Monday, June 12, 2017

(Not) Finding Byzantine Churches on the Temple Mount: A Short History

The Temple Mount in ruins: This is such an evocative, familiar image of Jerusalem in early Christianity. The Gospels present Jesus prophesying the future destruction of the Temple. For early Christian thinkers, the desolate Temple Mount is a crucial representation of the punishment of Jews and the triumph of Christianity. The image is so pervasive and powerful that the idea that Christians left the Mount in ruins in the Byzantine period is often taken for granted.

Surprisingly, then, there have been a series of challenges to this idea over the last two centuries. Inspired by the recent conference Marking the Sacred: The Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem, I decided to take a brief look at these arguments for Byzantine activity on the Temple Mount. The following is not meant to be a complete presentation, but a few important instances that I have encountered in research.

1. The nineteenth century was a critical time of questioning of the traditional location of sacred and biblical sites in Palestine by (mostly Protestant) scholars. One such scholar was James Fergusson, a Scottish architectural historian. Fergusson suggested that the original Church of the Holy Sepulchre – built by the emperor Constantine in the fourth century over what was believed to be the burial place of Jesus – was not at the site of the current church, but under the Dome of the Rock (in Arabic, Qubbat al-akhra) on the aram al-Sharīf (the Noble Sanctuary), traditionally identified as the Temple Mount. Meanwhile, Fergusson believed that the two Jewish temples had stood not on the spot of the Dome, as was widely believed, but in the southwest corner of the Mount/Haram. Fergusson’s theories were based in part on the Crusader identification of the Dome of the Rock as Templum Domini, the “Temple of the Lord” – which they believed had been built by Helena, mother of Consantine, or by a Byzantine emperor – and the Aqṣā Mosque as Templum Salomonis, the “Temple of Solomon.”
Fergusson’s plan of Jewish, Christian, and “Mohammedan” buildings on the Temple Mount.
The Temples of the Jews and the Other Buildings in the Haram Area at Jerusalem (1878).

Fergusson’s theories were influential. He and the English music writer George Grove, an amateur biblical archaeologist, promoted them. Both were founding members of the Palestine Exploration Fund in London in 1865; Grove was the Fund’s original honorary secretary. In fact, a primary purpose of Charles Warren’s pioneering excavations for the Fund in Jerusalem – of which we are now marking the 150th anniversary – was to prove Fergusson’s theories. Fergusson provided much of the funding for the expedition.

Warren did not excavate on the Haram/Temple Mount itself, due to its sensitivity as a sacred area, but tunneled alongside its edges and explored pre-existing subterranean cisterns and passages beneath it. Over three years he was able to revolutionize our understanding of ancient Jerusalem’s topography. Ironically, it was Warren’s achievements that led to the downfall of Fergusson’s theories. In particular, Warren showed that, at its southern end, the Western Wall was built over part of an ancient valley (the Tyropoeon Valley of Josephus) running north-south through the city. By the time the wall was built, the valley here was already partially filled with debris. Far from being the oldest part of the Temple Mount, the southwest corner was the most recent addition to it. In short, Solomon’s Temple could not have stood here. 
West-east section through the Temple Mount at Robinson’s Arch and the southern wall.
 Charles Warren, Plans, elevations, sections, &c., shewing the results of the excavations at Jerusalem, 1867-70 (1884), pl. 10.
(Click to enlarge.)  

2. It was widely believed in the nineteenth century that the Byzantine emperor Justinian (527-565) had built a major church, the famous Nea (New) Church of the Theotokos (Mother of God), on the Temple Mount. The favorite candidate was the Aqsa Mosque: it was suggested that the earliest form of the Aqsa was a basilica, like the Nea, with a cruciform plan. The French scholar Melchior de Vogüé identified the remains of an ancient church in part of the entryway to the mosque: “This church could only be the basilica of Justinian: all the word in agreement on this point.”

Doors of church of Shaqqa (Syria) and of al-Aqsa Mosque.
Melchior de Vogüé, Le Temple de Jérusalem (1864) 
(note that de Vogüé calls al-Aqsa Mosque the “Basilica of Justinian”).

This identification is contradicted by some basic historical sources, however. The Byzantine historian Procopius, who provides the most detailed account of the Nea, states that it was built on the highest hill in the city – which is not the Temple Mount: the western hill, now called Mt. Zion, is higher. And (as pointed out by the great French scholar Clermont-Ganneau in 1900) there are textual sources in the ninth century – a century after the Aqsa Mosque was built – that indicate the Nea Church was still functioning. Not surprisingly, the identification of the Nea with the Aqsa Mosque fell out of favor in the twentieth century. Various alternatives were proposed. Finally, excavations by Nahman Avigad and later Meir Ben-Dov in and just south of the Old City of Jerusalem (after it was captured by Israel in 1967), on the eastern slope of Mt. Zion, uncovered different parts of a massive church that must be the Nea. In a cistern related to the church Avigad found an inscription commemorating construction carried out by Justinian. (In fact, by 1900 Clermont-Ganneau had already located the Nea on the eastern end of Mt. Zion, using only textual sources.)

Inscription from the "New Church" in Jerusalem
  Building inscription from Nea Church cistern, now in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem 
(photo by Nick Thompson via flickr)

3. The idea of Byzantine activity on the Temple Mount has been revived most recently by Gabriel Barkay and Zachi Dvira, co-directors of the Temple Mount Sifting Project: their project has identified coins and many other finds from the Byzantine period. I have previously identified some of the serious problems with this project. Briefly, what is relevant here is that the material – bulldozed on the Haram, dumped by truck in the Kidron Valley, left for about four years, then re-trucked to sifting facilities, where it has sat in an olive grove – cannot be treated as provenanced, as coming from Temple Mount; even if its origin on the Temple Mount/Haram is taken as a given, widely believed by experts to have come from Islamic period fill, meaning the dirt (and anything within it) could have been brought to the Temple Mount/Haram from anywhere nearby. Barkay has insisted that the material he is sifting was used on the Mount itself, that the Mount was a “closed box” with no major movement of earth in or out. But he has also qualified these remarks: it was a “closed box” only after the Herodian platform was constructed, and the project has suggested at least in once case that a pre-Roman find was included in fill brought to the Temple Mount at that time; and that the dirt piles from the Kidron could have been contaminated with material not from the Temple Mount. Meanwhile, Meir Ben-Dov has provided persuasive arguments that the elevation of the current Haram al-Sharif is lower than that of the Herodian Temple Mount, meaning that there was major clearance and movement of earth after the time of Herod.

4. Contrary to claims that the Temple Mount has never been excavated, there have been several limited soundings and trial digs on the Haram al-Sharif. The most important of these took place between 1938 and 1942, during the British Mandate, while the Aqsa Mosque was undergoing repairs. Work was observed by several staff members of the Mandate Department of Antiquities. Among the things they observed were trenches dug below the present-day floor of the mosque by the contractors carrying out the repairs; in addition, the Department of Antiquities was also able to dig seven small trenches under the floor.  

Example of trench under the floor of al-Aqsa Mosque 
(Mandate Department of Antiquities file SRF 92, photo 21.006)

These trenches helped to clarify the construction history of the mosque. R.W. Hamilton, director of the Mandate Department of Antiquities at the time, later published a monograph on this work (The Structural History of the Aqsa Mosque, 1949). Not included in the publication were several finds predating the mosque, which were only briefly alluded to in Hamilton’s report. These included three sections of mosaic floor, which were first presented by Dvira in at a conference in 2008 and subsequently published in the conference proceedings. Unlike the material recovered by the Temple Mount Sifting Project, these are substantial sections of floor found in situ: they must have been in use on the Temple Mount. 

Photographs of mosaic floor sections 
(Mandate Department of Antiquities file SRF 92, photos 20.944, 20.993)
(Click to enlarge.) 
The only evidence we have for the floor sections are a small set of photographs from the Mandate Department files, now put online by the Israel Antiquities Authority (SRF 92). It is difficult to date the floor on the basis of the photographs, as we have little stratigraphic information. The only evidence they provide is stylistic: Dvira compares it to two mosaic floors from Byzantine churches, but also to a wall mosaic from the Dome of the Rock. Dvira ultimately dismisses the possibility of an Early Islamic date, but the assumptions behind this dismissal (that there was only one Early Islamic period building in this area before the Aqsa Mosque, the temporary mosque built by the caliph ‘Umar; and that we know exactly where this temporary mosque stood) are questionable. Meanwhile, in a paper just given at the Marking the Sacred conference, Israeli archaeologists Yuval Baruch and Ronny Reich suggested that this mosaic floor is Umayyad.

What do we learn from all of this? Despite repeated interest in finding a Byzantine-period church on the Temple Mount, there is still no good evidence for one. Unprovenanced finds and photographs of a mosaic floor without stratigraphic information are not sufficient to overturn the consensus and the weight of the textual sources behind it.  

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

An Enthusiasm for Unprovenanced Artifacts

National Library of Israel promotional video for the “Treasures of the Afghan Genizah”

In Live Science on Monday, Owen Jarus provided an update on recent sales of 28 unpublished, purported Dead Sea Scroll fragments to American institutions. I say purported because the fragments are unprovenanced, and therefore it is difficult if not impossible to say if they are actually authentic. Several scholars have already suggested that at least some of these fragments are forgeries. But among the several interesting pieces of information in Jarus’s article is that Ada Yardeni (an Israeli epigrapher) has proclaimed all of these fragments to be authentic.

Seeing Yardeni’s name, I was immediately reminded of my recent reading on the so-called Hazon Gabriel, or “Vision of Gabriel” – a stone inscribed with ink, dated by several experts to the late first century BCE or early first century CE. It too is unprovenanced, although the owner has stated that he bought it from a Jordanian-British antiquities dealer (and that it might possibly have come from the eastern shore of the Dead Sea). The initial publication of this unprovenanced stone was by Ada Yardeni and Binyamin Elitzur.

Provenance is very important in scholarship on ancient artifacts. It is most often cited as a way of proving the authenticity of an artifact, but perhaps even more important are the major ethical and legal issues involved with unprovenanced material. So it is noteworthy that, just in the last year, there have been several stories about unprovenanced inscriptions and other artifacts (purportedly from the greater Middle East) championed by scholars:

* Besides the unpublished purported Dead Sea Scroll fragments described by Jarus, others from the Museum of the Bible collection and the Schøyen collection published last year.
* Naama Vilozny’s study of demons on Aramaic magic bowls. (Most Aramaic incantation bowls are unprovenanced; it is unclear which bowls are the subject of the study.)
* The Israel Antiquities Authority’s (IAA) unveiling of a papyrus fragment purportedly from the Iron Age, which if authentic would be the oldest mention of Jerusalem (the “Jerusalem Papyrus”)
* The National Library of Israel’s purchase last year of about 250 manuscripts, part of the so-called “Afghan Geniza”. (Besides the NLI itself, many Israeli scholars have worked on these, even authenticating them for dealers: Matthew Morgenstern, Shaul Shaked, and others.)
* The widely-heralded publication of an unusual Greek epitaph from Egypt (c. 300 CE) in the collection of the University of Utah
* Reporting on the problematic provenance of the notorious Gospel of Jesus’s Wife fragment
* Palestine Exploration Quarterly’s publication of an article by Shlomo Guil arguing that the Shapira strips, a notorious 19th century forgery of a supposedly ancient copy of Deuteronomy, were in fact authentic.

One observation: despite a series of recent high-profile fiascos involving unprovenanced inscriptions that were revealed to be forgeries, there is continued scholarly interest in objects without provenance. (Just from the list above, the scholarly consensus now is that the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife is a fake, while serious questions have been raised about the Jerusalem Papyrus and many Dead Sea Scroll fragments.) As Årstein Justnes puts it, “the scholarly community continues to receive unprovenanced material with enthusiasm” (if anything, that enthusiasm is increasing). Christopher Rollston referred to the situation (in 2005) as a “crisis.”

Another observation: much of the championing of these unprovenanced artifacts and their authenticity happens to come from Israeli scholars. (Consider the case of Shaul Shaked, highly respected professor emeritus of Iranian Studies at Hebrew University: his cv includes publications on unprovenanced Aramaic magic bowls, unprovenanced Aramaic documents from Bactria, and unprovenanced so-called “Afghan Geniza” manuscripts.) One reason for this: per capita, there is a relatively high number of perfectly competent Israeli epigraphers to read these inscriptions and archaeologists to analyze these artifacts. But why such enthusiasm for unprovenanced artifacts? And why, at the same time, is so much careful work on provenance and ethics in archaeology and epigraphy being done by scholars in the Europe and the United States? (Although there is enthusiasm for unprovenanced artifacts – at least those with an apparent biblical connection – among scholars at seminaries and Christian schools in the U.S.) Thinking about this recently, I’ve wondered about a couple of possible connections.

One: Israel is the only Middle Eastern country that has a legal antiquities market. In all neighboring countries, trade in antiquities is illegal; all antiquities are officially considered property of the state. In Israel, too, all antiquities are considered property of the state – if they have been found since 1978. By law, objects with a known provenance before that date may be legally owned and sold by private citizens. There are a legal antiquities trade, though (in theory at least) very restricted, and licensed antiquities dealers. The decision to have a legal antiquities trade reflects a certain attitude toward ancient artifacts: perhaps the special connection that Israel has attempted to forge with the ancient Jewish past? The Zionist concept of yedi‘at ha’aretz (“knowledge of the land”) in material form? At the same time, the process works both ways: the existence of this legal trade must affect how people, including scholars, view antiquities. It is not so surprising that unprovenanced antiquities might be considered acceptable in such an environment more than in others.

Two: There is a marked lack of critical theory in Israeli archaeology, and in biblical archaeology outside of Israel. Israeli archaeology is “pure science for the purpose of studying the past through its archaeological finds,” the deputy director of the IAA tells us. There is a pervasive scholarly narrative that archaeologists and epigraphers are objective researchers whose scientific work is threatened by outside influences, misunderstandings, and misuses: by donors, politicians, clergy, news media, the public. Or that archaeologists used to be biased but are no longer so. As a result, working to understand bias in scholarship is largely “trivial” and a waste of time. This conveniently allows archaeologists to avoid any consideration of their own role in the production and reception of knowledge. The result is, ultimately, less concern for issues of ethics and provenance. So perhaps it is not a coincidence that my biblical archaeologist Ph.D. adviser spearheaded a defense of scholarly use of unprovenanced artifacts in 2006, in response to ASOR and AIA ethics policies. These fields encourage the belief that scholars can and should focus only on “the data” and that critical theory is therefore unimportant – in fact, consideration of ethical violations is seen as unprofessional because it deals with things other than the data. Unprovenanced artifacts are championed in the name of making all of “the data” available, in the name of academic freedom.

These attitudes reflect not merely naivete or credulousness, as Jusntes and Rollston rightly point out; they reflect more than enthusiasm for such artifacts. They also reflect arrogance. They reflect the arrogance that of course we scholars can detect a forgery; and that we scholars are somehow above the law or can be ignorant of it. “None of the experts who have spoken publicly on the matter of the Afghan documents appeared to be too troubled by unanswered questions about their origins, seeming to accept such things as the cost of doing business in ancient artifacts,” as Ben Harris of JTA noted for the case of the so-called Afghan Geniza. Shaked cavalierly discusses his authentication of documents for dealers: “So in a way I am guilty of having driven up the prices.” In the UK at least, working on unprovenanced material could lead to criminal prosecution. Elsewhere, it is still a matter of working on (likely) stolen property, and of risking the encouragement of further looting or forgery. Many scholars appear to feel privileged enough to ignore all of this.

Provenance is a fundamental issue. If we want to change scholarly approaches to it, we need to understand the attitudes and laws that feed into them.

Friday, March 31, 2017

ISIS Isn't Saving Anything in Mosul

 Ruins of the shrine of Nebi Yunus (“the prophet Jonah”) in Mosul, January 2017 (VOA)
Over the past few months, Iraqi army forces have retaken much of the city of Mosul in Iraqi Kurdistan from ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). With the capture of much of the city– where stories of liberation and horror compete for our attention – these forces have also captured the mounds of Kuyunjik and Tell Nebi Yunus. These two artificial hills (or “tells”) and their surroundings form the site of the famous ancient city of Nineveh, now in eastern Mosul. From the end of February, news outlets started reporting the discovery of an ancient Assyrian palace at Tell Nebi Yunus, in tunnels that ISIS had dug into the mound. News reports about the discovery have varied immensely in quality, and it is often difficult to sort through the many discrepancies. We have also had our share of sensational-sounding headlines: Previously Untouched 600BC Palace Discovered under Shrine Demolished by Isil in Mosul (the Telegraph); “Jihadist tunnels save Assyrian winged bulls of Mosul” (Agence Presse-France); “Iraqi troops find Assyrian treasures in network of Isis tunnels” (the Guardian). Fox News unsurprisingly emphasized the biblical connection of the palace. But what do we really know here? Let’s take a step back and sum up the situation to date:

Map showing the location of the shrine of Jonah within the ruins of ancient Nineveh, in eastern Mosul

On July 24, 2014, ISIS detonated the shrine of Nebi Yunus (“the prophet Jonah” in Arabic), standing on the top of Tell Nebi Yunus. The shrine is one traditional site of the tomb of Jonah, revered by local Muslims and Christians alike. After Iraqi forces retook this mound in the middle of January, archaeologists surveying damage to the site discovered that ISIS had dug a series of tunnels through the mound. These tunnels were apparently designed to loot artifacts for sale in order to fund their activities. The effort was successful: while the tunnels were mostly empty, a handful of important stone relief sculptures and an inscribed slab were found in them by the archaeologists – presumably because they were too heavy for ISIS to remove them easily through the tunnels. It is thought that many smaller artifacts of lesser value were removed from the site: a cache of more than 100 artifacts discovered in an ISIS commander’s house in eastern Mosul back in January might have come from these tunnels. Archaeologists now warn that there “cave-ins in the tunnels every day,” with danger of collapse of the entire tunnel system.

 Tell Nebi Yunus (with the shrine of Jonah on top) in 1932 
(Matson Photograph Collection, via Library of Congress)
 Shrine of Jonah in 1999 (by Roland Unger via Wikimedia Commons)

Now to the sensationalist headlines: First, despite the claims of several media outlets, ISIS did not “save” anything. ISIS looting does seem to have uncovered artifacts from a palace or other royal building – but, if they hadn’t been uncovered, they would still lie perfectly intact beneath the soil of the tell. Instead, ISIS has looted a number of artifacts from the site, with the exact number unknown. Many of these may be lost, many may be illegally removed from the country. In addition, looting operations are massively – let me repeat, massively – destructive. Any artifacts not deemed of sufficient value on the market (and most artifacts found at sites generally fall into this category) are discarded or destroyed. On top of this, we lose not only the objects themselves, but also their archaeological contexts. Artifacts found in contexts can tell us how they were used by people, the functions of buildings, and all sorts of details of everyday life at a settlement. All of this information is now gone from these tunnels.

Second, it is unclear if ISIS discovered a previously unknown building. As British Institute for the Study of Iraq (BISI) chair Paul Collins told Fox News, previous excavations on the mound of Nebi Yunus have uncovered remains of Assyrian royal buildings. Are the new discoveries related to one of these buildings? Note also the discrepancy between the claim that this is a newly discovered palace and the detailed history given of this palace (which kings founded and renovated it) in several reports. Such a history would be difficult or impossible to reconstruct if without scientific excavation. How do we resolve these discrepancies? The history given in the news accounts actually seems to describe what we know of an Assyrian royal building partially excavated at the site in the past, a “review palace” or royal arsenal. The new discoveries could be part of this building, but we cannot be certain without more information.

Third, are the reliefs left in the tunnels in danger from collapse? This concern appears to be exaggerated in news accounts. It is unclear if the handful of large stone slabs would be seriously damaged by collapses of dirt above, especially since the condition of the tunnels is little understood outside of Mosul. In AFP’s story on the palace, Iraqi archaeologist Layla Salih is cited as follows:
“‘We fear it could all collapse at any time,’ entombing the treasures, said Layla Salih.”
The word “entombing” is not a direct quote from the archaeologist; it is the journalist’s paraphrase or interpretation. Is this in fact what Salih is worried about? After all, “entombing” is not a danger to the artifacts themselves; once again, buried artifacts are relatively safe. They can be dug out again eventually. (Contrast the National [UAE] version of the AFP story, which is simply wrong in stating that “[t]he tunnels could collapse at any time, meaning the treasures would be entombed forever.”

The greater danger from the instability of the tunnel system is the collapse of a significant portion of the mound itself. Paul Collins has made a similar observation, emphasizing that the threat is even greater since the hill was already damaged by the demolition of the shrine of Jonah. Archaeologically, there would be significant loss of information from the dirt above the tunnels. This material is stratified – that is, it records the history of how buildings and dirt layers were deposited at the site, with artifacts in the contexts where they were abandoned or discarded in ancient times. When stratified material is excavated properly, the amount we can learn, about individual artifacts, groups of objects, buildings, and the entire history of occupation of the settlement for hundreds and hundreds of years, is nearly limitless. As was already the case with the looting from the tunnels themselves, all of this information would be lost in case of collapse.

Beyond this, Tell Nebi Yunus is still an important part of the living city of Mosul today. The shrine of Jonah is still a holy place even in its ruined state. A collapse of a significant portion of the tell would be a major loss, and a setback to any attempt to restore the shrine.

There are other problems with the news reports: The British tabloid the Daily Star seems to have invented some details, as we hear not only of stone sculptures but also “coins, jewelry and mosaics found in the palace” (Not only have no such small finds have been reported, but more significantly, coins and mosaics did not exist in Assyria at this time.) Even in Josie Ensor’s generally good report on the discovery in the Telegraph, we read (in connection with the inscribed stone slab) that there are “only a handful of such cuneiforms recovered from the period,” when Neo-Assyrian cuneiform inscriptions are quite common. Several new stories refer to these stone reliefs in the tunnels as “treasures.” This is a poor choice of words, since it presents archaeology less as scientific study of the past than as treasure hunting. The New York Post describes a “race against time to save the archaeological treasures”; compare Maev Kennedy’s “race against time to save artefacts” in the Guardian. Gone are the realities of the war. What we are left with is a romantic image of something exciting and adventurous – like an Indiana Jones film.

Our knowledge of what has actually happened here is partial and provisional. As Iraqi archaeologists continue to study the tell and the artifacts left in the tunnels, as more and better reports are received from Mosul, we can get a much clearer picture of what has actually been found at Tell Nebi Yunus. In the meantime, these stories show that, as usual, we must read news reports on archaeology in wartime with great caution.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Growing up with Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry was never my favorite musician growing up. As I’ve written before, the first musical artist I really loved was the Beatles. As I’ve also written before, the first musical artist I really loved was actually the Monkees, but I’m a revisionist when it comes to this aspect of my history. But Berry’s music was always around: in my parents' music collection. Or Michael J. Fox’s homage to Berry in Back to the Future. Or listening to oldies stations, back when “oldies” meant late 1950s and 1960s – including generous portions of early rock ‘n’ roll. It is fair to say that I grew up on Chuck Berry.

In reality, only a handful of Berry songs were regularly played on oldies stations (“Rock and Roll Music,” “Maybellene,” “Nadine” and “No Particular Place to Go”, “School Days,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” and of course “Johnny B. Goode”). Instead, I learned much of his output through the Beatles. The Beatles officially released covers of only two Berry songs during their time together: “Rock and Roll Music and “Roll Over Beethoven.” But they had many other songs of his in their repertoire. They recorded several of these in their many live sessions on the BBC between 1963 and 1965. Judging by these recordings, almost all included in two Live at the BBC releases, their setlists included more songs by Berry than by any other artist. I have fond memories of listening to Beatles’ programs on the weekends in my junior high and high school years, hearing many of these Berry songs for the first time, taping them (with other BBC recordings) long before Live at the BBC was released. In a very real sense, I grew up with Chuck Berry through the Beatles.

The Beatles, too, grew up with Chuck Berry: his songs clearly played an important role in their formative years. Their performances on BBC programs make for an interesting measuring stick against one of their musical idols. I’ve always preferred Beatles’ version of “Rock and Roll Music” to the original. For the simple fact that a song titled “Rock and Roll Music” should, quite simply, rock – unlike the Beatles’ version, Berry’s swings more than rocks (the Beach Boys’ hit cover a decade later, their “comeback” hit, also fails to rock). I also like the Beatles’ version of “Too Much Monkey Business” better – perhaps for the same reason, or perhaps simply because it was the first version I heard.

On the other hand, the Beatles do not do “Johnny B. Goode’s” seminal rock real justice. Then there is “Memphis, Tennessee”: a well-constructed song, and surprisingly tender for Berry and his usual teenage tales of school and jukeboxes and cars. The Beatles’ version fails to capture that tenderness as well as Berry – though not as badly as the recording I was most familiar with growing up, the hit version released a year later by Johnny Rivers, who turns it into a dance number.

Given the importance of Berry to the Beatles’ development – and given that he was still active (and producing hits) during his comeback in 1964 – it is surprising to note that the two apparently never met during the Beatles’ lifetime. John Lennon first met Berry only in February 1972, when Lennon and Yoko Ono co-hosted the Mike Douglas show for a week. It is fascinating to watch the footage of the two performing together, Lennon torn between performing for the camera and watching his musical hero.

The irony is that, at the time of this performance, Lennon was being sued for infringing the copyright of one of Berry’s songs. The tale is really unbelievable: When John Lennon wrote “Come Together” in 1969, he began it with a near-quote from Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me”: “Here come a flat-top, he was movin’ up with me”. In the early 1970s, Lennon was sued by Morris Levy, the notorious  “Godfather of the music industry”, who owned the publishing rights to “You Can’t Catch Me.” (Berry himself was not involved in the suit.) Levy and Lennon settled out of court in 1973, with Lennon agreeing to record three songs owned by Levy on his next album. Lennon’s oldies album Rock ‘n’ Roll was recorded in part to fulfill the terms of the settlement – until an increasingly unstable Phil Spector, the album’s producer, disappeared with the master tapes. As a result, Lennon’s next release was Walls and Bridges, which violated the terms of the agreement. Lennon explained the situation to an increasingly anxious Levy, and later gave him a rough mixes of the recordings (after resuming in New York without Spector). Levy proceeded to release the mixes as an album on his mail order label. Levy sued Lennon for breach; Lennon countersued for unauthorized use of his material and damaging his reputation. (In 1977, after Levy’s appeal was finally ruled on, Lennon prevailed.)

In an interview in September 1980, Lennon dismissed the importance of Berry’s influence on his song:

“Come Together” is me – writing obscurely around an old Chuck Berry thing. I left the line in “Here comes old flat-top.” It is nothing like the Chuck Berry song, but they took me to court because I admitted the influence once years ago. I could have changed it to “Here comes old iron face,” but the song remains independent of Chuck Berry or anybody else on earth. (interview with David Sheff, September 8, 1980; emphasis in original)

But Lennon appears often to have used others’ composition as a way to start writing songs. His borrowings appear regularly at the beginnings of songs: besides the opening words of “Come Together,” there’s the intro to “Revolution” (from Pee Wee Crayton’s “Do Unto Others”); and the opening lines of “Run for Your Life” (lifted from Elvis’s “Baby Let’s Play House”). As with these other songs, “Come Together” might never have been written (or might have been written quite differently) if not for this inspiration.

This was certainly not the only legal action involving Berry’s songs. Berry’s regular music publisher Arc Music (owned by Philip and Leonard Chess from Berry’s label Chess Records along with Gene and Harry Goodman, younger brothers of Benny) threatened to sue the Beach Boys along with their label Capitol Records in 1963 over their hit “Surfin’ USA.” The song consists of new lyrics to Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen,” including a list of beaches where Berry has a list of cities, down to the phrase “all over x” (not to mention that the guitar intro is taken directly from Berry’s “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man”). Here too there was a settlement, though this one wasn’t violated: the song was assigned to Berry’s publishing company, and Berry was eventually given a songwriting credit.

Like the Beatles, the Beach Boys were greatly influenced by Berry. There is the intro to “Fun, Fun, Fun,” based on Berry’s guitar intro to “Johnny B. Goode.” But here the irony is that this, perhaps Berry’s most famous riff, was actually lifted by Berry from Carl Hogan’s intro to Louis Jordan’s “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman.” In interviews Berry made a point of singling out the importance of Hogan and Jordan in influencing his music. “If you can call it my music,” as Berry once said, before continuing, “but then there’s nothing new under the sun.”

Berry had his own influences, which he sometimes lifted. But he stole most often from himself. There was the intro to “Maybellene,” recycled in his very next single, “Thirty Days”; the identical guitar solos in “Too Much Monkey Business” and “Roll Over Beethoven”; the melody and instrumental track of his Christmas song “Run Rudolph Run” reused in “Little Queenie”; the two best-known hits of his 1964 comeback, “No Particular Place to Go” and “Nadine,” reusing the melodies of “School Day” and (a slowed down) “Maybellene.” When listening to Berry’s music it is Berry’s own licks and tunes we hear more than anyone else’s – Berry was really an original after all. Or, to put it another way, everyone grew up on Chuck Berry . . . even Chuck Berry.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Why I Write about Palmyra

  Modern town of Palmyra (Tadmur), Syria, c. 2006
photo by Soman via Wikimedia Commons

About 3 years ago, I started to be very concerned about how we talk about the Syrian war. News consumers, academics, all of us. It seemed that we – and scholars of the ancient world in particular – might care more about ruined buildings than we did about human beings, even as their lives were being snuffed out by the thousands. I was moved to start writing about cultural heritage then, trying to highlight how its importance is completely tied up with its role in people’s lives.

A year ago I returned to this topic. At the time, Palmyra was in the news, and I saw the same pattern repeating itself in how we discussed that city. At the time, I knew next to nothing about Palmyra. I was unaware that its Arabic name was Tadmur; unaware that the site had been constantly inhabited up to the twentieth century; unaware that the modern village was demolished in the early 1930s to allow archaeologists to dig the Temple of Bel; unaware that there was a modern town of tens of thousands there today.

I began to write the archaeology and history of Palmyra. I focused on two topics: the post-classical history of the city; and the history of modern Western exploration of and interaction with it. I felt – and still feel today – that we do not discuss these topics nearly enough. Instead, we are far too concerned with the classical city, because, I suspect, we see it as part of our own heritage in Europe and the United State, unlike the more recent Arab history of the site. In this way our interactions with the site today disturbingly echo the three centuries of modern Western interaction with it, and this is something I desperately want to see changed.

Why don’t I focus on the inhabitants of the modern town and the war itself? These are very worthy topics for discussion, but they are not my areas of expertise. I don’t know Arabic, though I plod through it slowly when necessary for research. My training is in archaeology. Beyond this, I have spent much time over the last few years looking at accounts of European and American travelers to the Middle East, and so Modern European and American accounts of the site were a natural area of focus. When it comes to the present-day people of Tadmur and Syria, I have tried to highlight work by others, especially by Syrians themselves.

In my writing, I try to focus on issues about which we are often uninformed or even misinformed. I hope that in some small way it will affect (for the better) how we think and talk about Palmyra and its inhabitants. But it would be foolish to make changing how we talk about Palmyra and its inhabitants a goal in itself. Talk, after all, is cheap. The real problem for Palmyra and Syria is not the attitudes that we in the U.S. or Europe have, or the attitudes of Bashar al-Assad or ISIS or Al Qaeda or various rebel groups. The real problem is the actions these people and groups are carrying out. In short, the war is the problem. Ignoring the suffering of human beings in Syria (or anywhere in conflict) can make us indifferent to the horrors of war or even help us to rationalize them. Seeing their cultural heritage as actually belonging to us, and seeing that heritage under threat from “barbaric” groups (like ISIS) in the Middle East, can provide a warped justification for those horrors.

I worry that we are often more concerned about symbols and words than we are with actions; I sometimes worry that I am more concerned with them myself. Symbolism is important, but only as much as it leads to action. We must always be aware of this. And so I am ultimately writing to change actions. More precisely, I am writing to change our attitudes towards Syria and Syrians in order to change actions. Our attitudes play an important role in leading towards actions, or (even more) in justifying actions. In justifying death and destruction, theft of resources. In justifying war itself.

To be clear: I am not suggesting my writing will have any significant effect on these problems. My audience is small and my influence on it smaller still. I hold few illusions about my occasional writing on this subject and the impact that it has. But I do hold a few. Illusions can be useful things if they are constructive. Why else would we write, or try to do our own small part to make the world a better place?