Gallery marks anniversary of Bethsaida


By Jacksoon Booth, Contributor

Seasoned photographer Hanan Shafir has been published in numerous journals, magazines and other publications and has held seminars across the globe.
For several years, Shafir has been documenting the experiences of students at the biblical archaeology site, Bethsaida.
UNO hosted a gallery Aug. 23 and 24 marking the 25th anniversary of the founding of Bethsaida. “Artifacts from the Dig & Hanan Shafir: Photographs of Bethsaida” displayed photographs taken of the site by Shafir.
In 1987, UNO religion professor Dr. Rami Arav founded the unrecovered town of Bethsaida, on the northern shore of Galilee. It is believed to be the place where Jesus performed many miracles. Since the discovery, Arav has allowed students from all over the world to come to excavate the site.
This June, Arav held two sessions where students had the opportunity to dig with him. Gloria Epps was the only UNO student in attendance this year.
Epps spent many years as a student. She has a bachelor’s degree in German and a master’s degree in English, as well as an interdisciplinary degree in religion. This fall, she will begin work on her doctorate in ministry.
Although she has an interest in theology, Epps didn’t see archaeology as a potential area of study. After becoming the director of Christian Education at her church, this changed. She began to notice she was getting questions from students she didn’t necessarily know the answer to, so she started looking into religion courses at UNO.
“I saw this class listed as Biblical Archaeology and I thought that ought to be a bit different, so I entered the class under Dr. Arav,” Epps said. “During the course I got the bug.”
Epps found the topics in class to be interesting and relevant to her coursework and teaching career. When she heard about the excavations at Bethsaida, she saw it as a perfect opportunity to expand her knowledge even more.
“I’ve been able to use what I found: the artifacts, the culture, what it feels like walking on the ground, what it’s like trying to get that dust off your hair [to further my knowledge],” Epps said. “So when the scripture says shake the dust off your feet, I know that’s not easy to do.”
This was Epps’ fourth time visiting Bethsaida. She first went in 2008 and returned in 2009 and 2010.  
Her  trip in 2008 was eye-opening. Its rigid schedule started at 4:45 a.m. with students participating in an archaeological dig during the morning and then examining findings and attending lectures pertaining to the artifacts in the afternoon. On weekends, students could take trips to various places in Galilee.
During the excavations, Epps has valued the experience of learning how to sketch maps, read texts, find certain locations, and find artifacts and clean them properly.
One of Epps’ most memorable experiences happened on her most recent trip.
“This year we found a first century road where we believed Jesus walked and it opened up and expanded into what appeared to be a plaza,” Epps said.
Aside from the academic experiences Epps has had on her travels, the trips have also been spiritual.
Epps hopes other UNO students and members of the Omaha community will take advantage of this opportunity.
Although it takes time and a financial commitment, it was worth the value, Epps said.
“It was a very tremendous experience for me and a very spiritual experience for me,” Epps said. “I want to go again, at least that’s the plan.”
Along with the life-changing weeks she has spent at Bethsaida, Epps was excited for the photo gallery held last week. She has great admiration for Shafir and appreciates this year’s gallery because of its unconventional approach.
“One of the things [Shafir] said to me was I want to show a different side of Bethsaida, not just the digging but the rest of what’s going on,” Epps said.
Epps was excited to see the more candid photos of the students eating, relaxing, and enjoying each other’s company.
Having an understanding of his artistic capabilities and the quality of work Shafir puts into his art, Epps is truly grateful for what he has done at Bethsaida.
“He has tremendous skill, creativity, humor, professionalism and stamina to hang in there for weeks,” Epps said. “Everyone appreciates what he does.”