Renowned biblical archaeologist Seymour (Sy) Gitin is a great storyteller. So naturally his new memoir, The Road Taken: An Archaeologist’s Journey to the Land of the Bible, is a fascinating read.
Featuring what is surely the only world-class archaeology research center in East Jerusalem led for 34 years by a former US Air Force chaplain, the book is also a persuasive case study of No More Enemies in action – especially in academia, where it is desperately needed.
It’s true I’m not an objective judge, because I know the man (and his family) personally, and I’m very fond of the whole clan – and this is a rave review. But once you’ve read his book, you’ll agree with me. Guaranteed.
If you look at the bio on Wikipedia, you’ll get the outlines of Sy Gitin’s personal history and his scholarly work in archaeology, his academic degrees, appointments, professional awards, titles, and so forth – but then you’ll just have the notes. If you want to hear the music, read his book.
The Road Taken offers wonderful stories, deftly told — full of humor, optimism, and kindness, and featuring equanimity and sanity when disaster strikes, plus the author’s unique personal slant on numerous historical events that have shaped our world over the last half century. He gives you, for example, 9/11 in a few succinct paragraphs: There he is, on a visit to New York, emerging from a midtown Manhattan department store one bright morning to find all traffic, all public transportation at a standstill. He then walks north along Madison Avenue to his daughter’s apartment, stopping repeatedly for updates from people in their gridlocked vehicles with their car radios on and the windows down, sharing the updates with passersby. You feel the shock and the horror, but also the instant and instinctive solidarity as strangers drew together and tried to help each other process the unthinkable.
My favorite anecdote in the book (spoiler alert!) is the one about the random old-lady visitor who appeared one day at the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research (named for William F. Albright, the “father of biblical archaeology”) on Salah ed-Din Street in East Jerusalem. Sy was the institute’s director for 34 years, from 1980 to 2014. Relating the story, succinctly as always, he gets you to picture this scene so that you feel you witnessed it yourself:
–Random old-lady visitor (imagine her ringing the Institute’s front doorbell and being shown into Sy’s office): I always wanted to stop by, but never did… My brother used to work here.
–Sy Gitin (kindly): What was your brother’s name?
–Random old-lady visitor: William. I think some of his books must be in the library here…
Yes, yes, it was Albright’s sister. Come on! Seriously? You just can’t make stuff like that up.
You will be fascinated by various factoids describing the evolution of the Albright as an institution, including budget-related data from the director’s (and unofficially, the chief fundraiser’s) perspective. The author gives ample credit to trustees, board members, colleagues, staff, friends and family who helped keep the budget in the black, but we all know where the buck stops in such an institution. I loved the occasional mentions of periodic fundraising milestones, told without fanfare, featuring half a dozen specific major categories and including the actual weird dollar numbers… such as: $178,964 for the library. Rounding that off to “nearly $180,000” would have elided all the drama. Instead, here you get the feeling that every cent raised over decades for every improvement at the Albright was the product of sweat equity in judicious networking. Or take this one — the big picture: “By the end of my tenure, $14,505,789 had been raised…” Impressive.
As for the science, it does not disappoint. There is a wealth of material about biblical archaeology, Land of Israel studies, ancient Near East civilizations, famous digs and the famous or (notorious) people who ran them, and the inevitable professional disagreements (described with great tact and no venom). Despite my lack of relevant background, it was clear to me that the work of Sy Gitin, Trude Dothan and colleagues at Tel Miqne-Ekron made an indelible contribution to the understanding of the historical record.
Any institution would be fortunate to have at its helm a natural consensus-builder like Sy Gitin, dedicated to cooperation without fanfare. He describes his ongoing and ultimately successful efforts to encourage a synthesis of (or at least, a truce between) what he terms the Israeli approach and the American approach in the field. He initiated, promoted, and helped fund all kinds of international professional collaboration. Bear in mind that, during serial periods of war, uprising, and upheaval, the Albright under Sy Gitin did not merely keep its doors open, but grew and flourished: Located in the heart of East Jerusalem, directed by an American, staffed mostly by Palestinians, and hosting scholars and practitioners from near and far, including Jordan and China, for example. This suggests remarkable leadership and staff solidarity, which appear to have yielded substantial gains for everyone involved, despite the unceasing political and other pressures pushing the other way. It is no exaggeration to see Sy Gitin the archaeologist, and the way he did his job as director of the Albright, as a beacon of sanity in an environment of, well, continual chaos.
Again, I may be biased because I know the man. If you want to meet him, too, read his memoir. You’ll be glad you did.
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The memoir: The Road Taken: An Archaeologist’s Journey to the Land of the Bible
Bio on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seymour_Gitin