Building with the Past: Archaeology’s Ideological Role in Israel

Cutout caravan. Image: LollyKnit (Flickr, used under a CC BY-SA 3.0)

Cutout caravan. Image: LollyKnit (Flickr, used under a CC BY-SA 3.0)

Chemi Shiff
Chemi is a PhD candidate who specializes in issues of cultural heritage at the program for cultural studies in the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In his PhD he plans to examine the use Israeli society has made of archaeology over the years as a means for the construction of a national heritage through the test case of Jaffa.
Chemi Shiff

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In October 2009, the archaeological National Park of Avdat in the Israeli Negev desert was anonymously vandalized (Figure 1).  Widely publicized in the media, the vandalism was depicted as a destruction of a heritage site of the utmost importance. Following the arrest of local Bedouin suspected of committing the act in retaliation for the destruction of illegal buildings in their nearby home village, the Jewish regional council mayor emphasized the urgency of commencing a battle against the Bedouin over control of the Negev lands.

Shattered columns and paint in Avdat - 2009 (Photos: Orit Bortnik, Nature and Park Authority)

Figure 1: Shattered columns and paint in Avdat – 2009 (Photos: Orit Bortnik, Nature and Park Authority)

A national symbol

The vandalization of Avdat and the ensuing public discourse, underlines the site’s prominent role as a symbol of national heritage. In the 1960s – following the first excavations at Avdat – the site symbolized the Zionist attempt to mould the many Jewish cultures that came together in Israel into a homogeneous culture with shared aspirations and ideals. Since the 1990s, following processes of social privatization and globalization, the site has been reorganized as the convex of a number of tourist enterprises, attempting to promote the creation of a multi-cultural society.

However, my claim is that the case study of Avdat illustrates the difficulties that Israeli society experiences in attempting to move away from the ideological construction of a homogenous national discourse toward a reality of multiple narratives. Paradoxically, the attempt to separate archaeology’s role as an academic tool from its use as an ideological means, upholds the exclusion of indigenous minority groups, such as the local Bedouins, from the mainstream discourse in Israeli society.


A Secluded desert monument

Avdat, located in southern Israel, in a secluded region with a harsh desert climate, was first opened as a national park in 1961 (Figure 2). Its official opening ceremony was attended by many of the state’s political elite, including David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s Prime Minister. Ben-Gurion himself moved to a secluded agricultural community in proximity to Avdat 8 years beforehand, as part of his attempt to advocate the Zionist ideological aspiration to make the desert bloom. He believed that in order for Israel to survive, its population must settle the state’s periphery. In the site’s opening ceremony he went so far as to prophesize that the Negev would be populated by 10 million residents in only ten years, a feat that in reality has not been accomplished to this day.avdatmap

All the same, the archaeological excavations at Avdat seemed to support Ben Gurion’s vision. The site was first excavated by Avraham Negev, formerly Eisenberg, who changed his name after the region he became infatuated with after immigrating to pre-state Israel as part of a youth group in the 1930s. According to Negev, Avdat developed from a small caravanserai into one of the political, commercial, and military centres of the Nabataean Kingdom. He further claimed that the Nabataeans were transformed from loosely connected nomadic Arab tribes that penetrated into the Southern Levant from the Arabian Peninsula during the Hellenistic period, into a sedentary kingdom with a complex social stratum, which successfully cultivated a wide range of agricultural ventures in the harsh desert climate in the Roman and Byzantine era.

Connecting the past to Israeli pioneers

Newspaper ad for the "Carmel Mizrahi" "Avdat" wine series. The highlighted sentence reads: "At Avdat a winepress found during excavations supplies proof for our country's ancient wine industry". Published in "Davar", 5.10.61.

Figure 3: Newspaper ad for the “Carmel Mizrahi” “Avdat” wine series. The highlighted sentence reads: “At Avdat a winepress found during excavations supplies proof for
our country’s ancient wine industry”. Published in “Davar”, 5.10.61.

This portrayal of the Nabataean development, quickly accepted as common convention in academic discourse, was reiterated in Israel’s popular culture (Figure 3). Many newspaper articles compared the Nabataeans ability to make the desert bloom and build urban enters, with the attempt made by Israeli pioneers to resettle the so called desolate Negev. In essence, while containing evidence for the prosperity of an Arab polity rather than a Jewish one, Avdat became a symbol for what was seen as the rebirth of the Jewish people in their ancient homeland.

The utilization of Avdat as an unexpected Zionist symbol must be understood through an examination of the desert’s dual significance in the nascent Israeli society. On one hand the desert was described as a barren wilderness with an unaccommodating climate and a hostile Arab indigenous population, obstructing the Jewish population’s attempt to tame it. On the other hand, it was described as an open expanse ripe for settlement as part of a renewed Jewish national home in the Land of Israel. The desert was portrayed as a type of landscape that enabled Jews of different ethnic backgrounds to create a shared identity. At the same time this symbolic use of the desert relegated the indigenous Arab population to the role of bystanders restricted from participating in the reclamation of the landscape.

In this context, the use of Avdat during the 1960s could be understood as part of a more extensive endeavour to conquer ‘the wilderness’. While Avdat could not be used as proof of a Jewish past in the land of Israel, the cultural traits attributed to the Nabataean culture by Avraham Negev’s archaeological research were appropriated by the Israeli settlements established in the Negev.

In similarity to the symbolic representation of the desert, Avdat also contained dual symbolic meanings. On one hand, Avdat was portrayed as a symbol of the wilderness. Settlements established in Avdat’s vicinity acknowledged the Nabataean’s prosperity, and claimed that the attempt to surpass the gentile nation’s accomplishments was an invigorating challenge.

On the other hand, Avdat symbolized the Zionist aspiration to cast aside the assumedly stagnant nature that characterized Jewish communities in the Diaspora, in favour of what was perceived as the resilient conduct of the ancient Jewish polities in the land of Israel. For example, a scientific research station established near Avdat, which examined agricultural methods utilized by Nabataean society, asserted that they were cultural mediators enhancing agricultural methods that had first been developed during the United Israelite Kingdom. They claimed that the farm’s proximity to Avdat constituted a renewed appropriation of the region by the offspring of the people responsible for the Negev’s initial prosperity.

In effect, Avdat’s Nabataean inhabitants were presented as the spiritual ancestors of the new Israeli settlements established during those years. At the same time the Nabataeans, who could be perceived as the Bedouin’s ancestors, were utilized in order to fortify the divide between the nomadic “primitive” desert landscape, associated with the Bedouins, and the fertile “civilized” landscape created by the Jewish settlements.

One of the caricaturist statues depicting ancient life at Avdat. Image: Menachem Shiff

Figure 4: One of the caricaturist statues depicting ancient life at Avdat. Image: Chemi Shiff

Archaeology showed a wider picture

In contrast to Negev’s interpretation, renewed excavations conducted at Avdat during the 1990s, which utilized new research paradigms, portrayed Avdat’s development as part of a widely intricate system of economic, political, and social links in the ancient Orient, starting from the Hellenistic era and ending in the Islamic era.

The renewed excavations at Avdat viewed the region as a part of the geographic and cultural frontier of the Roman and Byzantine empires. The Nabataean kingdom was acknowledged as merely a small kingdom that did not evolve into a political, military or economic power that could overpower the Roman Empire, as was suggested by Negev.

These new interpretations reflect an attempt made by Israeli archaeology to transform into a professional and ideologically neutral discourse. They were in par with processes of social privatization and globalization in Israeli society which peaked in the 1990s. These processes transformed archaeological sites from symbols of a homogenous Israeli identity into economical assets that are subjected to the attempts of different interest groups to make use of them in order to promote their unique identity.

During the 1990s the site of Avdat went through similar processes. In an effort to help raise the site’s appeal in the eyes of the average visitor, the explanation signs at the site which- in the site’s designer’s words – were laden with archaic archaeological explanations, were replaced with statues designed as caricatures (Figure 4). In addition, signs with pictographic explanations were placed beside the statues, also indicating the structures’ purpose in a humorous manner.

Area designated for screening videos, constructed to resemble a Bedouin tent. Image: Menachem Shiff

Figure 5: Area designated for screening videos, constructed to resemble a Bedouin tent. Image: Chemi Shiff

Designed to mimic Bedouin life

Another change implemented was the reorganization of the site’s entrance area. In order to rebrand the entrance area, a visitor centre was built. It included an exhibition and a movie showcasing Nabataean history according to modern research. They describe the factors that supposedly enabled the transition from a nomadic lifestyle to a sedentary one.

The film is screened in an area designed to resemble a Bedouin tent (Figure 5). It makes use of actors – dressed in traditional Bedouin clothes – who reenact the Nabataean lifestyle.

Another method utilized to rebrand the whole region in which Avdat is located as one replete with tourist attractions of a universal nature was the situation of Avdat as the focal point of two regional tourist enterprises.

The first – dubbed as the “Wine Route” – was publicly advertised as a means of rebranding the Regional Council in which Avdat is located, as an inviting tourist area. It consists of a net of farms, each inhabited by a single family. Most farms developed various tourist projects, such as bed and breakfast guesthouses, vineyards and olive presses. The farms are located alongside the major roads in the area and especially in proximity to Avdat. In accordance with changes in archaeological research, the Regional Council’s internet site determines that the farms comprising the Wine Route represent a true reconstruction of the habitation patterns in the Negev.

The second project was the declaration of Avdat and other sites in the Negev as part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site designated as the Incense Route in 2005. This declaration could be viewed as integral to processes of globalization, which have allowed the fragmentation of national frameworks for the creation of multicultural societies.

The establishment of projects which promote western concepts of leisure and tourism reflect a desire to become economically and socially integrated into the international community. In addition, their organization seemingly enables visitors to experience Avdat as an archaeological site disconnected from the national narrative it had previously been associated with. However, depicting Avdat at the core of two routes continues the physical and symbolic estrangement of the Bedouin population from their immediate environment.

A phenomenological examination of a site as part of a ‘route’ indicates a symbolic and physical connection between points in the landscape – in effect, denying its independent conceptualization as a ‘place’ in its own right. Depicting the Negev landscape – and Avdat within it – as part of a ‘route’ reflecting a Western-European leisure culture can be understood as a relatively new expression of Israeli society’s ambivalent approach to the ‘natural’ – or presumably uncivilized – Negev landscape. In this context, the branding of the individual farms as part of the Wine Route – a forbidden product, according to the laws of Islam – can be viewed as another method of detaching the indigenous Muslim Bedouin culture from the Negev’s physical and symbolic landscape.

View from Avdat. Image: <a href=''>Yoav Lerman</a> (Flickr, used under a <a href=''>CC BY-SA 3.0</a>)

Figure 6: View from Avdat. Image: Yoav Lerman (Flickr, used under a CC BY-SA 3.0)

A universal ideal?

Branding Avdat as a symbol of universal ideals disconnected from previous ideologies is precisely the process that subjects it to a symbolic world disengaged from its immediate environment, thus preventing disadvantaged marginal groups from participating in the shaping of the site and duplicating processes of polarization in society. While Avdat’s surrounding landscape is shaped by the tourist projects attempting to emphasize its transformation into an international and Western symbolic ‘place’, through its use in the design of various guiding aids at Avdat, the Bedouin culture becomes one of the exhibits presented in the site, and presumably does not actually exist outside in the real world.

The vandalization of the site in 2009 can serve to exemplify these processes. The extremity of the act of destruction points to the Bedouin population’s attempt – even if unconscious – to disrupt the divide created by the site between the Bedouin and the Jewish populations, and to demand participation in the shaping of the Negev’s physical and symbolic landscape. (Figure 6) For archaeology to address this demand, archaeologists must develop an awareness to the fact that the divide between the archaeology’s traditional roles as a research tool, an instrument of shaping national heritage, and, in recent years, also a generator of ‘tourist attractions’, is artificial. This awareness is beneficial for archaeologists working in societies in conflict such as Israel, aiming to reconstruct archaeology as a discourse allowing the construction of new definitions regarding the community and its social stratification that does not continue to relegate certain minority groups as part of a continuing route of no importance in itself.

Author: Chemi Shiff : Hebrew University, Israel


More Information

General Links

From a presentation given at the Seventh World Archaeological Congress, Jordan 2013 and based on a MA thesis written under the supervision of Prof. Raphael Greenberg.

Avraham Negev and his theories regarding Nabataean development

Negev, A. (1969) ‘The Chronology of the Middle Nabatean Period’, Palestine Exploration Quarterly 101: 5-14.

Negev, A. (1976) ‘The Early Beginnings of the Nabatean Realm’, Palestine Exploration Quarterly 108: 125-33.

Negev, A. (1997) ‘The Architecture of Oboda: Final Report’, Qedem: Monographs of the Institute of Archaeology 36.

Current research regarding Nabataean development

Elliott, J.D., Jr. (1996) ‘The Nabataean Synthesis of Avraham Negev: A Critical Appraisal’, In: Seger J.D (ed) Retrieving the Past: Essays on Archaeological Research and Methodology in Honor of Gus W. Van Beek, Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, pp. 47–60.

Erickson-Gini, T. (2010) Nabataean Settlement and Self-Organized Economy in the Central Negev: Crisis and Renewal. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Graf, D.F. (2007) ‘The Nabataeans under Roman Rule (after AD 106)’, In: Politis, K.D (ed) The World of the Nabataeans, Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, pp. 173-86.

Macdonald, M.C.A. (1991) ‘Was the Nabatean Kingdom a Bedouin State?’, Zeitschrift des Duetschen Palastina-Vereins 107: 102-19.

Politis, K.D. (2007) ‘Nabataean Cultural Continuity into the Byzantine Period’, In: Politis K.D. (ed) The World of the Nabataeans, pp. 187-200. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, pp. 187-200.

Archaeology’s role in Israeli Society

Baram, U. 2007. Appropriating the Past: Heritage, Tourism and Archaeology in Israel, In: P.L. Kohl, M. Kozelsky and N. Ben-Yehuda eds. Selective Remembrances: Archaeology in the Construction, Commemoration and Consecration of National Pasts, Chicago: 299-325.

Bauman, J. 2004. Tourism, the Ideology of Design, and the Nationalized Past in Zippori/Sepphoris, An Israeli National Park, In Y. Rowan and U. Baram eds. Marketing Heritage: Archaeology and the Consumption of the Past, Walnut Creek: 3-23.

De Cesari, C. (2010) ‘World Heritage and Mosaic Universalism: A View from Palestine’, Journal of Social Archaeology 10(3): 299-324.

Elon, A. (1997) ‘Politics and Archaeology’, In: Silberman, N.A., and Small, D. (eds) The Archaeology of Israel: Constructing the Past, Interpreting the Present,. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, pp. 34-47.

Cite this article

i Shiff : Hebrew University, Israel, Feb 2013. Building with the Past: Archaeology’s Ideological Role in Israel. Past Horizons. February, 2013, from

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