Ancient Theater Uncovered in Jerusalem

Ancient Theater in Jerusalem

Ancient theater Jerusalem

An ancient Roman theater is excavated in Jerusalem’s old city, October 16, 2017. CREDIT: Olivier Fitoussi

Archaeology in Jerusalem continues to impress us all. New things are being uncovered on a regular basis, adding more an more details to the context of the Bible.

Just recently, an ancient theater was found near the Western Wall. According to HaAretzthe original purpose of the excavation in this area was to date a particular archway that led into the Temple during the days of the 2nd Temple. For over hundred years, this archway has been labeled Wilson’s Arch, named after the early explorer who originally discovered it in the 19th century. However, in probing further down to expose further levels of the Herodian western wallthis theater was discovered.

The Archaeologists

Ancient theater Jerusalem

Israel’s Antiquities Authority’s Dr. Joe Uziel works in an ancient Roman theater in Jerusalem’s old city, October 16, 2017. CREDIT: Olivier Fitouss

From a research perspective, this is a sensational find. The discovery was a real surprise. When we started excavating, our goal was to date Wilson’s Arch. We did not imagine that a window would open for us onto the mystery of Jerusalem’s lost theater …The discovery of the theater-like structure is the real drama,” Dr. Joe Uziel, Tehillah Lieberman and Dr. Avi Solomon, the archeologists in charge of the excavations, said in a statement.

Unlike larger theaters found at places like Caesarea and Beth Shean, this theater was quite small. The archeologists suggest that this is a theater-like structure of the type known in the Roman world as an odeon. These smaller structures were primarily used for musical performances. According to the article, it was also stated that the structure may also have been a bouleuterion, a place where the city council met.

Remarkably, the archaeologists believe the theater was never used.


Wilson's Arch

Workers restore a ceiling of the Western Wall tunnels near the site where Israeli Antiquity Authority recently discovered an ancient roman theatre, Jerusalem, October 16, 2017. CREDIT: MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP

The questions we raise are two-fold: 1). What is the precise date of this theater? and 2). Why do the archaeologist believe that the theater was not used?

Yet a third question that arises is one that connects us to the Bible – “Is this a theater Jesus would have seen Himself during His visits (perhaps a total of five) to Jerusalem as recorded in the Gospels? It is fun to speculate.

Here is an amazing video of this incredible discovery:



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Has Ancient Bethsaida Been Found?


El Araj

The recent excavation at El Araj – possible “Bethsaida” of the Bible.

Biblical archaeologists continue to excavate ancient sites in Israel. The discovery of the ancient city of Bethsaida is another one of these sites being uncovered that connects us directly to the Bible.

The Site of El Araj

On the last Israel trip I led (September 4-17 2017), we visited the site of El Araj. Finding the location of this new excavation through the guidance of a few friends, we diverted from the main asphalt road on the NE corner of the Sea of Galilee to a small unmarked dirt lane that took us to the site. Let’s just say that going to “off-the-beaten-track” sites like this is something I like to do with groups and something that every “touristy” Israel tours do not do. For me, visiting this possible site for Bethsaida was the highlight of the trip!

El Araj team

The el Araj team, summer of 2017

About a month ago, the results of the 2nd year of excavation at El Araj were published. I must say that what was discovered at this point is quite exciting. Indeed, the search for the true site of Bethsaida has been ongoing since the 1800s. But it was not until the 1980s when Father Pixner, a Benedictine monk, excavated a site about 1.5 miles north of the water’s edge today (more recently, the University of Nebraska has been digging here). The site called et-Tell reveals an impressive 1st Temple four-chambered gate (9th century BC) and two large Hellenistic houses (2nd century BC). But that is about it. No 1st century ruins contemporary with the time of Jesus or the New Testament have been found. While what Dr. Bryant Wood (of Associates for Biblical Research) has said is important (e.g. “The lack of evidence does not mean the evidence of absence.”), the main leading issue is not just the archaeology but primarily the location of et-Tell. For it to be a fishing village (Bethsaida literally means “house of fishing”), you would expect it to be on the water’s edge. It is not even close. However, this new site, El Araj, precisely is!

silver coins - Nero found at El Araj

The two coins found in the summer of 2017. The left one depicts Nero – 66-67 AD (credit: National Geographic).

We know the El Araj (later re-named Julius by Herod Phillip in 30 AD when he “upgraded” the small Bethsaida to a polis or city) actually was on the water’s edge because of the 1st century Roman bathhouse and mosaic found this year. This one lone discovery tells us that the water of the Sea of Galilee did not come further north (as those who hold to the view that et Tell is Bethsaida contend) or else these uncovered structures would have been underwater. Topographically, el Araj’s location fits much better with the historical (and Gospel) records.

So what has been discovered so far?

map of el Araj

(credit: Biblical Resources)

While I will direct you to a few more detailed articles already highlighting this summer’s most recent finds (e.g. CBN, National Geographic, and Ha-Aretz), the discoveries include Roman structures, mosaics, two coins (one of them a silver coin of Nero – 66-67 AD), a Byzantine Church, and the ruins of a Crusader building. About the significance of the Byzantine Church, co-director Dr. Steve Notley said, “Willibald, the bishop of Eichstätt in Bavaria, visited the Holy Land in 725 C.E., and in his itinerary, he describes his visit to a church at Bethsaida that was built over the house of Peter and Andrew. It may well be that the current excavations have unearthed evidence for that church.”  Only time will tell if this was that church!
About the findings this year, archaeologist Dr. Mordechai Avram stated, “[The discovery of] a bathhouse is something that leads us to understand that we are within some kind of a city, some kind of a sphere of people who are building communal structures, public structures and although the dig here is very small, it immediately hinted us that we are in a very good place to suggest that we discovered the city of Julias.” 

Mosaic floor at el Araj

Mosaic Roman floor (credit: Zachary Wong, 2017)

So visiting this new site was very exciting especially in light of the Gospels telling us this was the home of Peter, Andrew, and Phillip (John 1). It was also the home of the blind man healed by Jesus (Mark 8). Additionally, the Feeding of the 5,000 took place here too (Luke 9). Lastly, this may have been a small fishing village visited by Jesus Himself!

Stay tuned for further updates upon next year’s excavation! If I can work it in my touring and teaching schedule, I would love to dig here in 2018!
It goes without saying that el Araj will be a site we will visit on each and every upcoming trip I lead!
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Hezekiah’s Tunnel Explained

One of the most exciting “adventures” to experience in Jerusalem is to walk through what is known as Hezekiah’s Tunnel. It is also called the Siloah Tunnel

Hezekiah's Tunnel

A cut-away of the City of David revealing the path of Hezekiah’s Tunnel

In a few places, the Bible mentions about the chiseling of this tunnel (2 Kings 19-20, 2 Chr. 32, Isaiah 36-37). In the wider context, in 705 King Sennacherib from Assyria took reign. In preparation for his southern advance, Hezekiah carved out of the bedrock a 1,720 foot tunnel. The purpose for doing so was to allow the waters from the Gihon Spring (the source of water for the City of David) to flow south to the inside part of the city. So with two team of rock cutters starting at opposite ends, the tunnel was carved.

Hezekiah's Tunnel

Hezekiah’s Tunnel in the City of David. The tunnel is 1,720 feet long and was built at the end of the 8th century BC.

We even have an inscription (the Siloam Inscription) that tells us how it was precisely done. This inscription was discovered in 1880 and still today is housed on display in the Istanbul Museum. It describes how the the two teams of rock cutters met in the middle of the tunnel. They literally heard each other’s picks and axes until they broke through. Amazing!

The video below is yet another one that features Dr. Ronnie Reich. He is an Israeli archaeologist who excavated over 10 years at the City of David. He shares some interesting perspectives on the tunnel.

Also, a shorter video was produced by the City of David Foundation.

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The Conquering of Jerusalem … Another Theory

In the last blog (entitled David’s Conquering of Jerusalem), I offered a wonderful video on how David conquered Jebus, the Canaanite city later called Jerusalem. Archaeologists are continuing to discover how the city was taken by David back in the 10th century BC.

City of David or Jebus

A model of the City of David. It was called Jebus when David conquered it (2 Samuel 5)

The story of how it was conquered is mentioned in 2 Samuel 5. As I mentioned, the “old theory” was that Joab climbed up a vertical tunnel  (called Warren’s Shaft today). However, with new excavations over the last 10 years or so, this theory is no longer held. The “water shaft” used by Joab that day was probably another part of the Canaanite water system about 30 feet away.

So in this follow-up blog, I share with you another video. You will enjoy hearing Dr. Ronnie Reich, Israeli archaeologist, share his views about this water system.

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David’s Conquering of Jerusalem

Biblical archaeology has uncovered many things pertaining to the history of ancient Jerusalem. Without one exception, archaeology has confirmed the historicity of the Bible!  While newer archaeological discoveries may cause us to reexamine prior excavations and even cause us to reinterpret what was previously found, the stories of the Bible still stand on their own!

Warren's Shaft

Warren’s Shaft discovered in the 19th century (credit: Bible Places)

The excavations at the City of David in Jerusalem have been going on since the 19th century. In more recent years, particularly in the late 1970s and 80s, the excavations on the eastern slope of the City of David (called “Area G”) have shed a lot of light on both Canaanite and Israelite Jerusalem. A little further south the water system of the city was discovered. Part of this water system was first discovered by Charles Warren, an early 19th century explorer. This water system was later excavated in the early 80s as well.

Warren's Shaft

One of our groups looking down Warren’s Shaft in the City of David

Specifically, it was Warren who explored a 52 vertical tunnel (now called Warren’s Shaft) that was believed to be the “water shaft” mentioned in 2 Samuel 5. Whether it was this shaft or another part of the water system we cannot be certain. Yet for sure, some “water shaft” (tsinnor in Hebrew) was used in the 2 Samuel 5 story and it played an important role in how the city (then called Jebus) was conquered. By the way, when I was an archaeology student in Jerusalem in 1981-82, I had the chance to climb Warren’s Shaft. It was an amazing experience to think I climbed up the same shaft that Joab did close to 3,000 years ago!

Charles Warren

Charles Warren who first discovered the shaft in the 19th century

As I mentioned above, with newer excavations at the Gihon Spring taking place in the last few years, archaeological theories have now changed regarding what specific part of the water system was used in the conquering of Jebus by David and his men. With these new discoveries, the “old” theory that contends that Warren’s Shaft was what was climbed by Joab is generally no longer held. Yet, some still believe it was used.

Water system of City of David

The water system of ancient City of David. Warren’s Shaft is listed as the “vertical shaft”

The following video (first appearing on the Israel News Network HERE) uses this “old theory” to illustrate how the city was conquered from the inside out. Whether Joab and the rest of David’s men used Warren’s Shaft or a part of the newly-revealed Canaanite water system further south, the truth of the matter is that the city was taken and established by David as the capital of His kingdom!

The video is illustrated very well!  I think you will enjoy it.

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Stone Jars & Cana

It is always very interesting and exciting to learn of new discoveries that connect us with the Bible. While we must begin with a starting point that contends that the Bible is historically accurate and trustworthy, the role of archaeology is to simply reveal the truth of the Bible. What archaeology does is this – it connects us with the stories from the Bible This seems to be the case once again from a recent discovery in the region of the Lower Galilee between the biblical cities of Nazareth and Cana.

stone jar found near Cana

2,000 year-old stone jar (credit: Times of Israel)

As we know from John 2, Jesus’ first miracle happened during a Jewish wedding taking place in Cana. The miracle was the changing the water into wine. For ceremonial purposes, stone jars were used at this wedding. What makes this recent archaeological discovery so exciting is that it is believed that the place where these stone jars were made (e.g. stone factory) may have been found in this precise area between Nazareth and Cana! While we of course can’t say for sure that the stone jars used in the John 2 story were actually made here, nonetheless it is a good possibility they were made here in this soft chalk limestone cave!

Excavation site of Cana stone jars

The excavation site near Cana (credit IAA)

As shared in at, this stone-jar workshop was only discovered by chance as the construction of a sports centre got underway in the area. About this “accidental” discovery, Amanda Borschel-Dan at the Times of Israel writes, “A man-made chalkstone quarry cave was recently discovered between Nazareth and the village of Kana. What is unique in this excavation is the additional find of a stoneware workshop — one of only four in Israel.”

stone vessels near Cana

Stone vessels (credit: IAA)

This dig is being done by Ariel University located in Samaria. Dr. Yonatan Adler, senior lecturer at Ariel University and director of excavations for the Israel Antiquities Authority says, “The production waste indicates that this workshop produced mainly handled mugs and bowls of various sizes. The finished products were marketed throughout the region here in Galilee, and our finds provide striking evidence that Jews here were scrupulous regarding the purity laws.”

Below is a video that describes the excavation in fuller detail.


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Discovery of Canaanite Body at Tel Gezer

In a recent Haaretz article published about two weeks ago, skeletons of bodies were discovered at ancient Gezer. Having participated in last year’s excavation at Tel Gezer, I am excited to hear this news.

Skeleton at Gezer

One of the skeletons found at Tel Gezer. This body was apparently crushed by falling stones (Credit: Tandy Institute of Archaeology)

Often times when bones are discovered at an archaeological site in Israel, such an uncovering potentially puts into place certain steps that requires the dig to slow down and verify what has been found. To be honest, finding bones, particularly human bones, can potentially bring a dig to a halt in that area of excavation because it forces the archaeologist to report the finding of bones to certain authorities who then, in turn, come and evaluate the find. For the religious Jew, finding human bones requires special attention and respect for the deceased, even a proper burial, although the bones may date back to biblical times. In this case at Gezer, it appears that these human bones belonged to ancient Canaanites who lost their lives during the time of the Egyptian destruction of the city in the 13th century BC.  What makes this so interesting is how this find of skeletons matches up well with both other archaeological records as well as with the Bible.

Merneptah Stele

The Merneptah Stele that records that the Egyptian Pharaoh “seized Gezer.” (credit: Webscribe, Wikimedia Commons)

The ancient city of Gezer is mentioned a few times in Egyptian records. Apparently, the Egyptians had great interest in controlling Gezer and this most strategic region of Israel. Located along the Aijalon Valley, Gezer served as the primary fortified city that guarded the south-north route from Egypt. In the 15th century BC, Thutmose III captured the city (this is recorded on the walls of the Karnak Temple in Luxor). Later in the 14th-13th centuries BC, Gezer is actually mentioned in the Amarna Letters. These were a series of about 350 tablets written in cuneiform (the diplomatic language of the day) that preserved the conversation of what was going on in Canaan. The Egyptian Pharaoh Amenhotep II actually addresses the Gezer king by name – a Canaanite named Milkilu. These Amarna Letters are actually displayed at the Egyptian Museum. Dr. Ortiz comments, “We know from the Amarna Tablets that the [Canaanite] kings of Gezer were major players in the region during the 14th century B.C.E. Egypt would have been keen on the great agricultural land in the vicinity.

Canaanite body

The uncovering of one of the bodies (credit: Tandy Institute of Archaeology)

But where the find of these skeletons comes into play relates to what is mentioned on the Merneptah Stele (also displayed at the Egyptian Museum). Gezer was again taken by the Egyptians. According to this stone stele, Merneptah (the son of Ramses II and the 4th Pharoah of the 19th Dynasty) seized Gezer.” This accounts for the destruction level found in the 10th season of excavating here at Gezer.

According to the Bible, Gezer was initially captured by Joshua, for the city makes the list of 31 cities taken in the Conquest (see Joshua 12). However, like a few other cities, the Canaanites were apparently able to maintain control over the city (Judges 1:29). Thus, the three skeletons found here (2 adults and one child) were probably Canaanites who were killed in the Merneptah destruction of the city.

Canaanite Body Gezer

More excavation of the Canaanite body in Room 1 (Credit: Tandy Institute of Archaeology)

Furthermore, “the skeletal remains had been reduced mostly to powdery charred dust. The adult was lying on its back with arms above its head. The child, who was wearing earrings, was next to the adult, to the left. This room was filled with ash and collapsed mud brick,” says Ortiz. “We can only guess what they were doing in the building on the eve of destruction. Were they hiding? Were they fleeing the Egyptian soldiers? Did they go back into the building to retrieve valuables?

Gezer dig

The rooms where the bodies were uncovered (credit: Tandy Institute of Archaeology)

In a second room, the excavators found the remains of a particularly intriguing rectangular room with a supporting wall and two pillars in its center. The article continues, “In this room, which had been finely plastered, a third body was found, also telling a tale of gruesome death. This person, 1.72 centimeters tall, was found beneath a jumble of collapsed stones that ironically helped to preserve the skeletal remains.” Ortiz added, “This individual attests to the violent nature of the destruction, as it is clear he experienced the trauma of the event,

To read this full article about this exciting new discovery, go HERE.

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The 2,000 Year-Old Street in Jerusalem

lot of ancient ruins have been uncovered in Jerusalem. Specifically, much has been found relating to the world of Herodian Jerusalem, or in other words, Jerusalem at the time of Jesus. This is one of the reasons why seeing and experiencing Jerusalem first hand is so very exciting!

Drainage channel Jerusalem

The drainage channel that runs under the Herodian street above.

On each and every tour I lead, people always have the option to walk up through what is now called the drainage channelThis is located under the street where the man is standing in the video below. I just took my June 2017 group through this channel, enabling us to see the bottom of the Herodian pavement above us. It is quite remarkable!

Jerusalem drainage channel

What the Herodian street probably looked like, with the drainage channel below

While the video below is in Hebrew, it is sub-titled in English. It displays the newest excavations taking place in the City of DavidThis excavation is taking place 12 months a year and what is being revealed  is quite stunning!  The aggressiveness of the approach to uncover was much as possible is amazing to see and witness first hand. Each time we go here, something new is unearthed!

Watch the video below.

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Silver Shekel Coin

Ancient shekel coin

Ancient silver shekel coin found in the drainage channel in Jerusalem in 2008. This was probably minted in Tyre. It weighs 13 grams and was minted in 22 AD.

How many of you keep lose change in your pocket?  For me, it’s usually annoying. I especially don’t like pennies, although I do have a few large jars of them under my bed somewhere. I suppose I should see how much these jars are worth one of these days! But in today’s culture of debit cards, some people don’t deal with cash and lose change in their pockets at all. However, times were different in the days of the Bible. Having coins in one’s pocket or pouch was common. If you were a Jew going to the Temple in Jerusalem in the days of Jesus, it was important to have a possession of coins, especially one kind of coin … the half shekel coin!

According to the Bible in the days of Moses, “Everyone who is numbered, from twenty years old and over, shall give the contribution to the Lord. The rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than the half shekel, when you give the contribution to the Lord to make atonement for yourselves.” (Exodus 30:15).

The major weight of metal mentioned in the Bible was the shekel, as its name, which means simply “weight,” testifies. Since the shekel was the definite weight, an expression such as “1,000 silver” (Genesis 20:16) can be explained as 1,000 shekels of silver, and the name of the weight is omitted since it is self-explanatory. The fundamental nature of the shekel can also be seen in the fact that all weights which the Bible explains are explained only in terms of the shekel. Thus in the days of the Old Testament, the shekel was used as a bartering material, not a minted coin. Jeremiah bought a plot of land and weighed his payment (silver) on scales (Jeremiah 32:9).

However eventually the shekel was minted as a coin as early as the Persian period. Hundred of years later during the time of the Hasmoneans (137 BC), the Jews minted their own coins. By the time of Herod the Great (37-4 BC) and later his sons (Herod Archelaus – 4 BC – 6 AD; Herod Antipas -4 BC – 39 AD; and Herod Philip I – 4 BC – 34 AD), coins were in wide use.

According to the Talmud, the collection of the half shekel coin occurred every year on the first day of the month of Adar when the “heralding of the shekelim” took place, that is to say the beginning of the collection of the money and it ended on the first day of the month of Nissan, when there was new budget in the temple and the purchase of public sacrifices was renewed.

It was most likely a shekel minted in Tyre that Jesus and Peter used to pay the Temple head tax (a half shekel each, see Matthew 17:27). Moreover, 30 Tyrian silver coins probably were given as payment to Judas Iscariot (Matthew 26:15). This annual half shekel head-tax was donated in shekels and half shekels from the Tyre mint where they were struck from the year 125 BCE until the outbreak of the Great Revolt in 66 CE. Incidentally, one of these coins was found in the Herodian drainage channel in Jerusalem in March, 2018. It must have been dropped by someone walking on the street above and fell through either a crack in the street or through one of many man holes discovered (go HERE for the full article of this discovery).

half shekel coin

Newly minted half-shekel coin. To date, over 200,000 coins have been purchased as donations in building the 3rd Temple.

This brings us up to today. According to Adam Eliyahu Berkowitz (in a Breaking Israel News article), “While the Temple was standing, every Jewish man was required to give one half-shekel weight of silver, approximately eight grams of silver (worth about $4 today), as a mandatory tax to support the Temple. Each man was obligated to give the same amount, regardless of his economic condition. The coins, once deposited in the Temple courtyard, were hekdesh (sanctified) and not permitted to be used for any other purpose.”  The giving of this coin towards the expense and upkeep of the Tabernacle (and eventually Temple in Jerusalem) was considered a mitvah (command).” This command was instituted from before the First Temple Period all the way through the days of Hadrian in the 2nd century AD despite the Temple being destroyed in 70 AD by the Romans.

However, a special 1/2 shekel coin has been minted in preparation for the building of the 3rd Temple. This coin is different than the common 1/2 shekel coin in circulation today (worth only about 12.5 cents). But through the vision of Reuven Prager, this mitzvah is being reinstated. To date, 200,000 coins have been purchased. They are deposited into the Otzar Hamikdash (“Treasury of the Temple”), an organization established to oversee the financing of the new Temple.

Follow this link to the full article:  HERE

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Cave 12 Found at Qumran

Cave 12 Qumran

Fragments of six jars, parchment, and papyrus was found in Cave 12 (photo credit: Dr. Randall Price)

The whole world of biblical scholarship changed in 1947 when the first Dead Sea Scrolls were found at Qumran. Before these 2,000 year old texts of Scripture were found, the oldest Hebrew Bible texts scholars had dated to only around 1,000 AD. Yet God miraculously preserved these texts for the world to see and study them.

Between 1947 and 1956, 11 caves were found in this area of Qumran. Between 750 – 950 texts (depending on how you count them) were found. About 25% of the texts of copies of Hebrew Scriptures, all 39 books of the OT except for Esther. About 27% of the scrolls were common Judaism texts. About 38% were sectarian documents of the community of Essene community. And about 11% of the scrolls were too fragmentary to place in a category.

Qumran Cave 12

The opening to Cave 12 (photo credit: Dr. Randall Price)

Seven scrolls were found in Cave 1 – Two Isaiah Scrolls, the Thanksgiving Scroll, the War Scroll, the text of the Community Rules, and a commentary on Habakkuk (the Pesher Habakkuk). I always provide an option to hike to this famous “Cave 1” on all the trip I lead.

However, it was just announced that a twelfth cave was just found. This “Cave 12” is located high on the western cliffs overlooking the archaeological site of Qumran. This is quite exciting!

Inside this cave, pieces of six 2000 year-old jars were found. Also small fragments of parchment and papyrus were discovered as well as at least one linen used for wrapping scrolls. The jars are identical to those found in other caves. Apparently the cave was looted in the 1950s, with pick-axe heads found inside the cave.

Randall Price in Cave 12

Dr. Randall Price in Cave 12 (photo credit: Dr. Randall Price)

Dr. Randall Price, professor at Liberty University, is one of a few who led this latest expedition. Another archaeologist who was part of the dig was Oren Gutfield of Hebrew University. His comments reflect the significance of this discovery, “This exciting excavation is the closest we’ve come to discovering new Dead Sea scrolls in 60 years. Until now, it was accepted that Dead Sea scrolls were found only in 11 caves at Qumran, but now there is no doubt that this is the 12th cave.”

Several articles were written about this latest discovery of Cave 12.  Stay tuned…. more to come I’m sure!

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