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Guide Index

Under and Around the Red Sea

Tomb of the Pyramid Builders

Science and the Brain

Oasis of the Ancestors

Saving Storks in the Sinai

Ancient Flutes in Egypt
in the classroom

SHOW 304: Oasis of the Ancestors

People who lived in the ancient lands of what we now call the Middle East certainly did not have computers, faxes or electronic mail, but they were still able to communicate with each other across great distances of space and time. People relied on song, poetry, story and symbols to share ideas and information.

Activity 1: Hieroglyphics Yesterday and Today
Activity 2: Design a Garden
Activity 3: Poetry in Ancient and Modern TImes


Long before writing as we know it was invented, people drew pictures to convey information. Divers found some of these pictures in 1991, when they explored a cave under the Mediterranean Sea, near what is today Marseilles. The drawings include pictures of penguins and seals, indicating that the area was many degrees colder 18,000 years ago, when the cave was above ground and the sketches were made.

The Egyptians developed a kind of picture writing with their hieroglyphs. No one could decipher the code until a soldier on campaign in Africa with Napoleon found a piece of basalt now known as the Rosetta Stone. The same lines were written in hieroglyphics, Greek and demotic, which allowed translators finally to decode the hieroglyphics. (The Rosetta Stone itself is often used as an allusion to represent something that is the key to understanding.)

We use pictures to convey information, too. Consider all the different symbols used in chemistry, computer technology and other sciences. Look at signs that indicate "no smoking," "merging traffic" or "disabled parking," among others. To a person from 4,500 years ago dropping in on the 20th century, these symbols would appear as mystifying as Egyptian hieroglyphics once did to archaeologists.

Look for examples of symbols and symbolism throughout this episode of FRONTIERS. For instance, at Neot Kedumin, a garden in Israel, the various plants and trees represent intangible concepts or ancient stories of the Bible. And the white storks that migrate through the Sinai each year symbolize the return of spring when they reach their destination in Europe. Closely related to the stork is the ibis, a sacred bird that symbolized both birth and death to ancient Egyptians.

  • Make a pattern of modern logos or other pictographs: give it a direction to be read, add some letters and pictures (ideograms) as a puzzle to be solved. Exchange your hieroglyphs with others. Give a hint, if necessary, to help the decoding process.


Five hundred acres of rocky, inhospitable land in central Israel have been turned into a unique plant preserve by botanists. It's called Neot Kedumin, Oasis of the Ancestors, and is a natural setting for trees and plants mentioned in the Bible and Talmud. FRONTIERS visits the garden and its rich array of horticultural references to ancient stories.

Sometimes gardens are designed to include all the plants that appeared in an author's books (such as Shakespeare) or of a certain era (Colonial America, for instance) or even a painting or other work of art (such as a garden at the Cloisters in New York City, which includes plants pictured in one tapestry).

If you could design a garden, what flowers, shrubs and plants would you include? Would it be modeled on a historically famous garden, or planted in a certain shape? Do you know of any garden projects to reclaim native plants in your area? Do you live near any historical sites that feature herb gardens or kitchen gardens of an earlier century? If you wanted to cultivate a Native American garden, what would you plant?


Hebrew poets of long ago wrote lines that expressed their happiness and despair. They wrote of the paradoxes of everyday life; of how one minute you can be miserable over a loss, and the next minute be filled with joy.

One poet wrote these lines:

A time to weep ... And a time to laugh.

  • Working with a partner, write down a list of antithetical, or opposite, ideas. Try to pair them so that each set of words makes a statement about an opposing emotion or idea. Look for topics and ideas in this episode of FRONTIERS.


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.