Everyday life in an extraordinary place.

Monday, April 20, 2009

History in my Backyard

Photo (c) Avinoam Samin

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 26 March 2004.

It is a spot I have driven past countless times in the last nine years, an empty field at the intersection of two main roads, not far from the Coastal Highway. An access road is slated to be built there, to connect a frontage road near the highway to the neighborhoods above and to provide cellular phone reception by means of an antenna. As preliminary work on the road began, a little over two months ago, this quiet field was discovered to be the host of a treasure from the distant past. Workers uncovered there the remains of a fifth century Byzantine church.

The Israel Antiquities Authority was immediately called in, and excavation of the site began. In the short time they have been allowed to work there, archaeologists have found an outer wall, cistern, crypt, and the lovely mosaic floor of the church itself. I am amazed and delighted to learn that such a remnant from the ancient past still exists, less than two miles from my home. But, after all, this is Israel.

Archaeological gems such as this abound here. Many more have yet to be discovered. Just driving along the highway affords you the opportunity to view Roman aquaducts and the ruins of countless buildings from ancient times. And of course there are the sites that have been fully excavated and preserved, such as Caesarea and Apollonia, Beit Shean and Capernaum. And then there is Jerusalem...

This, to me, is one of the wonders of living in modern-day Israel. We have skyscrapers, airports, amusement parks and shopping malls, just like any other Western country. But we also have sites that have endured on this land for centuries. It delights me to know that my family and I can climb into our minivan, and with our kids listening to compact discs or playing games on the laptop, drive to an ancient place where hundreds of years ago people once lived, worked, worshipped and played. We can walk where those people walked, see the buildings they saw, gaze out to sea as they must have done. In places like that I often wonder if the thoughts and worries of those ancient folk were really all that different from my own. Somehow, I think not.

This feeling is even stronger when it comes to the site found so close to my home. Archaeologists on the site told me that finding a church there was especially interesting, because in ancient times much of this area was covered by water. It would be fascinating to be able to discover how and why that particular location was chosen for the church. Did people live within that surrounding wall, now only partially uncovered? If not, where did they live, and how did they come to the church? The achaeologists I spoke with are sure they would find many more fabulous discoveries, if only they had the time.

But time is running out for this dig in the Kiryat Nordau neighborhood of Netanya. Cellcom Israel, Ltd., the company putting in the access road, wants its project to move forward. Although they claim on their website that they play "an active role in sponsoring and supporting a variety of cultural... [and] educational... projects throughout the country" they do not seem overly interested in this fascinating find, the only such site in the city of Netanya. A hearing on the fate of the church site is scheduled for sometime in the coming week. In all likelihood, the mosaic floor and other artifacts will be removed and the remainder of the site buried in concrete.

A grass-roots effort is already underway to try to save this historic site. Completely aside from the enormous intrinsic and educational value of the site, we hope to convince Mayor Miriam Fierberg that having such a unique site in Netanya would bring tourists to our city, and with them, revenue. There are several fine natural spots to see and enjoy in our lovely coastal city, but the addition of this small gem would add another dimension to what Netanya can offer to tourists, be they from other parts of Israel or around the world.

It seems to me that one possible answer to the dilemma we face is to construct the proposed access road as an elevated street, on poles. The site could, one hopes, be preserved underneath. Excavations could continue, until all of the church and its outbuildings are unearthed. There is still so much to reveal, and to learn, from this site. And in learning about the past, who knows what we may discover about ourselves?

(c) Amy Samin

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