Saturday, November 2, 2013


In the footsteps of a master forger

In 1883, respected antiques dealer Moses Wilhelm Shapira claimed to possess ancient scrolls of Deuteronomy. The text differed slightly from the accepted version: It had an 11th Commandment

Market in the Old City, leading down from Maronite Convent Road (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Market in the Old City, leading down from Maronite Convent Road (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Six months after the most important archaeological discovery of its time was declared a fake, the man who offered it to the world ended his life with a bullet to the head. His tragic suicide left unsolved one of most fascinating puzzles of the era. Had it really been bogus? Or could Moses Wilhelm Shapira have brought to light the world’s oldest copy of Deuteronomy, only to have it rejected by a battery of experts? 

Follow the fortunes of this intriguing figure by taking an imaginary jaunt through the streets of Jerusalem (or a real trip, if you live in Israel). The route begins just inside Jaffa Gate at Christ Church, which was to become Shapira’s home-away-from-home.  
It continues on to a Maronite Convent, moves through the cheerful shops on Christian Quarter Road and ends at the gallery/restaurant of Beit Ticho.

Christ Church was the first Protestant church in the entire Middle East, and the only evangelical church in the region. Outwardly resembling a grand European synagogue more than a Christian house of worship, it was erected in 1849 by the London Society for the Promotion of Jews to Christianity for the express purpose of drawing Jews into the Christian fold.

Moses Wilhelm Shapira (photo credit: Wikipedia Commons)
Moses Wilhelm Shapira (photo credit: Wikipedia Commons)

Before that time, simple proselytizing — and the promise of financial gain — had resulted in very few Jewish conversions; the Protestant Bishopric in Jerusalem hoped that an attractive, accessible church might facilitate the cause.  
Church fathers wanted Jews to feel comfortable in the sanctuary, which is why the interior is replete with Jewish symbols.

Jewish students at the workshop manufactured the stunning olive wood communion table, decorated with both a Star of David and the Christian Alpha and Omega.

There were no crosses in the church; the cross on the table appeared in 1948, when Jordanians captured the Old City and Anglicans feared their sanctuary would be mistaken for a synagogue.

Moses Wilhelm Shapira, born Jewish in 1830, was 25 when he left his Russian homeland for the land of Israel.  
Somewhere along the way, he converted to Christianity.  
And once in the Holy Land, he joined the Anglican community of Jewish converts at Christ Church.  
Soon afterwards he began studying at its House of Industry, a unique carpentry workshop set up to teach Jews a profession while instructing them in Christianity.

Christ Church Heritage Center Tunnel (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Christ Church Heritage Center Tunnel (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Today, the Christ Church complex includes a Christian Heritage Center, with historic documents and artifacts, medieval bibles, and contemporary models of the city. On display are a multi-colored 1864 depiction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher with removable domes, and a model of the 19th-century Protestant Quarter – both made at the House of Industry workshop. Visitors are invited to descend into a 2,000-year-old water reservoir that leads to an ancient tunnel.

The Maronite Convent, only a few steps away, was built in 1851 as a residence for the British consul. Later, the building was used as a hospital run by a German Lutheran congregation of Deaconess sisters. An average of 650 people were treated here each year. One of the patients was Moses Shapira, who met his future bride, Deaconess nurse Roseta Jackel, by the courtyard well.

In the early 1890s, Maronite Catholics from Lebanon purchased the building. Today it’s the seat of the Patriarchal Vicar, with nuns from the Lebanese Congregation of St. Therese managing the guesthouse.

Until a very few years ago, anyone could enter the complex and climb up to the second-floor chapel. Originally intended for Protestant use, it was preserved by the Maronites in its original Gothic form. Afterwards, you could ascend to the roof for a breathtaking 360-degree panoramic view of Jerusalem. These days, unfortunately, only lodgers are allowed inside. But you can ring, and ask to see the courtyard.

After completing his course at Christ Church, Shapira opened a shop in the bustling Old City marketplace. The front of the store faced Christian Quarter Road, and the back overlooked a dry reservoir. Called both Hezekiah’s Pool and Batsheva’s Pool, it supplied water to the city 3,000 or so years ago.

Among wares sold in the shop were European newspapers and guidebooks, dried flowers from the Holy Land, and olivewood Bible covers inscribed with verses from the Scriptures. But Shapira’s main source of income came from the sale of antiquities. His shop had opened during an era of intense interest in biblical archaeology, when travelers, both tourists and biblical pilgrims, had begun thronging to the Holy Land. With the help of associate Salim al-Kari, Shapira capitalized on the atmosphere by manufacturing “ancient” artifacts. Some were sold at the shop, but others were buried at strategic sites. Subsequently, the wily Shapira would take tourists out for a “dig” and join in their delight when they made a “discovery.”

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