Not far from the “Ad Halom” Bridge in Ashdod is a memorial to the Egyptian soldiers who died invading Israel in 1948. This is quite remarkable, even for two nations who have signed and honored a peace treaty. Imagine if you will, a memorial in Paris to the German soldiers who died invading France in May of 1940 or a statue honoring the 65 Japanese airmen who died in the attack on Pearl Harbor. Unthinkable, even in our global century. But there it stands, an obelisk of red Egyptian granite with an inscription honoring the Egyptian war dead, in four languages: English, Hebrew, Arabic and Hieroglyphics.
During the Camp David negotiations in 1978, one small but thorny dilemma was what to do with the two Sinai memorials to fallen Israeli soldiers. If Israel returned the conquered land, would Egypt have any reason or desire to protect the monuments from vandalism or decay? And if Israel dismantled the memorials, would that not be a dishonor to the fallen?
The “Ad Halom” obelisk was a creative work-around. As part of the peace treaty, two memorials to the Egyptian fallen soldiers would be erected in Israel proper, and Egypt would agree to protect and preserve the Israeli monuments in the Sinai.
The location of the memorial is not random. The “Ad Halom” bridge was built in the 19th century, but it sits on the foundations of the earlier 14th century Mameluke bridge which in turn was built on the ruins of the ancient Roman bridge.
On May 15th, 1948 in the wake of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, the Egyptian Army invaded from the South, planning on reaching Tel Aviv in a few days. After fighting their way up the coast in a series of fierce and unexpected battles against small and outgunned Israeli outposts, the Egyptian forces arrived at the bridge. The bridge had served as the pass across the Lachish Wadi on the ancient Via Maris for 2,000 years. After all these years it was still the only way forward on the coastal road for the 500 armored vehicles and 2,500 Egyptian soldiers, but it had been blown up by the Israeli Army days before in anticipation of the invasion. The Egyptian Army was stopped at the bridge. “Ad Halom” means “this far”, but implies “and no further.” The Egyptians encamped and set about rebuilding the bridge. This gave the Israelis time to organize a more serious battle force and the Egyptians, 20 miles from Tel Aviv, never made it any further. It is sobering to consider that if the Egyptian forces had been able to cross the bridge unhindered they would have invaded Tel Aviv within 24 hours.
It took a generation, and three more wars, for Israel and Egypt to make peace, and it is often referred to as a “cold” peace. But for almost 40 years, the treaty has held firm, and the monuments on both sides are honored. The text on the memorial reads: “In memory of the fallen soldiers of the Battle of Ashdod” and names four Egyptian soldiers, each of a different rank. In addition to the text, high above on the face of the obelisk is the symbol of Aten the Egyptian Sun God. Aten was worshipped as the one true god by the Pharaoh Akhenaten. This early version of monotheism has been cited (by Freud among others) as the source of Hebrew monotheism. It may not have been the designer’s plan, but that sun-god reminds us that the ancient ties between the children of Israel and the Kingdom of Egypt are still playing themselves out in the symbolic push-pull of shaky alliances and cold treaties.
The respect conferred on the “Ad Halom” monument is proof that when there is a desire for truce by the leaders of both sides, and a creative approach to problem solving, nothing is impossible. In this region of so many disappointments, it is reassuring to occasionally be reminded of the potential of simple common sense and good will.