A True Jerusalem Story: The Failed Raid of the Lost Ark

More than a century ago, a group of English treasure-hunters showed up in Jerusalem with the most ambitious of goals: They were determined to find the treasures of the ancient biblical kings, no less. This grand quest and its strange results made sensational headlines in newspapers around the globe, not to mention the riots that erupted across the city…

The Temple Mount, Captain Montagu Brownlow Parker and a model of the Ark of the Covenant, credit: Avraham Gracier, The National Trust, Mary Harrsch

The rumor spread like wildfire across the city.

The crimes were unthinkable. Perhaps too fantastical to believe. And yet many did.

In mid-April of 1911, a team of English treasure hunters was busy at work in Jerusalem. They were digging under the Dome of the Rock, under the Temple Mount – the Noble Sanctuary, one of the world’s most sacred and sensitive religious landmarks. They were actually given permission, of a sort, to do so, but this did not make the act any less scandalous.

The Dome of the Rock, on the Temple Mount, or the Haram al-Sharif (“Noble Sanctuary”) as it is known to Muslims. Photo by Gabi Laron, 2008, the Gabi Laron Archive, the National Library of Israel

It was on the night of April 12 that the excavation came to an abrupt end: the wrong person found out about the dig, and it quickly became clear that remaining in Jerusalem was dangerous. The team packed up its equipment and findings and left town in a hurry. They were long gone when word began to spread that British adventurers had made off with the treasures of the ancient Jewish kings.

The press did not feel the need to downplay the event. Respectable newspapers declared that the stolen artifacts included King Solomon’s crown, his sword and his ring, as well as an ancient manuscript of the Bible (long before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls). The New York Times ran with the headline: “Gone With Treasure That Was Solomon’s”. Some dispatches even mentioned the discovery of the Ark of the Covenant itself.

“Stealing the Law” – John Bull, the British equivalent of Uncle Sam, makes off with the Ten Commandments and other ancient treasures. This caricature of the Parker affair appeared in ⁨⁨the May 13, 1911, issue of The Warheiht (“The Truth”), a Yiddish newspaper based in New York. Click on the image to enlarge.


“It is believed that the explorers found Solomon’s crown, his sword and his ring and an ancient manuscript of the Bible”, from the May 20, 1911 issue of The Reform Advocate


A more skeptical report about the incident in the May 12, 1911 edition of The Jewish Voice, mentioning “fairy tales”…

The incident soon led to chaos. Riots were sparked in Jerusalem, with local citizens going on strike and venting their fury at the Ottoman government for allowing such an outrage to occur. It was clear to all that the authorities had been in the know. Only the eventual resignation of the district governor was enough to calm the masses.

But what was the nature of this strange incident? Who were these treasure hunters? What were they looking for and what did they truly find?


The Genesis of the Parker Expedition

It began a few years earlier with a man named Walter Henrich Juvelius.

This strange Finnish poet was a man of eccentric interests, a doctor of philosophy who was fascinated with numerology, the Kabbalah and Jewish chronology. At some point in the early 1900s, Juvelius claimed to have made a startling discovery: he believed he had found a mysterious cipher while conducting research on Jewish history (one report mentioned he found it in the library of St. Sophia in Constantinople).

The cipher supposedly enabled one to unlock secrets hidden in the Bible and other ancient Jewish texts. Among these: the location of the treasures of the First Temple, including the Ark of the Covenant. As if this wasn’t odd enough, there was also talk of strange ancient documents unearthed in Ireland that also hinted at treasure buried in Jerusalem.

“The cipher was furnished by documents said to have been recently unearthed in Ireland”, from the August 25, 1911 issue of The Hebrew Standard

Armed with these “revelations”, Juvelius eventually turned up in London, where he met Captain Montagu Brownlow Parker. A decorated British soldier who had fought in the Second Boer War, Parker was also a well-connected aristocrat – his brother was the 4th Earl of Morley. Parker bought into Juvelius’ scheme to locate the ancient treasures in Jerusalem, and set about raising money and recruiting personnel. The 30-year-old English officer was quite successful in this: he managed to raise some £25,000 from a number of wealthy British and American patrons (equivalent to more than £3.8 million in 2023), and convinced several of his army buddies to join him and Juvelius on the expedition to the Holy Land.

Captain Montagu Brownlow Parker, the leader of the expedition, in military uniform.  Later in life he would succeed his brother and become the 5th Earl of Morley, photo: The National Trust

Why were these affluent socialites and bored army veterans so eager to support such an overly ambitious excavation based on such flimsy evidence, you ask?  It likely had something to do with Juvelius’ estimate that the treasure they were certain to find, including copious amounts of gold and silver, would be equal to a value of around $200 million dollars (over $6.4 billion today). This was also a time when the Spiritualist movement was still quite popular in the upper classes of British and American society. Hidden bible codes, mystical long-lost artifacts and ancient buried treasure? What’s not to like?

In 1908, before beginning the dig, Parker made a stop in Constantinople. His team may have been unorthodox (it included a former cricket player, a Swiss psychic and precisely zero archaeologists) and his motives were perhaps questionable, but the army captain was still intent on getting the proper legal permits from the Ottoman administration. After a quick negotiation, officials from the new Young Turks government supplied the permit in late November in exchange for £500 and half of any treasure to be found.

Members of the Parker expedition in Jerusalem. Left to right: Robin Duff, Habip Bey, Montagu Parker, Cyril Foley, Hagop Makasdar, Cyril Ward, Abdulaziz Mecdi Effendi, Clarence Wilson. Photo reproduced in “In Search of the Temple Treasure — The Story of the Parker Expedition in the City of David, 1909—1911” [Hebrew], by N. Shalev-Khalifa in Qadmoniot: A Journal for the Antiquities of Eretz-Israel and Bible Lands, 1998, n°2.

By this point Parker and Juvelius had already made a brief scouting trip to Jerusalem to identify the exact locations for the dig. Juvelius believed that the treasure lay underground, somewhere in the vicinity of the Temple Mount – the massive stone platform thought to be the site of both Jewish temples, where the Dome of the Rock now stood alongside the Al Aqsa Mosque.

The Temple Mount platform dates to Herodian times. The area known as the Ophel is seen in the bottom right corner, below the ancient wall. Photo: Avraham Gracier


Let the Digging Begin

Since digging under the platform itself was (initially) out of the question because of the religious sensitivities involved, Juvelius planned to reach the area by using already-existing ancient underground passages, accessible from what was known as the Hill of Ophel, the area south of the Temple Mount and the mosques. These would hopefully lead to a secret treasure chamber, that Juvelius was convinced existed under the Temple Mount itself.

The British team actually purchased land in the area of the dig site with some help from Ottoman officials.  The Turks were able to overcome local resistance to the sale by announcing that the land was to be used for a hospital (this did not pan out). Finally, with the bureaucratic wrangling out of the way, work could begin.

A view of the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Temple Mount from the house where Parker and his men stayed, south of the Old City walls. From Underground Jerusalem: Discoveries on the Hill of Ophel, the book written by Louis-Hugues Vincent, mere months after the Parker expedition ended in controversy, the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel

In August of 1909, the team set up in a lone villa south of the Old City walls, the dig site was fenced off, and preparations for the excavation began. The European visitors stood out like a sore thumb in early 20th century Jerusalem, and their secretive behavior aroused plenty of attention and curiosity. Inevitably, despite the efforts to pretend otherwise, rumor got out that these were treasure hunters. Soon enough, the team was under pressure from suspicious locals and community leaders, who were eager to have someone on the inside that they could trust – a serious professional whose mere presence would reassure them. Parker finally gave in.

Enter Louis-Hugues Vincent.

Vincent was a Dominican monk, but also a respected archaeologist who worked at Jerusalem’s École biblique et archéologique française. Parker agreed to allow Vincent full access to the dig, three days a week, on the condition that no information would be shared with the public until Parker saw fit. This had the double effect of silencing local criticism, as well as providing the team with its only certified and relevant expert.

It is primarily thanks to Vincent that we have a detailed record of most of the Parker expedition’s underground work in Jerusalem. In fact, mere months after the scandalous incident on the Temple Mount, Vincent published an entire book, in both French and English, about the Parker expedition, detailing its work methods and findings and featuring intricate maps, drawings and photographs. A rare copy of Underground Jerusalem: Discoveries on the Hill of Ophel (1909-11) can be found in the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel.

From Underground Jerusalem: Discoveries on the Hill of Ophel, by Louis-Hugues Vincent, the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel. Click on the image to enlarge.

As work got underway, some three hundred men were employed from the nearby village of Silwan (Siloam) to do the digging. The team began the excavations in the area of the Gihon Spring, Warren’s Shaft and the Siloam Tunnel (also known as Hezekiah’s tunnel). Both the tunnel and the shaft were previously explored in the 19th century, to much fanfare, and were thought to have formed parts of ancient Jerusalem’s underground water system. The general plan was to search for as-yet undiscovered passages, branching off from the known tunnels, that would hopefully lead the team to the secret treasure under the Temple Mount.

The houses of Silwan (Siloam), viewed from the Temple Mount (late 19th/ early 20th century), the Lenkin Family Collection of Photography at the University of Pennsylvania Library, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The work was arduous and dangerous, continuing at all times of the day, in 4-hour shifts. The workers carried torches and chanted songs as they picked away. Vincent wrote that they “found it necessary to take some such means to counteract the monotony of the dark, mysterious tunnels which seemed to stretch endlessly into the very entrails of the rock”.

The 1909 dig lasted into the autumn, but bad weather soon made further progress impossible. The team dispersed for the season, with Parker and company returning to Britain. They were back in Jerusalem by early August of 1910, with better equipment and aided by experts who had worked on the London Underground subway system. In this second dig season, the team continued to clear out the existing tunnels and even discovered previously unknown passages and chambers. Yet none of these came near the area of the Temple Mount, where the treasure was believed to be hidden. Parker even decided to begin carving out new tunnels, to bore an underground path that would lead them to their goal, but this was a slow and laborious process.

Vincent’s book contains a number of detailed maps charting out the network of ancient tunnels excavated by the team, as well as tunnels that they themselves dug underground.

An overall plan of the Parker expedition’s excavations in the area south of the Temple Mount. From Underground Jerusalem: Discoveries on the Hill of Ophel, by Louis-Hugues Vincent, the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel. Click on the image to enlarge.

Conditions were difficult, even for those with experience. Vincent wrote: “Thirty metres from the fountain the candles would not burn any longer, and we had to fall back on portable electric lanterns. In spite of a ventilator and oxygen capsules, the gangs had to be relieved every hour. At certain times I was not able to be more than a quarter of an hour in the gallery.”

From Underground Jerusalem: Discoveries on the Hill of Ophel, by Louis-Hugues Vincent, the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel. Click on the image to enlarge.

While work was underway, water had to be diverted from the ancient Siloam Tunnel in which the famous Siloam Inscription was found in 1880. One of the benefits of this entire enterprise was that the clearing out of the underground waterways meant that water could now flow more easily through the channels. As the dig season drew to a close, the water was diverted back on October 11, 1910. Vincent wrote that its volume was now double what it had been previously, to the delight of the villagers of Silwan: “The flow of water gradually passed through to the Pool of Siloam; the shouts of acclamation and the noise of the feast to celebrate this occasion will long sound in my ears”.

This act of benevolence made Parker and his associates momentarily more popular with the locals, but for the team itself, the year 1910 was full of frustration and disappointment. Two seasons of hard manual labor in the summer heat had taken their toll, and the treasure hunters had little treasure to show for their efforts. Juvelius, the original visionary behind the quest, contracted malaria, packed his things and left for home. The winter rains once again put a stop to the digging and the Ottoman overseers also seemed to lose faith at this point. Parker’s dig permit was set to expire in late 1911, and chances of a renewal appeared slim, but the Englishman, who had investors to answer to, was not quite ready to give up.

A dejected looking Walter Juvelius sits in a subterranean chamber excavated during the expedition. Photograph published in Ronny Reich’s Excavating the City of David: Where Jerusalem’s History Began (Israel Exploration Society, 2011)

With the excavations south of the Temple Mount not yielding any treasures belonging to biblical kings, a desperate Parker decided it was finally time for a different, more direct approach.


Things Fall Apart

Parker proceeded to discreetly bribe Sheikh Khalil al-Zanaf, the caretaker of the “Noble Sanctuary” (the Haram al-Sharif, the Arabic name for the Temple Mount). This payment allowed Parker and his team access to the massive ancient platform, now a site of daily Muslim worship. It was April of 1911, and that year Easter and Passover coincided with the celebration of Nebi Musa. This festival honoring the figure of Moses was marked by local Muslims with a pilgrimage to a religious site near Jericho. Sheikh Khalil made sure the guards usually stationed on the platform were given well-paid leave to attend the festival.

With prying eyes removed from the premises, at night and with a police guard present, Parker and his associates commenced digging on the Temple Mount. Louis-Hugues Vincent, the French archaeologist-monk, did not participate in this part of the venture. He may have disapproved, he may have been kept in the dark, but there is no mention of the dig on the mount in his book. What we know of these events comes from other contemporary accounts and press reports.

The Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock, in the late 19th/early 20th century, a view from the north. The Lenkin Family Collection of Photography at the University of Pennsylvania Library, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Parker’s men began digging in the south-eastern corner of the platform – the area that the crusaders erroneously called Solomon’s Stables. Gustaf Dalman wrote later that year that the team “apparently hoped to be able to get underground from thence to the site of the Temple, but they were stopped by cisterns, and gave up the attempt as impossible.”

“Solomon’s Stables” – the vaulted subterranean chamber in the south-eastern corner of the Temple Mount platform. Photo taken late 19th/early 20th century, the Lenkin Family Collection of Photography at the University of Pennsylvania Library, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

At this point, Parker finally stopped beating around the bush. He and his men entered the Dome of the Rock, and began digging beneath the Foundation Stone, the place that many believe to have once been the location of the Holy of Holies, the sacred innermost chamber of the ancient Jewish temple. Dalman,  the director of the German Protestant Institute of Archaeology in Jerusalem at the time, wrote that the team: “opened the rock tunnel, which leads from the north to the Sacred Rock under the Dome of the Rock, and which perhaps carried away the blood from the Altar of the Temple. This tunnel was followed for about seven metres in a northerly direction, but nothing particular was found except a slight enlargement of it.”

The Foundation Stone, housed inside the Dome of the Rock, late 19th/early 20th century. This item is part of Archive Network Israel and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

Some accounts claimed the men also dug into the floor of the cave beneath the Foundation Stone, known as the Well of Souls, in search of a chamber rumored to exist there, though Dalman was not convinced this occurred. In any case, after nine nights of digging on the Temple Mount, the excavations were stopped when the secretive work was discovered. Dalman wrote that one of the Haram guards, who was “insufficiently bribed”, was responsible. According to another version of events, a guard happened to show up at the Haram at night, intending to sleep there as his own home was full of relatives attending the pilgrimage festival, when he came across the sacrilegious work being done.

The word soon spread, and chaos broke out.

Fueled by rumors of ancient treasures being stolen by foreigners, angry mobs formed in the streets. Some two thousand Muslim demonstrators vented their fury in front of the Ottoman government headquarters, the Saraya, not far from the Temple Mount. A general strike was announced, marches were held and calls were made to kill the foreign intruders and Azmi Bey, the Ottoman governor, along with them. The tension lasted for days, occasionally erupting into public demonstrations and violent riots. Sheikh Khalil, the caretaker of the Haram al-Sharif, was another target of the protestors’ ire. The demonstrators were even supported by some of the local Hebrew press. One article stated that “The Ashkenazi newspapers accuse the English and American tourists of not treating the Muslim holy places with the proper respect”.

Scholar Louis Fishman described these events in detail in his 2005 article, The 1911 Haram al-Sharif Incident. Writing of the episode on the Temple Mount and particularly the protests that followed, Fishman noted that there was something remarkable about these demonstrations and the motivation behind them:

“we can also detect the beginnings of a Palestinian identity as distinct from the local population’s overlapping Ottoman and Arab identities. This is important because it gives us a rare look at the beginnings of a local nationalism expressed through opposition to Ottoman policies concerning not Zionism but the city of Jerusalem.”

As for Parker, he and his men quickly left for Jaffa, on the Mediterranean coast, once their secret was out. The Ottoman authorities, who of course had approved the whole enterprise to begin with, made a show of searching their ship, declaring that no treasures were found onboard. The Englishmen were then quietly allowed to leave for home, likely thanks to Parker’s political connections. Sheikh Khalil, however, was soon arrested, as was a local Armenian named Hagop Makasder, who had served as the team’s translator and was found to be a convenient scapegoat.

Captain Parker did not deny digging under the Dome of the Rock in the statement above (he referred to it as “the Mosque of Omar”). This quote given to the Times appeared in the May 20, 1911 issue of The Reform Advocate

In the aftermath, both Azmi Bey, the district governor, and Sheikh Khalil lost their jobs. This was decided during a parliamentary inquiry into the episode, held in Constantinople. The incident made international headlines, especially across the Islamic world and as far as India. The masses wanted accountability. Representatives of the Ottoman government again declared that no ancient treasures of significance were stolen, while also justifying their original support for the expedition, arguing that it could conceivably have turned out to be a profitable venture. In any case, the higher-ups in the Ottoman establishment were cleared of any wrongdoing.

So it seems that no crowns belonging to ancient kings, no scepters, no rings, no swords and of course no curious-looking boxes topped with winged angels were uncovered during the work of the Parker expedition. But after two years of digging under ancient Jerusalem, using state of the art equipment and hundreds of workmen laboring day and night, it would, after all, be ludicrous to suggest that absolutely nothing at all was found… So what did Parker have to show for his efforts?


What Did They Find?

The excavations under the Hill of Ophel, south of the Temple Mount, were able to reveal a number of ancient subterranean tombs. One of these was, according to Vincent, “a most remarkable Egyptian-looking tomb, containing wonderfully well-preserved pottery, with specimens as fine as any yet found in Palestine”. Vincent identified the pottery as Jebusite, dating it to around 2,400 BCE at the latest, meaning these finds were significantly older than the Jewish treasures the expedition was looking for. Despite the Egyptian artistic features, the Frenchman concluded that the tomb belonged to a wealthy Jebusite “who either introduced or fostered” Egyptian fashions in the area.

From Underground Jerusalem: Discoveries on the Hill of Ophel, by Louis-Hugues Vincent, the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel. Click on the images to enlarge.

The expedition excavated a number of other tombs and burial chambers that Vincent believed were “almost exactly contemporaneous with the palmy days of the Israelitish kings”. Vincent made impressive efforts to document the large amounts of pottery found in the many chambers and passages dug up by the workers. The pottery finds included “thousands of Israelitish jars”. A handful bore stamps that indicated their purpose or owner. Vincent wrote that only one of these was legible, and that in his opinion, this particular stamp’s letters formed the word “MoReSHeT”. The Frenchman believed that the jar was a tribute from the small town of Moreshet on the southwestern border of ancient Judea, sent to the royal treasury in Jerusalem. This he saw as evidence that the Judean king’s palace could not be far away from the dig site.

From Underground Jerusalem: Discoveries on the Hill of Ophel, by Louis-Hugues Vincent, the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel. Click on the image to enlarge.

The team also found the remains of an ancient gateway, held up by two monolithic stones, each around 5 feet 10 inches high and less than 3 feet apart. The small size of this strange portal led Vincent to conclude that it was a postern gate, leading to a secret passage towards the nearby Gihon Spring, a critical source of water for ancient Jerusalem.

Vincent believed this “ancient gateway” was a postern gate, leading to a secret passage to the Gihon Spring. From Underground Jerusalem: Discoveries on the Hill of Ophel, by Louis-Hugues Vincent, the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel. Click on the image to enlarge.

Another interesting find was “a magnificent chair of ‘royal’ stone”. The workers at first thought this must indeed have been Solomon’s throne, but Vincent was not convinced, writing cryptically – “I fear its actual destination was at once more private and more naturally necessary”. A recent study has confirmed this particular item as the remains of an Iron Age toilet seat.

Other finds included “a few big balls of metal”, some indecipherable Roman coins, a small statue, probably Herodian, a handful of Canaanite idols and carvings of animal figures, as well as:

 “certain blocks of stone we discovered which probably formed the bases of columns or candelabras; the lower portion of a porphyry table; various mouldings cut in rare marbles; the remains of a splendid bronze flower-pot. All were found at about the same place, and all confirmed the impression that we were among the remains of a magnificent and luxurious household”

From Underground Jerusalem: Discoveries on the Hill of Ophel, by Louis-Hugues Vincent, the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel. Click on the image to enlarge.

One discovery was somewhat puzzling. Vincent described “a mark like an arrow-head cut in the rock of the natural escarpment…” Similar marks had been found at Tell es-Safi and on the Mount of Olives. Vincent thought they were possibly made by the master mason “to indicate the limit or the plan of various constructions”, but the matter is open to debate.

When Israeli archaeologists Ronni Reich and Eli Shukron re-excavated this area in 2009, their discovery of several more of these mysterious V-shaped markings in an underground chamber nearby made headlines. They hypothesized that the incisions may have been used to hold some sort of apparatus in place, perhaps a type of loom or other device in the field of industry or agriculture.

Strange V-shaped incisions in the floor of an underground chamber. This image appears in “One Hundred Years Since the Parker–Vincent Excavations in the City of David“, by Ronni Reich and Eli Shukron, City of David Studies of Ancient Jerusalem 7 (Hebrew)

Reich and Shukron have argued that Vincent’s work in the area south of the Temple Mount (facilitated by Captain Parker, of course) was critically important in the context of the archaeological study of Jerusalem. They make the case that it was Parker and Vincent who proved this site to be the true site of ancient Jerusalem. Reich and Shukrun believe, as did Vincent, that the City of David was built on this spot, as it was here and only here that remains from the early and mid-Bronze Age were found – meaning that this was Canaanite Jerusalem, the city that would later, during the Iron Age, become the Jerusalem described in the Bible.

The Temple Mount and the Ophel, a view from the south. Photo by Gabi Laron, 2021, the Gabi Laron Archive, the National Library of Israel

Not everyone agrees, however. Another leading Israeli archaeologist, Israel Finkelstein, has argued extensively that the center of ancient Jerusalem was on the Temple Mount itself, and not on the Hill of Ophel, which lies slightly to the south.

Of course it is difficult to know for sure, without digging below the surface, but that, as we have seen, can get complicated.


Further Reading

Louis-Hugues Vincent, Underground Jerusalem: Discoveries on the Hill of Ophel, London: H. Cox, 1911

Gustaf Dalman, “The Search for the Temple Treasure at Jerusalem”, Palestine Exploration Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 1, 1912

Nirit Shalev Khalifa, “In Search of the Temple Treasures,” Qadmoniot, Vol. 31, issue 116, 1999 (Hebrew)

Louis Fishman, “The 1911 Haram al-Sharif Incident: Palestinian Notables Versus the Ottoman Administration”, Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 34, No. 3, Spring 2005

Ronni Reich and Eli Shukron, “One Hundred Years Since the Parker–Vincent Excavations in the City of David”, City of David Studies of Ancient Jerusalem 7 (Hebrew)


How to Move Four Million Books

How did the National Library of Israel move its collections—not once, but twice—from one location to another? These photos captured the transfer of hundreds of thousands and then millions of books to the various homes of the National Library over the years

On the left, moving the National Library of Israel’s books from the Terra Sancta building to the Givat Ram campus in 1960; on the right, the robot-operated automated stacks in the new National Library building

On January 10, 2023, the transfer of all the books from the National Library of Israel’s current location on the Givat Ram campus to its new home was completed. In all, 3.6 million books were moved, an important milestone ahead of the relocation to the new National Library of Israel campus across from the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

Since its establishment, the Library has undergone many changes, both in terms of its location and its collections. However, the transfer of its books on such a massive scale from one building to another was carried out only twice: in 1960, and in 2022.


Moving the Books: 1960 vs. 2022

In 1948, during the War of Independence, access to the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus was cut off along with access to the National Library, then called the “Jewish National and University Library.” As a result, the Library’s collections were dispersed among different locations in the western part of the city, including the Terra Sancta building, the Yeshurun Synagogue library and several other places. In 1960, the Library moved once again, from the various buildings where its collections had been housed temporarily to its current location on the Hebrew University’s Givat Ram campus. Photographer David Harris documented this transfer in many fascinating photos showing how the Library staff worked diligently to move the hundreds of thousands of books from all the different sites to the new building. Today, photographers are once again documenting the process of transferring the Library’s books to a new permanent home.

Loading books for transport to the Library’s current building on the Givat Ram campus, 1960


The beginning of the transfer of books, October 2022. Photo: Udi Alfassi

As you can see, this is hard work. It involves first sorting, then packing and finally moving the books. Back in 1960, the books were loaded into sacks, bundled and tied with rope or packed into boxes. Staff members then loaded the sacks, bundles and boxes onto pick-up trucks. Today, the process mainly involves forklifts and semi-trailers – the collections have grown, after all.

Workers transporting books from the Terra Sancta building to the Givat Ram campus location, 1960. Photo: David Harris


Sorting books in the new building. Photo: Albatross


The Jewish National and University Library storeroom at Terra Sancta, 1960. Photo; David Harris

The sorting process is also completely different today: in the past, the process was done completely by hand. Today, it is a combination of manual and digital work centered on scanning the books’ barcodes.

Sorting books at Givat Ram, 1960. Photo: David Harris


Sorting books in the new National Library of Israel building, 2022. Photo: Albatross

As of today, all the Library’s books have been transferred to the Main Automated Stacks in the new National Library of Israel building, stored inside special crates on a multistory shelving system. When a book is ordered, it is no longer located by an actual human being, rather, this task is now performed by a crane-like robot. The robot knows which crate to take from which shelf. It then moves the crate to a location where staff can pull out the specific book that has been ordered. Even more astounding is that there is no human involvement at all inside the gigantic automated storeroom, which maintains a low level of oxygen and contains the vast majority of the Library’s collections. The robot knows exactly where to find a particular book from among the millions packed in the precisely stacked crates.

Stacks at Givat Ram. Photo: Hanan Cohen


The automated storeroom in the new National Library of Israel building, 2022. Photo: Yaniv Levi Korem

From the photos, you can see that moving books on such a scale—whether hundreds of thousands or millions—is a visually compelling and technically complex process. And whether analog or digital, the Library has always taken care of its collections, making sure that each and every book is in its correct location on the shelf, with the storeroom space only expanding over the years.

In the coming year, the National Library of Israel will complete its relocation to the new campus and when we open our doors, all these millions of books will be available to you, along with the rest of the Library’s collections.

The Magical Reincarnation of the Ancient Date Tree

When scientists found 2000 year-old plant seeds buried deep inside the ancient fortress of Masada, no one dared hope that they would lead to the recultivation of one of the most powerful trees in Israel. This is the story of Methuselah, the 18-year-old tree sprouted from biblical roots!

A poster designed in 1929 by artist Ze'ev Raban, of the Bezalel Art School, for the "Company for the Promotion of Travel in the Holy Land", the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection

Since the earliest records of human history, the date palm tree has been a symbol of life and prosperity in the Land of Israel. They were cultivated in the region as far back as 3100 BCE by the Mesopotamians and due to their sweet and long-lasting fruit they were even considered a gift from the heavens. As far back as the days of King Solomon, Israelites were busy cultivating this special tree, known for its compatibility with sandy desert areas. It was considered to be a symbol of fertility, blessing, peace and prosperity and was important enough to be mentioned several times in the Bible including the well-known verse in Psalms: “The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree” (Psalm 92:12).

Mordecai Kafri and a friend climb a palm tree in Nahalal, northern Israel. This item is part of Archive Network Israel and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel


1924 postcard from Denmark depicting a date palm tree, along with the Hebrew verse ‘The righteous shall flourish like the palm-tree’ [Psalms. 92:13]. A Hebrew greeting for the New Year is printed at the bottom. The Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection

The Bible describes the date palm being carved into the walls of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, while several biblical women were given the name “Tamar” – the Hebrew word for the date palm tree. It was so important that its image appeared on ancient Judean and Roman coins and is even featured on the ten-shekel coin in modern-day Israel.

A Hebrew manuscript from 19th century Russia depicting details of Solomon’s Temple, including a tabernacle wall decorated with date palm branches (center-right, below the Menorah, you can zoom in here), the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem


Photo of a Roman coin from 80 CE. It depicts a date palm tree and Jews in mourning. On both sides of the tree an abbreviated Latin inscription reads: Judea Capta, the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem


Photo of a Roman coin from 71 CE, depicting a palm tree with a cluster of dates hanging from either side. The inscription reads: IMP VESPA SIAN. Vespasian besieged Jerusalem shortly before becoming Emperor of Rome. The Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem


This mosaic floor decoration featuring a Judean date palm was located in the Maon Nirim Synagogue in pre-state Israel and dates back to the year 500 CE, the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

It is hard to overstress the importance of this species. As far back as 400 BCE, Herodotus would speak of the Judean date tree with pride, expressing appreciation for the dry and non-perishable dates which made them perfect for export (Palm Trees in the Greco-Roman WorldWathiq Ismaeel Al-Salihi). In the 1st century CE Pliny the Elder commented that the dates from this tree type were famous for their succulence and sweetness.

A field trip in the Arava Desert, circa 1930-1944. This item is part of Archive Network Israel and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

However, the date palm was to meet a sad end. Most of these trees were razed down over time as farmers cleared new fields or as invaders sought building materials for their homes and weapons for wars. When the Romans came to take control of the region in 70 CE, date palms were an integral plant to the Judean economy, making them a prime target of destruction for the Roman empire. By the year 500, the plant was thought to have been wiped out in its entirety. It’s worth noting that Asaph Goor, in his prominent article “History of the Date through the Ages in the Holy Land,” contests that the date tree was not actually wiped out completely until the 14th century, during a collapse in agriculture under the Mamluks. Either way, it is agreed that the poor tree was killed off far before the modern state of Israel was founded.

That was, until 2005, when Dr. Elaine Solowey stepped into the picture. Dr. Solowey was a horticulturalist who specialized in desert environments. One fateful day, a discovery that had been made years earlier was brought to her attention by the Arava Institute.

Image from an article published in The Australian Jewish Times, 23 January 1986, celebrating the finding of date palm seeds on Masada

In 1963, Professor Yigal Yadin and his team of archaeologists discovered a handful of 2,000-year-old date palm seeds at Herod’s Palace on Masada. They were found at the northern entrance of the palace, next to the site of the ancient food stores, and they had been preserved in a small clay jar that had been maintained by the extremely dry and sheltered environment for millennia.

Dr. Solowey hurried to send the seeds to the University of Zurich, where researchers radiocarbon-dated the seeds to between 155 BC and 64 CE.

When this discovery was made in 1963, Israel was experiencing a terrible drought and the archeologists feared that if they replanted the seeds immediately, they would wither and die. To preserve whatever treasures these seeds had been hiding away for the last two millennium, they were held in storage at Bar-Ilan University, waiting patiently for a day when the weather conditions might improve and a scientist with enough skill and passion might suddenly appear on the horizon.

Image of young Methuselah from a newspaper article in the Jerusalem Post – May 27, 2016, courtesy of the Arava Institute

Dr. Elaine Solowey was certainly sure of her skill set and knew that she could be the one to revive the ancient seeds. She had been studying endangered medicinal herbs, searching for plants that could be grown in marginal and arid areas, and studying biblical plants native to southern Israel. In short, she had all the expertise needed for this monumental task.

Dr. Solowey, not one to stick to traditional methods, took a baby’s bottle warmer and used it as an incubator in which she could slowly hydrate the seeds. After they had sprouted, she fed the sprouts a careful mix of fertilizers and growth hormones and to everyone’s surprise, a baby sapling was born. “I assumed the food in the seed would be no good after all that time. How could it be?” said Solowey.

She decided to name the new tree “Methuselah” after the biblical character with the longest lifespan. Six of the cultivated seeds were planted in Ketura in Southern Israel. The first surviving male from the other 5 seeds was named Adam and the first surviving female was named Hannah. These seeds from Masada are the very oldest ever to be germinated.

This newspaper excerpt comes from The Australian Jewish News (Sydney), 17 June 2005

Years later and the seeds were doing ex-seed-ingly well. All six seeds originally found on Masada had lived to adulthood and Methuselah itself was producing his own babies! “He is a big boy now. He is over three meters tall, he’s got a few offshoots, he has flowers, and his pollen is good,” Solowey said three years later. “We pollinated a female with his pollen, a wild female, and yeah, he can make dates.”

Article from The Jerusalem Post, August 25, 2021. The item shows a harvester picking dates from Methuselah, photo by Marcos Shonholtz


Image from a Jerusalem Post article published on May 27, 2016. Dr. Elaine Solowey is standing on the right in this 2008 image, alongside Methuselah and Dr. Sarah Sallon, courtesy of the Arava Institute

The story of Methuselah was picked up worldwide and the tree was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records. In 2016 Dr. Elaine Solowey deservedly received the Ben Gurion Prize for the Development of the Negev and she is currently working to build an ancient date grove with date trees cultivated in the same conditions found in biblical descriptions. She longs to see how the dates differ to those we can create from Methuselah today.

Any interested person can take a trip to Ketura and visit Methuselah and his five friends including Adam and Hannah. As for Dr. Solowey, she will be known forever more as the magical woman who revived the great Judean date tree.

Image of Methushelah from a Jerusalem Post article published on May 27, 2016. Courtesy of the Arava Institute




To Whom Did This Spy Dedicate His Legendary Love Letter?

Although Avshalom Feinberg was only 27 years old when he died, he knew a true love or two... or five. Meet the many contenders for the title - “recipient of the most romantic love letter in the Hebrew language”

Avshalom Feinberg, 1915, the Ben Zvi Institute Archive. This item is part of Archive Network Israel, accessible through the collaboration of the Ben Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel. Right: Raïssa Maritain, courtesy of the Feinberg Family Museum. Left: Miriam Kavshana, courtesy of the family.

The following is a story of unrequited love.

That is probably the best way to describe the Hebrew letter Avshalom Feinberg wrote in 1910 to an unknown lover. Originally titled “A Ballad of a Thousand Kisses,” the letter leaves us with very little information about the curly dark-haired and fair-skinned woman mentioned in it.

Feinberg was among the founders and leaders of the Nili underground. This spy ring was active in what was still Ottoman Palestine during the First World War, passing along intelligence to the British Empire and aiding its efforts to conquer the Land of Israel. Other members of the Nili underground included Aaron, Sarah, Alex and Rivka Aaronsohn.

Did Avshalom really write this ballad for his one and only true love? Did such a person even exist? And if so – who was she?

Quite a few women could have potentially answered this question in the first person. The fact that they all managed to have some connection to Avshalom or at least a plausible case, paints a more rounded portrait of this young Zionist idealist, a master of words and serial heartbreaker.

Here are the known and indisputable facts: the passionate and inspiring poetic ballad was written in October 1910, just after Avshalom returned from Paris, and before he was about to leave for the research station in Atlit to join Aaron Aaronsohn’s agricultural enterprise in Palestine (Aaronsohn had by this point become world famous for his work as an agronomist and botanist. His research also served as a convenient cover for his espionage activities).

If we play detective for a moment, we can use the descriptions on the letter’s second page (which most readers don’t usually get to) to try to figure out the nature of the relationship and the depth of the intimacy between Avshalom and the letter’s intended recipient.

“I want to find this spring and put my lips to it, to glue my mouth to the spring of light and drink my fill, and that would be the thousandth kiss. But the sky does not favor my sinful eyes, the light does not favor my impure, earthly, drunken lips, and therefore this impossible kiss will burn my lips forever and trouble my wanting breast to the last breath.”

העמוד השני מתוך המכתב המקורי הנמצא היום בבית אהרנסון, מוזיאון ניל"י
The second page of the original letter, today in the Beit Aaronsohn – Nili Museum

Who was the woman for whom Feinberg yearned when he transformed his passionate musings into words on a page? During our search to uncover the identity of this enigmatic figure, several candidates presented themselves. Each of them is from a slightly different time and place, but all have one thing in common: they were all beautiful young women who were at some point certain that they held the key to Avshalom’s heart.


An Aaronsohn Family Love Triangle

The first claimant to the crown is Rivka Aaronsohn, who was officially considered his fiancée. Rivka was Aaron Aaronsohn’s younger sister and she and Avshalom had a close relationship. A co-claimant is her famous sister Sarah, who was apparently the closest thing to a soulmate Avshalom had.

Avshalom’s letters to Sarah and Rivka are full of emotion and various flowery descriptions. He occasionally wrote to both sisters together, using terms of endearment such as “my girls” and “my darlings,” but he also maintained a separate, much more intimate correspondence with each: “To my Sarah.” “To my Rivka.” “Yours, Avshalom”

“Oh! If I could only have flown yesterday before you and lined the whole path with beautiful flowers, placing a kiss on each flower in the hope that your feet would be good enough to touch them, how happy that would have made me.”

מכתב אהבה מאת אבשלום פיינברג אל שרה אהרנסון, יולי 1911. מתוך אוסף אברהם שבדרון, אוטוגרפים, הספרייה הלאומית.
Love letter from Avshalom Feinberg to Sarah Aaronsohn, July 1911. From the Abraham Schwadron Collection, the National Library of Israel

But even though Avshalom did not spare any kisses in the letters he wrote to the sisters, and despite the similarities that emerge here and there, the “thousand kisses” letter could not have been written for either of the two.

The Aaronsohn sisters were disqualified due to a discrepancy in the dates. The letter is dated October 18, 1910, and Feinberg would only meet the sisters later on.

The source of the confusion over this point is likely due to the fact that the letter was found among documents belonging to the Aaronsohn family, and is today deposited in the Beit Aaronsohn – Nili Museum.

Did Avshalom originally write the letter to an unknown woman, before later rededicating it to the red-haired Rivka or to the fair-haired Sarah? We’ll probably never know for sure.


The Paris Affair

Avshalom spent almost five years of his life in the French capital (from 1904 to 1909, with short breaks in Switzerland and Palestine). During his studies in Paris, he met Jacques and Raïssa Maritain through his revered aunt Sonia Belkind, establishing a strong friendship with the couple and becoming a frequent visitor in their home.

Jacques Maritain was a French Catholic philosopher and thinker. Raïssa Maritain was the daughter of a Jewish family that had immigrated to France from Russia at the end of the previous century, fleeing local persecutions of Jews. She met Jacques at the Sorbonne, fell in love with the gentle-faced young man and married him in a Christian ceremony against her family’s wishes.

The young couple had a strong bond. Raïssa testified in her diary that everything she did in her life and all the spiritual wealth she accrued was thanks to her husband. Jacques, in turn, later wrote that she was his inspiration, and that every one of his successful creative endeavors was due to her.

And yet, when Avshalom arrived at their home, he fell in love with the dreamy and beautiful young woman and she with him. Her sentimentality found an echo in the heart of this idealistic young man who was so different from her serious husband. Despite her failed attempts to lure him to Christianity, when they eventually parted, it was with the pain of lovers who know they will most likely never meet again.

Rumors and gossip about his French love followed Avshalom upon his return to Palestine. Despite this, he continued to maintain a correspondence with Jacques, writing to him from Hadera, Zichron Ya’akov and Atlit. Some of the letters, in fluent French and Yiddish, can be found in the archive of the philosopher André Neher, deposited at the National Library of Israel, but as far as we know, no personal letters to Raïssa were found among them.

Is it possible he wrote the letter for her but never sent it?

The dates certainly fit, as does the context: the unrequited love and the great distance that separated them, preventing Avshalom’s metaphorical kisses from reaching her.

ראיסה מריטן, באדיבות מוזיאון בית פיינברג
Raïssa Maritain, courtesy of the Feinberg Family Museum

The Beautiful Nurse from Jaffa

Miriam Kavshana was a young girl and an ardent Zionist when she and her older brother arrived in the Land of Israel from Plonsk, Poland. Other family members joined them later, but in the interval, Miriam worked as a nurse at the hospital in Jaffa.

There, as she would tell her family, she met Avshsalom. He was a young and charismatic patient; she was a dedicated and beautiful nurse. What could possibly happen?

We could not find any documentation of Avshalom’s hospitalization at that time, as few patient records remain from those years. Miriam’s relatives, however, have preserved a poem that was found among her papers. It was written by Avshalom Feinberg to a girl by the name of Miriam.


“It has been several days and several nights

that I have been lusting to see you Miriam

but to my great and bitter sorrow

this has proven to be

despite all of my toil, impossible

yet still, a glimmer of hope remains…”

 – The opening lines of the poem Avshalom dedicated to a “Miriam”


But by 1911, Miriam had apparently moved to Yavniel, near the Sea of Galilee, with Haim Yaffe, whom she would soon marry.

Was Avshalom really in love with her? Was the “Ballad of a Thousand Kisses” written for her, precisely because he could no longer claim her heart, after Haim had taken her up north?

מרים כבשנה בצעירותה, באדיבות המשפחה
Miriam Kavshana in her youth, courtesy of the family

If so, one can only wonder what the happily married woman must have felt when she read these words, which may have been intended for her.


Tsila’s Girl

In family conversations, Avshalom’s beloved little sister Tsila brought up another name: Segula Beckman Razili. In the archives of the Khan Museum in Hadera there is another letter that Avshalom wrote to Segula, as well as an envelope addressed to her in his own handwriting.

Did the envelope ever contain the famous ballad? It is empty now, and the address on its back does not hint at its past contents.

Not much is known about Segula’s life, except for the fact that in 1918 she married Haim Resnik (later Razili).

Tsila was very close to Avshalom. Even when they were not in the same place at the same time, they maintained an extensive correspondence (in which the various women are described very differently from the romantic metaphors that filled his love letters). She probably knew him better than most of his friends, and it is logical to think that he shared his innermost thoughts with her.

There is only one problem with this theory: according to family sources, Segula was born in 1896. A simple calculation leads to the conclusion that in 1910 she was only 14 years old. Anyone reading the entire letter, beyond the highly publicized opening, will find this fact quite disturbing.


So, for whom were the thousand kisses really meant?

Does it even matter for whom the ballad was written?

The image that emerges from cross-referencing these stories with what we know of Avshalom’s role in Zionist history, is that of a young Jewish man whose heart overflowed with feelings of love. Love for his people, for his country, for his family. And yes, also for the girls and women he met in his life.

Thanks to his rich and expressive linguistic talent, even decades later, we can almost touch those warm feelings that were so abruptly ended.

Thankfully, Avshalom’s beautiful ballad to an unknown lover was preserved for future generations by songwriter Mirit Shem-Or who rearranged the words to music written by Svika Pick. The song, today a well-known Israeli classic, was performed by Yehoram Gaon in 1986.