The Synagogue of Capernaum in which Jesus taught

Was it white or black?

The best compliment I can receive about any of my reconstruction drawings is for the viewer to say: “It really makes the site come to life!” Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about photographs, however professionally taken. Take the site of Capernaum, perhaps the most visited site in the Galilee in any tour of the Land. Here, the place in which Jesus taught and in which he cast out an unclean spirit (Mark 1.21-28, Luke 4.31,32) is shown. It is all too easy to shoot photos of your group with the impressive synagogue structure emphasizing the magnificence of its architectural decoration and the dazzling white limestone from which it is built.

A cutaway reconstruction drawing of the 4th century Byzantine Synagogue of Capernaum.

But this then is the image you take away with you and the picture that springs to mind when next you read Jesus’ reference to the centurion: “he loves our nation and has built us a synagogue” (Luke 7.5).

But look more closely beneath the ruins of the beautiful white synagogue and you will see that it rests on an older building made of dark stones.

The 4th century synagogue rests on the remains of the 1st century synagogue that was made of basalt stones.

What is the relevance of these? This is where the value of making reconstruction drawings can be shown, with the process allowing historical and archaeological information about the site to be presented in a meaningful way. Continue reading “The Synagogue of Capernaum in which Jesus taught”

The Temple Mount in the time of Solomon

As storm clouds gather over Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, we continue with our series on the development of Mount Moriah.

In our previous post, we talked about the locations of the Altar and the Holy of Holies. What happened after David built the Altar? After ruling seven years in Hebron, he made Jerusalem the capital of Israel. The first thing he did was bring the Ark of the Covenant from Kiriath-jearim to Jerusalem, the City of David. There it rested, presumably in a tent in the grounds of David’s palace, until circa 967 BC .

Here we see a reconstruction drawing of the Palace of King David. In the excavations of Yigal Shiloh, which took place between 1978-’84, a stepped stone structure was discovered that may have served as a foundation for David’s palace that stood higher up the hill. It stood behind the northern city wall and had rooms arranged round a courtyard. In the palace garden we see a tent for the Ark of the Covenant.

The Ark was then moved into the new temple that was built on Mount Moriah by Solomon, the son of David.

The design of this beautiful model of Solomon’s Temple is based on the description in the Book of Kings. The Temple had a high Porch, supported by two bronze pillars, called Yachin and Boaz. The inner sanctuary was divided into two rooms, the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies (Most Holy Place), where the Ark of the Covenant stood. A three-storey high structure surrounded the sanctuary. In front of the Temple stood the Altar, the bronze Basin (Sea) and ten smaller basins.

This sacred compound was surrounded by a wall that formed the Temple court.

The Holy of Holies was placed on the summit of Mount Moriah, with the Temple facing east, toward the Mount of Olives. Solomon also built a palace complex adjacent to the Temple. It consisted of his armory, the House of the Forest of Lebanon, a Hall of Pillars, the Porch of the King’s Throne, the King’s House and the house of his wife, Pharaoh’s daughter. As our drawings concern Mount Moriah only, all other buildings and city walls have been omitted.

On the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Jerusalem (1 Kings 10), the Ascent which Solomon built from this complex up to the Temple, was one of the things that inspired her awe.

This schematic drawing shows an arrangement of the various buildings, based on parallels with similar complexes excavated elsewhere in the Middle East. From a large courtyard in front of Solomon’s House, a special Royal Ascent (1 Kings 10.5 KJV) led up to the Temple, which lay on higher ground.

For those of you who are interested, Carta very much hope to publish our guide book to the Temple Mount at the earliest propitious moment.

The first drawing in this series showed Mount Moriah itself.

The second drawing shows the Temple Mount in the time of the Jebusites.

Underground Battle for the Temple Mount

In today’s Makor Rishon (Hebrew) newspaper, Arnon Segal published an article, called Otiot porchot be-avir (letters blossom in the air). Based on the diary of the Rabbi of the Western Wall, Rabbi Meir Yehuda Getz, he retells the story of the underground excavations and the struggle that took place inside Warren’s Gate in 1981. Warren’s Gate is the northern-most of the four original Herodian gateways that gave access to the Temple Mount through the Western Wall.

This well-known reconstruction drawing of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem during the Second Temple period is based on historical information and the results of the Temple Mount excavations, which were led by the late Prof. Benjamin Mazar from 1968-’78.
Herod the Great enlarged the existing Temple Mount to double its size and built a new Temple. In the Western Wall (left) there were four gates. Warren’s Gate is the northern-most gate in the Western Wall (on the left). The Southern Wall (right) had two gates. Above this wall stood the Royal Stoa. The Antonia Fortress at the northwest corner (far left) guarded the Temple Mount from the north.

In April 1866, Captain Charles Wilson inspected this underground passageway which for several centuries had been used as a water reservoir. Three years later, Charles Warren examined the cistern (Cistern 30, see below) and noted that its western end pierced the Western Wall. It measures 25.6×5.50m and its floor is 10.50m below the level of the Temple Mount. This cistern was originally a Herodian underground passage, leading up from Warren’s Gate to the Temple Mount, possibly having an internal L-shaped stairway like at Barclay’s Gate. A relatively modern stairway descends from the west into the cistern. Wilson later named this gate after Warren.

This plan shows the cisterns (blue) and underground passageways (grey) of the Temple Mount. The numbering system was developed by Charles Warren, who, in the 1860’s, explored many of these underground structures. Some of these underground passageways were part of Herodian gates that gave access to the Temple Mount, i.e. Cistern 30 is the underground passageway of Warren’s Gate (see arrow), Cisterns 19 and 20 are part of the underground passageway of Barclay’s Gate, Cistern 1 is the underground passageway of the ancient Tadi Gate.
Some of the water cisterns, such as Cisterns 7 and 8 were enormous underground water reservoirs, capable of holding some 2 million gallons of water. Most of these cisterns were initially underground quarries from which building stones for the buildings of the Temple Mount were taken. After the quarrying activities were stopped, these caverns were plastered and became water reservoirs.

This underground tunnel was accidentally rediscovered in 1981 during excavations that took place along the Western Wall north of Wilson’s Arch. During the construction of an underground synagogue, workers broke through the wall that had blocked up the gate opening.

Workers of the Ministry of Religion emptying the underground tunnel.
Photograph: Makor Rishon

Rabbi Getz believed that this gate was used in the past by priests going up to the Temple. He also believed that this passage led to the lost Temple treasures and to the Ark of the Covenant. After working in secret for about a month, Arabs found out from a media report that the Israelis were excavating below the Temple Mount. They descended into the cistern through two manholes from above and closed off the gate with a very thick concrete wall.

The dream of Getz to reach the Temple Treasures, especially the Ark of the Covenant, was dashed. According to his diary, he sat down with ashes on his forehead, praying:    “O God, the nations have come into your inheritance; they have defiled your holy Temple.” (Psa. 79:1).

Despite the fact that this excavation was illegal, it nevertheless would have been exciting to find out more about how exactly this underground passage originally worked.

HT: Yisrael Medad

Music Festival at the home of the Ark of the Covenant in Kiryat Yearim

Kiryat Yearim is one of the most evocative Biblical sites in Israel and never more than during the Abu-Gosh Festival. Then, twice a year, at Succot and Shavuot, this Arab village in the Judean hills, where the Ark of the Covenant rested for 20 years (1Sam. 7:2) becomes the backdrop for Israel’s most important vocal music event.

A representation of the Ark of the Covenant as described in Exodus 25.10-22. The Ark was a box made of shittim wood and overlaid with gold. It had a golden covering lid, called the mercy seat, out of which two cherubim were crafted. The two tablets of stone on which God had written the Ten Commandments were placed inside the Ark. The Ark was carried by two poles which were placed in rings fixed to the side of the Ark. © Leen Ritmeyer

The 12th century Crusader church at the heart of the village and the church of Notre Dame de l’Arche de L’Alliance (Our Lady of the Ark of the Covenant) at the top of the hill are the main venues because of their remarkable acoustics.

A video showcasing the site and the event can be viewed here.

The programme of the upcoming 40th festival is here. This is a previous blog post on the festival.

This painting hangs on the walls of the Church of Our Lady of the Ark of the Covenant at Kiriath Yearim in Israel. The Ark is in the centre of the painting with David playing on the harp to its left (2 Samuel 6). The High Priest with a censer of incense bows in reverence on the right. The memorial Name of God, Yahweh, is written between the two cherubim. © Ritmeyer Archaeological Design

Jesus’ Baptismal Site to open to the public

According to this Jerusalem Post report, the site where Jesus was baptised will be opened to the public in 10 days’ time, on January 18, 2011. See also Todd Bolen’s report here.

When we tried to visit the site last year, following the signs for Qasr el-Yahud, we found that the road was blocked by a military fence and gate.

Leen at the road sign for the Baptismal Site
Military fence on the road to Bethabara

There was a sign which we ignored because we didn’t understand what “photgraphy” was!

View of Bethabara from the fence

It will be wonderful to visit this site, which has been off-limits for 42 years. The site where Jesus was baptised is called Bethabara in John 1.28. The Hebrew name Bethabara means the “Place of Crossing”. Not only was it a suitable place where travellers crossed the River Jordan opposite Jericho, but the name also indicates that it was the place where the Israelites crossed over into the Promised Land after the death of Moses.

This drawing from our Image Library shows the location of the Camp of Israel in the Plains of Moab opposite Jericho (Numbers 33.48,49). Here, the scene is set for the crossing of the Israelites into the Promised Land. The place where they crossed the River Jordan is called Bethabara, where later Jesus was baptised (John 1.28).

The crossing of the Jordan is described in Joshua 3.15,16 (quotes from ESV):

“as soon as those bearing the ark had come as far as the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the brink of the water (now the Jordan overflows all its banks othroughout the time of harvest), the waters coming down from above stood and rose up in a heap very far away, at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, and those flowing down toward the Sea of the Arabah, the Salt Sea, were completely cut off. And the people passed over opposite Jericho.”

The Ark Passes over the Jordan, by J. James Tissot (1836-1902)

Bethabara played an important role in the life of Jesus, as he returned there many times after his baptism. He went there, for example, after his rejection in Jerusalem during Hanukkah, the Feast of Dedication, “He went away again beyond Jordan into the place where John at first baptized; and there he abode.” (John 10.40). “Beyond Jordan” is, of course, also the place where the Camp of Israel was located just before they entered the Promised Land! Undoubtedly this site had a strong impact on the mind of Jesus as he would have been very familiar with the Biblical events that took place there.

After Jesus was baptised, he was tempted in the wilderness nearby. He used the words of Deuteronomy to counter the temptations of the devil. Moses wrote the Book of Deuteronomy while Israel was encamped “beyond Jordan” (Deut. 31.9).

According to the Madaba map, Bethabara is on the west side of the Jordan (see white arrow)

After the crossing, Joshua commanded to take out 12 stones and place them in the next camping place, Gilgal: “these stones shall be for a memorial unto the children of Israel for ever” (Joshua 4.7). As John was baptising here, he probably referred to these 12 stones when he said: “God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham” (Matthew 3.9).

Bethabara features again in the book of Judges. To complete his victory over the Midianites, Gideon:

“sent messengers throughout all the hill country of Ephraim, saying, “Come down against the Midianites and capture the waters against them, as far as Beth-barah, and also the Jordan.” So all the men of Ephraim were called out, and they captured the waters as far as Beth-barah, and also the Jordan. And they captured the two princes of Midian, Oreb and Zeeb.” (Judges 7.24,25).

This victory is reflected in a psalm when David longed for the victory over Israel’s future enemies “Make their nobles like Oreb and Zeeb”, looking forward to a time when their adversaries would be confounded forever (Psalm 83.11,18).

And there are still further references in Scripture to Bethabara: During the rebellion of Absalom, King David crossed here and returned later via the same crossing place:

“So the king came back to the Jordan, and Judah came to Gilgal to meet the king and to bring the king over the Jordan. ” (2 Samuel 19.15).

Bethabara is also the place where Elijah and Elisha went after leaving Jericho. There “Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven” (2 Kings 2.11).

Giovanni Battista's (1683-1754) painting of Elijah ascending in a whirlwind

A visit to this site will be a valuable addition to any tour of the Land. Needless to say, such a visit would be greatly enriched if it is with “Bible in hand”, in order to reflect on all the significant events that took place here. Hopefully I will be able to see the place from the other side, when I visit Tall el-Hammam in Jordan.

The Ark of the Covenant

With the conversion of our slide set, “From Sinai to Sakhra,” into digital format, the complete set of volumes we previously had available is now on disc. Having ourselves followed, in part, the route of the Ark and being intimately familiar with some of its resting-places, this subject is close to our hearts. Information that has come to light in recent years has been added, making this CD an entirely new presentation.


Pictures of a model of the Tabernacle, designed by Dr. Leen Ritmeyer, have been included to help viewers understand the place of the Ark in the symbolism of God’s desert sanctuary. Specially created maps of its journey to the Promised Land and wanderings among the Philistines make it possible to follow this dramatic story. There are unique reconstruction drawings of scenes such as the Camp of Israel at the foot of Mount Sinai and evocative photographs of the desert scenes through which the Ark passed. The view of Moses from Mount Nebo is contrasted with that of Balaam, the mad prophet, from the very same spot. A rare photograph of the River Jordan in flood serves to demonstrate the faith of the two spies who crossed it before the Ark could lead the Israelites into their inheritance.

Reconstruction drawing of the Camp of Israel at the foot of Mount Sinai - © Leen Ritmeyer

Excavation photographs and diagrams show that the walls of Jericho really did fall down! Once Jerusalem is reached, the cities of David and Solomon, which were so closely involved with the Ark’s stay, are explored both in photographs and graphics. The account of the travels of the Ark ends with the installation of this holiest of objects in the Holy of Holies of the Temple and a discussion as to its possible location today.

We have ideas for exciting new topics for CDs to aid you in your Bible study and teaching and will keep you posted on this blog. Do let us know if there is a subject you would like covered.

The Ark of the Covenant and Music Festival at Kiriath Yearim

Working on what will be our CD Vol. 3 “The Ark of the Covenant – Its journey from Sinai to Jerusalem,” we are spending time in Kiriath Yearim, where the Ark was kept for twenty years before David brought it to Jerusalem. In the early part of the twentieth century, a determined French nun made the acquisition of this site on the outskirts of Jerusalem, the demonstration that it was the Biblical Kiriath Yearim and the building of a church, convent and retreat centre, her life’s work. She had the basilica built over the remains of a church of the fifth century, using the same quarry as the Byzantine builders. It turns out that the church is now recognised as having “arguably the best acoustics in the country!”

Church of Our Lady of the Ark of the Covenant, Kiriath Yearim


Having used the retreat centre as a Jerusalem-base for our tour group some years ago, we can testify to the sublime views from this hilltop site towards the city. If you are in Jerusalem, with Sukkot coming up, there is a not-to-be-missed opportunity to hear beautiful music performed in this church and also in the Crypt of the Crusader Church in the village of Abu Ghosh at the bottom of the hill. The programme of the 38th Abu Ghosh Vocal Music Festival is here, with further information on this site.

New RAD Web Design

Thanks to our web designer we have been able to revamp our website and we hope you like the new design. A reconstruction drawing of the Eastern Wall of the Herodian Temple Mount with the Temple appears in the header, which we plan to eventually rotate with other designs.

The upgrade is not meant to be a pretty face only, but we hope to put more information on the site. We have started with our new Showcase, giving you an idea of the projects we have been involved in over the last few years. Please have a look …

We also plan to list reviews of books, movies and software which we have found particularly helpful for students of Biblical Archaeology.

We are even more excited about putting up an archive with photographs of archaeological sites and reconstruction models and also, of course, reconstruction drawings. Thumbnails of the illustrations will be available for all to see, with an option to buy low resolution pictures for Powerpoint presentations and high resolution ones for publishers.

Many of you have asked why Vols. 2 and 3 are missing from the list of available CD-ROMs. Well, you won’t have to wonder much longer, as we are about to release these volumes. Volume 2 is called Jerusalem in the time of Christ:

Cover for Volume 2: Jerusalem in the time of Christ

Volume 3 is called The Ark of the Covenant – Its Journey from Sinai to Jerusalem, and we will let you know as soon as they are available.

Cover for Volume 3: The Ark of the Covenant - Its Journey from Sinai to Jerusalem

Many years ago, we produced slide sets on these subjects and now the time has come to go digital. Whereas the two slide sets contained only 36 slides, the new CD-ROMs will have many more, with new digital or digitally enhanced pictures.

Another presentation on the Seven Churches of Revelation is also in the works.

The Ark of the Covenant – on the trail again!

My Google Alert to Jerusalem Archaeology brought it all back: “The lost Ark: are the Germans on its trail?” Of course, the content of the article which reported that a researcher from the University of Hamburg claimed to have found the remains of the palace of the Queen of Sheba in Axum, Ethiopia and an altar that may have held the Ark, made me file it away in my file called “Weird.” Here, I tuck away some of the more outrageous snippets on Biblical Archaeology that come my way, together with some of the wackier emails I receive. The Ark of the Covenant is overwhelmingly the subject of most of these enquiries. Since my first involvement in the Temple Mount Excavations in 1973, not a week has gone by without some enquiry into its location. Invariably the writer has an idea of his/her own – one of the wackiest suggestions was that the Ark was hidden inside the Black Stone of Mecca!

As readers of this blog will know, my research into the Temple Mount over the years has led to the finding of the location of where the Ark stood in Solomon’s Temple. I believe that this is as close as we may ever come to the finding of the lost Ark. Now, with the latest Indiana Jones movie due out next week, after a gap of 19 years, people’s minds go back to the original Raiders of the Lost Ark movie made in 1981. This, together with the latest claim in a long line of claims of finding the Ark, reminds me of the links (many inadvertently!) we have had to this search.

Thought that readers might find some of these links interesting or at at least a bit of light relief!

My wife, Kathleen was brought up from age 1 to 8 near the Hill of Tara, in County Meath, Ireland where certain believe the Ark to have been buried by the prophet Jeremiah after the fall of Jerusalem. Here is a picture of her, taken on a visit in 1997, on the hill of Tara next to the illegal excavations carried out by a group searching for the Ark of the Covenant:

tara-copy.jpg

• We lived for 4 years in the Ethiopian Quarter in Jerusalem where the devout Ethiopian Orthodox residents took it for a fact that the artefact so carefully guarded by the monks at Axum was indeed the Ark of the Covenant. “Did we not know that a group of Israeli soldiers had twice tried to wrest it from the Ethiopians and recover it to Israel?”

• During the eighties, we worked on a design project with Vendyl Jones, the Texan self-styled archaeologist who claimed to be the inspiration for Indiana Jones. His claim has been debunked, with the honour going to the dog of George Lucas (co-producer of the film), who was with him when he wrote the story.

• The original opportunity for me to measure and draw up Warren’s Gate in 1981, came from a group of rabbis’ illegal excavation of this gate for the purpose of finding the Ark deep beneath the Temple Mount.

(Now they get a bit more ridiculous!)

• When we were recently leaving Australia for the UK, I tried to leave behind my battered fedora, veteran of many Israeli digs and Aussie bush expeditions, but my son Joel would not let me, even though I had a new Akubra!

• Finally, I can’t stop some wags from playing the theme tune from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” when I walk in to give a lecture!

BTW, for an overview of the story of the journeyings of the Ark see our book: “From Sinai to Jerusalem”.