Local Currency

 

Local Currency

By Naomi Shepherd

 

The foundation stone of the Museum of Brotherhood had already been laid and excavation work begun when the first  skull, cradled by a bulldozer’s shovel, was tipped on to a heap of rubble nearby. Mussa, the Arab foreman, was so frightened that he reported the find to Uzi, the site manager. Schedules were tight, so Uzi told him to rebury the skull outside the perimeter, but the foreman thought it prudent to report the find to the police. He was promptly arrested, though Uzi protested that Mussa was his best worker and a family man. The little town’s head of police, hoping for a television appearance if not for promotion, ordered the whole area cordoned off and the skull removed to the police laboratory in Tel Aviv.  Visiting Mussa in the lock up, Uzi berated him: ‘Don’t you know what you’ve started? You’ve held up work for weeks!’ Mussa protested that there might have been a murder. ‘Do you really think anyone could bury a body as deep as that without machinery?’
 
Uzi was right.  The pathologists established that the skull was ancient, and Mussa was released. After exhaustive tests by forensic anthropologists, the skull was estimated to be only a few hundred years old, of  little interest to  local  archaeologists.  But in the hope that an earlier, biblical stratum might be discovered, the area was declared an historic site and a dig organized. As Uzi had feared, work on the museum  had to be postponed.
 
*
 
The Museum of Brotherhood was the brainchild of an American chainstore millionaire, Joe Magnus, who had financed similar projects in other conflict zones. Its purpose was to show how Jews and Arabs had lived in amity in the past, and could do so again if properly encouraged and subsidised. So the Magnus team commissioned a famous architect, designers, and a public relations team to draw up a plan. Magnus wanted his museum to be in Tel Aviv, but the Ministry persuaded him that the ideal venue was a ‘mixed’ Jewish-Arab town, where Magnus was promised a square and a wasteland site for his museum, somewhere between the Jewish and Arab districts.
 
Some months before the discovery of the skull, the Magnus team had outlined the details of the project, with scale models and slides, to an audience of bemused municipal officials, with the donor and the deputy director-general of the Ministry seated in a school hall, behind a bank of ornamental cacti.
 
The planned structure itself, the architect explained, was of geometric shape: an enormous tilted triangle of tinted glass held in place by steel rods, symbolizing a Beduin tent. This tent enclosed the main exhibition space: a glass square with an inner ceiling of tree branches, symbolizing a Tabernacle or Succa. The idea, the architect said, was to stress the nomadic origins of both faiths.  The square was to be broken up into rooms and corridors, where fibreglass reproductions of famous sculptures  – figures of the common fathers of Judaism and Islam, Abraham and Moses – led down corridors to reproductions of biblical landscapes from art galleries all over the world.
 
Further down the museum route, traditional exhibits – costumed figures in the living rooms of Jewish and Arab homes – would form the background to live performances by cooks working on charcoal  ranges (with hidden electrical outlets). Coffee, falafel, tehina and kebab, as well as biblical manna – coriander seed, wafers and honey –  were to be served on pita bread. Visitors could sample all this free, with ethnically neutral refreshments in the cafeteria for payment. Down a corridor which connected the rooms, slide shows and videos of the great shared centres of Jewish and Moslem learning would  be projected on to the walls, while the ritual chanting of both faiths were harmonized by a synthesizer.
 
The last room was to be decorated by photographs of meetings between Arab and Israeli leaders, facsimiles of the peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, and a photograph of Israeli and Palestinian leaders shaking hands.  A huge table at the centre, with a bank of computers, would provide visitors with the chance to submit their own proposals for a solution to the conflict.  Near the exit, the gift section would include ‘Black and Comely’ plexiglass roses, and a new perfume, ‘Myrrh ’ specially distilled by a major cosmetic firm – ‘Myrrh for Her’ .
 
*
  
Unlike all the other ‘mixed’ towns like Acre, Jaffa or Nazareth, the future home of the Museum of Brotherhood had no striking landmarks or historic importance, so no archaeologist had dug there. It was in the uncontested coastal plain, so no settler had raised a flag there. Though some had identified the town as lying on an old trade route southwards, the road which had marked that passage now led only to the sealed frontier with Gaza. A six lane highway, part of a new national grid, bypassed the town a few kilometres away, leaving it only accessible by an ill surfaced slip road, with a battered road sign at the entrance giving its new Hebrew and (partly erased) old Arabic names.
 
Until the first Arab-Jewish war, this had been a small town of Arab landowners and shopkeepers. Most of the community had been driven south in l948. But perhaps because of a battalion’s more urgent call elsewhere, or because of an oversight, most of the population had remained in place. The wealthier townspeople, many of whom had sold off their land to Jews, had prudently left for Egypt. Their abandoned houses were sectioned and distributed to the first Jewish immigrants evicted from the Mahgreb, small traders with the contents of their shops in bales, deposited by buses straight from the big nearby port.
 
From time to time, government committees pondered the failure of the town to develop.  But no money was found to build factories there, or train workers to man them. Able-bodied Jewish immigrants were bussed out to the factories of Tel Aviv and Arabs without farmlands to building sites in the port, leaving only schoolchildren and the old people to keep the town on the map.  For the poorly paid local construction work, the town relied mainly on workmen bussed in from villages in the West Bank – like the present team under Mussa. The fleets of buses going in and out passed one another daily like the fluids of a patient on life support.
 
So it was natural that this town was the first location the government  urged on Joe Magnus.
 
*
 
Yaron Navon was surprised to be put in charge of the dig. He had thought himself too old and unpopular for the job. He was a loner, and always had been: in infancy, dumped in a kibbutz by a single mother. In the army, brave but insubordinate. In his profession, an iconoclast and  never an easy colleague. Notoriously bad-tempered, though respected for his integrity, he had antagonised his peers and despised routine work. So when the Antiquities Authority was asked by the Ministry of Culture to provide a ‘professional’, at short notice, to supervise the clearing of the site ‘in case there was anything of value there’, it looked up the grizzled,  retired veteran, and assigned an eager final year student, Dan, as his assistant. No one else wanted the job.
 
When Yaron and Dan arrived on the site ten days after the  discovery of the skull, they found that Uzi had not waited for their arrival. Twenty workmen, Mussa at their head, were busily shovelling earth  in no particular direction,  uncovering as they did so more skeletons – some whole, some dismembered.  A number of bones and skulls had already been piled into cardboard boxes labelled Oranges: Product of Israel.
 
Yaron strode into the crowd of workmen waving his arms as if to disperse a flock of birds. He snapped at Uzi: ‘Tell them to stop, right away!’
 
‘Boss told me to get the stuff sorted out for you’, grumbled Uzi.  ‘So you can see if there’s anything worth putting in the museum’. But he told Mussa to halt work, and the men and boys brushed earth and calcified bone from their hands and sat down to eat the food they had brought wrapped in cloths.
 
Uzi was not apologetic.  He said he thought ‘tidying up’ the area would please the experts. Yaron had to explain, irritably, how archaeologists worked:  surveying the site, photographing and mapping, making a grid plan, excavating selectively, sending soil to labs, sifting finds…
 
Uzi frowned.  ‘How long will all that take?’
 
‘As long as it takes’.
 
‘They won’t like that’. He stood moodily to the side as the archaeologists made a first tour of the site. Twenty skeletons in all had now been exposed.  Some looked as if tossed there by an explosion, askew and half veiled by earth and sand. There were  jagged splits in shins and shoulder bones.  Yaron squatted down for a closer look.
 
‘Burial ground?’ Dan suggested.
 
‘I don’t think so’.
 
‘Why not?’
 
‘Scattered.  They’re almost all damaged’.
 
‘The bulldozers could have done that’.
 
‘No: look at those cracks in the bones.  They’re very old.  If they were fresh cuts, they’d be white’.
 
‘A battleground, then?’
 
‘Easy on the theories, boy’, snapped Yaron, and then clapped Dan on the shoulder to show he meant no offence.
 
*
 
News of the delay had meanwhile reached the Magnus headquarters, and just as the first excavation pit had been dug, an airport taxi drew up outside the site manager’s caravan and discharged a passenger in sweatshirt and jeans. After telling the driver to wait, he loped over to where Yaron and Dan were sifting soil  down in the pit. When the visitor’s shadow fell on them, Yaron looked up. The man grinned.
 
‘Fine work you’re doing there’, he commented, without looking. ‘Hi.  I’m Jay, from Magnus’.
 
Introductions followed, though Yaron remained in the pit.  Jay explained that he had dropped in on his way to Turkey to see how the excavation was progressing. Joe Magnus was keen to have reports, he said, and hoped that Yaron would discover many finds – ‘shards’, wasn’t that what they were called? – Jay wasn’t an expert. Something for the museum, found on site! Pottery?  A scroll maybe?’
 
‘All we’ve found so far are skeletons’, said Yaron stiffly. Jay was briefly disconcerted.  ‘I just heard one skull – I don’t think we can use skeletons’, he said. ‘It’s going to be a family project’.
 
‘I liked skeletons when I was a kid’, ventured Dan, glancing at Yaron. Jay laughed long and mirthlessly. Then, suddenly serious, he sat down at the edge of the pit, swinging his long legs over the side. Yaron moved the ladder a few feet away.
 
‘You have a deadline?’ said Jay.  His inflection made it a question, but his expression showed it was a statement.
 
‘Not that I know of’.
 
 Jay glanced round at the empty site.  ‘You could use more help, I guess.  There were some old guys back in town doing nothing’.
 
‘When we need them we’ll say so’.  Yaron nodded towards Uzi’s caravan.
 
‘Well, what I came to say was this: we have a deadline, Yaron.  Joe Magnus is spending a lot of money – a lot of money – on this project. It’s a mission, not just a project. There are people watching you, Yaron, people who keep the peace process moving forward. Important people.  Joe is dedicated to this mission. He has taken time out to get it moving.  If you can tell us there is more here than skeletons –  like cooking pots, scrolls, proof of co-existence of peoples on this very spot, you will have made a big contribution’. Jay paused and looked expectantly at his audience.
 
Yaron put down the sieve he was holding.
 
‘Not even the skeletons were side by side’, he said abruptly.  ‘We’ve no idea who they were’.
 
‘Jews or Arabs?’
 
Yaron gazed skywards. ‘There were many civilisations here at different times. The Awites, the Caphtorites, the Philistines. It was Philistine territory for centuries. Later it was Byzantine. And so on’.
 
‘Real interfaith’.
 
‘Not really.  One tended to wipe out the other’.
 
 ‘Ah.  How about the Jews?’
 
‘As far as we know, there were no Jews living in this area at the time the skeletons suggest’.
 
‘But weren’t the Jews pretty well everywhere round here?  An unbroken presence, that’s what the books say’.
 
‘There was quite a lot of breakage’, said Yaron, winking at Dan. Jay looked from one to the other, suspiciously.
 
‘But I was told…’
 
‘I don’t know what you were told’. Yaron turned back to his work.
 
Jay’s smile faded.  ‘Joe’s deadline is March’, he said, and strode off.
 
Dan watched the taxi out of sight. ‘Weren’t you a bit hard on him?’
 
‘There’s something metallic in this sieve’, was all Yaron answered.  ‘I think it’s a coin’.
 
*
 
After the first discovery of the skull, the museum site attracted little attention in the national press. There were other more important items of domestic news: yet another near collision between fighter planes and commercial airliners, new allegations in the six year investigation of a politician for fraud, controversy over yet another tunnel under the Temple Mount, and the imminent deportation of immigrant workers to Chad.
      
But one item had appeared nonetheless, in ‘The Voice in the Wilderness’, a broadsheet posted on the walls of Mea Shearim and other ultra-Orthodox strongholds. ‘Jewish Graves Desecrated’ it proclaimed in huge letters, and a few days after Jay’s visit, the sun shining into the excavation pit was obscured by a circle of black clothed men with broad brimmed hats, fringes visible from beneath their jackets, staring down at the archaeologists as they worked.  At first they were silent.
 
Yaron straightened up, sieve in hand.  ‘What do you want?’
 
In answer, the men began rocking silently in prayer. One young man said:  ‘We’ve come for the bodies’.
 
‘There aren’t any bodies here’.
 
The young man gestured to the boxes of skeletons. ‘You’re building a pagan shrine over Jewish graves!’
 
‘What are you talking about?’ Dan asked angrily.
 
‘Don’t argue with him’, Yaron ordered.  ‘Just go and get Uzi to call the police’.
 
At the word ‘police’ the forward contingent of the Orthodox started muttering.  One said ‘Nazis!’ out loud, and the others took up the chant: ‘Nazis! Zionist desecrators!’ One elderly man tried to quiet them, and addressed Yaron: ‘Every corpse found in the Land of Israel may be the body of a Jew;  all work here must stop’.
 
‘Rubbish!’ said Yaron.  ‘There were no graves here’.
 
‘You’ve destroyed them, we know what you do’, the young man interrupted, gesturing at the bulldozers.
 
Dan began, ‘That’s not us, we help restore things, we don’t destroy anything’, but Yaron pushed him towards the ladder.
 
‘Don’t argue with them, just do what I say and call the police!’
 
Dan barely managed to clamber out and run off before the crowd began menacing Yaron, chanting prayers and uttering archaic curses of which he only understood the gist. A couple of men tried to reassemble loose bones, their black coats becoming white with dust.
 
When the police arrived, the demonstrators were bundled back into their buses, shouting and tussling and escorted back to the main road.
 
‘The Magnus people aren’t going to like this’ said Uzi, wiping sweat and dust from his forehead. ‘Not one bit’.
 
That evening he and the archaeologists listened glumly to the radio as the news of the incursion reached the media. The expulsion of the haredim  from the museum site had inflamed their brothers in Jerusalem.  Hundreds had blocked streets in their quarter with overturned dustbins and burned the garbage. Municipal workers who tried to clear the streets were assaulted before police brought water cannons.
    
The next day, a television reporter arrived to film the site and interview Yaron. Most of what he said had to be edited out.
 
*
 
Surprisingly, the haredim did not return.  Yaron and Dan worked without interruption for a couple of weeks, impatient to collect as much evidence as they could before the first rains. They found some two dozen coins, wood fragments with metal embedded in them, and shreds of some kind of linen material. Yaron surmised that the wood and metal were part of a farming tool; he  glimpsed Arabic lettering on the coins through the embedded dirt, but could not make sense of it.
 
Nothing yet suggested that the area was the site of a settlement, Yaron reported to the Authority, but the damage done to almost all the skeletons suggested a battle. Further research, historical and numismatic, was necessary. There was no immediate answer, but a few days later Yaron was contacted on his mobile phone by Malka, a senior in the Authority –  a woman he had once intimidated but who now, sensing that this excavation would fail, was braver. After a few friendly enquiries, she added, as if she had just remembered:
 
‘Oh, incidentally, make sure the bones are ready for collection next week’.
 
Yaron was pleased. ‘Yes, when we work out what caused the injuries, there might be a clue –’.
 
Malka interrupted him, though her tone was soothing rather than annoyed.  ‘Yes, well, it’s not going to be possible to carry out any more work on the bones’.
 
‘Why not?’
 
‘The Burial Society is arranging a proper funeral.  They’ll send a van on Monday’.
 
‘That’s preposterous. There was no cemetery here, no sign of a Jewish settlement, I’ve said that in the report’.
 
‘Yes, we read it, but they don’t accept it. They don’t recognize our expertise.’
 
‘So screw them!’
 
Malka sighed, impatiently. ‘Yaron: wake up. You know how things are… their friends in the Knesset… the coalition… bargains… our subsidy… I don’t need to spell it out, do I?  Don’t make things difficult for us’.
 
‘It’s outrageous!’
 
‘Yes, but that’s the way it is.  It could be worse. At first they wanted to rebury the skeletons right on your site: no dig. We gave the Minister your first report – he’s quite keen on the idea of a battlefield, Jewish fighters against the Romans he said’.
 
‘Medieval Romans!’
 
‘Yaron: it doesn’t matter what rubbish they cook up, you just carry on. The Minister convinced one of their rabbis that the skeletons were Jewish soldiers, and he persuaded the others, so they’re reburying them in the military cemetery. With apologies to the bones – apparently there’s a special prayer’.
 
‘I can’t work like this’.
 
‘You’ll have to. We all do now’.
 
Yaron only had an audience of two for his subsequent outburst, and exhausted himself shouting for half an hour, until Uzi, who had listened and nodded sympathetically – and wanting the excavation wrapped up quickly –  interjected:
 
‘But they didn’t count the skeletons’. 
 
Yaron was puzzled.
 
Dan turned to Yaron. ‘He’s right. My grandfather’s religious. He says the haredim believe that you don’t count the people of Israel, it brings bad luck. So they don’t really know how many bodies there were’.
 
Uzi nodded.  ‘I don’t know how you people do things, but couldn’t you just keep one or two of the skeletons back and do your experiments on them?  You don’t need to test them all’.
 
‘We’d have to hide them’. Yaron and Dan looked at one another. Dan paled at the idea of taking grinning skulls back to his parents’ home in Tel Aviv – which was indeed what Yaron had in mind. His own wife had already complained of a smeared door handle and a swastika on their front door.
  
Uzi hesitated; but he had grown fond of his odd guests. ‘You can put them under my camp bed’, he said.  
 
Mussa  continued  to refuse contact with the bones,  but the West |Bank workmen either had no such scruples or needed the pay more badly.  Mussa was put to work packing the other finds.
     
*
  
They came in a well polished car which they locked carefully after emerging: two middle aged men with moustaches, wearing neat suits, and a young man in t-shirt and jeans. The men carried briefcases and the young man had cameras slung round his neck. Mussa went to greet them and showed them to the table where Yaron and Dan were classifying finds.
 
One visitor introduced himself as head of an Arab law firm in Haifa, and his companion as a researcher of local history. The younger man was a reporter from an Arab daily. Their formality impressed Yaron, who stood up, shook hands, and asked Mussa to bring a couple of canvas chairs from the caravan.
 
The lawyer explained that their visit was occasioned by their understanding that the archaeologists had uncovered an important Palestinian site – a discovery for which they were grateful, as it would add to knowledge of the area. Meanwhile they would appreciate the opportunity, they said, of examining the finds for themselves.
 
Yaron glanced at Mussa, who nodded sheepishly.
 
‘We can’t actually say what kind of a site it is yet’, said Yaron.  ‘You’ve probably heard it claimed as a Jewish graveyard’.
 
‘A claim denied by the Authority’, said the lawyer swiftly.
 
‘Correct. But we just don’t have enough evidence to say what the bones and the rest mean.  Everything is tentative at the moment’.
 
‘We understand that you also found coins with inscriptions in Arabic’, said the local historian. Yaron and Dan looked at Mussa again.
 
‘Not deciphered yet’, said Yaron. 
 
‘May we see the coins then?’ asked the lawyer, in a slightly more challenging tone. ‘I don’t think there’s any reason why we shouldn’t’.
 
‘They haven’t been properly cleaned yet’, said Yaron irritably. ‘It’s a complicated process’.
 
‘But if they carry Arabic script….’
 
‘Sure.  Nothing remarkable about that.  Dig deep enough and you’ll find coins wherever people lived. Traders all over the region used local coinage- Aleppo and Damascus had their own mints’.
 
‘So you admit that there was a settlement here – and not a Jewish one?’
 
‘I don’t ‘admit’ anything. What’s this, a courtroom?’ Dan put a restraining hand on Yaron’s arm, but the older man shook it off irritably.
 
The researcher tried another tack. ‘Did they manufacture coins in Palestine too?’
 
‘I think there was a mint in Acre’, said Dan, blushing when Yaron frowned at him. 
 
‘Very probably’, said Yaron brusquely. ‘In any case, it all needs more study. No point in speculating now’.
 
The visitors looked at one another. ‘So you refuse to let us see the finds?’ asked the lawyer. The journalist was making notes.
 
‘They wouldn’t tell you anything at all’, said Yaron. ‘You’ll be able to read our reports when we’ve finished. Now we want to get back to work’.
 
When the visitors had left, after politely declining the offer of coffee, Dan said timidly: ‘You could have let them see a couple of coins, couldn’t you?  Just a glance’.
 
Yaron rounded on him. ‘This is a dig, not a television studio!  Do we really have to waste time on every idiot with his own claims and theories?’
 
‘But… they were Arabs’.
 
‘OK, are you saying I’m a racist?  Is that it?’
 
‘No, but…’
 
‘I’d have said the same if they’d been Chinese. Come on, let’s finish with this pile’.
 
*
 
Dan had been right to be apprehensive.  Malka called Yaron a  day later.  An article had just appeared in one of the evening papers, quoting another in an Arab daily. It described the refusal of the archaeologists to allow inspection of finds showing that – contrary to the Zionist narrative – Palestinian traders had been settled in this part of the coastal region for centuries (as a cemetery unearthed there indicated).
   
‘This is the last thing we needed’, said Malka angrily. ‘There’s that wildcat excavation going on in Jerusalem by those religious fanatics who don’t know what they’re doing. The government just ignores them and won’t listen to our protests. In Europe they’re talking of a boycott  because of what they call our nationalist agenda. Now you’ve stirred up the Arabs as well, there’ll be another row in the Knesset. Couldn’t you have been more tactful?’
 
‘But it’s all nonsense! Who takes that article seriously?’
 
We know it’s nonsense, but it convinces people if they want to believe it.  The Ministry says they’ve got problems with Magnus – apparently the architect’s already resigned because of the orthodox riots, and Magnus doesn’t want trouble with the Arabs because the Museum’s all about co-existence’.
 
‘OK!’ shouted Yaron. ‘Rebury my finds and close down the dig!’
 
‘Frankly, we’d like to do just that. But it would look as if we’re trying to hide something. Now Haaretz has got hold of it we’re getting calls.  Some say we’ve got to maintain academic standards, some say we’re suppressing evidence. There’s a conference in London next month and the director’s going, he’s fuming that everyone will be gunning for him if he gives in. You’ve got to carry on. Just don’t put people’s backs up’.
 
Yaron hesitated. Having started, he did want to see things through, he admitted. He told Malka about the two skeletons, and hoped that the forensic anthropologists might yet decide the cause of their injuries. The other priority was to get the coins properly checked out.
 
*
 
Magnus was assured that work would soon resume, the Authority’s director stood his ground at the conference, and the experts were asked for a clear verdict on the finds. None was forthcoming. The wood fragments with the metal embedded in them, they said, could not possibly have done the kind of damage the skeletons had suffered. And the coins – dirhams – presented another problem, as Malka told Yaron some weeks later over the phone.                                 
 
Reported to be made of silver, of slightly irregular shape, with lettering on both sides, the coins bore the name of the thirteenth century ruler of Aleppo, al Zahir, with a date on one side, and the names of his overlords, entwined in a six pointed star, on the other. They resembled many other coins the numismatists had seen, though the decoration, they said, was usually a minaret or city wall rather than a hexagram. Similar coins had been minted in Aleppo for use in trade between the Latin Kingdom and the surrounding Ayyubic states, during the time of the short alliance between al Zahir and the Crusaders.
 
‘Great,’ said Yaron, sitting in Uzi’s caravan and examining the photocopies the university had sent him, his mobile parked between cheek and shoulder.  ‘Finally we’ve got a date’.
 
‘Not quite’, said Malka. ‘The date’s the problem. Al Zahir died in 1216.  The date is two years later’.
     
‘So?’
 
‘They say that no way would Aleppo have produced coins in his name after his death’.
 
‘Isn’t there anyone else who might know?’
 
‘Hans Dietrich of course’.
 
Oy veh’.
 
‘Yes. But he’s our best bet. He’s neutral politically, and we’ve got to wind things up fast. The Ministry says otherwise they’ll lose Magnus’.
 
*
 
Hans Dietrich Schmidt was not only neutral, as the unofficial protocol of his country demanded. He was also uninterested in anything beyond the circumference of the small pieces of metal on which he was an expert, and the meaning of their various indentations. But he was no cloistered academic. Schmidt never underestimated the value of his expertise, which he was not anxious to share widely. He published very little, and so was frequently consulted. A collector who on occasion had outbid museums or challenged auctioneers’ valuations, he knew to the cent the cash equivalent of his time. He stipulated that the coins should be examined at the site itself, as he would be on his way to a conference in Tokyo and the visit would be a detour; he requested the cost of rerouting his journey, and all extra expenses, including a bottle of mineral water purchased at the airport.
 
Meanwhile, Magnus headquarters had ordered Jay to return to the site and report back. So on one of the last burning days of summer Yaron, Dan and Malka, who had brought the coins from Jerusalem, were gathered in Uzi’s caravan, and were not surprised to see  Hans Dietrich appear in the company of Jay, who was anxious to see what the important new finds signified, and was already planning how to display them in the Museum.
 
There was no air conditioning in the caravan, and Hans Dietrich was the only one who was not sweating. Thin, dessicated, pared down to the pincer fingers with which he held the coins, he pronounced them to be ‘Intriguing. Certainly very rare’. Jay beamed.
      
‘Hey, look at that!’, he said, bending forward to look at the coins more closely. ‘The Magen David with Arabic round it! What does that tell us, Professor?’
 
‘That is not the shield of David, I am afraid’, said the German stiffly. ‘It is the Seal of Solomon’.
 
‘David, Solomon, what does it matter?’ said Jay excitedly. ‘Jewish symbols and Arabic all together must mean something, right?’
 
‘Please sit down, sir. I must explain. The hexagram is a symbolic representation of the signet ring Solomon is alleged to have received from heaven. It suggests the harmony of opposites: heaven and hell, macrocosm and microcosm, spirit and matter’.
 
‘Fine, great’, said Jay, scribbling on his iPad. ‘Harmony of opposites  – wonderful.’
 
‘Well, yes.  But this is a well known Islamic sign, not yet a Jewish one.  The symbolic use of the hexagram by the Jews as the shield or star of David, as a sign of national identity, only appears much later, in the nineteenth century.  Though some believe’, he went on, talking to himself, ‘that it was used to distinguish Jews from others as early as the fourteenth. But that was in Prague, not the Middle East’.
 
‘What makes these coins so rare?’ asked Malka.
 
‘Well.  I cannot be  absolutely sure until we have a report on the metrology and the alloys used’.
 
‘But?’ asked Yaron impatiently.
 
A hint of a smile – or was it a twitch of annoyance?
 
If the examination so confirms: these are rare – very rare – silver drachmas and half drachmas minted by the Latin Kingdom in imitation of those produced in Aleppo and Damascus at the time of the Crusades.  That is why the date of manufacture does not match the period of Al Zahir’s rule’.
 
‘So they’re forgeries?’ asked Jay disappointedly.
 
Schmidt twitched again.
 
‘To call them forgeries would be absurd.  They were circulated together with the genuine Ayyubid coins for trade between the Latin Kingdom and the Muslim states – even when the alliance between Al Zahir and the Kingdom ended, and with it access to the Aleppo mint. At worst they are an anachronism which can be explained. They are simply – how does one put it? – local currency, like the others they resemble’.
 
Jay pondered this. ‘Not what I learned in college’, he said finally.  ‘I thought the Crusaders and the Saracens fought one another. I didn’t know they had trade agreements’.
 
‘Not agreements in our sense. But surely, as an American, you must know that commercial interests often transcend the political’, answered Schmidt. 
 
‘But if not minted in Syria, then where?’ asked Malka.
 
 ‘Most probably in Acre, as it was the de facto capital of the Kingdom’.
 
‘If you are right, the coins are extremely valuable’, said Malka.
 
‘Extremely’. Schmidt looked longingly at the coins as she replaced them in their box. ‘I assume you will be exhibiting them in Jerusalem’, he said,  the merest hint of a query in his voice.
 
‘Definitely’. She smiled. ‘We won’t be putting them up for auction.  Jerusalem it is – unless Mr Magnus wants them on loan for his museum’.
      
Everyone looked at Jay.
 
‘I guess not’, he said gloomily. ‘Wrong message’.
 
*
 
It was a week later, the rainy season having started and the pit roofed over, that Yaron was told that funding for the excavation had ended, following Magnus’s decision to relocate the Museum of Brotherhood to Kashmir.
 
The forensic examination of the two skeletons proved inconclusive, and  they came to rest in a warehouse for unidentified objects. Yaron rented a storeroom meanwhile for the other finds. After long examination, he speculated that the metal studded wood was part of a wagon in a medieval caravan, and the fragments of silk and linen the remains of wares on their way to Acre from Egypt. He told Dan, his acolyte and sole audience, that he thought the caravan might have been ambushed on its way north, the traders killed, and the contents looted, though by whom was unclear. Proving the theory would keep him busy, his wife hoped, for years to come.
 
The labourers recruited by Mussa found work nearer home. The local schoolboys, Jewish and Arab, pending the discovery of a donor for a proper football field, went back to kicking balls around, sometimes in friendly competition, sometimes in combat, across the  excavation site. An old  barrel served as one goalpost, the museum’s foundation stone another. A few centuries on, Dan thought, archaeologists would speculate about its purpose.

         

Copyright © Naomi Shepherd 2015
 

Naomi Shepherd is the author of eight books published in the UK and US. Born and educated in the UK, she spent 45 years in Israel working first in the Hebrew University and then as political correspondent for leading UK and US newspapers. Her biography of Wilfrid Israel won the UK Wingate Prize. Others include studies of l9th century visitors to Palestine and the British Mandate, a history of Jewish women radicals, the administration and life of Jerusalem, Russian immigrants to Israel, a memoir, and one collection of short stories. “Local Currency” is the title story of a new collection for which she is looking for a publisher. She currently lives in London.



 

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