Anthony Lewis Books

~ The Cenacle  Scroll ~

CHAPTER ONE

 

Just once, I'd be nice to catch a break... thought Udi Kohavi, a professor of biblical anthropology from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It was wishful thinking, especially given the location of his present dig. Conducting a painstakingly detailed and rigorously documented archeological excavation on a politically, culturally and religiously sensitive site would be a challenging enough endeavor under the best of circumstances. Having to do so under the duress of a possibly imminent terrorist strike didn't make things any easier.

He lit a cigarette and listened to the sounds of the city. Behind him, four Israeli undergraduate students took turns lugging buckets of soil from the indoor excavation site and sifting the material for artifacts using a large, framed screen. Beyond the good-natured chatter of the busy archeology majors, there was nothing unusual in the air. Udi hoped it stayed that way. Literally.

Despite the UN peacekeepers stationed along the Lebanese boarder, Hezbollah militants had resumed their Katyusha rocket attacks on northern Israel, and were reaching deeper and deeper into their cities and towns. Now there were warnings that the terrorists, with the tacit approval of the Hamas government ruling the Palestinian territories, had penetrated the West Bank through Syria and Jordan. If true, that would put the Holy City of Jerusalem within striking distance of their new Fajr-5 rockets, an upgraded, Iranian version of the Katyusha rocket, with a reported range of up to 50 miles. Other reports told of massive Iranian troop movements near the Iraqi border.

Udi was standing in the courtyard of the three-story, 12th-century building purporting to house both King David's Tomb and, on the second floor, the Cenacle, believed by Christians to be the site of the Last Supper. The truth was King David was no more entombed beneath the building than he was under Udi's front yard. But it had been venerated as such for almost a thousand years and there seemed little point in stopping now.

The reality was that the Crusaders had constructed the building as a chapel to the Last Supper over an already existing synagogue memorializing David's Tomb. The romanticized tourist literature aside, in the eyes of the scientific community that's all it was, just a very old memorial chapel with nary a stone, scrap of plaster or fragment of tile ever found and dated to the time of Christ.

 

Inside the building was the rest of the small crew for which Udi was responsible. Professionally, he had few concerns about their aptitude, dedication and technical skills. He was somewhat less confident as to their physical well being. He squinted and scanned the eastern sky for danger. Air raid sirens would give a two-to-four-minute warning before a missile strike, more than enough time for him to run back into the building and be buried alive with the others should one of the 200-pound, high-explosive warheads slam into the ancient stone structure.

Udi was the host and supervising faculty member for a joint program of the respective anthropology departments of Cornell University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Cornell had sponsored two graduate students, along with their faculty supervisor, on what would, in more peaceful times, be considered a newsworthy, even historical dig. It was the first excavation on the site since Pinkerfeld's 1951 dig.

During Israel's War of Independence, a mortar round had struck the building, causing considerable damage. In 1951, Jacob Pinkerfeld, an Israeli archaeologist, was sent to repair the damage. He took the opportunity to dig two pits, and was able to document the existence of three earlier floor levels: the 12th-century Crusader plaster floor, a fifth century Byzantine mosaic floor, and a late first century Roman plaster floor.

Based on some graffiti-scratched fragments of plaster found by Pinkerfeld, believed to have come from the late first century Roman wall, many historians believed that at that time the building had housed a Judeo-Christian synagogue. The present dig hoped to gather additional evidence in support of that theory, and possibly dig beyond that level in pursuit of another.

Talk of the location as being the site of the Last Supper had been reliably documented back to the fourth century, but not before then. The American academic team working inside was looking for evidence that might point to the existence of an early first century public house, which would lend great weight to what was now just an ancient legend.

Yet another search for the Holy Grail, Udi smiled to himself. He was surprised that both the Ministerial Committee for Holy Places and the Israel Antiquities Authority had agreed to the dig and issued the requisite permits. On the other hand, he supposed, the site was long overdue for a modern, scientific examination and, anticipated rocket attacks aside, he was more than grateful for the opportunity to be a part of it.

It's not like the idea was entirely off-the-wall--it was certainly credible to believe that there might be something beneath the Roman floor. The Romans had essentially burned Jerusalem to the ground around 70 A.D., during the First Jewish Revolt, some 40 years after the death of Christ. So whatever structure was standing on the spot at the time, home to the Last Supper or not, would likely have been destroyed. The Roman floor Pinkerfeld had uncovered would have been built after 70 A.D., atop the ruins of whatever stood before it.

He would have preferred to delay the start of the project for a while, until the military situation worked itself out, but the tedious negations with the local Orthodox Jewish community who worshiped at the location had yielded this one, carefully chosen time slot, allowing for the month-long closure of the small synagogue on the lower, King David's Tomb level; any significant delay would likely kill the project, at least in the short-term. He stamped out his cigarette, stopped to offer a few words of encouragement to his hardworking undergraduate students, and headed back into the building.

 

"Udi! Look at this." Sam Williams, professor of anthropology from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, was standing alongside the neatly organized excavation. It was a four-square-meter grid, quartered into one-square-meter segments by lengths of white string stretched taut across the site. The first segment, designated "1" on their simple coordinate map, had been dug down five inches below the existing marble floor, exposing the fourth century plaster Crusader floor. The adjacent unit, to the east, designated "E1," extended a foot and a half below the Crusader floor to the fourth century Byzantine floor, exposing the still discernable geometric designs on the tile mosaic floor. A third unit, south of unit 1, designated "S1," had been dug to a level four-inches below the Byzantine mosaics, exposing the first century Roman plaster floor.

One of the Cornell team, Jennifer Goodwyn, was squatting in the final, deepest grid--"S1E1"--where she'd carefully removed sections of the late first century floor and was surgically scraping away the soil below with her brand new Marshalltown pointing trowel, a gift from her parents especially for this trip. She was a fourth-year graduate student, pursuing her Ph.D. in Anthropology with a concentration in archeology. Jennifer, a very young-looking 25-year-old, stood 5 feet 6 inches tall with a petite build. She had long, dark hair which, at the moment, was collected into a ponytail and snaked through the back of a dusty, mud-stained New York Met's cap.

"Have you found the gold chalice?" Udi joked.

"No, not yet, anyway," Williams said. "We found sand."

"Ah! And we thought we might be wasting our time. Is it first century sand, at least?"

"It's under the first century floor."

"That's a start..."

Udi sidestepped the several cardboard boxes scattered beside the excavation, all holding scores of carefully labeled plastic, zip-locked bags containing the various floor samples and artifacts so far recovered from the dig. He peered into the grid where the graduate student was working, now approaching 30-inches below the modern floor.

"How is the texture?" Udi asked. "It looks quiet hard."

"It is," Jennifer responded, gently tapping her trowel on the exposed surface to demonstrate. The steel tool pinged sharply on the hard surface.

"I wouldn't get too excited," Udi commented. "It looks like it might be sediment from an old, clogged aqueduct, maybe from one that ran under the building at some point. Have you found any organics?"

She sat back on her heels, rubbed the muddy sweat from her brow, then shook her head. "Nothing so far." She used a stiff brush to move aside some of the loose material and resumed scraping away at the firm surface. This was technically her dig, her first independent field research project, approved and financed by her dissertation advisory committee. Professor Williams was her doctoral advisor. The rest of the students, both American and Israeli, were along for course credits and experience.

"Do you think maybe they put down a layer of sand as a foundation for the Roman floor?" Dave Kemper asked, the second American student team member, moving up alongside the Israeli professor. Kemper was 24-years-old, stood 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighed in at a lean but muscular 175 pounds. He was on his college cycling road racing team as an undergraduate, and still worked out with the Cornell team when he found the time.

"Possibly," Udi allowed, still studying the surface carefully as he spoke. "But the compression and density of the material--it's almost cement-like--speaks to the action of water. Wait! What's that? You see?" he pointed. "That dark streak..."

"See what?" Jennifer stood up gingerly and shuffled back out of the way. Udi stepped into the pit next to her.

"Could you move that light over here, please?" He gestured to one of the tripod-mounted, high-intensity quartz-halogen work lights focused on the other quadrants of the pit. Kemper dragged the light over and pointed it to the spot Udi was interested in.

"May I?" he held an open hand to Jennifer, who handed over her trowel. "Thank you."

Udi knelt down on the hard surface and started delicately shaving away at the sand surrounding a dark streak, now more noticeable with the extra illumination. He worked slowly, even artistically, as if icing a cake, smoothly running the trowel right up to the edge of the streak but never touching it.

"What do you think?" Williams asked, squatting at the edge of the pit, admiring the Israeli's surgeon-like technique.

Udi reached for the brush and cleared his work area. "I don't know, but it definitely seems to be organic matter. If I had to force a guess, I'd say it's wood. Could be a piece of an old Roman aqueduct, could be a table, maybe it's just a 2,000-year-old piece of firewood. We won't know until we dig some more." He stood up and handed Jennifer back her trowel.

"Here you go," he said, smiling impishly. "It's your show!" He climbed out of the pit and dusted off his pants.

"Nice catch," Williams whispered, waiting until they'd stepped back from the students clustered around the pit, not wanting to embarrass them. "We could have scraped that clean away without even noticing it."

"There's no shame in your student's making such a mistake. The shame would have been mine, had I missed it. I've been digging in these sediments since I was an undergraduate; I've seen hundreds of such stains. There's no wood left, of course, though it is possible we could recover a few splinters. But if the object is left to disintegrate undisturbed you frequently get those telltale stains left behind. The lab tests will tell us for sure."

"Well, I owe you a beer for that one, just the same," Williams smiled.

 

The dig proceeded without interruption for the next two days. Udi followed the military situation carefully; Israeli fighter jets had flown several sorties into the northeastern corner of the West Bank to neutralize a convoy of Hezbollah fighters before they had a chance to do any damage. Far from being comforting, it merely confirmed what was up to now speculation--that Jerusalem would soon be within the range of enemy rocket attacks.

The first century pit yielded additional traces of what Udi was now convinced must have been a table, a hutch, or some other such piece of furniture. He secured a good-sized, testable sample of the material and had the students continue digging.

Udi was in the courtyard having a smoke when Professor Williams stuck his head out the door and called him.

"We've got something. Looks like stone, limestone, maybe ... way too thick to be pottery," he said.

"Very good," Udi commented, taking a last drag on his cigarette, then dropping and stamping it out with his boot. "Let's see what my ancestors left behind for me today."

Dave was in the pit, clearing the loosened sand around the artifact with a stiff brush. He'd exposed about an inch of the object, which appeared white, with a rounded edge and four squared sides. It was protruding from the ground about a foot to the right of the organic stain.

"This is not a drill," Udi smiled. "You've got something there..."

"It's big," Kemper said, now back to scraping the compressed sand with a trowel. "I think this is just a corner we're looking at. It seems to be extending out in all directions."

"You know what to do," Williams directed. "Dig around the object, lowering the floor around it. You don't want to dig the object out of the ground, you want to lower the elevation of the ground to expose the object."

Udi silently nodded his approval.

 

The Cenacle Scroll Copyright 2009, Anthony F. Lewis

 
~ The Cenacle  Scroll ~

CHAPTER TWO

The size and significance of their find had been laid clear by the end of the following day, a collective 18 hours of tedious scraping later. Everyone recognized it for what it was, but left it to their host to make the official pronouncement.

"It's an ossuary," he said. "A bone box. And a real beauty." Udi hopped into the pit, knelt down by the object and lovingly caressed the pitted limestone surface. Traces of red paint still clung to its face. It was two-thirds exposed, sticking up from the ground at an approximately 40-degree angle.

"In first century Jerusalem," he explained, "The dead were laid on stone ledges or niches in burial caves. After about a year, after the body had been skeletonized, the family would go and collect the bones, and place them in the ossuary to make room for the next occupant."

"What's it doing here?" Jennifer asked. "They're typically found in caves, and catacombs, never buried like this. Besides, this would have been an urban, populated area in the first century ... even if they were to bury it, they wouldn't have put it here, in the middle of town."

Udi nodded. "You're right, of course. Religious customs would have forbidden such a thing." He stood up and shrugged. "We won't know until the contents are examined. Many ossuaries had been found to hold other items--lamps, anointing oils and the like. Let's get it out of there. Maybe someone buried the family gold under the floor," he joked.

 

It took the team another day of meticulous, painstaking work to free the box from the ground where it lay hidden for twenty centuries. Every grain of sand in the pit was sifted for additional artifacts, their effort yielding two dozen small-to-tiny pottery shards, and several more organic stains. The ossuary box aside, the presence of what appeared to be a table along with the pottery at least lent credence to the argument that a public house may have once stood at the site. The evidence was far from conclusive--any home at the time would have held similar objects, of course. But it was the first evidence of habitation that had been discovered at the site, which up to now had only yielded evidence of houses of worship for one sect or another.

The assumed wood samples, along with the pottery shards and other organics were bagged and placed together in a separate box--they would be the first to be radiocarbon dated. Their location in the pit was reason enough for excitement; just inches below the Roman floor, there was a good chance that they would date to the early first century, adding fuel to the argument that the location at least could have been the site of the Last Supper.

The bone box was carefully removed from the pit--with considerable effort, as it weighed, they guessed, close to 90 or 100 pounds--and safely nestled in a straw-filled, wooden crate. The box was about two feet in length and 18" in height and width, with slightly tapered sides, small carved feet and a recessed lid. The pitted limestone surface had retained a remarkable amount of red paint, and there were elaborately carved star designs running along the face, clearly visible, even through the remaining encrusted sand. At first inspection, there didn't seem to be any additional carvings that might have indicated the name of the deceased. All of the artifacts recovered from the dig would be sent to the Hebrew University for radiocarbon dating and further study.

Dave Kemper hammered the last nail into the lid of the crate holding the ossuary. "Why is it so heavy?" he asked, sweating profusely from the effort in the sweltering, un-air-conditioned room. He'd trained his muscles for speed and endurance, not heavy lifting.

"Well, the limestone, of course, is heavy by itself," Udi said. "But, you're correct that it is much too heavy to contain just human remains. Any remains in there would have long ago turned to dust. I suspect it's likely filled with the same dense sand that it was buried in..."

"Lending credence to your theory that there was some kind of flood, or nearby aqueduct break, or something to that effect," Williams added.

"I suspect as much," Udi agreed.

 

The faculty members watched as Dave and one of the Israeli students lugged the heavy crate to one of two sport-utility vehicles parked in the courtyard. They pushed the box to the very rear of the compartment; the American student tossed a folded, canvas tarp on top the wooden box to make room for the rest of the stuff that would have to be squeezed into the back. Udi lit a cigarette while others shuttled the remaining boxes to the vehicle. The open pits would have to be filled in and the marble floor carefully replaced, but they had another ten days left on their permit, more than enough time to complete the necessary work.

Maybe even time enough to dig down another inch or so... Udi mused. It had been a fruitful, perhaps even historical dig; he hated to let it go without exhausting the site.

His contemplative mood was broken by the sudden, building wail of air raid sirens screaming from all directions. Warning shouts went out from local pedestrians. The nearest air-raid shelter was more than three blocks away ... he didn't want to chance it.

"Get inside, now!" he shouted to the undergraduates standing by the large sand pile at the entrance. The base of the ancient building was constructed of stone blocks more than two-feet thick; they should be safe in there, unless the building came down. "Tell everyone ... stay inside!"

He ran over to the SUV and closed the hatchback, then stepped slowly toward the building, walking backwards, searching the sky and listening for the telltale whistle of an approaching rocket.

Katyusha rockets were unguided missiles, really just big, nasty Fourth-of-July bottle rockets with stabilizing fins and high-explosive warheads. Useless as offensive weapons on the modern battlefield, they remained, however, excellent and effective terrorist tools against civilian populations. Launched in clusters by the enemy on an easily calculated ballistic arc, the rockets would land in a widely defined and scattered kill zone, wreaking destruction in a deliberately random fashion.

"What's going on?" Sam Williams stuck his head out of the entrance of the building.

"Probably a rocket attack," Udi said, now pausing in the courtyard and staring expectantly at the sky. "Could be anywhere in the city, though. We won't know until the first one lands..."

The first one landed with an immense, boiling, 50-foot fireball and a heart-thumping concussion, right smack in the middle of a busy intersection some 300 yards to their left. Udi turned and ran for the door.

"Get down!" he screamed to Williams, who'd already disappeared inside the building.

The second one landed not 50 yards outside the courtyard, sending razor-sharp stone splinters from the wall surrounding the historic site tearing into Udi's legs. He fell just five feet from the entrance, screaming in pain.

Sam Williams didn't hesitate; he ran out, grabbed Udi roughly by his arms and swiftly dragged him into the relative safety of the building, trailing bright streaks of blood across the smooth gray cobblestone surface. Another missile landed, this one about a quarter-mile to their left. Screams and sirens filled the air. A thick, acrid smoke reeking of high-explosives and burning automobiles drifted across the courtyard.

Once inside, the students helped sit Udi against the thick wall. The legs of his jeans were soaked with blood. Sam Williams grabbed a knife and started slicing the length of the pants legs, exposing his bloodied limbs. Udi remained conscious, but was hyperventilating and spastically pedaling his legs in pain.

"Where's the nearest hospital?" Jennifer asked. "The cars don't look like they've been hit, we could drive him there ourselves."

"No! Wait!" Udi gasped through clenched teeth. Yet another heavy boom of a rocket strike could be heard echoing from somewhere in the city. "Wait until it's over."

Williams was inspecting his injuries. "You're chopped up pretty bad, my friend, but I don't think the artery's been hit. Let's try to get this bleeding under control and get you to the emergency room as soon as we can get out of here. You're going to be fine..."

Williams turned to the students gathered around the stricken Israeli: "Somebody bring me the first aid kit ... it should be in the tool crate over there..."

One of the Israeli students ran over to the heavy wooden box and dug through the various tools, tossing aside stiff, dirt-caked work gloves and extension cords to get to the first aid kit buried on the bottom. It was a basic kit, nothing fancy, just enough to patch up the routine cuts, scrapes and blisters frequently accompanying long hours working around sharp tools and heavy stones.

Williams asked for more light, and then went to work, using a pair of forceps to pluck out the most easily visible and accessible slivers of stone shrapnel sticking out of Udi's legs. He liberally poured antiseptic Betadine solution over the wounds, and started bandaging his bloodied limbs.

Using every piece of gauze and medical tape he had in the kit, he bound the wounds as best he could, then waited until someone up on the second floor--which had remained open for tourists--shouted down that the "all-clear" had been signaled on the radio. Udi insisted that his undergraduate students drive him to the emergency room; they knew the area, and would make quicker work of the confusing maze of closed-off and otherwise impassible streets and traffic chaos that inevitably followed such attacks. He suggested Williams take his team back to their hotel to wait out the aftermath and to safeguard the valuable artifacts stashed in the vehicle.

That plan made as much sense as any; they lifted Udi to his feet and, with the aid of two of his male students, he was able to hobble over to the car and get himself stretched out in the back seat. The rest of the undergraduates piled in and, within seconds, were on their way.

 

Prof. Williams watched the car drive out of the courtyard. He felt that he should at least accompany his associate to the hospital, if only to show solidarity. But Udi was fully conscious, barking orders to his kids and looking for his cigarettes as they drove away, and was reasonably patched up given the circumstances. Besides, Williams knew, he had his own students to worry about--he needed to get them back to the hotel, ASAP.

"Let's go," he said. "Toss the loose tools in the crate, make sure we have our cameras and all the documentation and let's get the hell out of here. Leave the big lights for now. We'll come back and finish up when we have the chance."

The two students scrambled to collect the remaining items strewn around the site. Dave hauled the heavy toolbox to the SUV and slid it into the back. Then the three of them climbed into the vehicle and started heading north to the City Center West, where they hoped their hotel rooms remained unscathed by the attacks and were still waiting for them.

Traffic on Yafo Road was, as might be expected, impossibly congested and slow, but it was, at least, moving. The attacks had been centered on the Old City; they were moving away from the chaos, and the emergency vehicles were heading into it on the southbound side of the highway, where traffic was at a complete standstill.

The normally ten-minute ride to their exit took them a half hour, but once they got off the highway the City Center looked its normal, bustling self, as if nothing had happened just a few miles to the south. They were no more than a mile from the hotel when the air raid sirens started screaming again.

"Shit!" Williams cursed. He was at the wheel. "We're not going to make it ... any ideas?"

"There!" Jennifer shouted, pointing to the right. "See that closed-off street? The American Consulate is down there. Maybe the guards will let us through..."

"Get your passports out," Williams directed. "Hold them up where they can see them. The last thing they want to see now is a low-hanging SUV heading towards the consulate."

Williams slowly crawled the vehicle up to the cement barricades blocking access to the street. One guard, a U.S. Marine strapped with body armor, menacingly pointing his M-16, complete with a 40mm grenade launcher, directly at Williams. He stood blocking the vehicle, while another Marine, similarly equipped, slowly approached the driver's window. The sirens were wound up and wailing all over the city now.

"We're Americans," Williams shouted, holding his passport, already opened to show his picture, out the window. "Can you give us some shelter until this thing is over?"

The marine, a young sergeant, collected all three passports and gave them a quick look. "Pull over here," he pointed to a spot just outside the barricades, "and get out of the vehicle." Their guns remained trained on the vehicle until it had been shut off and everyone had exited. He gave everyone a quick pat down and returned their passports.

"The consulate is 100 yards down the street, to your right," he said, all business. "RUN down there and show your passports to the guards at the gate. Get a move on, folks..."

The American archeology team sprinted to the gate, squeezed between the second set of barricades set in front of the building, and presented their passports as instructed. After a quick look at the photos the marine pointed them to a path that ran along the left side of the building. "Go inside that door, make a right and go down the stairs. There's a safe room down there, clearly marked. Follow the red arrows. You'll have lots of company. Go!" He held out the passports to Williams.

"Thanks, we really appreciate it," Williams said, panting from his run, taking back the bundle of passports. "Let's go!"

The three of them ran down the path and rushed into the door. They heard the now all-too-familiar boom of a rocket strike as they raced down the stairs.

"And they say archeology is boring," Williams quipped, now that they were in the safety of the basement. The space was brightly lit, and obviously served as administrative office space for consulate employees when they weren't huddled in the back hiding from missile attacks. They quickstepped down a long hallway to the back of the building, following the large red arrows painted on both the wall and floor.

The hall led to a specially constructed, steel-reinforced, sealed suite of rooms equipped with a ventilation system that filtered for both chemical and biological agents. Williams guessed that there were about 25 people standing around, with probably two-thirds of them glued to cell phones. Maybe half a dozen were dressed in business suits and had an official air about them. The rest were attired a bit more casually--administrative staff, he guessed. More booms could be heard outside, though significantly muted by the thickly walled, reinforced bunker. Several women were in tears.

Williams handed his team back their passports and tried to catch his breath. Less than 40 minutes ago he had been admiring the fruits of what was likely the most significant dig of his career, and now ... this.

A dark-haired man in his mid-thirties, of medium height and dressed in an off-the-rack dark blue suit snapped his cell phone closed and approached Williams. He stuck out his hand.

"Hi there. Welcome to the American consulate. I'm Tim Luks, Chief of Staff to the Consul General."

Williams shook his hand, suddenly self-conscious of the fact that his hands were still dirty from that morning's work and his jeans hadn't been washed in three weeks, and looked it. "Sam Williams, Professor of Anthropology at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. We really appreciate your letting us hide out here until the excitement outside blows over."

"Not at all, Professor Williams. Your tax dollars helped pay for the place. It's as much yours as it is mine."

Williams introduced the rest of his team, telling Luks about the interrupted dig at David's Tomb without revealing any details of their discoveries.

Luks was aware that the first attacks had struck the Old City. "Did everybody get out okay?" he asked.

Williams related the story of Udi's injuries. Luks stepped over to a desk and picked up a clipboard with a yellow pad and took down Udi's name, university affiliation and all of the personal contact information that Williams could recall. "I'll follow up on his situation when things calm down a bit. We'll have an easier time getting through to the hospital then you will."

"I appreciate that. How bad are things out there?"

"Bad. And things are going to get worse before they get better. Where were you folks headed before you ducked down here?"

"We were on our way back to the hotel to sit things out." Luks waved Williams and his crew over to a table set up with coffee and a nice selection of cookies and pastries. "Help yourself. Might as well fatten up ... we could all die any minute." His tone indicated he was joking, but there was no telltale smile. He fixed himself a cup of coffee while Williams and the two students did the same.

"Is this your entire team?" Luks asked quietly.

"Yep," Williams answered, blowing on the hot coffee. "This is everybody."

"What do you have back at the hotel? Do you have any valuables back there?"

"I don't have any valuables anywhere!" he laughed. Luks nodded, still with the serious look on his face. "And you have your passports with you, I saw. That's good." He glanced around the room and stepped over to an empty corner, signaling Williams to follow him.

"Listen. The Iranians are massing troops on the Iraqi border, Hezbollah fighters are pouring into the northern West Bank--that's where these missiles are coming from--our navy has four carrier strike groups in the Persian Gulf and both the U.S.S. Teddy Roosevelt and the U.S.S. Ronny Reagan are hauling ass across the Mediterranean. The Reagan is going to be 30 miles off the Israeli coast by this time tomorrow. And believe me when I tell you, if they see one of those Iranian rockets heading anywhere in their general direction, they aim to misbehave." He took a sip of coffee and continued.

"Between me and you, this is about as good a time to leave Israel as any in the past 50 years--and that's really saying something..."

"You don't think we're safe in here?" Williams asked, not yet entirely grasping the significance of the man's warning.

"Safe is not a word I'd use to describe our situation," Luks responded, reflexively resorting to diplo-speak. "We have a chartered flight waiting on the runway at Atarot Airport. We've already put out the word to all of the hotels in the city that any Americans who want to hitch a ride should get out there, pronto. Most of my staff is already there; the rest of these folks are down here waiting for a ride. Do you have a vehicle?"

"Yeah, we had to leave it out by the barricades. I thought Atarot Airport was closed to commercial traffic?"

"It is ... it was turned over for use by the Israeli Defense Force years ago. It's in the northernmost tip of Jerusalem, right on the border of the Palestinian territories, way too dangerous for routine civilian use. The IDF will have attack choppers combing the surrounding area when the charter takes off and two fighter jets escorting it out over the Mediterranean."

"Holy shit," Williams muttered, the reality finally setting in. "I, uh, have some possibly valuable artifacts in the truck, you know, from the dig. They were supposed to be taken to the Hebrew University. Can I leave them with you? Maybe you can have somebody drop them off when things cool down a bit..."

"How valuable?"

"I can't answer that yet. They could be important, they could be nothing, we won't know until we take a closer look at them. We've got some old pottery shards..."

"Screw the pottery shards, Professor. Look, you can leave the stuff here if you're really that concerned, but if I were you I'd just take them with me and straighten it out with your Israeli partners later. You said you had an Israeli representative on the dig, correct?"

"Yep."

"And you have all of your paperwork from the Israel Antiquities Authority and the rest of it?"

"Of course." Luks thought for a moment. "I don't want to overstate this, but if we're overrun, it'll be by a bunch of fanatical seventh century Islamic holy warriors--I wouldn't expect to ever see your artifacts again, you get my drift?"

"You really think there's a chance of your being overrun?"

"We're the American consulate, Professor ... everyone's favorite Great Satan. If they race across the border, we're the finish line."

 

The Cenacle Scroll  Copyright 2009, Anthony F. Lewis




~ The Cenacle  Scroll ~

CHAPTER THREE

Luks was called away to attend to some other pressing business, giving Williams a chance to talk over the situation with his graduate students. Not surprisingly, everyone agreed that it was time to get out of Dodge.

Heeding Luks' warning, Williams thought it prudent that they should at least take the small, first century artifacts along with them. The pottery shards, along with the wood samples, would be enough to confirm early first century habitation of the site once they were carbon dated, which could just as easily be done at back at Cornell once they got stateside. The Israeli authorities wouldn't go into too much of a tizzy over that, considering the circumstances.

The ossuary was a different story. Even if it contained nothing but sand, it was still a significant cultural treasure. And if it actually turned out to contain traces of human remains, removing it from its country of origin would be highly unethical. He waited until Luks ended a rapid-fire series of phone calls before approaching him with his decision.

"We're going to leave one crate with you and take the rest home with us. It's really heavy -- do you think they'd let us pull our car up front to unload it?"

Luks shook his head. "No. It's still hot out there. Give me your shipping information..." He handed Williams his clipboard. "I'll have one of my people bang out some labels to slap on the boxes that are going with you, and I'll send a couple of guys out there to drag the crate down here. Just describe it to them..."

Williams wrote down his address at the university on the yellow pad.

"Okay, good," Luks said. He tore the sheet from the pad, handed it to an assistant standing at the ready and gave the young man his instructions. Williams described the heavy wooden crate to be removed from the back of the SUV.

Luks told Williams to assemble his team around a desk. Luks took a seat. "Do any of you folks have any firearms, solvents, explosives, shoe bombs ... anything that's going to embarrass you or I when the Marines on the plane find them?" It was hard to tell if he was joking or not.

After the nervous snickers and appropriately negative responses Luks held his hand out. "Passports, please." The three of them handed over their passports.

Luks proceeded to stamp the passports with a special diplomatic seal. He then pulled out a handful of boilerplate letters printed on official letterhead, on which he wrote each American's name, and then stamped, dated and signed the letters. He folded the letters and slipped one into each passport.

"These will get you past the guards at the airport, and onto the plane," he explained as he returned the passports to their owners. "We're putting consulate seals on the boxes and bags in your car as well, that way nobody will give you any trouble with them, and the customs people stateside won't bother with them. The flight is going to New York's Kennedy Airport; you'll have to arrange transportation home from there."

"Got it," Williams said.

Luks rummaged through the papers on his desk and pulled out a photocopy of what looked to be a hand-drawn map. He handed it to Williams.

"Directions to Atarot Airport, along with the runway and flight information -- it's a United Airlines flight -- I don't think you're going to get any frequent flyer miles on this one, but you could always ask. They're scheduled to leave in about an hour and a half, so you'll need to leave the second my guys finish labeling your stuff. That last round of rocket strikes hit south of us, so you'll probably be safe heading north, especially since you'll be so close to the Palestinian territories."

"That's comforting."

"Drive directly to the airport, show them your letters and passports, and drive your car right up to here..." He pointed to an "X" on the runway map. "You'll be boarding directly from the tarmac. Someone will help you unload the car."

"The car belongs to the Hebrew University," Williams said.

Luks shrugged. "Leave the keys with somebody that looks honest, or, I don't know, in the glove compartment, and maybe call the university once you get home and let them know where to find it. We're in a war zone, Professor, they'll understand."

The consulate administrator's assistant reappeared at the doorway. "They're good to go, Mr. Luks. And you were right, Professor Williams ... that crate was heavier than it looked."

Luks stood up from behind the desk and held out his hand. "I hope you enjoyed your stay in Israel, Professor, the last couple of hours aside. Put in a good word for me the next time you write your Congressman. Safe home..."

 

It turned out that the trip home was a safe one, but not without a little more excitement at the airport. After clearing the checkpoint, they had just managed to weave the SUV through a tight maze of concrete barricades at the entrance to Atarot Airport when mortar rounds started falling on the northern edge of the airfield. Williams raced the car to the plane.

They could see an IDF Apache gunship hovering what seemed to be only a hundred yards or so outside of the airport, first unleashing a Hellfire missile at a target, then dipping in to shred whatever was left with a merciless barrage of 30-mm automatic chain-gun fire. The mortar fire was silenced just as Williams skidded the vehicle to a stop some 40 feet from the waiting jumbo jet, at the direction of a very serious-looking Marine. A dozen others, some patrolling the area on foot, others manning the heavy machine guns on their humvees, stood at the ready.

Before he'd had a chance to even shut off the ignition, Williams, Dave and Jennifer were hustled up the roll-up stairway onto the aircraft, where yet another Marine quickly eyeballed their paperwork and waved them through. The plane appeared to be about one third full, leaving plenty of room for the three Americans to find themselves seats together. Williams peeked out the window just in time to see his borrowed SUV, the rear compartment already emptied, racing off the tarmac.

They had to wait another tense 20 minutes before the last busload of tourists pulled up and were unceremoniously rushed onto the waiting plane. They started taxiing for takeoff as the bus was pulled off the tarmac. As promised, he could see a pair of IDF F-16's riding shotgun until the big jet was safely over the Mediterranean.

Williams had fallen asleep before the aircraft had even reached cruising altitude, but was awakened when a loud cheer and scattered applause went up from the cabin about 45 minutes into the flight. A pair of F/A-18E Super Hornets, sporting bright American flags on their fuselage and just launched from the Reagan, had been sent to escort the commercial charter over the carrier group's airspace.

 

The scene at Kennedy was no less hectic, though considerably safer. While still over the Atlantic, a flight attendant had arranged a connecting flight for them to Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport; they had a two hour layover in New York, a small price to pay, they all thought, given the circumstances. They were just 40 minutes outside of Ithaca when a flight attendant informed them that, in the confusion, their stowed luggage hadn't made it to the connecting flight. But it had all been located and accounted for, and would be sent out on the next available flight and delivered to them at the airline's expense. Williams and his crew took the news in good-humored stride, as they were already fairly well tanked from having nothing constructive to do with their solid half-day spent in aircraft and airports other than drink. And besides, the bad news wisely came with an unnecessary but nonetheless welcome complementary round of beers to help soften the blow.

Williams took a well earned sick-day after the harrowing adventure, necessary in any case as he was both painfully hung over from all of the unaccustomed alcohol and severely jet-lagged, and unable to tell where the effects of one ended and the other began. He was tempted to call in to his department to see if the artifacts had arrived, but decided against it. If they were there, they were there, and if they weren't, he'd feel obligated to start calling the airlines to locate them, and he was in no mood. He was alive, he was safe, and he was at home with his wife and twin eight-year-old girls ... he needed to revel in that pleasant reality for a while.

 

The Cenacle Scroll Copyright 2009, Anthony F. Lewis