Book Review: Unholy Business


‘Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed & Forgery in the Holy Land’ By: Nina Burleigh

An enticing shroud of mystery quickly draws readers into the pages of Unholy Business, a non-fiction book by People magazine staff writer & Colombia University adjunct professor Nina Burleigh. She opens with describing an elderly epigrapher’s (analyst of ancient writing) suspicions about certain ‘ancient’ relics, and goes on to explore the artefact-laden home of a billionaire collector.


The connection between these real-life characters and a host of others in Unholy Business are an ossuary, or bone box (once used by Israelites to hold the bones of the dead), a stone tablet, and an ivory pomegranate—all once touted as artefacts proving Biblical stories—and all now considered forgeries, in what Palestinian authorities call ‘the fraud of the century.’

Burleigh travels from the roadblock-studded streets of Israel to the slick London flats of collectors to bring to life the scientists, scholars, archaeologists, collectors, critics, and, in some cases, creators of ancient Judaea, objects revered by thousands of believers as physical evidence of Jesus Christ. Some, like Israeli billionaire collector Shlomo Moussaieff, and Biblical Archaeology Review founder and editor, the influential yet not officially scholarly Hershel Shanks, want to prove the Bible true. (Burleigh describes Shanks as ‘an odd duck—lawyer, crank, P.T. Barnum, and Indiana Jones all rolled into one man’).

On the other side of the fence are scholars who want to adhere to proper science and not allow a probably fictional book to determine what is pulled out of the ground, or ‘minimalists,’ who actually want to disprove stories that might prove Biblically relevant, believing it all to be false. Joe Zias is the most entertaining of these, an American-born Israeli forensic pathologist who, Burleigh describes, ‘is obsessed with ferreting out and exposing the myriad shady characters digging in the Holy Land.’ For every pseudo-scholarly article published with a biblical leaning, Zias, somewhat zelous in his own right, publishes an article that blows it out of the water.

This constant battle formed of dirt and books, set in a land which is constantly at battle itself, has relevance far beyond the millions of dollars collectors and museums spend on artefacts, and beyond the intellectual and emotional toll taken on scholars or even believers. The Holy Land has an enormous tourist industry, which, in a barren landscape, provides income for many locals willing to dress up as Biblical-era fishermen or farmers. Each new archaeological site unearthed and linked in some way, however tenuous, to the Bible, becomes a new stop on the tourist route, and a new source of income for local people.

The star of this cast of real-life characters is the notorious antiquities collector Oded Golan and a handful of accomplices, charged with creating a series of forgeries and scheming to sell them. The items, once touted around the US and Canada, and leaving many believers in their wake, include an ossuary (bone box) bearing the inscription ‘James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus,’ an ivory pomegranate with the inscription ‘Holy to the priests, belonging to the Temple of Yahweh,’ and a stone tablet with a whopping sixteen lines of text (extremely unusual for the bits of antiquity usually found), describing repairs to Solomon’s Temple.  All of them are now declared to be high-tech forgeries, which attempted to provide collectors and the (faithful) public with exactly the kind of ‘evidence’ it is so desperately hoping to find.

Burleigh follows Detective Amir Ganor, the head of the case investigating Oded Golan, and unveils the story to its fullest extent to date. It is a fine read for someone unversed in the Bible or in archaeology, as Burleigh herself is an amateur in these fields; however, this could make for frustratingly under-detailed writing to those more knowledgeable. Burleigh also employs an unusually redundant prose style, perhaps to maintain clarity amongst the sometimes confusing host of characters. She describes a person and his or her profession and stance on the case, gives a few lines of dialogue, and repeats the description. This weighs down the book, especially in the middle, when she provides mountains of context for these objects.

The mystery and excitement of the case do pick up again, but as the court case itself was a lumbering affair, the end of the book grinds to a somewhat ungraceful halt. The best places are in Burleigh’s vivid character descriptions, and her depiction of the ongoing struggle between believers and non-believers, verbally tossing Holy Land artefacts back and forth among each other. She describes the web of interaction and influence which shows that people from Israel and Palestine to London, to California and Canada were influenced by what was perhaps ‘the fraud of the century.’

‘Autumn’ at the Blackheath Poetry Society

Yesterday evening I attended my first meeting of the Blackheath Poetry Society. The BPS meets on the second Monday of every other month, rotating the meetings around various members’ homes. As I had anticipated, I was the youngest there- about 35-40 years younger than everyone else, in fact. Nonetheless, I felt welcomed and not unduly out of place (or perhaps I’m just used to feeling out of place and thus don’t feel uncomfortable about it,) and I do hope to return. 

Thomas Hardy
Thomas Hard

The evening was a pleasant, subdued affair, with about 17 people, most (all, perhaps,) of whom knew each other and some of whom were certainly regulars. Apparently there are about 40 people on the contact list, but the average turnout for each meeting is about 15. This makes for a cozy atmosphere and a poetry-filled few hours, as each person in turn reads one or two poems he or she has selected based on the predetermined theme of the evening. 

This time, the theme was ‘Autumn,’ and I was amazed at the variety of poems brought forth. I took note of everything that was read, and will list them below. There was very little redundancy of even the poets selected, and a number of names I wasn’t familiar with.

The BPS is, for the most part, a poetry appreciation group, so most poems read are classic or traditional works, usually by long-dead authors you’ve studied in school. However members are welcome to read their own works if relevant to the theme of the evening, and I read my poem ‘Monarch Sunset’ after we went around the room once (during which I read ‘Autumn’ by John Clare; I’d also brought ‘Autumn Even-Song’ by George Meredith). 

The reading, which lasted for about an hour, was followed by tea and biscuits and friendly conversation. 

Here is the list of poems that were selected and read (or, in some cases not read but mentioned) by various BPS members. Apologies if I spell any names wrong, etc. I’ve tried to find electronic copies of all of the poems, but in the cases in which I can’t, I’ve tried to add information about the poem or poet instead. Finally (disclaimer!) I haven’t thoroughly checked these versions, so if anyone objects and wants to recommend a different version (if one is incorrect etc,) please let me know. 


Tennyson: (early poems: ‘A spirit haunts the year’s last hours’): Song

Elizabeth Jennings: Song at the Beginning of Autumn

Keats: Ode to Autumn

Shelley: Ode to the West Wind

Ted Hughes: The Harvest Moon, October Dawn

Robert Frost: My November Guest, After Apple-Picking

Yeats: Wild Swans at Coole

Douglas Dunn: Leaving Dundee (about the poet)

Paul Verlaine: The Song of Autumn (a difficult translation; read first in English, then in it’s original French)

Emily Dickinson: Autumn

Dante: Autumn Song

Thomas Hood: Autumn

Lawrence Binyon: The Burning of the Leaves

Browning: By the Fire-Side

Thomas Hardy: Weathers, Shortening Days at the Homestead

Longfellow: Autumn

Shelley: Autumn: A Dirge

Bronte: Autumn

Gay Clifford: Autumn

Victoria Sackville-West: Autumn, Angelis

John Clare: Autumn, Autumn Birds

William W. Campbell: An October Evening

James Thompson: The Autumnal Moon

Ruth Bidgood: Into the Wind

R.S. Thomas: A Day in Autumn

Eleanor Farjeon: For Autumn

A.H. Clough: Autumn

Durnell: Lesbos

Dylan Thomas: Poem in October, The Owl


monarch butterflies
monarch butterflies

 Though not a tried-and-true classic, here is my poem, which will be published in my book Darwin’s Microscope (Flambard Press, February 2009).

Monarch Sunset


One night in August the trees burn November.


The lighthouse spins its cyclops eye to the Atlantic.

The full moon rises ivory in the purple sky,

the sun tilts low on the horizon, sends

its swathe of light simmering across the bay.


But the conflagration is on the peninsula’s trees:

hundreds of monarchs pairing tip to tip,

flecked with dying day,

melting green leaves with copper,

blazing with slow thermal radiance,

pausing on these trees, for this hour,

to gather and merge in flame.