Secrets of The Bible’s Buried Secrets

Contributed by Tristan Barako, Ph.D., Senior Researcher, Providence Pictures

When The Bible’s Buried Secrets premiered on PBS this past November, it was NOVA’s most watched show in the past five years, attesting to the enduring interest that biblical archaeology holds for the general public. The two-hour special was produced by Providence Pictures, where I now work as senior researcher and writer. The president/producer/director of Providence Pictures, Gary Glassman, took the unusual step of hiring me—someone with absolutely no prior experience in film production—on the strength of my background in archaeology and biblical studies. He and NOVA wanted to make sure that the film was as accurate as possible. To that end we enlisted the support of more than 30 ASOR members, who generously gave of their knowledge and granted us complete film access to their excavations and artifacts. Through their participation and the collective effort of all our staff and crew, we’ve shown that a documentary about biblical archaeology can be both a popular and scholarly success.

To give the readers of this blog some sense of the filmmaking process, here are a few behind-the-scenes peeks of the challenges we faced while making The Bible’s Buried Secrets. Most of what follows relates to my uncredited cameo appearances. In the interest of full disclosure, it must be said that Michael Homan, the moderator of the ASOR blog, also appears in the film. It was originally a more substantial role—his big line went something like “Ron, you better come down here; we just found something that’s going to make your day!” —but that part of the scene, unfortunately, ended up on the cutting room floor.

A reenactment of the discovery of the Tel Zayit abecedary.

Idol smasher: The climax of the destruction of Hazor was a close-up, slow motion shot of a statue of a seated male being decapitated. We had originally planned to shoot this scene in Israel, so we had our Art Director there, Gal Oren, make three replicas of the statue, but we ran out of time so we had to do it in the U.S. instead. The location we ended up using was Gary’s garage in Providence, where we clamped the statue (made of plaster, not the original basalt) to a low table and positioned a Duraflame stick in front of the camera. Then we smoked up the garage and I put on a robe, dirtied up my arm and hand, and grabbed the mallet. I was a bit nervous because I wanted to make sure that the head came off cleanly, similar to how the original was found at Hazor. To stay in the frame I had to approach the statue at an odd angle, but this did not get in the way of a near perfect strike: the head flew off and crashed against the back wall. Good thing, because I shattered the next two replicas.

Smashing idols in Gary’s garage.

German scholar: This was my most challenging role given the amount of time on camera and the task at hand—channeling Julius Wellhausen. To prepare for it we bought a nineteenth-century German Bible and rented a three-piece suit from a costume company in California (surprisingly we couldn’t find anything on the east coast). I also let my beard grow out a little. Finally, I found a section in my Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia that contained clear J and E passages. Despite all these preparations we overlooked something, as pointed out to me by a friend who is a German historian: the wedding band was on my left hand, whereas Germans typically wear it on the right. There goes the Emmy for best research.

Playing Julius Wellhausen

Gila’s assistant: In this scene, a recreation of the discovery of the Tel Dan Stela, I played only a supporting role: the guy holding the stadia rod for Gila Cook who found this famous inscription in 1993. We followed her recollection of events throughout, which included loading her up like a pack mule, while I ambled off the tell empty-handed. I felt especially insensitive because she was battling laryngitis that day and we made her go up and down the hill with all that equipment a few times on multiple takes, but she was a real trooper and the scene turned out beautifully.

Loading up Gila

Dead Israelite: We used Nazareth Village for many recreations including the scene where one of the Jerusalem priests rescues scrolls from a building set aflame by the Babylonians. Again I donned a robe and got smudged up, but this time all I had to do was lay sprawled out in the background. I’m really not visible because of all the smoke. Our Director of Photography, Nick Gardner, inhaled so much of it that he woke up that night with a splitting headache.

Tristan as a dead Israelite

YHWH: In one of the many scribal scenes, we wanted an extreme close-up of someone writing the personal name of the Israelite god, YHWH. Most of our recreation actors were modern-day sopherim, whom we casted for their ability to write Torah scrolls. The problem was, though, they refused to write the divine name. I volunteered to do it, but I write left-handed and all our scribes were righties. So we pressed into service our thoroughly secular, dread-locked soundman, Amir Liani, who did a great job considering that it was his first time writing in paleo-Hebrew.

YWHW in Paleo-Hebrew

For more information about Providence Pictures and The Bible’s Buried Secrets, including additional behind-the-scenes features, visit: and

Hisham M’Farreh, Chef at the Albright Institute (1994-Present)

Contributed by Hisham M’Farreh

Food is considered an essential element of human life. As in the old Arabic saying, “the shortest route to someone’s heart is through his stomach.”

I have been working as a cook at the Albright Institute (AIAR) in Jerusalem for about fifteen years, a job which I took after my uncle Omar Jibrin retired, having served as the Institute’s chef for a little over half a century. Uncle Omar had very friendly and good relationships with the Albright Directors, Trustees and Fellows.

Hisham M’farreh with his renowned za’atar rolls in the foreground.

Hisham M’farreh with his renowned za’atar rolls in the foreground.

I have also had the privilege of forming good friendships with many archaeologists and other students and scholars who come to do research and stay at the Institute. These friendships usually start in the kitchen especially during breaks and at tea time, when people come to talk to me. And these relationships have become stronger over the years.

The long period of experience in my current position has taught me so much about the people who come to do research at the Albright, including Americans, Europeans, Israelis and Palestinians. I have come to learn that the vast majority of them are friendly and modest. They seem to have acquired these characteristics from their special outlook on life. I believe that the search for historical truths, which is the aim of their research and especially their excavations, and which they document in their books, has significantly affected our understanding of human values. Thus, their tasks have shaped their characters; making them decent people with pleasant personalities.

Having said all of this, I should point out something that has influenced my perception of Albright researchers. These people whom I cook for on a daily basis are unlike tourists in hotels who come to this country for a different purpose. Besides, most researchers and archeologists whom I have come to know at the Albright, often return many times to the Institute. This helps to maintain a sense of continuity, and continues to strengthen the friendship between us.

I would like to add that my father was a chef for about 45 years at an archaeological institute in Jerusalem, now known as the Kenyon Institute (previously the British School of Archaeology). I gained a lot of experience in cooking and in my understanding of researchers who come from abroad from my father and also from my uncle, Omar.

Albright Fellows, when about to leave the Institute, have the opportunity to choose their “last supper” and the following recipe is one of their favorites.

“Fresh za’atar rolls stuffed with white cheese”

4 cups flour
1 cup fresh za’atar leaves
2 teaspoons yeast
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon salt
1/4 cup olive oil
11/2 cup lukewarm water
2 cup grated white cheese (baladi or Bulgarian salted cheese)
• In a medium bowl sift flour and then add dry ingredients
• Add oil, and za’atar leaves
• Add water
• Mix until a dough is formed
• Cover with towel for about one hour at room temperature until the dough is doubled in size
• Cut into small balls about the size of an egg
• Fill each ball with the grated cheese and form into a roll
• Put the rolls on baking sheet and let raise for about half an hour at room temperature
• Bake in preheated oven (400F) for about 20 minutes or until light brown
• Serve hot with fresh salad

Mohammad “Abu Ahmed” Adawi, Chef at ACOR 1968-present

Contributed by Sarah Harpending, American Center of Oriental Research

Mohammed “Abu Ahmed” Adawi has spent more than 40 years cooking for archaeologists in Jordan and Palestine. He began as a laborer at the dig in Jericho with Kathleen Kenyon in 1956. By 1960 he was cooking at ASOR in Jerusalem under then Head Chef Omar Jibrin. Abu Ahmed learned his basic techniques on the job, but he recalls that Omar could be secretive about his recipes.

Abu Ahmed preparing a Thanksgiving feast in 1982.

Abu Ahmed preparing a Thanksgiving feast in 1982.

He first served as a cook at an excavation site in 1961 when Paul Lapp invited him to cook at Iraq al-Amir in Jordan. Without previous experience cooking outdoors, he says he just copied what he had seen Omar doing at the center and it usually worked. While they didn’t have the equipment of a regular kitchen, he was able, using a primus stove, to prepare the traditional repertoire such as roast beef, roast chicken, and stews for the dig crews. The roasts he would brown in a pan, then add water and cover the dish, leaving it to finish “roasting” slowly on low flame. Abu Ahmed noted that serving this kind of good simple food in the remote areas where they were digging really made people happy.

Abu Ahmed notes that food fads have come and gone, (low fat, high carb, no carb…) but that he has not changed his style because he really likes the old fashioned recipes for hearty food. More and more frequently the ACOR residents will ask Abu Ahmed to prepare traditional Arabic dishes, which he does, although he balks at dishes such as rolled grape leaves or stuffed vegetables, because these are very time consuming and they demand many hours of preparation.

Abu Ahmed relies on the library of cookbooks given to him over the years by women such as Meredith Dorenemann (Rudy Dornemann was the first Annual professor director of ACOR), Vivian Van Elderen, Sue Sauer and Linda McCreery. That said, he likes to read food magazines and doesn’t mind to try new recipes occasionally.

Abu Ahmed cooking in the ACOR kitchen

Abu Ahmed cooking in the ACOR kitchen, 2009

One of the desserts that Abu Ahmed is best known for at ACOR are his date bars, which are indeed heavenly – sweet, moist, and sticky. He shares the recipe below:

Makes 3 dozen bars. Preheat oven to 400Ëš and prepare a 13×9 inch baking pan.

Date Filling:
dates 3 cups cut up
sugar 2 tbs
water 1 ½ cups cook for 10 minutes, stirring, until thickened. Set aside.

Cookie Mix:
butter ½ cup
shortening ¼ cup
brown sugar 1 cup cream together with a mixer.

Flour 1 ½ cup
Salt 1 tsp
Baking Soda ½ tsp
Oats 1 ½ cups Mix into butter mixture, stirring lightly

Press half the cookie mix evenly into the greased pan. Spread all the date filling on top. Cover with the second half of the cookie mix, pressing it flat by hand.

Bake 25 minutes, cut up the bars in the pan while they are still warm.