Stephen (Steve) J. Adler
The ceramic oil lamps in this collection once burned in the Holy Land, lit by the oil of its' abundant olive trees and conceived by the imagination of its early inhabitants: Jewish, Christian, Moslem and Samaritan. The lamps' symbols, designs, shape and decorations, and their technical quality, allow us to learn about the time and place they were made and the culture and standard of living of those who used them.
The symbols and decorations indicate what was meaningful to those who used them. Thus, some lamps have designs related to agriculture reflecting an agricultural society. Others display religious motifs relevant to Jews, Christians or Samaritans. The simple lamps indicate a primitive society while the artistic well-made daroma and Samaritan lamps indicate the presence of skilled craftsmen and an advanced technologic culture. Thus, when the Mamaluke society of the 14-17 C.E. reverted to simple open lamps it indicated the relatively primitive material culture of that period. Samaritan lamps were made and sold with a closed oil hole; this apparently reflected their religious belief that a closed lamp would not convey impurity. While it is rare, some lamps have writing and a few appear in this publication.
As opposed to our modern civilization of television, photography and internet, there were few pictures in ancient times. Therefore, pictures appearing on lamps and coins had special meaning. The Roman Emperor’s face on a coin conveyed a message that he was the ruler. The Cross or Menorah symbolized its owner’s faith. Grapes appearing on daroma lamps symbolized to their Jewish owners the grapes at the entrance to the recently destroyed Holy Temple in Jerusalem, religious ceremonies and the Judean regions vineyards. It is a marvel how the craftsmen who made Holy Land lamps succeeded in putting so much decoration on such a small surface.
Light and flame, which are associated with oil lamps, were general religious symbols and abound in the Bible. Thus, we find in the Bible: “There I shall cause pride to sprout for David; I have prepared a lamp for my anointed.” (Psalms 132:16); “For a commandment is a lamp and the Bible is light; and reproving discipline is the way of life.” (Proverbs 6:23); “A man’s soul is the lamp of God, which searches the chambers of one’s innards.” (Proverbs 20:27). In the New Testament we find: “Your eye is the lamp of your body; when your eye is sound, your whole body is sound, your whole body is full of light; but when it is not sound, your body is full of darkness.” (Luke 11:34); “He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light.” (John 5:35); “And night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they shall reign for ever and ever.” (Rev. 22:5). Thus we see lamps in the Bible as “lighting” the way for righteousness, wisdom, love and other positive values. This is interesting because fire can be destructive; however, the Bible emphasizes the positive aspect of the light which fire radiates. Fire was so important in the Bible that God was revealed to Moses in the burning bush; fire was a symbol for the Almighty. The use of lamps and light in the Bible can be partly explained by the importance of the lamp in the house during the Biblical period.
Lamps can be identified and dated with precision because those of each period and area had unique shape and design and ceramic type. While some of the lamps are wheel made, the more interesting ones are mold made, from clay or stone molds. Some molds are pictured in the catalogue.
The largest group of lamps in this catalogue is from Samaria, the area roughly north of Jerusalem and south of the Sea of Galilee. The population in this area was mainly Samaritans, but there were also Jews, Christians and pagans; this is reflected in the symbols on these lamps. The Samaritan civilization disappeared with the Arab conquest of the Holy Land in the 6-7th century. Little remains of their culture and religion and, therefore, the Samaritan lamps provide important insight into their lives. The early Samaritan lamps, from the fourth century, are of especially fine quality and have beautiful and creative decorations with motifs relating to agriculture, including wine and olive oil production, religion, weapons, jewelry and crafts. The Samaritan lamps also have intricate and artistic designs, which cover the entire top of the lamps. Some lamps also have designs on the bottom. Some “Samaritan” lamps have Jewish symbols (such as the unique lamp with symbols of the Sacrifice of Isaac) and Christian symbols (the cross). The prevalent religious symbols on these lamps, however, refer to the Samaritan religion. The Samaritan lamps are also distinguished by the designs covering the entire lamp, as if they rejected empty space.
It is exciting to hold an object used by people hundreds and thousands of years ago. This gives special meaning to history, religion and culture. These archaeological items are part of the Holy Land’s culture. While they were purchased at public auctions or from licensed dealers or collectors, they were not found in official digs and we cannot know exactly where they were made and used. Therefore, we categorize them by period and area. I have always been ambivalent about purchasing such items, even though it is legal under Israeli law. However, if I didn’t purchase them someone else would have and many of the lamps would have been lost to our society. While grave-robbing has existed since ancient times, we must hope that the State will eventually allot the Antiquities Authority sufficient resources to protect our national heritage. Until that time some collectors have undertaken to preserve these antiquities. This catalogue allows the public to study and enjoy the lamps which I have collected over the past forty years.
A few lamps belong to other collectors, they were necessary to complete the catalogue, and I thank the owners for allowing us to publish them. I have special satisfaction and pride that my son Noam, who is not a collector, but has studied archaeology, has labored studiously to present this collection to the public by preparing this internet site.