ACCORDING TO THE OLD TESTAMENT, THE Biblical city of Taanach is one
of the Canaanite strongholds that Joshua conquered as he led the Israelites
into the Promised Land. It would seem to be an excellent site for an archaeological
dig. But it was not in the ruins of Taanach but in the adjacent modern
village of Ti'innik that the American archaeologist Albert Glock and his
team of Palestinian students began an unusual excavation. The year was
1987, and the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, against the Israeli military
occupation of the West Bank was brewing. Even as young Palestinians protested
in the streets of Ranmallah, Nablus, and Hebron, Glock hoped that
his investigations into the Middle Eastern past could be sheltered from
the conflicts of the Middle Eastern present. Instead, it became devastatingly
clear that the two worlds were all but inextricable.
As the British journalist Edward Fox shows in his engrossing new book, Sacred Geography: A Tale of Murder and Archaeology in the Holy Land (Metropolitan), Glock set himself an almost impossible task. Since 1902, when the first excavation at Taanach began, archaeologists, Bible scholars, and historians had been drawn to the biblical city while paying scant attention to the modern-day village nestled at the foot of the man- made archaeological mound. During his work at Taanach in the 1960s, Glock came to worry that this exclusive focus on the biblical past reinforced Israeli claims on Palestine, while leaving the Arab contribution to Palestine's history overlooked.
And so when Glock became the founding director of Birzeit University's Palestinian Institute of Archaeology in 1987, he decided he would take a different tack: He would focus on the neglected village. He and his students excavated ruined pavements, the destroyed foundations of walls, and the mud ovens the villagers used long ago. They sifted through Ottoman tax records to find information about what life had been like in the village, and they interviewed elderly villagers in an attempt to trace Ti'innik's development. The idea was to begin with the end of the Ottoman era in 1917 and then move back in time with an eye toward ultimately connecting the history of the village to that of its biblical predecessor, Taanach.
But Glock never got a chance to reach Taanach. At three o'clock on Sunday afternoon, January 19, 1992, Glock, returning from the university, stopped at the West Bank home of his teaching assistant. A man dressed in a dark jacket, jeans, sneakers, and a black-and-white Arab headdress crept up behind Glock, firing three times and leaving him dying in a pool of blood at the bottom of the driveway. The murder has never been solved.
In the years since Glock's death, the archaeological sites of the West Bank have remained a pitched battlefield between the Israelis and the Palestinians. A group of Palestinian intellectuals, politicians, and scholars has begun promoting the idea that Palestinians are the true descendants of the earliest inhabitants ofCanaan. Meanwhile, even as the Israelis withdrew from areas of the West Bank as mandated under the 1993 Oslo accords, they made sure to retain control of many key biblical archaeological sites. (Taanach was not one of them; it is now in Palestinian hands.) Glock's murder was an early indication of how high the stakes could get in this struggle over ruins and rocks.
Indeed, in the days and weeks that followed Glock's murder, Birzeit University and the Palestine Liberation Organization issued statements suggesting that Glock had been killed because his archaeological work threatened to contest the Israeli version of the history of Palestine. "Look at the archaeology," a Palestinian source told Fox as the journalist embarked on a quest that would take him to the Middle East, where he enrolled as a foreign student at Birzeit.
There, in the shadows of Glock's life, Fox sifted through his correspondence, letters, diaries, computer disks, and published and unpublished papers, all provided by Glock's widow, who now lives in New Jersey. What emerged was clear evidence that Glock's dig at Ti'innik had upset both Israeli versions of history and Palestinian notions of who the Palestinians are and where they came from. The villagers of Ti'innik had found Glock and his students to be strange and, in some ways, threatening. Some even suspected that the team was hunting for buried treasure. And despite his efforts to con
vince his politically active students that completing the Ti'innik dig was a valuable activity, Glock could not keep them away from the conflict raging on the streets.
Fox eventually followed his trail of evidence to a hiring dispute at the Birzeit archaeology institute. In the summer of 1991, Glock had resisted giving a teaching contract to a Palestinian. Outraged students held demonstrations; soon, the teachers union got involved, and even Glock's assistants turned against him. An article in the widely read newspaper Al-Quds portrayed Glock as one more outsider trying to come in and take Palestine's past away from the Palestinians. Although Fox never conclusively determines who pulled the trigger, he does conclude that it was most likely a Palestinian. Glock's murder was yet another result of the suspicion and violence that characterized the intifada years.
The main weakness of Sacred Geography is that it seems to suggest that Glock's theories were at the forefront of archaeological discusIsions. They weren't. Glock never wrote a book, and his ideas were barely known at the time of his death beyond a small circle of friends and colleagues. At Birzeit today, the archaeology program continues, although probably not in the direction Glock wanted. The Ti'innik dig site has been abandoned, and the Palestinians have little patience with Glock's legacy. His interest in searching for signs of Palestinian cultural continuity on the land remains, but his ideas about starting from the Ottoman period and working backward toward the biblical era have fallen from favor. Palestinian archaeologists prefer to jump right back to the Canaanites in hopes of establishing a story that places them in the Promised Land before the Israelis.
These are unfortunate developments, because Glock was onto something important. He realized that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict cannot be solved simply by territorial compromise. It also requires developing a more expansive narrative, one that is able to include the stories of both peoples that share the land. More than any other era, the neglected Ottoman period promises to chronicle the histories of both Arabs and Jews. It is in the local family archives, tax records, and court documents of that period that the first stirrings of Palestinian national identity can be seen, as well as the social and economic changes that led to the large-scale immigration of Jews to the area and the eventual emergence of Israel. It is there that archaeology has the potential to illuminate a common heritage rather than an intractable conflict.
Harper's, October 2001
".... Edward Fox's eye-opening book is as good as a detective novel, as interesting to an archaeologist as to a political scientist; it is also a fable of the risks assumed by those who proceed from a love of truth."
Publishers Weekly, September 13, 2001 (Starred review)
In 1994, British writer Fox, whose pieces appear in the London Times
and other leading papers, stumbled upon a reference to an obscure incident
in a footnote to an article in the Journal of Palestine Studies: On Jan.
19, 1992, Albert Glock, an American archeologist excavating in the Israeli-occupied
West Bank, had been shot to death by an unknown assailant. The note's suggestion
that Glock's death had come at the hands of an Israeli hit squad raised
deep questions for Fox: Why would an Israeli hit squad kill an American
archeologist? Why was an American teaching at Palestinian Birzeit University?
Did his apparent Palestinian sympathies have anything to do with his death?
Fox thus begins an investigation that takes him not only to the heart of
the Israel-Palestine struggle, but also to the very contentious field of
archeology. Fox discovers that early in his career, Glock had decided not
to use excavations as a way to confirm biblical history like much of the
archeological establishment but instead to aid Palestinians in recovering
their antiquities. Glock was thus viewed with suspicion by his professional
colleagues as well as by Palestinians, many of whom believed that this
outsider had come to steal their valuable relics. Fox interviews both Israeli
and Palestinian officials as he searches for clues about Glock's murder.
In the end, he knows little more than he did when he began, and to date,
the murder remains unsolved. But Fox presents a spellbinding detective
story, a fascinating account of the contentious nature of archeology in
the Holy Land, and a sad but compelling look at Israeli-Palestinian relations.
8 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW. (Nov. 6) Forecast: Holt will
promote this in the religion press and will shoot for national media appearances
and widespread reviews. Handselling will help this first-rate whodunit
as will the hot topic of archeology in the Middle East.