The Politics of Olive Oil, Camels and Pottery:
Their Role in Building Civilizations
By: Eliyho Matz a.k.a Sitting Book
“Why was the beginning when it was?”
“Many men have gone mad in the desert, plagued by hallucinations of sparkling lakes and shady groves. No camel has ever been fooled by a mirage.”
“The early state of [ancient] Israel had its origins in the olive industry’s expanding demand for trade.”
Thomas L. Thompson
“In the desert, though, the surroundings are static and featureless, liberating the mind and allowing strings of ideas to run and develop in logical chains.”
I always wondered what the Bible hides that Archaeology cannot find.
Archaeology is the modern approach of guessing, out of building ruins or various artifacts, the lives of societies long, long gone. Archaeology is supposedly a logical approach to understanding how ancient people lived and died. But it seems that the more archaeologists dig, the more varied are the opinions that are formed regarding our imagined human past. The future of humanity is dependent upon our attempts to understand our changing past so that we can go forward to the unknown future. In contrast, the modern Israeli philosophical twist is to fabricate the past in order to shape the future. Or, looking at it in another way, as my philosopher friend once said, “Israel has no future, only a changing past.” And so it was more than one-hundred fifty years ago, when suddenly the modern age erupted, that our knowledge of things past started to change, sometimes very drastically. What brought modernity was a combination of events: industrial production, universities with knowledgeable people, and mankind’s curiosity about the future. Theology, which always played a major role in humanity since its inception, was also affected. Suddenly people began to ask all sorts of questions; their questions led to answers, but the answers were not always exactly satisfying and often led to further questions. Biblical archaeology is one of the fields that excited lots of interest in learned people. The Hebrew Bible (HB), as a theological, philosophical, historical and political document, has for centuries raised many questions, that is, to many, although not to believers. So we enter one-hundred fifty years ago into the realms of archaeology and weighty research into the mighty, deeper, unknown past. Early Biblical archaeology satisfied the desires of those who wanted to know, and confirmed some of the Biblical written record. But, as a result of deeper digging into the past, new and more complicated questions evolved. Consequently, the HB, as a text, has become more problematic as archaeology has made the HB text more confusing. From the 17th Century forward it became obvious to most learned people that the HB is a compiled work of human authors who supposedly documented or interpreted some events of the past, in a peculiar language with certain themes that would fit a certain ideology, or faith, or political-social framework. If taken in this context, then a different set of questions arises. Why, then, did the authors of the HB write what they wrote? Why did they tell the stories they told? What was the purpose of creating such a document? Scholars have looked at all these questions and tried to give answers. One of them is Richard Elliott Friedman in his book titled Who Wrote the Bible? Biblical archaeology was supposed to clarify some of the events chronicled in the Bible, and to some degree it provided some good explanations. On the other hand, though, what the archaeologists found sometimes created real contradictions with the Biblical text. It was also clear to the HB text researchers that the Bible was not a unified text, rather that many authors at various times compiled the “facts” that became the text of the HB. The theoretical questions asked by researchers caused even larger problems in Biblical archaeology. Then, suddenly, in the 1980’s, a wide range of archaeological finds in modern Israel were brought to light, notably by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman in their book The Bible Unearthed. And many others followed. Archaeology brought into question some of the most fundamental issues presented in the HB. Did the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt and the conquest of the Land of Israel (Canaan) really happen? This issue became and still is a lingering agony to scholars because no evidence of the Exodus or the conquering has been found. Furthermore, if the land was conquered, why did the city of Shechem, modern day Nablus, remain unconquered? The kingdom of David and Solomon also became an archaeological fiasco, as no visible remains of their period have been found. For example, Amihai Mazar writes, “The Bible describes David’s 40-year rule in several lengthy chapters. Ironically enough, despite David’s major conquests and the consequent founding of the Israelite empire, we have very few archaeological remains from the Davidic period. There are no monuments that can positively be identified as Davidic” [Amihai Mazar, Recent Archaeology and the Land of Israel (Washington, DC: Biblical archaeology Society, 1984), p.43]. Of course, more questions can be asked if one wishes to be a questioning person, but I will stop here. I can only guess why the ancient Hebrews created this remarkable document. For my purposes here, I will take on neither the Bible literalists nor the archaeological interpreters. Rather, my way at looking at the HB and archaeology will be through a different prism: my theory is to suggest that olive oil, camels and pottery evolved into the building blocks of ancient civilizations, and that the HB, as a document, is a reflection of these components. I will start first with pottery. For at least the past 150 years, the scientific viewpoint on pottery has been that to understand the past, pottery, a fundamental element of civilization, must be examined and studied. The person who coined this concept was Flinders Petri, who suggested that pottery is “’the essential alphabet of archaeology’” [James B. Pritchard, Archaeology and the Old Testament (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1958), p.8]. According to Petri, pottery has become the cornerstone of understanding ancient life. Looking at pottery, of course, requires expertise that I do not have. My primary understanding comes from examining pottery charts. Charts, if they explain something to me, tell me that pottery has essentially not changed much in the past five-hundred years [see Pritchard, Chart, p.7]. A variety of clays and techniques are used to make pottery vessels, in order that water, oil or other liquids or solids can be carried over long or short distances. Pottery was absolutely a vital necessity of any society of living humans, developed to transport liquids, solids, etc. Olive oil, being first produced in the Middle East thousands of years ago, needed to be carried around in something; that something was pottery. How to adapt the pottery to fit special animals or wagons or ships required expertise and was, as can be imagined, a delicate task. It is also clear that not a single civilization in the Middle East or elsewhere could develop without pottery. So pottery definitely represented a vital element of human development. To understand humanity without pottery would be impossible. The second primary element in human development would be transportation. Once products were produced, they needed to be transported. The possibilities in ancient times were limited. It is well documented that the camel was a latecomer into the transportation business. Not until the first millennium BCE did the camel become the carrier of humans or material goods. So were the authors of the HB wrong by inserting camels into the Abrahamic story? For it is written that Abraham’s slave Eliezar [i.e., agent: it was not until I read the book by Amitav Ghosh (In An Antique Land) that I came to understand this concept of slave as agent], traveled to Ur with camels to fetch a bride for Isaac, even though archaeology rejects the idea of camels as existing in the Abrahamic times (2000–1800 BCE). There are sources, however, that contradict Biblical archaeological finds and suggest that camels were actually used thousands of years before Abraham in ancient Egypt (3000 BCE), in Turkmenistan (4000 BCE) and in other places including the coast of Oman in the southern region of the Arabian Peninsula. To better understand camels, excluding my personal experience with them in the Sinai Desert, I needed to look at various books that deal with the complexities of camel transportation. Two that I found to be very interesting and helpful were Two Against the Sahara: On Camelback from Nouakchott to the Nile by Michael Asher, and Azalai by John Skolle. Many other books on camels are available, and I will quote from some of them. Basically we need to know that camels are very complex animals. Their biology, physiology and metabolics are complex. The camel can carry a lot of weight for long distances. However, camels’ behavior is bizarre, and their cruelty notorious, as John Skolle was warned by his Saharan guide who said “…that camels are good animals, but that no one can trust them because, when you least expect it, they turn out to be very nasty brutes” [John Skolle, Azalai (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1955), p.123]. Another writer, Burton Bernstein, in his book Sinai: the Great and Terrible Wilderness (NY: Viking Press, 1979; p.109) wrote that “they [camels] can endure boredom, hobbling, beatings, and their own smell with dumb stoicism, and then, when their owners least expect it, violently rebel — as unpredictable as the Middle East itself.” But camels do their job, and humans have used them for transportation of goods for thousands of years. Camels played an enormous role in the transportation of olive oil from ancient Syria, through ancient Israel, and through the eastern and western deserts of the Middle East. Camels symbolized wealth in ancient times, and they continue to some degree to do so today. The pottery manufactured for camels’ use in transportation must have been unique in its shape and strength. C.S. Jarvis describes an archaeological find from the Fourth Century BCE connecting to the Persian invasion of Egypt of “…pottery [that] was nearly an inch thick and of the hardest earthenware [C.S. Jarvis, Three Deserts (NY: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1937), p.115]. In my opinion, the ancient Hebrews would not have become who they were without the proper pottery, capable camels and the abundance of olive oil. That olive oil has been throughout history one of the foremost products in the Near East requires not much investigation; archaeological evidence has provided plenty of substantiation for that. As Ephraim Stern affirms, at least one-hundred fourteen oil presses have been found in the ancient town of Ekron [Ephraim Stern, Archaeology of the Land of the Bible, Vol. II (NY: Doubleday, 2001) p,111]. I have come to believe that olive oil was one of the main forces that created and maintained the Hebrew civilization, and its importance is definitely reflected throughout the text of the HB. Whether used for lighting a house, or for healing people, or to anoint leaders, olive oil helped to shape that civilization. The HB includes many stories about olive oil. I will begin with the anointing of King Saul, because it is so complicated and marks the beginning of a historical trend. The would-be king from a small tribe of Israelites was sent by his father to search for lost asses belonging to his family. Why are the asses so important? Before the camel became a major means of transportation, the ass fulfilled that job. To be the owner of asses meant many things. First, it indicated wealth and the ability to organize transport. Providing transportation through various unsafe roads demanded the skill of leadership, courage and lots of knowledge. So Saul, when anointed with olive oil, must have been recognized as having some leadership qualities gained by knowledge of how to lead caravans of asses. With Saul was initiated a tradition of anointment with olive oil that others would follow. King David was anointed in this way, as was King Solomon. It was only later on that olive oil became associated with many important events in the history of Jews and of other civilizations. The symbolic olive tree branch (netzer in Hebrew) from the House of David will herald the Mashiach (Messiah — Anointed). In the case of Jesus, olive oil played rather an important role in the concept of Messiah, Christus (the Anointed), and in his life and death. His mother, on her way from Nazareth to Bethlehem to give birth, was probably riding on a donkey. Welcoming the birth of Jesus were the Three Magi who came from the East probably riding on camels and bringing among other things olive oil. Jesus spent the night before his death on the Mount of Olives, where he was seized the next morning, and he died on a cross made of olive wood. In the Arabic language, we call Christians Nusrah, which refers to Nazareth, the town Jesus lived in, which derives from the Hebrew Netzer (olive tree branch). As far as the Jews, or Israelites or Hebrews, are concerned, the only reliable archaeological site relating to the Northern Kingdom of Israel is near Shechem in the town of Shomron (Samaria) situated in a region saturated with olive trees and olive oil. Of course, when the mighty Assyrians got involved in the international olive business, things changed quickly and the Assyrians conquered the ancient city of Samaria. Later on, in consecutive order, olive oil as well as camels played a major role in the emerging religions that evolved in the Middle East: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Thus, if we take seriously the riches of the land saturated with olive trees and olive oil, it is then possible to understand the concept The Promised Land, or The Chosen People. The olive oil industry would evolve to become the center of theology and politics as well as philosophy of the Jews. The celebration of Chanukah as a miracle is definitely associated with olive oil. To me, the Maccabees’ story is the story of the olive oil revolt. Furthermore, Judaism has evolved as a strange sort of religion because of the ancient comparison of Jews to olive oil. Ancient Israel is compared to olive oil: it is a shining light to the nations, but does not mix with water or other liquids. In a sense, a belief in uniqueness and isolation leads to a politically suicidal concept of not mixing with other nations. The current Israeli situation is one example of this. The Hebrew letters Shin, Mem, and Nun often indicate an association in words with something to do with olive oil. For example, HaShem (G-d), Hashmonaim, Shomron, or She’moneh (8 days of Chanukah). The ancient Greeks and Romans, who appreciated olive oil and celebrated its value, also were involved in olive oil wars. For example, the Romans led three Punic wars to conquer the olive orchards of today’s Tunisia. To conclude, the emergence of the Prophet Mohammed and Islam as the religion of Moslems touches also on some familiar elements of camels and olive oil. Mohammed the Prophet, a former merchant who traveled from the Arabian Peninsula’s southern regions to Syria in the north, of course on camel caravans, sometimes, I would propose with certainty, carried olive oil. Olive oil in the Islamic tradition is classified in the Qur’an as follows:
Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The metaphor of His Light is that of a niche in which is a lamp, the lamp inside a glass, the glass like a brilliant star, lit from a blessed tree, an olive, neither of the east nor of the west, its oil all but giving off light even if no fire touches it. Light upon Light. Allah guides to His Light whoever He wills and Allah makes metaphors for mankind and Allah has knowledge of all things. (Qur’an, 24:35)
In one Hadit in the Qur’an it is said that the Prophet Mohammed expressed the idea that olive oil holds the cure for seventy diseases. It is well known that the color of Islam is olive green. In a short report by Benjamin Mueller in The New York Times (July 23, 2014) on Muslims in Brooklyn, Mueller includes the following: “The worshippers, young and old, converged on mosques in Brooklyn this weekend, seeking olive green rugs on which to rest their knees, and pray.” Whether or not Mr. Mueller is aware of the symbolism of this olive green carpet, I do not know. And then, there is the camel, which the Prophet Mohammed was very familiar with, and which he used as a traveling merchant, and on caravans. Before his death, the Prophet is said to have called upon his most favored camel to reveal to him the hundredth name of God, as only ninety-nine names were known to mankind. Another important story worth mentioning here relating to the Prophet Mohammed is told by James Bentley in his book Secrets of Mount Sinai (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1986; p.18):
As tradition has it, in AD 625 the monks [at St. Catherine Monastery] sent a delegation to Mohammed himself, begging his protection. Later Mohammed allegedly visited the monastery, and travelers were and are shown the divinely enlarged imprint of his camel’s hoof on the rock.
In another place, this time in Syria, one can see Mohammed’s camel’s footprints at the famous Mosque of the Kneeling Camel. Islam, as a new and evolving religion, was carried east and west by camels and religious zeal. It spread from Morocco in the west to the Far East. The drive toward Morocco through North Africa passed through orchards upon orchards of olive trees. So to conclude, the elements I mentioned at the beginning of this article have become the crucial issues in history that have filled our minds over the past 3000 years. Hopefully this short essay will evolve into a better understanding of our complicated and confused future that is just ahead of us.
I welcome any comments or additional ideas.