Ancient Refuge in the Holy Land

PBS America - 7.50pm

Who's in it?

Professors and historians went all Indiana Jones-ish, swapping their offices for the parched landscape of the Judean Desert to unravel the saga of a Jewish rebellion and its brutal end.

In a nutshell

Jewish refugees fleeing a horrific state-sponsored genocide. A familiar sounding story, except this particular onslaught occurred 2,000 years ago in the Middle East. Last night, PBS America took us out there, along with top historians who were literally digging away at the truth. Their focus was the colourfully named Cave of Letters, where those escaping a failed Jewish rebellion led by Shimon Bar-Kokhba sought refuge.

The landscape itself was stunning – and deadly. As the narrator put it, it's a place that's "witnessed epic struggles, warrior heroes, religious visionaries" and the Cave of Letters yielded bones, ritual items, and ancient documents signed by Bar-Kokhba himself. Bearing in mind he was regarded by many as the actual Jewish Messiah, this is as big as big deals get. This was more than just a documentary about the uprising and the aftermath, though. It was a primer in Jewish legends and history, the workings of the Roman Empire, and – with its close look at bits of old ovens and ancient toilets – a bit like the coolest episode of Time Team ever.

What's the verdict?

Cinematic filmmaking and a heady dose of history combined to make this a real epic of a documentary. And it taught us about a chapter in history every bit as fascinating as the Biblical stories that unfolded around the same time.


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