Obituary: Benjamin Mazar

Hyam Maccoby
Thursday 14 September 1995 23:02

Archaeological research in the area of Palestine has gone through several phases.

First, there was the antiquarian Christian period of searching for relics and identifying biblical sites. Then came archaeology proper, still dominated, however, by the desire to confirm biblical history, as in the work of W.F. Albright and Pere Hughes Vincent. Then came the era of Jewish archaeology, beginning with the establishment of the Jewish Palestine Exploration Society in 1914. The pioneer figures of Eliezer Sukenik, Nahman Avigad and Benjamin Mazar began the period of national involvement in archaeology, which was seen as both the recovery of the Jewish national past, and the validation of the return of the Jews to their land.

Archaeology became an official government activity with the founding of the Israel Department of Antiquities and Museums in 1948, the year of the establishment of the State of Israel, and one year after the first discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. In the succeeding years of highly productive archaeological activity, Mazar was one of the dominant figures. Though he rode a wave of national enthusiasm, he combated the tendency to regard archaeology as a facet of patriotism, and his contribution is a model of dispassionate scientific research.

Mazar was born Benjamin Maisler in Ciechanowiec, Russia. He studied at the universities of Berlin and Giessen, and went in 1929 to Palestine, where he immediately became Secretary of the Jewish Palestine Exploration Society, a post which he held until 1943, when he joined the staff of the Hebrew University.

Here, in 1951, he was appointed Professor of the History of the Jewish People in the Biblical Period and the Archaeology of Palestine. He became Rector of the university in 1952, and President in 1953, holding both positions until 1961. In 1959, he became President of the Israel Exploration Society. He was Chairman of the Archaeological Board of Israel and a member of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities. In 1968, he received the Israel Prize for Jewish Studies.

Mazar was an outstanding scholar, with deep knowledge of all the ancient languages necessary for comparative biblical study. His chief interest was in historical geography, but he contributed to all aspects of the history of the ancient Near East. He was also an enthusiastic practical archaeologist, who was involved in many famous digs. He directed the excavations at Ramat Rachel (1931), Bet Shearim (1936-40, the seat of the Sanhedrin in the prosperous period of Judas the Prince, author of the Mishnah, where a fine synagogue and an extensive necropolis were discovered), Tel Qasile (1949 onwards) and En-Gedi (1957-66). In 1955-60, he joined with Tigael Yadin and others in the excavation of Hazor, mentioned in the Bible as one of the conquests of Joshua, and as rebuilt by Solomon.

Mazar's most celebrated excavation, however, was that of the area outside the southern and western sections of the Temple enclosure in Jerusalem (alongside the Western Wall). This site, previously banned to Jewish archaeologists, became available through the Six-Day War victory in 1967. Mazar's work unveiled many details of the Temple fortifications of the time of Herod I, as well as thousands of coins and artefacts. He also discovered a wide street of the same period, alongside the southern wall of the Temple Mount, paved with stone slabs, leading to Hulda's Gates. When, however, it was thought that this excavation had begun to encroach on sites sacred to Islam, protests came from Arab countries, and Mazar was forced to break off the operation in 1976.

Mazar was a prolific writer, especially of articles (including excavation reports), of which he wrote over 300. His books include Untersuchungen zur alten Geschichte und Ethnographie Syriens und Palastinas (1930), originally his doctoral thesis, History of Palestine Exploration (1935, in Hebrew), Israel in Biblical Times (1941), and Canaan and Israel (1980), a collection of essays which became recognised as a fundamental text. He also delighted in collaborating with others in literary projects, such as The World History of the Jewish People, for which he edited volume two, Patriarchs, and the biblical encyclopaedia Enziglopedya Miqra'it, for which he acted as general editor.

Mazar was a modest, self- effacing man, who was much concerned to encourage others. He acted as a mentor to the younger generation of biblical scholars, who regarded him with the greatest affection and respect. His kindly presence will be much missed, but his achievement will continue to inspire exciting new developments in the archaeology of biblical lands.

Hyam Maccoby

Benjamin Maisler (Benjamin Mazar), archaeologist: born Ciechanowiec, Russia 28 June 1906; Professor of the History of the Jewish People in the Biblical Period and the Archaeology of Palestine, Hebrew University of Jerusalem 1951-77, President 1953-61; married 1932 Dina Shimshi (one son); died Jerusalem 9 September 1995.

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