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Wednesday, July 07, 2004

The ruins of ‘Anim’

At some point in our distant school days, most of us were forced to read a poem by Percy Shelley entitled Ozymandias. For some strange reason I must have been paying attention that day, because whenever I encounter any kind of ruins, the poem and its message come back to haunt me.

For those who have forgotten, here is an opportunity to refresh your memory before I move on to the point of today’s post:

Ozymandias

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed,
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Percy Bysshe Shelley
1792-1822

Every day, my commute takes me through the spectacularly beautiful wilds of the Judean hills and along the edge of the Judean desert. Besides the wildlife that I have already mentioned, there are countless archeological ruins. Some are from the more recent Ottoman or Arab periods…but remnants of the Jewish communities that once thrived here also poke from among the rocks of the rugged countryside. Nearly everywhere you look there are burial caves, ritual baths, and entire ruined communities dating back to the period during, and after the first and second temple stood in Jerusalem.

Most days I am too hurried or too loaded down with hitchhikers to stop and poke around. But since yesterday’s fast was the start of a three-week period dwelling on the subject of destruction… I decided to pull off the road just south of Susiya and look around one of the sites. The spot I chose was the ruins of Anim, a fortified Jewish community from the period of the Mishna and Talmud (approx. 200 – 400 C.E.) that had been built atop the remnants of another Jewish town from the First Temple period (825 - 492 B.C.E.).

As soon as I turned off the car, a blanket of silence fell over me. Nothing but the murmur of the wind through the nearby forest intruded on my solitude. As always, Shelley’s words sprang to mind, as if to rub my face in the fact that man had again failed to understand the transience of his work.

But then I started thinking about what people the fictional Ozymandias was supposed to have ruled. The term, “…an antique land…” could refer to just about anywhere. But because of the reference to sand and desert, in my mind’s eye the setting had always been one of the ancient kingdoms of the middle east; Egypt, Persia,… perhaps even ancient Israel.

As I wandered around what was left of Anim, I realized that of the thousands of Jewish ruins in Israel, none of them had the arrogant grandeur that Shelley described. They consisted instead of modest buildings, synagogues, storehouses , cisterns and burial caves. None of them challenged G-d. In fact, I spent most of my time wandering around a building built to serve Him – the remains of Anim’s synagogue.

The ruins of ancient Anim sit next to a forest. A few hundred yards up the road are a couple of Jewish communities, as well as their orchards and fields. Here was the main difference that told me that Shelley’s Ozymandias couldn’t have been set here. Unlike the majestic monuments of ancient Egypt and Persia which languish amid “…lone and level sands”, this modest estate sits among forests and orchards… and most important; possesses modern heirs.

The people living and working just a short walk from these fallen stones are the actual physical and cultural descendants of the people who had thrived here two millennia ago. The grandeur of the ancients had not been entrusted to stone, but rather had survived the ages in more resilient vessels: the children, and the children’s children…

During this three-week period where we contemplate the destruction of transitory monuments to our relationship with our creator, I am comforted by the knowledge that in the land from which we were once exiled, no one - mighty or meek - need look upon these works and despair.

synagogue2
Taken from the North West corner of Anim's synagogue
2 hrs before sunset on 17 Tamuz

Posted by David Bogner on July 7, 2004 | Permalink

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Another reason why this country is wonderful!

Posted by: Gil Ben Mori | Jul 7, 2004 3:53:22 PM

Yes, it's a good spot to visit [also good for Gecko spotting...]. Too few actually visit these old places, but these are important when you want to understand Israel.

I am still pondering on Shelley - naturalism...transience...nostalgy.

Posted by: mademoiselle a. | Jul 7, 2004 5:32:19 PM

That is so strange that you mention geckos... while I was there (inside the synagogue) there was a huge gecko that kept peeking out of a crack between two stones.

Posted by: David | Jul 7, 2004 5:57:20 PM

Another fine piece! One other reason that Shelley probably could not have had ancienct Israel in mind is simply that the Israelites did not build such statues, tyrrannical or otherwise. Some prohibition, I think, about graven image. No? Or, did Saul, David, and Solomon erect statues of themselves???

Posted by: Del Bogner | Jul 8, 2004 3:58:13 AM

Your point about 'graven images' is correct. However, other than the Temple in Jerusalem, there doesn't seem to have been any attempt by the Jews to build large, showcase-type structures.

The white marble temples to the Greek and Roman pantheon are awe-inspiring even today in their ruined state. But where are the Greeks and the Romans? The people who live on the soil where those conquerers once walked are not the cultural heirs of those ancient sculptors and architects.

I guess that was more my point. That, and the fact that on one special day... probably some time in the spring of '73... I actually paid attention in school!

Posted by: David | Jul 8, 2004 9:04:58 AM

re ozymandias king of kings is used by the ancient kings of persia.i always think of persia when i read the poem.

thanks for an interesting site and a great name

Posted by: cohen | Jul 9, 2004 6:57:18 PM

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