Word Magazine February 1993 Page 11-12
ARCHAEOLOGY AND ORTHODOXY:
A PERSONAL ENCOUNTER
by Dolly Choueiry Crow
Living in the Middle East, one is permeated with a sense of history blending the past and the present into a single, harmonious whole. The Middle Easterner is acutely aware of the past. History is not a subject for scholarly studies alone, it is a familiar and continuous part of every day life. Many a village in Lebanon owes its name to some ancient deity or has its roots in some long-forgotten language. Architectural remains are scattered all over the Middle East, witnesses to once-thriving cultures and civilizations. Farmers find in their fields fragments of pottery more than 3000 years old. Children in the woods play with flint stones that were the tools of pre-historic man. With every step one takes and every glance one casts, one feels that hundreds before have stood on that same cliff, and gazed at that same sea, and lifted their hands in Prayer to that same sky.
Perhaps this sense of history is stronger and more vivid for the archaeologist, and more so for the Orthodox archaeologist for whom the Bible is experienced on the historical level, the geographic and cultural level, and the religious level as well. The Orthodox archaeologist is aware of the “story” of the Bible, dwells in the geographic and cultural region where this story has taken place, and lives the religious truth of this “story” in the context of the Church.
In the summer of 1975 I had the chance to participate in an archaeological excavation, conducted by the Lebanese National Museum. The site was a Byzantine settlement situated on a sandy beach between the village of Jiyeh and the village of Nebi Younes, some thirty kilometers south of Beirut. I was assigned the task of working on the frescoe fragments in a little shed nearby built of palm branches.
One day as each member of the team was busy working, a loud uproar came from the excavation site itself. Soon after, a worker ran to the shed pushing a wheel barrow with a large stone in it. The three other students dropped their work and we all examined the partly preserved frescoe with perplexed expressions. It was the first frescoe which was not a cross or a frieze. But what was it? After careful examination we were all able to clearly recognize the head of a fish with two thick lines sticking out of the fish’s mouth. But what did those two lines represent?
The excavation site was just outside the Muslim village of Nebi Younes. The name “Nebi Younes” is the Arabic for “Prophet Jonah”. There I was standing on the sandy shore of Nebi Younes and gazing at the Mediterranean glittering under the July sun. Somewhere from a forgotten corner of my memory came back to me the voice of my church school teacher narrating to us the story of Jonah and the whale. Could it be possible that these two lines represented Jonah’s legs as he was being swallowed by the whale? For me no further explanation was necessary. That fragment of frescoe portrayed Jonah himself and that same whale my church school teacher had taught me about.
However I needed more than a childhood remembrance to convince my fellow students. Still I ventured to express my theory. Immediately, one of the workers, who was an inhabitant of the village of Nebi Younes, joined in the conversation and explained to us the origins of the name Nebi Younes. According to local, popular belief, Jonah had been swallowed by the whale off the shore of Nebi Younes, then brought up by the whale on the very beach where we stood. The Muslim inhabitants of Nebi Younes believe that the village owes its name to the Biblical Prophet Jonah.
This little incident had a great impact on me. At that moment I felt very grateful to my mother who had insisted on my attending religious education sessions at school despite my constant protest. It was only then and there that I forgave her all the resentment she made me feel by going to those classes at a time when my friends were having a good time playing.
A similar event occurred a couple of weeks later. Another stone with frescoe painting was discovered and brought to the shed among a great wave of excitement. It was the largest piece discovered as yet. But it proved to be, at first sight, undecipherable. We all crowded around it, walking around and scrutinizing it, but to no avail. What did it represent? Which side was up and which side was down? We were puzzled.
I kept looking at it wondering what it could possibly represent. I had been to church almost every Sunday of my life. As a child I have sat in the church staring at the icons and at the priests celebrating the Divine Liturgy. I have gazed in wonder at the bright, rich colors and shining gold of the priests’ vestments. I have also been deeply impressed by their long beards and braided ponytails. Such images were so strongly and vividly embedded in my consciousness. As I gazed at the frescoe in front of my eyes, I realized that it was the lower part of a man’s head, from the nose down to the beard, with the ponytail showing on one side. The neck was clearly recognizable as well as the upper part of the torso dressed with bright colors and buttons of gold.
When I understood that I was looking at part of the painting of a human figure dressed in priestly vestments, I was very excited. It was not the discovery that made me feel that way. It was that strange sense of kindred I felt between myself and those who had lived and worshipped in that church where that frescoe had been. I was no longer only a student of archaeology interested in excavating the site of an ancient civilization. These were no longer ancient stone and images. These were real people and real faces whom I could feel, and know, and understand. These were my Orthodox ancestors, transformed in a new light, the past shone into the present, like looking at an old family picture.
It was with a voice full of emotion that I explained the details of that frescoe to my colleagues. Our professor turned to me and exclaimed: “You must be an Orthodox.” I do not believe there could have been a greater compliment.
Hundreds of years ago on that very site Byzantine priests had censed and chanted and offered praise to God. Hundreds of years ago Orthodox believers had prayed and lit candles in very much the same manner we do now in church. Perhaps they also had to struggle to teach their children their Faith. Perhaps even then some young children might have resented listening to their elders and church teachers and would have much rather preferred playing on the beach.
Next Sunday when I walk into my church school class and watch those eyes opening wide with wonder listening to a story from the Bible, I will pray that the distant past may also come alive again and shine on our children today.
Dolly Choueiry Crow is the Khoureeye at the Virgin Mary Church in Yonkers, NY. She is originally from Lebanon.