The Israel Exploration Society recently observed its centennial. It was
certainly a memorable event for this unique organization which hundred years ago
dedicated itself to promote and safeguard the Holy Land’s archeological research
for the Jewish people.
The IES was established in the spring of 1913,
under Ottoman rule, as the Palestine Exploration Society, inspired by the
archeological societies already active in Palestine and Egypt: the French Ecole
Biblique (founded in 1890), the British Palestine Exploration Fund (founded in
1865), the German Deutsche Palestina Verain (founded in 1877) and the American
School of Oriental Research (founded in 1900).
The initiative to create a
local scientific society was shared by the Jewish settlers of Jaffa and
Jerusalem, many of whom participated in various archeological excavations
themselves and some of whom witnessed how precious artifacts found here were
taken to various universities and museums abroad. The seat of the Jewish
Palestine Exploration Society was established in Jerusalem, and its board
consisted of six members.
The president was David Yellin, (1864-1941) an
erudite scholar and teacher, the founder of the Hebrew Teachers’ Seminary in
Jerusalem. The secretary was Abraham Jacob Brawer, a geographer and
However, in August 1914, World War I broke out and the
Jewish elite of Palestine, including Yellin and his family, wer deported by the
The Society was revived by Yellin in 1920, under the
British administration and under a new Hebrew name: “The Hebrew Society for the
Exploration of Eretz Israel and its Antiquities.”
Ben-Yehuda , the indefatigable reviver of the Hebrew language, served as the
Society’s vice-president, under Yellin. The first archeological excavation,
directed by Nahum Slouschz, was launched in 1921-22 at the synagogue of Hammath
Tiberias. Slouschz, though not an archeologist, had academic training, and in
1924 excavated Absalom’s Tomb in Jerusalem.
The excavations of the Third
Wall in Jerusalem by Eleazar Lipa Sukenik and Leo Arie Meyer (1925-1927 and
1940); at Ramat Rachel by Benjamin Maisler (Mazar) and Moshe Stekelis (1931); at
Beth Shearim by Moshe Schwabe and Mazar (1936-1940); and at Beth Yerah by Mazar,
Stekelis, Dunayevsky and Avi-Yonah (1944-1945) and later by Pessah Bar-Adon
(1949- 1955), put the Yishuv’s and Israeli archeology on the world map and were
duly recorded in serious scientific publications.
In 1950 , B. Mazar,
then chairman of IES, changed the Society’s name to “Israel Exploration
Society.” He was advised to do so by prime minister David Ben- Gurion, who held
that now that the state had been established, a new name would better reflect
the importance of archeological research which restores our past and binds it
with our future.
And indeed, since the 1950s the IES carried out a long
list of joint excavations projects, mainly with the Hebrew University’s
Institute of Archeology. The whole country held its breath and wondered when
Yigal Yadin excavated at Hazor, and in the early 1960s Judean Desert. IES played
a major role these excavations.
Only recently the IES published the fifth
volume of Hasmonean and Herodian Palaces in Jericho, directed by Ehud Netzer and
written by Rachel Ben-Nathan and Judith Gartner, and four volumes of excavations
at Beit Shean, edited by Amihai Mzar and reviewed in The Jerusalem Post on
August 9, 2013.
The Society’s 46 volumes of Qadmoniot – A Journal for the
Antiquities of Eretz Yisrael and Bible Lands, (published in Hebrew, twice a
year), the 63 volumes of Israel Exploration Journal (in English, twice a year),
and a vast archeological library describing in detail all the major excavations
of particular sites in Israel (in both Hebrew and English) are a treasure for
scholars, historians and general public. They testify best to the extent of the
devotion of the staff and members of this magnificent society which for a
hundred years patiently noted every step of the country’s archeological
The IES participates in excavations and considers its main
purpose to be the dissemination of the knowledge gained from the archeological,
historical and geographical exploration of Israel to the general public here and
abroad. It holds annual conferences which are popular with the public. Two
international conferences on “Biblical Archeology Today,” held in 1884 and 1990,
attracted wide international and Israeli audiences and the proceedings were
published in English. The “New Encyclopedia of Archelogical Excavations in the
Holy Land” was first published in Hebrew in 1992, and then in English in 1993,
with a supplementary volume in 2008.
The Society’s excavations reports on
sites like Hazor, Masada, Arad, Ein Gedi, Tel Beth Shean, Jericho and the Jewish
Quarter of Jerusalem are of the highest editorial and professional
Extreme care is taken of the quality of paper, printing and
binding, many of the reports being printed in full color. The dedicated staff
today includes Joseph Aviram, the president, Ephraim Stern, its current
chairman, Hillel Geva, the director and Alan Paris, the deputy director. The
Society won the Israel Prize in 1989, and remained true to its promise to share
the treasures of the past as an inspiration for the country’s future.