Palestine’s Syriac Orthodox community and the Dead Sea scrolls

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Abstract

In 1947, a shepherd in the hills north of the Dead Sea visited a contact in Bethlehem, a dealer of antiquities to foreign visitors, offering fragments of written material. The dealer, a member of the Syriac community, was unsure of the items’ value and began a series of enquiries which followed Syriac networks including the then Metropolitan of Jerusalem, Athanasius Samuel, and another Bethlehemite Syrian Orthodox, the scholar Stephan Stephan at the Palestine Archaeological Museum.
Despite initial scepticism from Stephan and others, the fragments were the first finds from the now globally famous Dead Sea Scrolls, and ever since have been surrounded by rumours, ownership claims and counter-claims, and controversy. Inextricably entwined in these has been the Palestinian Syriac church, both ordinary members and its highest hierarchy, in a pattern of involvements which link this small Christian community with the creation of knowledge in and about Mandate Palestine, the fate of the community’s members during the Nakba, and internal competition for ownership of valuable resources which pitted individual against leadership claims in a community fragmented by the 1947-49 conflict.
In this paper, I reconstruct the hitherto ignored role of members of the Syriac community in the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, examining the ways in which the parts they played were informed by their status as Christians, scholars, religious leaders in late Mandate Palestine. As a counterpoint to this, the case also highlights how the needs of the community – particularly in the wake of the Nakba (Ar. Catastrophe, as Palestinians refer to the events of 1948) – were tied to a kind of cultural diplomacy by Mar Samuel in ways which sought to frame the Syriacs of Palestine as refugees, as Christian Palestinians, and as owners and valid beneficiaries of the region’s archaeological heritage. I argue that the concept of cultural diplomacy enables us to elucidate the community’s role, both as a target of such diplomacy by European and American scholars, and as an aspiring player in this field in an attempt to raise awareness and funds for needy Palestinian Christians.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages15
JournalContemporary Levant
Early online date24 Feb 2021
DOIs
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 24 Feb 2021

Keywords

  • dead sea scrolls
  • Ta’amira Bedouin
  • Syriac Orthodox
  • Palestine
  • Bethlehem
  • Jerusalem

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