April 8, 2011
Filmmaker unearths mystery
Jacobovici wraps a third season of The Naked Archeologist.
He’s found and filmed the Lost Tribes of Israel, Mount Sinai, what could be the tomb of Jesus, black Jews of Ethiopia – and now, former Toronto-area resident and documentary filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici has wrapped up the third season of Vision TV’s The Naked Archeologist, a show that features a new archeological discovery each episode.
The 58-year-old, now living and working in Israel, is enthusiastic about recent digs and documentaries, special modified cameras and newly built robotic arms to investigate excavation sites.
“That’s been exciting not just to film, but we’re pushing the boundaries of archeological finds. We develop new innovations and put them to the service of archeology,” he explained last month over a salad at a café in a suburb of Tel Aviv.
But his film career didn’t start out by breaking technological barriers. Just the opposite. In his first film, in 1981, he determinedly sought to record the plight of Ethiopian Jews, unknown at the time to the West. The first problem? He had no idea how to operate a camera.
Despite learning on the fly, that film, Falasha: Exile of the Black Jews, went on to win a certificate of merit from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
In the ensuing 30 years, his Toronto-based company, Associated Producers, has filmed or produced some two dozen projects, many winning awards. His film credits also include globally tracking down the whereabouts of the tribes of Israel in Quest for the Lost Tribes, finding out if Jesus and his brother James’ burial boxes have been discovered in The Lost Tomb of Jesus and, using the Bible as his guide, finding Mount Sinai in The Exodus Decoded.
In the latter, he describes how museum curators in Greece had no clue that they had on display 3,300-year-old carvings depicting the freed Jews fleeing the Egyptian cavalry. Neither were they aware of the context of certain three-millenia-old jewelry on display, which Jacobovici maintains must have been crafted by ancient Hebrews. The pieces were small-scale gold replicas of the Ark of the Covenant – the place where the tablets of the Ten Commandments were kept, in a sealed room in Jerusalem’s Temple.
“It’s an interesting thing that I do, bringing investigative journalism into the world of history, archeology and religion. In the world of archeology, everybody’s looking at experts. The experts tell you something and that’s what the expert says. In the world of investigative journalism, someone says a nuclear facility is safe, and you say, ‘Prove it!’ It’s a different attitude that the journalist brings,” he said. “Sometimes you find things that nobody else found, because you’re a detective and you’re putting things together.”
The detective work has paid off with some big finds that have yielded some big headlines, which will no doubt continue with upcoming projects.
This April 18, in time for Easter, his three-part film Secrets of Christianity will air on television.
“We get into the action behind the icon Jesus. We focus on what people wore and what jobs people had. We talk about healers and what their medicine was like. What I like about it is that it’s not theologically driven. It’s historically and archeologically driven,” he said.
On a macro-level, what he brings to light is a pivotal catastrophe that would be the catalyst to radically shape Christianity as a major religion. That episode is about Pompeii – a partially buried Roman town near modern Naples. In the year 79 AD, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius wrought wide devastation there. “There are very dramatic visuals of people cast in ash,” he said.
Nine years earlier to the month, the Romans had destroyed the Jewish Temple and took hundreds of thousands of Jews as slaves to places like Pompeii. Jacobovici believes the Jews never lost faith that eventually the God of Israel would smite the slavemasters in revenge. The destruction of Pompeii was all the proof they needed. Some Roman slavemasters, as Jacobovici put it, “realized they were playing for the wrong team.”
By that time, Christianity had just begun to attract a relatively few Jewish followers, eventually reaching Naples through Paul, a Gospel author, who spread the new religion to the region.
“The new Sodom and Gomorrah made a big impression on the Romans. They either became Jews or Christians. Most became Christians, because there were fewer rules to become one,” he said, explaining the population boom in early Christianity.
“When people look at archeology, they look at villas, temples, monuments. This story is where you have to look at graffiti, here the crucifixion graffiti of Pompeii’s walls. It is mindboggling. It’s the first time the word ‘Christian’ appears anywhere in writing. Most people thought it shouldn’t appear until the fourth century.”
As for a Jewish find, timed belatedly for Purim, Jacobovici clarified a common misconception. He explained that, contrary to popular belief, Haman didn’t just want to murder the Jews of 127 Persian provinces. He wanted to show that his god was superior to the God of Israel by rolling dice to determine the date upon which to act.
The pur in Purim loosely translates to dice, and is commonly – but erroneously – described as “throwing lots,” Jacobovici asserted.
“I ask really simple, childish questions. If he wanted to go out and get the Jews, why didn’t he just go out and get ’em? Why’d he have to do it at a certain time, on a date next month and give everyone a heads up? That’s when I realized [he was] trying to show that fate was stronger than the Jewish God.”
Jacobovici found the dice game was none other than the Royal Game of Ur – which can actually be bought online. That’s due to the efforts of a world expert on ancient games, Prof. Irving Finkel, a curator in the department of the ancient Near East at the British Museum.
In fact, Jacobovici said, guard-soldiers’ graffiti of the Royal Game of Ur can be spotted on 2,700-year-old Babylonian palace gates displayed in that same museum. “I not only touched the game, but I brought it home and played it with my kids. We didn’t just celebrate Purim, but we played Haman’s game – and beat him at his own game.”
Dissimilar to today’s six-sided dice, the dice in the game of Ur are pyramid-shaped. “Exactly like the triangle cookies we still make on Purim, hamantashen. It’s not representing Haman’s hat, or his ears, as most people have believed,” he insisted.
Also to air in coming weeks is the six-part series Secrets of the Ancients, about which Jacobovici maintains ... an air of secrecy. He will hold a press conference on April 12 in Jerusalem to reveal what he says is a “new twist,” promising “an artifact that will make international news.”
Dave Gordon is a freelance writer. His website is davegordonwrites.com.