Hooks and bridges

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The novel I’m currently working on tells the story of the Exodus in the first-person voices of twin Israelites. They are in the midst of the biblical “forty years in the wilderness,” looking back on the time just before their 13th birthday when they were supposed to become slaves to Pharaoh — until certain miraculous-seeming events intervened. My working assumption is that the Pharaoh of the Exodus (who is never named in the Hebrew Bible) was Ramses the Great, and I’ve spent more than a decade reading about the time period that scholars call “the Ramesside era.” Mostly I’ve encountered fascinating developments in biblical and environmental archaeology that explain the events of the biblical narrative in a rational way, and a lot of that basic research is captured in a series of blog posts. But as I continue to write, I still have to look up all kinds of stuff.

This past month there were two turns of phrase that I wanted to put into my characters’ mouths, but I wasn’t sure they would fit — i.e., I didn’t know if the concepts behind the words had been around in biblical times. One had to do with being a bridge between an estranged child and her family. The other had to do with the Hebrew letter “vuv” (see last month’s post), which today means “hook” even though it now looks completely different from how it was written circa 1300 BCE. I needed to know if it was already considered a hook in the time of Ramses II.

Bridging the gap. I knew that the Nile was not only used for agriculture in ancient Egypt, but also, frequently, for transportation. I’ve crossed the Nile myself, on one of the first tourist trips from Tel Aviv to Cairo after the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty was signed in 1979, and in my memory it was much too wide for anyone to have built a bridge over it three thousand years ago. So were there any bridges in Egypt at the time?

Apparently, hardly at all — and, according to an article from 1948 excitedly detailing a “newly excavated bridge” near the pyramids at Giza (which was the only reliable scholarly information I could find on ancient Egyptian bridges), the word “bridge” did not even exist in their language. “It seems that it was easier to them to slip out of their scanty dress and ford or swim a canal, or perhaps they found it safer to cross in a boat, than walking on an overhanging log” (Rostem, 168). The Pharaohs apparently wanted to build breathtaking temples, massive necropolises and monumental sculptures, but did not devote much of their resources to more humble infrastructure.

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But I wasn’t done, since my characters don’t speak Egyptian, they speak Ivri (the Hebrew word for “Hebrew”). So maybe the idea of a bridge existed in Israel before the Egyptians had felt the need of one. Were there bridges in ancient Israel?

There was a famous bridge leading to the Temple in Jesus’s time. It is now called “Wilson’s Arch” for the dead white guy — excuse me, the 18th century British explorer — who came upon it and described it to Europeans. The controversy about who built it, King Herod in the 1st century BCE or Muslim conquerors in the 7th century CE, has recently been solved by radiocarbon dating (Spoiler alert: It was the Romans.) So that was a bridge too far in the future for my characters, as was the ancient bridge at Ashdod built by the Mamluks. Things weren’t looking too good for my metaphor.

I decided to look for the oldest bridge in the world. It turns out to be in Israel, but not an actual bridge. It’s a Lower Paleolithic site that was in sporadic use for 100,000 years by hominins — maybe not even our own species — who were crossing from Africa into the Levant by way of the Dead Sea Rift. It’s called Gesher Benot Ya’akov, meaning “Bridge of the Children of Jacob,” which is of course ethnocentric nonsense given the time span. Even Genesis doesn’t claim that Abraham, the biblical forefather of all the Jews, was a caveman.

Speaking of the Bible, I tried one last-ditch effort to figure out whether my character could say the word, “bridge” by looking up its use in the Torah. The final answer: Nope. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia says that this word “does not occur in the canonical Scriptures.” It turns out that we really do have the Romans to thank for this seemingly essential concept.

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Hook, line, and sinker. Initially, I was much more doubtful about the antiquity of a fish hook compared to a bridge. Hooks need to be made of strong yet thin metal, with small, sharp barbs to get inside a fish’s mouth and then lodge there. That means metalworking technology would have had to be pretty highly advanced at an early stage of linguistic development, something I wasn’t optimistic about. People have fished for tens of thousands of years with nets, but with hooks? Not likely, I thought. And the letter “vuv,” which I was describing in the sentence that needed the word “hook,” can also mean “tent peg.” In the archaic form of Hebrew writing used at the time of the Exodus, the letter actually looked a lot more like a tent peg than a hook.

More fool me. Fish hooks made of bone were attached to nets in Paleolithic times. And the oldest metal hook ever found, a 6,000 year old copper implement near the Mediterranean coastal city of Ashkelon, was large and strong enough to have been used to catch a shark.

So no one ever fished off the side of a bridge in ancient Egypt, but they could certainly hook their catch.

Photo by Robson Hatsukami Morgan on Unsplash

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