The Discovery of the Scrolls
East of Jerusalem, a long road slopes gradually down between barren
hills sprinkled with occasional Bedouin camps. It sinks 3800 feet,
to a depth of 1300 feet below sea-level, and then emerges to give a
panoramic vista of the Jordan Valley. Away to the left, one can
discern Jericho. In the haze ahead lie Jordan itself and, as though
seen in a mirage, the mountains of Moab.
To the right lies the
northern shore of the Dead Sea. The skin of water, and the yellow
cliffs rising 1200 feet or more which line this (the Israeli) side
of it, conduce to awe - and to acute discomfort. The air here, so
far below sea-level, is not just hot, but palpably so, with a
thickness to it, a pressure, almost a weight.
The beauty, the majesty and the silence of the place are
spellbinding. So, too, is the sense of antiquity the landscape
conveys - the sense of a world older than most Western visitors are
likely to have experienced. It is therefore all the more shocking
when the 20th century intrudes with a roar that seems to rupture the
sky - a tight formation of Israeli F-16s or Mirages swooping low
over the water, the pilots clearly discernible in their cockpits.
Afterburners blasting, the jets surge almost vertically upwards into
One waits, numbed. Seconds later, the entire structure
of cliffs judders to the receding sonic booms. Only then does one
remember that this place exists, technically, in a state of
permanent war - that this side of the Dead Sea has never, during the
last forty-odd years, made peace with the other. But then again, the
soil here has witnessed incessant conflict since the very beginning
of recorded history. Too many gods, it seems, have clashed here,
demanding blood sacrifice from their adherents.
The ruins of Qumran (or, to be more accurate, Khirbet Qumran) appear
to the right, just as the road reaches the cliffs overlooking the
Dead Sea. Thereafter, the road bends to follow the cliffs
southwards, along the shore of the water, towards the site of the
fortress of Masada, thirty-three miles away. Qumran stands on a
white terrace of marl, a hundred feet or so above the road, slightly
more than a mile and a quarter from the Dead Sea.
themselves are not very prepossessing. One is first struck by a
tower, two floors of which remain intact, with walls three feet
thick - obviously built initially with defense in mind. Adjacent to
the tower are a number of cisterns, large and small, connected by a
complicated network of water channels. Some may have been used for
ritual bathing. Most, however, if not all, would have been used to
store the water the Qumran community needed to survive here in the
desert. Between the ruins and the Dead Sea, on the lower levels of
the marl terrace, lies an immense cemetery of some 1200 graves.
is marked by a long mound of stones aligned - contrary to both
Judaic and Muslim practice - north—south.
Even today, Qumran feels remote, though several hundred people live
in a nearby kibbutz and the place can be reached quickly and easily
by a modern road running to Jerusalem - a drive of some twenty miles
and forty minutes. Day and night, huge articulated lorries thunder
along the road, which links Eilat in the extreme south of Israel
with Tiberius in the north. Tourist buses stop regularly, disgorging
sweating Western Europeans and Americans, who are guided briefly
around the ruins, then to an air-conditioned bookshop and restaurant
for coffee and cakes. There are, of course, numerous military
vehicles. But one also sees private cars, both Israeli and Arab,
with their different colored number-plates. One even sees the
occasional 'boy racer' in a loud, badly built Detroit monster, whose
speed appears limited only by the width of the road.
The Israeli Army is, needless to say, constantly in sight. This,
after all, is the West Bank, and the Jordanians are only a few miles
away, across the Dead Sea. Patrols run day and night, cruising at
five miles per hour, scrutinizing everything - small lorries,
usually, with three heavy machine-guns on the back, soldiers upright
These patrols will stop to check the cars and ascertain
the precise whereabouts of anyone exploring the area, or excavating
on the cliffs or in the caves. The visitor quickly learns to wave,
to make sure the troops see him and acknowledge his presence. It is
dangerous to come upon them too suddenly, or to act in any fashion
that might strike them as furtive or suspicious.
The kibbutz - Kibbutz Kalia - is a ten-minute walk from Qumran, up a
short road from the ruins. There are two small schools for the local
children, a large communal refectory and housing units resembling
motels for overnight tourists. But this is still a military zone.
The kibbutz is surrounded by barbed wire and locked at night. An
armed patrol is always on duty, and there are numerous air-raid
shelters deep underground.
These double for other purposes as well.
One, for example, is used as a lecture hall, another as a bar, a
third as a discotheque. But the wastes beyond the perimeter remain
untouched by any such modernity. Here the Bedouin still shepherd
their camels and their goats, seemingly timeless figures linking the
present with the past.
In 1947, when the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, Qumran was very
different. At that time the area was part of the British mandate of
Palestine. To the east lay what was then the kingdom of Transjordan.
The road that runs south along the shore of the Dead Sea did not
exist, extending only to the Dead Sea's north-western quarter, a few
miles from Jericho. Around and beyond it there were only rough
tracks, one of which followed the course of an ancient Roman road.
This route had long been in total disrepair. Qumran was thus rather
more difficult to reach than it is today.
The sole human presence in
the vicinity would have been the Bedouin, herding their camels and
goats during the winter and spring, when the desert, perhaps
surprisingly, yielded both water and grass. In the winter, or
possibly the early spring, of 1947, it was to yield something more -
one of the two or three greatest archaeological discoveries of
The precise circumstances attending the discovery of the Dead Sea
Scrolls have already passed into legend. In a number of particulars,
this legend is probably not entirely accurate, and scholars were
bickering over certain points well into the 1960s. It remains,
however, the only account we have. The original discovery is
ascribed to a shepherd boy, Muhammad adh-Dhib, or Muhammad the Wolf,
a member of the Ta'amireh tribe of Bedouin.
He himself later claimed
he was searching for a lost goat. Whatever he was doing, his
itinerary brought him clambering among the cliffs at Qumran, where
he discovered an opening in the cliff-face. He tried to peer inside
but, from where he stood, could see nothing. He then tossed a stone
into the blackness, which elicited a sound of breaking pottery.
This, needless to say, impelled him to further exploration.
Hoisting himself upwards, he crawled through the aperture, then
dropped down to find himself in a small cave, high-ceilinged and
narrow, no more than six feet wide and perhaps twenty-four long. It
contained a number of large earthenware jars, about two feet tall
and ten inches wide, many of them broken. Eight are generally
believed to have been intact, though the quantity has never been
According to his own account, Muhammad became frightened, hauled
himself back out of the cave and fled. The next day, he returned
with at least one friend and proceeded to explore the cave and its
contents more closely. Some of the earthenware jars were sealed by
large 'bowl-like' lids. Inside one of them, there were three leather
rolls wrapped in decaying linen - the first of the Dead Sea Scrolls
to see the light in nearly two thousand years.1
During the days that followed, the Bedouin returned to the site and
at least four more leather rolls were found. At least two jars were
removed and used for carrying water. When proper archaeological
excavation began, it revealed a substantial number of sherds and
fragments - enough, according to reliable estimates, to have
constituted no fewer than forty jars.
There is no way of knowing how
many of these jars, when first discovered, were empty and how many
actually contained scrolls. Neither is there any way of knowing how
many scrolls were taken from the cave and, before their significance
became apparent, secreted away, destroyed or used for other
purposes. Some, it has been suggested, were burned for fuel. In any
case, we were told that more scrolls were taken from the cave than
have previously been recorded, or than have subsequently come to
light. Altogether, a total of seven complete scrolls were to find
their way into the public domain, along with fragments of some
At this point, accounts begin to grow increasingly contradictory.
Apparently, however, thinking the scrolls might be of some value,
three Bedouin took all they had found - three complete parchments
according to some sources, seven or eight according to others - to a
local sheik. He passed the Bedouin on to a Christian shopkeeper and
dealer in curios and antiques, one Khalil Iskander Shahin, known as
'Kando'. Kando, a member of the Syrian Jacobite Church, contacted
another Church member residing in Jerusalem, George Isaiah.
According to reliable scholars, Kando and Isaiah promptly ventured
out to Qumran themselves and removed a number of additional scrolls
Such activities were, of course, illegal. By the law of the British
mandate - a law subsequently retained by both Jordanian and Israeli
governments - all archaeological discoveries belonged officially to
They were supposed to be turned over to the Department of
Antiquities, then housed in the Palestine Archaeological Museum,
known as the Rockefeller, in Arab East Jerusalem. But Palestine was
in turmoil at the time, and Jerusalem a city divided into Jewish,
Arab and British sectors. In these circumstances, the authorities
had more pressing matters to deal with than a black market in
archaeological relics. In consequence, Kando and George Isaiah were
free to pursue their clandestine transactions with impunity.
George Isaiah reported the discovery to his ecclesiastical leader,
the Syrian Metropolitan (i.e. Archbishop) Athanasius Yeshua Samuel,
head of the Syrian Jacobite Church in Jerusalem. Academically,
Athanasius Yeshua Samuel was a naive man, untutored in the
sophisticated scholarship needed to identify, much less translate,
the text before him. The late Edmund Wilson, one of the earliest and
most reliable commentators on the Qumran discovery, wrote of Samuel
that he 'was not a Hebrew scholar and could not make out what the
He even burned a small piece of it and smelled it,
to verify that the substance was indeed leather, or parchment. But
whatever his academic shortcomings, Samuel was also shrewd, and his
monastery, St Mark's, contained a famous collection of ancient
documents. He thus had some idea of the importance of what had
passed into his hands.
Samuel later said he first learned of the Dead Sea Scrolls in April
1947. If chronology has hitherto been vague and contradictory,
however, it now becomes even more so, varying from commentator to
commentator. But some time between early June and early July Samuel
requested Kando and George Isaiah to arrange a meeting with the
three Bedouin who'd made the original discovery, to examine what
When the Bedouin arrived in Jerusalem, they were carrying at least
four scrolls and possibly as many as eight - the three they'd
originally found themselves, plus one or more from whatever they or
Kando and George Isaiah had subsequently plundered. Unfortunately,
the Metropolitan had neglected to mention the Bedouin's impending
visit to the monks at the monastery of St Mark.
When the Bedouin
appeared with their dirty, crumbling and ragged parchments,
themselves unshaven and insalubrious-looking, the monk at the gate
turned them away. By the time Samuel learned of this, it was too
late. The Bedouin, understandably resentful, wanted nothing further
to do with Metropolitan Samuel. One of them even refused to have any
further dealings with Kando, and sold his portion of the scrolls - a
'third' share which amounted to three scrolls - to the Muslim sheik
Kando managed to purchase the shares of the remaining
scrolls, and sold them in turn to the Metropolitan for a reported
£24. This cache was believed at first to consist of five scrolls,
but proved eventually to contain only four, one of them having
broken in two. Of the four texts, one was a well-preserved copy of
the book of Isaiah from the Old Testament, the parchment of which
unrolled to a length of twenty-four feet. The other three, according
to the nomenclature later adopted by scholars, included the 'Genesis
Apocryphon', a commentary on the 'Book of Habakkuk' and the
so-called 'Community Rule'.
Shortly after the Bedouin's abortive visit to Jerusalem - in late
July according to some reports, in August according to others
-Metropolitan Samuel sent a priest to return with George Isaiah to
the cave at Qumran. Being engaged in illicit activities, the pair
worked by night. They examined the site at length and found at least
one additional jar and some fragments; they also conducted,
apparently, some fairly extensive excavations.
When the first
official research party reached the location a year later, they
discovered an entire section of the cliff-face had been removed,
making a large entrance into the cave below the smaller hole
originally explored by the Bedouin. What this enterprise may have
yielded remains unknown. In researching this book, we interviewed
certain people who insisted that George Isaiah, during the course of
his nocturnal explorations, found a number of other scrolls, some of
which have never been seen by scholars.
Having obtained at least some of the scrolls, Metropolitan Samuel
undertook to establish their age. He first consulted a Syrian expert
working at the Department of Antiquities. In this man's opinion, the
scrolls were of fairly recent date. The Metropolitan then consulted
a Dutch scholar working with the Ecole Biblique et Archéologique
Française de Jérusalem, an institution run by Dominican monks and
financed, in part, by the French government.
He was intrigued, but
remained skeptical about the scrolls' antiquity, describing
subsequently how he returned to the Ecole Biblique and consulted 'a
prominent scholar' there, who lectured him about the prevalent
forgeries floating around amongst dodgy antique dealers.4 As a
result, he abandoned his research on the matter, and the Ecole
Biblique lost its opportunity to get involved at the beginning. Only
the relatively untutored Metropolitan, at this point, seems to have
had any inkling of the scrolls' age, value and significance.
In September 1947, the Metropolitan took the scrolls in his
possession to his superior, the Patriarch of the Syrian Jacobite
Church in Horns, north of Damascus. What passed between them is not
known, but on his return the Metropolitan again dispatched a party
of men to excavate the cave at Qumran. Presumably he was acting on
the Patriarch's instructions. In any case, he obviously believed
there was more to be discovered.
Metropolitan Samuel's visit to Syria in September had coincided with
the arrival there of Miles Copeland, who had joined the OSS during
the Second World War, had remained with that organization when it
became the CIA and went on to become a long-serving operative and
station chief. In a personal interview, Copeland told how, in the
autumn of 1947, he had just been posted to Damascus as the CIA's
representative there. In the circumstances then prevailing, there
was no need to operate under particularly deep cover, and his
identity seems to have been pretty much an open secret.
Copeland, a 'sly Egyptian merchant' came to see him one day and
claimed to possess a great treasure. Reaching into a dirty sack, the
man then pulled out a scroll, the edges of which were already
disintegrating - fragments were flaking off into the street. When
asked what it was, Copeland, of course, couldn't say. If the
merchant left it with him, however, he promised he would photograph
it and get someone to study it.
In order to photograph it, Copeland and his colleagues took the
scroll up on to the roof of the American Legation in Damascus and
stretched it out. A strong wind was gusting at the time, Copeland
remembered, and pieces of the scroll peeled away, wafted over the
roof and into the streets of the city, to be lost for ever.
According to Copeland, a substantial portion of the parchment
vanished in this manner. Copeland's wife, an archaeologist herself,
said she could not help wincing every time she heard the story.
Using photographic equipment supplied by the American government,
Copeland and his colleagues took, he reported, some thirty frames.
This, he said, was not sufficient to cover the entire length of the
scroll, which must, therefore, have been considerable. Subsequently,
the photographs were taken to the American embassy in Beirut and
shown to a prominent official there, a man versed in ancient
The official declared the text to be part of the Old
Testament book of Daniel. Some of the writing was in Aramaic, he
said, some in Hebrew. Unfortunately, however, there was no
follow-up. Copeland returned to Damascus, but the 'sly Egyptian
merchant' was never seen again and the photographs were left in a
drawer.5 No one, to this day, knows what became of them, or of the
scroll itself, although fragments of a Daniel scroll were
subsequently found at Qumran, five years after the incident Copeland
If the scroll Copeland saw and photographed was indeed a text of
Daniel, it has never become public.
Although it was precisely at this time that Metropolitan Samuel was
in Syria with the scrolls he had purchased, it is unlikely that the
scroll Copeland saw was one of these, since only three of the
scrolls in his possession could be unrolled at all, and only one -
the twenty-four-foot-long Hebrew text of Isaiah - would have taken
more than thirty frames of film to photograph. If this is what
Copeland saw, why should it have been identified as Daniel, not
Isaiah, and why should the writing have been identified as both
Hebrew and Aramaic? It is possible, of course, that the CIA official
But when we repeated Copeland's story to a prominent
Israeli researcher, he was intrigued.
'It might be very
interesting,' he said, in confidence. 'It might be a scroll that
hasn't been seen yet.'
If we could obtain any further information,
'I'll exchange with you... additional data concerning
Which implies, needless to say, that such data
exist and have never been made public.
While Copeland's photographs were being examined in Beirut,
Metropolitan Samuel was persisting in his efforts to confirm the age
of the scrolls in his possession. A Jewish doctor who visited his
monastery put him in touch with scholars from Hebrew University.
They in turn put him in touch with the head of Hebrew University's
Department of Archaeology, Professor Eleazar Sukenik.
November, before Sukenik came to view the scrolls held by the
Metropolitan, a secret meeting occurred between him and a figure
subsequently identified only as an Armenian antique dealer. Neither
had had time to obtain the requisite military passes. They were
therefore obliged to meet at a checkpoint between the Jewish and the
Arab zones of Jerusalem, and to talk across a barrier of barbed
wire. Across this barrier, the Armenian showed Sukenik a fragment of
a scroll on which Hebrew writing could be discerned.
then explained that an Arab antique dealer from Bethlehem had come
to him the day before, bringing this and other fragments alleged to
have been found by Bedouin. Sukenik was asked if they were genuine
and if Hebrew University were prepared to purchase them. Sukenik
requested a second meeting, which occurred three days later. This
time he had a pass, and was able to look closely at a number of
fragments. Convinced they were important, he resolved to go to
Bethlehem to see more, dangerous though such an undertaking was at
On 29 November 1947, Sukenik slipped furtively out of Jerusalem and
made the clandestine trip to Bethlehem. Here he was told in detail
how the scrolls had been discovered and was shown three scrolls
which were for sale - those which the Metropolitan had missed - and
two of the jars that contained them. He was allowed to take the
scrolls home, and was studying them when, at midnight, dramatic news
came over the radio: a majority of the United Nations had voted for
the creation of the state of Israel.
At that moment, Sukenik
resolved to purchase the scrolls. They seemed to him a kind of
talismanic portent, a symbolic validation of the momentous
historical events that had just been set in motion.7
This conviction was shared by his son, Yigael Yadin, then chief of
operations for the Haganah - the semi-clandestine militia which
during the struggle for independence in 1948 was to evolve into the
Israeli Defence Forces.
For Yadin also the discovery of the scrolls
was to assume an almost mystical significance:
I cannot avoid the feeling that there is something symbolic in the
discovery of the scrolls and their
acquisition at the moment of the creation of the State of Israel. It
is as if these manuscripts had
been waiting in caves for two thousand years, ever since the
destruction of Israel's independence,
until the people of Israel had returned to their home and regained
Towards the end of January 1948, Sukenik arranged to view the
scrolls held by Metropolitan Samuel. The meeting, again, was to be
clandestine. It was to occur in the British sector of Jerusalem, at
the YMCA, where the librarian was a member of the Metropolitan's
congregation. Security was particularly tight here, the YMCA being
situated directly across the road from the King David Hotel, which
had been bombed, with great loss of life, in 1946. To enter the
zone, Sukenik had to obtain a pass from the British District
Officer, Professor Biran.
Endeavoring to pass himself off as just another scholar, Sukenik
carried a handful of library books with him and made his way to the
YMCA. Here, in a private room, he was shown the Metropolitan's
scrolls and allowed to borrow them for inspection. He returned them
to the Metropolitan on 6 February, unable to raise sufficient funds
to purchase them. By that time, the political and economic situation
was too tense for any bank to authorize the requisite loan. The
local Jewish authorities, faced with the prospect of impending war,
could not spare anything. No one else was interested.
Sukenik tried to bring down the price, and the Syrian agent
representing the Metropolitan arranged to meet him a week later. By
that time, Sukenik had contrived to raise the money required. He
heard nothing, however, from the Metropolitan or the agent, until
some weeks later a letter arrived from the Syrian declaring that the
Metropolitan had decided, after all, not to sell.
Unknown to Sukenik, negotiations were already in train by then with American
scholars who had photographed the scrolls and insisted a much better
price could be elicited for them in the United States. Sukenik,
needless to say, was mortified by the lost opportunity.
Metropolitan Samuel had contacted the Jerusalem-based Albright
Institute (the American School of Oriental Research) in February,
and a complete set of prints had been sent by the Institute to the
acknowledged expert in the field, Professor William F. Albright, at
Johns Hopkins University. On 15 March, Professor Albright replied
confirming Sukenik's conviction of the importance of the discovery,
and setting the seal of approval on the Qumran texts.
unwittingly, provided support for those intent on attributing to the
scrolls the earliest date possible:
My heartiest congratulations on the greatest manuscript discovery of
modern times! There is no
doubt whatever in my mind that the script is more archaic than that
of the Nash Papyrus... I
should prefer a date around 100 BC... What an absolutely
incredible find! And there can happily
not be the slightest doubt in the world about the genuineness of the
On 18 March, a suggested press release was drawn up. In the
meantime, the scrolls had been taken to Beirut and placed in a bank
there for safekeeping. Later in the year, Metropolitan Samuel was to
pick them up, and in January 1949 he took them to the United States,
where they were to spend the next few years in a New York bank
On 11 April, the first press release appeared, issued by Yale
University, where Professor Millar Burrows - director of the
Albright Institute - was head of the Department of Near Eastern
Languages. The press release was not entirely truthful. No one
wanted swarms of amateurs (or rivals) to descend on Qumran, and so
the discovery was alleged to have been made in the library of
Metropolitan Samuel's monastery. But for the first time, fully a
year after they'd initially surfaced, the existence of the Dead Sea
Scrolls became known to the general public.
On page 4 of its edition
for Monday, 12 April 1948, The Times ran the following article under
the headline 'ancient mss.
found in palestine':
New York, April 11
Yale University announced yesterday the discovery in Palestine of
the earliest known manuscript
of the Book of Isaiah. It was found in the Syrian monastery of St
Mark in Jerusalem, where it had
been preserved in a scroll of parchment dating to about the first
century BC. Recently it was
identified by scholars of the American School of Oriental Research
[the Albright Institute] at
There were also examined at the school three other ancient Hebrew
scrolls. One was part of
a commentary on the Book of Habakkuk; another seemed to be a manual
of discipline of some
comparatively little-known sect or monastic order, possibly the
Essenes. The third scroll has not
It was not an article calculated to set the world of scholarship
aflame. So far as most readers of The Times were concerned, it would
have meant little enough, and would anyway have been effectively
up-staged by other news on the same page.
Fourteen German SS
officers who'd commanded extermination squads on the Eastern Front
were sentenced to hang. According to the chief prosecutor, the
judgment 'was a landmark in the campaign against racial intolerance
and violence'. There were also reports of a massacre in the Holy
Land the previous Friday. Two Jewish terrorist organizations - the
Irgun and the Stern Gang - had wiped out the Arab village of Deir
Yasin, raping girls, exterminating men, women and children.
Jewish Agency itself expressed 'horror and disgust' at what had
happened. In the meantime, according to other reports on the page,
there was fighting in Jerusalem. Arab artillery had bombarded the
western quarter of the city at dusk. Quantities of new field-guns
had arrived from Syria and were aimed at Jewish sectors. The city's
water supply had again been cut off. Rail supplies had been
Renewed fighting for the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem road was
expected to be imminent. Elsewhere in the Holy Land, Arab terrorists
had murdered two British soldiers, and Jewish terrorists one.
(Forty-two years later, while this was being checked and copied from
microfilm in a local library, there was a bomb alert and the
premises had to be evacuated. Plus ca change...)
Hostilities in the Middle East were to continue for another year. On
14 May 1948 - the day before the British mandate was scheduled to
expire - the Jewish People's Council met in the Tel Aviv Museum and
declared their own independent state of Israel. The response from
adjacent Arab countries was immediate. That very night, Egyptian
aircraft bombed Tel Aviv. During the six and a half months of
fighting that followed, Israel was to be invaded by troops from
Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Transjordan, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, while the
King of Transjordan proclaimed himself monarch of all Palestine.
The final ceasefire took effect on 7 January 1949. According to its
terms, the large central section of what had formerly been Palestine
was to remain Arab. This territory was occupied and then annexed by
Transjordan, which on 2 June 1949 began to call itself simply
Jordan. Thus Qumran passed into Jordanian hands, along with the Arab
east side of Jerusalem. The border between Israel and Jordan - the
Nablus road - cut through the centre of the city.
Amidst these dramatic historical events, the scrolls attracted
little public attention or interest. Behind the scenes, however,
political, religious and academic forces were already beginning to
mobilize. By January 1949, the Department of Antiquities for
Transjordan and Arab Palestine had become involved, under the
auspices of its director, Gerald Lankester Harding. So had Father
Roland de Vaux, director, since 1945, of another institution - the
Dominican-sponsored Ecole Biblique, situated in the
Jordanian-controlled eastern sector of Jerusalem, and for the last
sixty years a centre of French-Catholic biblical scholarship in the
A year and a half had now elapsed since the scrolls were first
found. To date, however, no trained archaeologist had visited the
site of the discovery. The Albright Institute had tried, but the
war, they decided, rendered any such endeavors too dangerous. It
was at this point that a Belgian air-force officer, Captain Philippe Lippens, appeared on the scene. Lippens had arrived in Jerusalem as
a member of the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization.
he was also Jesuit-trained, and a graduate of the Oriental Institute
at the University of Louvain. He had read of the scrolls, and now
approached de Vaux, who until then appears to have been skeptical
about their significance. If he managed to locate the cave of the
original discovery, Lippens asked, would de Vaux confer legitimacy
on the undertaking by acting as technical director for subsequent
excavations? De Vaux assented.
On 24 January, Lippens established the support of a British officer
commanding a brigade of the Jordanian Arab Legion, and, through this
officer, the support of Lankester Harding in Amman. With Harding's
blessing, the British Army's archaeological officer was dispatched
to Qumran, to search for the cave in which the original discovery
had been made. He was accompanied by two Bedouin from the Arab
Legion, who located the cave on 28 January. Inside, they found
remains of the linen in which the scrolls had been wrapped and
numerous pieces of pottery.
A fortnight or so later, early in
February, Harding and de Vaux visited the cave together. They found
enough shards for more than forty jars and the remains of thirty
identifiable texts, as well as many more unidentifiable fragments.
Within another fortnight, the first official archaeological
expedition had been mounted.
In the years that followed, scrolls became big business indeed, and
traffic in them came to constitute an extremely lucrative cottage
industry. Fragments were being smuggled to and fro in dirty wallets,
in cigarette boxes, in assorted other makeshift containers.
Forgeries began to appear, and wily local merchants had no shortage
of gullible purchasers.
The popular press portrayed anything
resembling ancient parchment as immensely valuable. In consequence,
Arab dealers were loath to settle for anything less than hundreds of
pounds, and on at least one occasion a thousand - and this, it must
be remembered, was in the days when a house could be mortgaged for
When Metropolitan Samuel took his scrolls to the United States,
Jordanian radio reports claimed he was asking a million dollars for
them. Fears arose that scrolls would be bought not only for private
collections and as souvenirs, but also as investments. At the same
time, of course, the scrolls themselves were dangerously fragile,
requiring special conditions of light and temperature to preserve
them from further deterioration. In many of them, indeed, the
process of deterioration was already irreversible. As the black
market burgeoned, so did the prospect of ever more valuable material
being lost irretrievably to scholarship.
Responsibility to do something about the matter devolved upon Gerald Lankester Harding of the
Department of Antiquities. Harding
concluded it was less important to insist on the letter of the law
than to rescue as many scrolls and fragments as he could. In
consequence, he adopted a policy of purchasing scroll material from
whomever happened to have it.
This affected the legal status of such
material by tacitly acknowledging that anyone who possessed it had a
legitimate claim to it. In their negotiations and transactions,
Harding's agents were authorized to ignore all questions of legality
and (up to a point) price. He himself, being fluent in Arabic,
befriended not just dealers, but the Bedouin as well, and let it be
known he would pay handsomely for anything they might obtain.
Nevertheless, Metropolitan Samuel was accused of having 'smuggled'
his scrolls out of the country, and the Jordanian government
demanded their return.
By that time, of course, it was too late.
Eventually, the Bedouin of the Ta'amireh tribe were given what
amounted to a 'cave-hunting monopoly'. The Qumran area became, in
effect, a military zone, and the Ta'amireh were charged with
policing it, 'to keep other tribes from muscling in on the scroll
rush'.10 Whatever the Ta'amireh found, they would take to Kando, who
would remunerate them. Kando would take the material to Harding and
be remunerated in turn.
In October 1951, members of the Ta'amireh tribe arrived in Jerusalem
with scroll fragments from a new site. Both Father de Vaux of the
Ecole Biblique and Harding were away, so the Bedouin approached
Joseph Saad, director of the Rockefeller Museum. Saad demanded to be
taken to the site in question. The Bedouin went off to consult, and
failed to return.
Saad obtained a jeep, a letter of authority from the archaeological
officer of the Arab Legion and some armed men and drove to the first
Ta'amireh camp he could find, outside Bethlehem. The next morning,
as he was driving into Bethlehem, he saw one of the men who had
approached him the day before.
Dispensing with all niceties, Saad
proceeded to kidnap the Bedouin:
As the Jeep slewed to a stop, Saad called the man over and
immediately demanded more
information about the cave. Fear came into the Arab's eyes and he
made as if to move on. The
soldiers leapt down from the jeep and barred his way. Then, at a nod
from Saad they lifted the
man bodily and pushed him into the back of the truck. The driver let
in the clutch and they roared
off back the way they had come.11
Subjected to this sort of persuasion, the Bedouin agreed to
cooperate. Saad obtained reinforcements from a nearby military post,
and the contingent headed off down the Wadi Ta'amireh towards the
When the terrain became impassable, they abandoned the
jeep and began to walk. They walked for seven hours, until they came
to a wadi with walls hundreds of feet high. Far up in the
cliff-face, two large caves could be seen, with clouds of dust
issuing from them - the Bedouin were already inside, collecting what
they could. At Saad's arrival, a number of them emerged.
soldiers accompanying Saad fired into the air and the Bedouin
dispersed. Of the two caves, one, when the soldiers reached it,
proved to be huge - twenty feet wide, twelve to fifteen feet high
and extending some 150 feet back into the cliff. It was the next
morning before Saad got back to Jerusalem. Exhausted after his
expedition (which had included fourteen hours of walking), he went
to sleep. He woke later in the day to find Jerusalem in a state of
upheaval. Friends of the Bedouin had spread the news of his
'kidnapping' and incarceration.
One commentator observed afterwards
that it was 'perhaps' a mistake to have used force: this served to
drive documents underground and made the Bedouin more reluctant to
relinquish what they found.12
Saad's expedition led to the discovery of four caves at Wadi
Murabba'at, just over eleven miles south of Qumran and some two
miles inland from the Dead Sea. The material found here was less
difficult to date and identify than that from Qumran, but of nearly
comparable import. It derived from the early 2nd century AD - more
specifically, from the revolt in Judaea orchestrated by Simeon bar Kochba between AD 132 and 135.
It included two letters signed by
Simeon himself and furnished new data on the logistics, economics
and civil administration of the rebellion, which had come within a
hair's-breadth of success - Simeon actually captured Jerusalem from
the Romans and held the city for some two years. According to Robert Eisenman, this insurrection was a direct continuation of events
dating from the previous century - events which involved certain of
the same families, many of the same underlying principles, and
perhaps also Jesus himself.
Shortly after the discovery of the caves at Murabba'at, activity
around Qumran began to gather momentum. Having returned from Europe,
Father de Vaux began to excavate the site, together with Harding and
fifteen workers. These excavations were to continue for the next
five years, until 1956. Among other things, they exhumed a complex
of buildings, which were identified as the 'Essene community' spoken
of by Pliny.
Pliny himself perished in AD 79, in the eruption of Vesuvius which
buried Pompeii and Herculaneum. Of his works, only the Natural
History survives - which, however, deals with both the topography
and certain events in Judaea. Pliny's sources are unknown, but his
text refers to the sack of Jerusalem in AD 68, and must therefore
have been composed some time after that. There was even for a time a
legend, now discredited, that, like Josephus, he accompanied the
Roman army on its invasion of Palestine. In any case, Pliny is one
of the few ancient writers not just to mention the Essenes by name,
but to locate them geographically.
He locates them, quite
specifically, on the shores of the Dead Sea:
On the west side of the Dead Sea, but out of range of the noxious
exhalations of the coast, is the
solitary tribe of the Essenes, which is remarkable beyond all the
other tribes in the whole world, as
it has no women and has renounced all sexual desire, has no money,
and has only palm-trees for
company. Day by day the throng of refugees is recruited to an equal
number by numerous
accessions of persons tired of life and driven thither by the waves
of fortune to adopt their
manners... Lying below the Essenes was formerly the town of
Engedi... next comes
De Vaux took this passage as referring to Qumran, assuming that
'below the Essenes' means 'down', or to the south. The Jordan, he
argued, flows 'down', or south, to the Dead Sea; and if one
continues further south, one does indeed come to the site of
Other scholars dispute de Vaux's contention, maintaining
that 'lying below' is to be understood literally - that the Essene
community was situated in the hills above Engedi.
Whether Qumran was indeed Pliny's community or not, de Vaux was
spurred on to further efforts. In the spring of 1952, he endeavored
to wrest the initiative from the Bedouin and make a systematic
survey of all caves in the vicinity. The survey was conducted
between 10 and 22 March 1952 by de Vaux, three other members of the
Ecole Biblique and William Reed, the new director of the Albright
They were accompanied by a team of twenty-four Bedouin
under the authority of three Jordanian and Palestinian
archaeologists.15 Not surprisingly, perhaps, it was the Bedouin who
did all the work, clambering up the steep, often precipitous
cliff-faces and exploring caves. The archaeologists preferred to
remain below, compiling inventories, drawing up maps and charts. As
a result, the survey was not very comprehensive. The Bedouin, for
example, chose not to divulge the existence of certain caves they
had found. Several scrolls did not come to light until much later.
And one is known never to have been recovered from the Bedouin.
Altogether, the survey encompassed some five miles of cliff-face. It
examined 267 sites according to de Vaux, 273 sites according to
William Reed. According to de Vaux, it yielded thirty-seven caves
containing pottery. According to Reed, it yielded thirty-nine. The
official map produced at the conclusion of the expedition shows
forty.16 Shards were found for more than a hundred jars, a highly
speculative figure. Such imprecision is typical of Qumran research.
But if the 1952 survey was amateurish, it also produced one
genuinely important discovery. On 20 March, two days before the end
of the survey, in the site designated Cave 3, a research team found
two scrolls - or, rather, two fragments of the same scroll - of
rolled copper. The writing on it had been punched into the metal.
Oxidization had rendered the metal too brittle to be unrolled.
Before it could be read, the scroll would have to be sliced open in
a laboratory. Three and a half years were to pass before the
Jordanian authorities allowed this to be done. When they at last
consented, the cutting was performed in Manchester under the
auspices of John Allegro, a member of de Vaux's team. The first
segment of the scroll was finished in summer 1955, the second in
The scroll proved to be an inventory of treasure - a compilation or
listing of gold, silver, ritual vessels and other scrolls.
Apparently, at the commencement of the Roman invasion, this treasure
had been divided into a number of secret caches; and the 'Copper
Scroll', as it came to be known, detailed the contents and
whereabouts of each such cache.
Thus, for example:
In the cavity of the Old House of Tribute, in the Platform
of the Chain: sixty-five bars of
According to researchers, the total hoard would have amounted to
some sixty-five tons of silver and perhaps twenty-six of gold. To
this day, there is some argument as to whether the treasure ever in
Most scholars, however, are prepared to accept that it
did and that the scroll comprises an accurate inventory of the
Temple of Jerusalem. Unfortunately, the locations indicated by the
scroll have been rendered meaningless by time, change and the course
of two millennia, and nothing of the treasure has ever been found. A
number of people, certainly, have searched for it.
In September 1952, six months after the official survey, there
surfaced a new source of scrolls. It proved to be a cave within some
fifty feet of the actual ruins of Qumran, which de Vaux and Harding
had excavated in 1951. Here, at the site demarcated Cave 4, the
largest discovery of all was made - again, predictably, by the
Bedouin. Some years would be required to piece this material
together. By 1959, however, most of the fragments had been
organized. The work was conducted in a large room, which came to be
known as the 'Scrollery', in the Rockefeller Museum.
The Rockefeller Museum - or, to give it its official name, the
Palestine Archaeological Museum - had first opened in 1938, during
the British mandate, and was built from funds donated by
Rockefeller. It contained not only exhibition space, but also
laboratories, photographic dark-rooms and the offices of the
Department of Antiquities.
Shortly before the mandate ended in 1948,
the museum had been turned over to an international board of
trustees. This board was made up of representatives of the various
foreign archaeological schools in Jerusalem - the French Ecole
Biblique, for example, the American Albright Institute, the British
Palestine Exploration Society. For eighteen years, the Rockefeller
was to exist as an independently endowed institution. It managed to
retain this status even through the Suez Crisis of 1956, when many
of its staff were recalled to their home countries.
casualties of the crisis were Gerald Lankester Harding, dismissed
from his post as director of the Department of Antiquities, and the
scrolls themselves. During hostilities, they were removed from the
museum, placed into thirty-six cases and locked up in a bank in
Amman. They were not returned to Jerusalem until March 1957, 'some
of them slightly moldy [sic] and spotted from the damp vault'.18
In 1966, however, the Rockefeller, with the scrolls it contained,
was officially nationalized by the Jordanian government. This move
was to have important repercussions. It was also of questionable
legality. The museum's board of trustees did not object, however. On
the contrary, the president of the board transferred the museum's
endowment fund from London, where it had been invested, to Amman.
Thus the scrolls and the museum housing them became, in effect,
A year later, the Middle East erupted in the Six Day War, and
Jordanian East Jerusalem fell to Israeli troops. At five o'clock on
the morning of 6 June 1967, Yigael Yadin was informed that the
museum had been occupied by an Israeli paratroop unit.
After becoming, in 1949, chief of staff of the Israeli Defence
Forces, Yadin had resigned in 1952 and studied archaeology at Hebrew
University, earning his PhD in 1955 with a thesis on one of the Dead
Sea Scrolls. That year he began teaching at Hebrew University. In
1954 he had traveled to the USA on a lecture tour.
speaking at Johns Hopkins University, he met Professor William F.
Albright and asked why the American had published only three of
Metropolitan Samuel's four scrolls. Albright replied that Samuel was
anxious to sell the scrolls and would not allow the fourth to be
published until a purchaser had been found for all of them.
purchaser not be found in the States, Yadin asked:
'Surely a few
million dollars for such a purpose is not too difficult to raise.'
Albright's reply was astonishing. The scrolls, he said, would
probably sell for as little as half a million.
Even so, however, no
American institution or individual appeared to be interested.19
There were, in fact, two reasons for this apparent apathy. In the
first place, facsimile editions of the first three scrolls had
already been produced; and this, for most American researchers,
obviated the need for the originals. More significant, however, was
the legal status of the scrolls' ownership. The Jordanian government
had branded Metropolitan Samuel 'a smuggler and a traitor', claiming
he had had no right to take the scrolls out of Jordan; and the
Americans, by virtue of publishing the contraband texts, were
accused of collusion in the 'crime'.
This, needless to say, deterred
prospective purchasers, who had no desire to lay out a substantial
sum of money, only to find themselves embroiled in complex
international litigation and, quite possibly, end up with nothing. Yadin, on the other hand, had no need to fear the Jordanians.
Relations between his country and theirs couldn't possibly sink any
On 1 June, Yadin was telephoned by an Israeli journalist stationed
in the States, who called the advertisement in the Wall Street
Journal to his attention. Yadin resolved immediately to obtain the
scrolls, but recognized that a direct approach might jeopardize
In consequence, he worked almost entirely through intermediaries,
and it was a New York banker who replied to the advertisement. A
meeting was arranged for 11 June 1954, a price of $250,000 for the
four scrolls was agreed on and a wealthy benefactor found to provide
the requisite money. After a number of frustrating delays, the
transaction was completed at the Waldorf Astoria on 1 July.
those present was a distinguished scholar, Professor Harry Orlinsky,
whose role was to ensure the scrolls were indeed genuine. In order
to conceal any Israeli or Jewish interest in the deal, Orlinsky
introduced himself as 'Mr Green'.
The next day, 2 July, the scrolls were removed from the vault of the
Waldorf Astoria and taken to the Israeli Consulate in New York. Each
scroll was then sent back to Israel separately. Yadin returned home
by ship, and a code was arranged to keep him informed of each
scroll's safe arrival. Details of the transaction were kept secret
for another seven months. Not until 13 February 1955 did a press
release reveal that Israel had acquired the four scrolls of
Metropolitan Samuel.20 Along with the three scrolls previously
purchased by Sukenik, they are now in the Shrine of the Book, which
was established specifically to house them.
By the end of 1954, then, there were two entirely separate bodies of
scroll material and two entirely separate cadres of experts working
with them. In West Jerusalem, there were the Israelis, addressing
themselves to the scrolls acquired by Sukenik and Yadin. In East
Jerusalem, at the Rockefeller, there was a team of international
scholars operating under the direction of de Vaux.
communicated with the other. Neither had any contact with the other.
Neither knew what the other possessed or what the other was doing,
except for what leaked out in scholarly journals. In several
instances, specific texts were fragmented, some pieces being in
Israeli hands, some at the Rockefeller - which made it, of course,
that much more difficult to obtain any sense of the whole. So
ridiculous was the situation that certain individuals were tempted
to do something about it. Former Major-General Ariel Sharon reported
that, in the late 1950s, he and Moshe Dayan devised a plan for an
underground raid on the Rockefeller, to be conducted through
Jerusalem's sewer system.21
The plan, needless to say, was never
Now, however, in 1967, hearing of the capture of the Rockefeller,
Yadin immediately dispatched three colleagues from Hebrew University
to ensure that the scrolls were safe. He recognized the implications
of what had happened.
Because the Rockefeller Museum was no longer
an international institution, but a Jordanian one, it would pass
into Israeli hands as a spoil of war.