aka Egypt's Indiana Jones, hopes recent archaeological finds will entice back tourists scared off by the revolution.
Dr. Zahi Hawass, aka Egypt's Indiana Jones, hopes recent archaeological finds will entice back tourists scared off by the revolution.

He tells us that visitors have been scared off by the revolution but points out that none of the many foreigners in Egypt at the time were hurt and no tourists should feel unsafe visiting the ancient treasures of the Pharaohs. He hopes that by September the numbers will be returning to previous levels, irrespective of whether the country is undergoing elections by then.

When Dr. Zahi discovers that the tourist police have been demanding money for access to filming the story he summons a group of officials and berates them in no uncertain terms. The ground beneath the feet of the Sphinx seems to shake as Zahi storms off with a trail of chastened officials in his wake, leaving us to relish the opportunity to shoot more footage from a privileged position within touching distance of the ancient wonder.

It’s not often you encounter a moment of archaeological history, so the IME team became wrapped up in the excitement of discovery when we learned a Japanese team was about to unearth a significant find. We arrived at the site at the base of the Grand Pyramid to find two members of the archaeological team sitting astride an enormous stone, winching it from the ground and onto a track. It turned out to be no ordinary stone but the first of 40 “locking stones” each weighing in at around 16 tons. Its function had been to lock in place a solar barge buried with the pharaoh King Khufu, who had commissioned the pyramid.

It’s the second of two such vessels buried at Giza – the first has already been removed and put on display – and represents what the venerable Dr. Zahi describes as one of the most important archaeological discoveries in the world today. The boat was buried in kit form, ready to be assembled and sail the pharaoh to the afterlife, a bit like a flat-pack furniture kit on a much grander scale.

 A plate of Abu Tareq's famous Koshari, a traditional and affordable favorite of the Egyptian masses.
A plate of Abu Tareq's famous Koshari, a traditional and affordable favorite of the Egyptian masses.

After a long hot day watching others work in the sun, the exhausted IME team is in need of sustenance. After asking several people to recommend some typically nourishing Egyptian food, we realized that Abu Tareq’s famous “Koshari" is known to almost everyone. Koshari is a popular Egyptian dish which consists of a base of rice and pasta with brown lentils, some chickpeas and caramelized onions on the top served with a spicy tomato sauce. It’s a vegetarian dish which was originally the most affordable and filling dish for the poor in Egypt but over time became championed as a specialty of Egyptian cuisine.

Our route to the restaurant took us past Tahrir Square where the flags and banners waving belonged to the impromptu stalls selling revolutionary souvenirs. Traffic ground to halt here, so we set off on foot for the final fifteen minute walk to the Koshari.. Abu Tareq’s eaterie has been around for 60 years.. It’s not the kind you go to for a three course meal as your only option would be whether you want a small or a big portion of the only dish there, the Koshari. But who could want for more? You can choose to have the dish served ready-mixed or in kit form – just like the Pharoah’s solar barge only fresher – ready for you to assemble. Tasty and cheap, the devouring of the Koshari produced a rare moment for the IME team – a few precious minutes of satisfied silence.

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Filed under: Archaeology •Culture •Egypt


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October 20, 2010
Posted: 749 GMT
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October 15, 2010
Posted: 1516 GMT
A view of the West Bank city of Jericho.
A view of the West Bank city of Jericho.

Editor's note: For more on this story tune in to the next Inside the Middle East show on Wednesday 3 November. Go to the showpage for more detailed showtimes.

Everyone loves a good birthday party until they reach an age when they’d rather forget.   For the West Bank city of Jericho it’s a birthday to be proud of, a milestone no other city in the world has celebrated - 10,000 years .
It’s believed to be the longest continually inhabited place on earth and it’s one of the lowest on earth, skirted by the Dead Sea and the Jordan Valley.
A treat for any historian no matter how amateur, the city boasts one of the first examples of a man-made stone tower …  discovered by a British archeologist in the 1950s, dating back to around 8000 B.C., although its use - whether for religion or security - is unknown.

An eight-meter tower with the world’s oldest known staircase descends from the top - 22 steep, well-worn steps to a tunnel below.
A cable car, opened in 1999, makes quick work of the journey to the summit of the Mount of Temptation, where Jesus is said to have spent 40 days and nights fasting and meditating, resisting the temptations of Satan.
Jericho is already popular for a West Bank city.  The tourism ministry tells CNN one million foreign tourists come every year, as well as 500,000 local visitors.  Only Bethlehem attracts more in the West Bank.
But by celebrating Jericho’s incredible birthday, Palestinian officials are hoping to attract many more.  Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad tells us, “We’ve been around a long time and we intend to do the best we can to stick around until we can live as free people in a country of our own.”
Mr Fayyad was front and center at the birthday celebrations, visiting one of the largest mosaics in the Middle East, unveiled for the occasion.  A 900-square-meter mosaic that is 1,200 years old, and covered by sand and canvas since the 1930s to protect it.
The PM opened a new road named after the late Mahmoud Darwish - considered the Palestinian national poet.  And Mr Fayyad was the first to use a brand new postage stamp designed specifically for Jericho 10,000.
A marathon, open air concert and many other projects contributed to the occasion, although for such a momentous  age, few tourists came.
Khloud Daibes, Palestinian tourism minister said, “Palestine as a destination is a very challenging one … we’re using this occasion to draw attention to the fact it is an exciting destination.”

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Filed under: Archaeology •Culture •Inside The Middle East •Jerusalem •Palestinians •West Bank


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September 7, 2010
Posted: 938 GMT

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Filed under: Archaeology •Culture •Egypt •General •Islam


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August 17, 2010
Posted: 1346 GMT

Last week CNN reported on an incredible numismatic find in Israel.  Archaeologists digging in an Hellenistic building site found a 2,200-year-old gold coin embedded in a wall.  The coin weighed in at a whopping 27 grams (most ancient coins weigh a mere 4 .5 grams) and it was minted in Alexandria, Egypt, by Ptolemy V and dates to 191 BCE. It is only the second gold Ptolemaic coin ever found in Israel. CNN Jerusalem producer Mike Schwartz caught up with the head of the coin department at the Israeli Antiquities Authority who showed us the ancient money.

Filed under: Archaeology •Israel •Video


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February 22, 2010
Posted: 1914 GMT

Jerusalem (CNN) - Clashes between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers broke out Monday, a day after Israel announced it would include two West Bank religious shrines as part of a larger list of 150 Zionist heritage sites.

The Hebron shrine known as the Ibrahimi Mosque to Muslims and the Tomb of the Patriarchs to Jews has been a point of frequent conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.
The Hebron shrine known as the Ibrahimi Mosque to Muslims and the Tomb of the Patriarchs to Jews has been a point of frequent conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.

About 100 protesters were throwing stones and burning tires in the West Bank city of Hebron, the Israeli military said. Palestinian eyewitnesses reported that several protesters had been injured by tear gas and rubber bullets.

The clashes come in the wake of a special Sunday Cabinet meeting held at one of the "national heritage" sites where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outlined a plan to invest more than $100 million on national heritage infrastructure.

"People must be familiar with their homeland and its cultural and historical vistas," he said. "This is what we will instill in this and coming generations, to the glory - if I may say - of the Jewish people."

Included in the list of sites are Rachel's Tomb in Palestinian city of Bethlehem and the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the city of Hebron.

A top United Nations official said the inclusion of sites in the West Bank raised concerns because they were "in occupied Palestinian territory."

The Tomb of the Patriarchs - known to Palestinians as Ibrahimi mosque - is in Hebron, a West Bank city that houses about 500 Jews heavily guarded by Israeli soldiers, who live among about 170,000 Palestinians.

The tomb is revered by Jews and Muslims as holy and has been a point of frequent conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians for years. In 1994, an Israeli settler entered the tomb and opened fire on the Muslim worshippers, killing 29 before he was beaten to death.

Rachel's Tomb is known to Palestinians as the mosque of Bilal.

The Palestinian reaction after the announcement was fast and furious. A statement by the Revolutionary Council of Fatah, the political faction in charge of the Palestinian Authority, called the Israeli plan a move to "consolidate the occupation" and an effort at "judaizing" Palestinian land.

Dr. Hamdan Taha, an official at the Palestinian Authority's Ministry of Tourism, said the the two sites were "an integral part of Palestinian culture" and that if the Israeli government persisted in its efforts, "Palestinians will feel free to nominate sites inside the green line in their heritage list."

Green line refers to the border before Israel occupied the West Bank.

Nationalist and right wing parties in Israel praised the government move and called for the inclusion of more West Bank locations to the list of heritage sites.

Robert H. Serry, the United Nations special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, also expressed concern.

"These sites are in occupied Palestinian territory and are of historical and religious significance not only to Judaism but also to Islam, and to Christianity as well," he said in a statement.

"I urge Israel not to take any steps on the ground which undermine trust or could prejudice negotiations, the resumption of which should be the highest shared priority of all who seek peace."

Nationalist and right-wing parties in Israel praised the government move and called for the inclusion of more West Bank locations to the list of heritage sites.

Mark Regev, a spokesman for Netanyahu, said no one could deny that the two West Bank locations were of historical and religious significance to the Jews. He said the danger of their inclusion on a list of sites to the peace process was overstated.

Filed under: Archaeology •Israel •Palestinians


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February 17, 2010
Posted: 1052 GMT
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February 12, 2010
Posted: 539 GMT

By CNN's Kevin Flower

Read more on the Inside the Middle East website.

Jerusalem (CNN) - Archaeologists working under the direction of the Israeli Antiquities Authority have uncovered a 1,500-year-old road running through the center of Jerusalem's Old City.

Excavation director Dr. Ofer Sion said the discovery lends further credence to the accuracy of what is known as the Madaba Map - a Byzantine period mosaic map of the Holy Land that depicts an entrance into Jerusalem that leads to a single central street.

Archaeologists working in Jerusalem have made various finds to suggest the Madaba map was geographically correct, but the road depicted in the mosaic had not been found.

"It is proof of this beautiful map and for this street from the Byzantine period," Sion told reporters at the dig location.

The ancient road was found near the Jaffa Gate of Jerusalem's Old City 4.5 meters under current street level when municipality workers initiated an infrastructure improvement project. The road dates from the period when Jerusalem was under Christian control and was constructed with large flagstones of more than a meter in length.

The road connected the western wall of the city to the eastern side of Jerusalem, Sion said. When the street was in use according to Sion, "hundreds of thousands of people are reaching the city, pilgrims from all over the world, and they are coming to Jerusalem and entering through the gate and going down the center, to the market of the city. They are going down in this street."

Next to the road archaeologists also discovered a stone foundation which supported a sidewalk and a row of columns. "It is wonderful to see that David Street, which is teeming with so much life today, actually preserved the route of the noisy street from 1,500 years ago," Sion said.

Other artifacts discovered in the excavation included coins, pottery vessels, and five bronze weights that are believed to have been used by merchants for weighing precious metals.

The Madaba map, is a large 8 X 16 meter mosaic located in the apse of the church of Saint George in Madaba, Jordan. It is the oldest known cartographic representation of the Holy Land and at its center is a detailed depiction of Jerusalem in the sixth century AD.

The mosaic has served as a guide to historians and archaeologists to what Byzantine period Jerusalem may have looked like and depicts many landmarks that survive until this day including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Damascus Gate.

Filed under: Archaeology •Jerusalem


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January 21, 2010
Posted: 903 GMT

From Inside the Middle East's January show.
By George Webster for CNN

London, England (CNN) - As a man whose vision of paradise is "some sort of library," Ismail Serageldin must sometimes feel like he works amid the Garden of Eden.
The former World Bank vice-president is director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (BA) - Egypt's $220 million reimagining of the ancient world's most celebrated library, built on its historical site in the city of Alexandria.

Exteriors of the new Biblioteca Alexandrina
Exteriors of the new Biblioteca Alexandrina
Head of the library Ismail Serageldin shows off one of the BA's treasures - a hand-operated printer from 1825.
Head of the library Ismail Serageldin shows off one of the BA's treasures – a hand-operated printer from 1825.

The 66-year-old Egyptian - who has authored more than 50 books on a variety of topics including biotechnology, rural development and sustainability - has become the first person in over 1,600 years to be officially named "Librarian of Alexandria."
The original Library of Alexandria, founded in 288 B.C., housed hundreds of thousands of scrolls by some of the greatest thinkers and writers of the ancient world. Drawn by this center of knowledge, scientists, mathematicians and poets from all cultures gravitated to Alexandria to study and exchange ideas.

But in 48 A.D. many of the ancient library's treasures were irrevocably lost after an accidental fire, and after falling into a gradual decline the once-famed library completely disappeared around 1,600 years ago, according to according to Biblioteca Alexandrina's Web site.

Despite the the library's commemorative reference to the past and the antiquated grandeur of Serageldin's title, Alexandria's library is unmistakably modern.
Standing in the library's main reading room - the largest in the world, covering 70,000 square meters over eleven cascading levels - Serageldin emphasizes the symbolic connection between the design of the library and its purpose as an institute of learning.
"This is an incredible space," he told CNN. "It is a space where the unity of knowledge is reflected in the cascading levels of the library, in the soaring columns, in the gentle natural light that comes in ... in the intermingling of the art and the science exhibits."
And the exhibits are many: From an ancient Greek bust of Socrates, to an elaborately inscribed Islamic lantern, Serageldin is keen to show off his library's rich and colorful treasures.

Serageldin's favorite artifacts relate, unsurprisingly, to the first printing press transported to Egypt: "From such modest beginnings, knowledge exploded, newspapers appeared, modern debate took place, translation movement occurred, and all of the modernization of Egypt started."

What's left of these ancient presses are on display including the oldest existing moveable letters in Arabic, the first page of the official journal where modern laws were first codified and a primitive machine for rolling prints one page at a time.
While Alexandria's past continues to be important, Serageldin is aware that he must also be at the cutting edge of the Library's digital future.

"The ancient library tried to have all the written books in the world," he explained. "Well, we have the digital memory of humanity by maintaining a complete copy of the Internet archive. And sooner or later other books will migrate to digital form." The Internet archive is stored copies of Web pages , taken at various points in time
Our mandate, our hope is to be able to provide all knowledge to all people at all times for free.

Serageldin points out the extent of the library's other digital resources - such as its Virtual Reality Environment, an immersive system that allows researchers to transform two-dimensional data sets into 3-D simulations - and to step inside them.
"We are one of the most advanced digital libraries in the world," he argues. "Both in terms of digitization of new material as well as developing advanced techniques for informatics for the 21st century."

When he turns to the issue of political and religious censorship, Serageldin's opinions are unambiguous: "I do not believe there is any justification for limiting access to knowledge."

The tri-lingual recipient of over 20 honorary doctorates relates how, when the library first opened in 2002, there was an expectation that he would ban books like Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses," which was the topic of some controversy in 1989.

At the time, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini - then Iran's spiritual leader - issued a fatwa calling for the death of Rushdie. The novel was considered blasphemous by some Muslims because of its fictional treatment of Mohammed.

"Western media people would ask me about censorship and so on. They asked me 'Can you possibly consider having "The Satanic Verses?"' Serageldin told CNN. "To which my answer was, 'Not only would I consider it, but I do have it, and it's in our catalogue and you can go and look it up.'"

As far as Serageldin is concerned, no subject is off limits: "We have books by Israeli authors, books about Israel, books about Zionism, books against the regime in Egypt. We have books that are frankly atheistic and aggressively so - Dawkins and Hitchins and so on - we have books that not just Muslims find offensive but that some other religions find offensive as well."

It is in this spirit of openness and tolerance that Ismail Serageldin finally casts his vision for the future of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

"Our mandate, our hope is to be able to provide all knowledge to all people at all times for free."

Filed under: Archaeology •Culture •Egypt


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