Several weeks ago I took the opportunity to visit the famed Israel Museum in Jerusalem, for the very first time. Not to be confused with the similarly-named Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv, the Israel Museum is considered Israel’s national museum and is highly regarded worldwide. I bypassed a large group of soldiers and paid the necessary fee to gain entrance to the museum, excited to see what all of the fuss is about.
Slightly confused with the layout, I first inspected an extensive, ancient mosaic floor from Bet Shean before heading to the archaeology wing. Beginning with Egyptian-influenced anthropoid coffins I took a self-guided, and very disorganised, tour of the section. If I were to relay a play-by-play review of my visit this blog post would be far too long and tedious, therefore, I shall simply list some of the items and exhibits that I found most interesting – highlights of my trip.
Within the archaeology wing I found a small exhibition dedicated to ancient glassware, where I learned about iridescence in ancient glass, simple deterioration resulting in what is known as silver weathering. Moving along, I came upon a collection of painted clay ossuaries (burial chests) dating back thousands of years discovered in caves around Peki’in, just minutes from my house in Ma’alot. A copper crown and sceptre from the Cave of the Treasure in the Judean Desert caught my attention next, likely used in cultic ceremonies thousands of years ago.
A collection of flint arrowheads from all over the country piqued my interest, as I am currently taking a class in technology and typology of flint tools. Next, a selection of ancient Tahunian masks made of limestone or chalk, believed to be the oldest masks in the world. Recalling my trip to the Ohalo site as mentioned in my first Kinneret post, preserved grains of wheat and barley as well as the reconstructed hut was on display in the same room. I then came across remains of ancient fauna, including hippopotamus, deer, tiger and ape bones and a set of horns belonging to an ancient bull. A full elephant tusk and molar brought back memories of the Golan Archaeological Museum where I had first learned about elephants roaming the Holy Land so long ago.
I entered a temporary exhibition on the Roman emperor Hadrian, and then found myself in another room looking at ceremonial dress of birth and death in different Jewish societies. I photographed a painted wood Torah scroll case from Maharashtra, India and then a wood and felt burial carriage from Hungary before continuing on to the next exhibit. Browsing the magnificent items on display from various foreign empires and cultures of antiquity I was surprised to see that the Israel Museum has such a rich collection of foreign artefacts, including a Akkadian bronze sword from Iran, a limestone relief featuring Iddin-Sin, King of Simurrun from Iraq, and ancient Egyptian funerary figurines of painted wood and stone – to name but a few of the fascinating items. But the local artefacts were also of great interest, including a stone inscription by Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent commemorating the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem in 1535-38, the same walls seen today surrounding the Old City.
Entering a section dedicated to relics of the Crusader period, I found some wonderful things: a marble slab with the coat of arms of Sir Hugh Wake discovered in Ashkelon and a lithographic stone for stamping leather featuring the arms of the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order which was found in my favourite Crusader ruins, Montfort Castle. Articles of warfare from Tiberias and Akko were also on display, as well as a section of a Christian wall painting of plaster and pigment from a Crusader abbey in Jerusalem.
It was at this point that my camera battery died and I was forced to continue documenting my trip with my phone camera, arguably better in terms of photo quality yet lacking any real zoom (which worked out okay for museum photos). I entered a two-storey room with idolatrous statues, painted tombstones and funerary busts from the Greco-Roman period on the top floor. Descending, I spotted a familiar mosaic on the wall above me – the mosaic from the ancient synagogue at Wadi Hamam that I visited not long before – visible, albeit blurry, in the above photo.
With exhibits on Samaritan artefacts and ruins, ancient Jewish synagogue mosaics, the floor of a Roman dining room in Shechem (Nablus) and even the birth of coinage, there’s simply too much to write about and so I will continue on with the next selection of antiquities, including weapons of war from numerous empires, and the scatterings of pagan idols and idolatrous devices, such as an Edomite shrine found in the Negev. In the photo above, a carved basalt slab featuring one of two pagan gods was found just north of the Kinneret at the ruins of an Aramean city gate. Another object of interest was a silver goblet featuring an artistic mythological design that was found at Ein Samia, a site in the Shomron that I had visited just two days prior.
I then ventured across the main hall and entered a temporary exhibit titled “Pharaoh in Canaan: The Untold Story”, which I found quite interesting. Having visited a large handful of ancient sites throughout Israel I have noticed traces of Egyptian rule, something which isn’t always addressed when it comes to the standard “who’s who” in Holy Land chronology. There is no denying the influence brought about by the Ancient Egyptian culture and, to further cement in their historical importance, compelling relics were put on display (including a reconstructed sandstone gateway façade of a fortress of Ramesses II in Yafo, or Jaffa). For fear of being too long-winded, I shall end the archaeological report here and focus on the other wings of the museum, starting with the Fine Arts wing where I found some agreeable works by Hodler, Van Gogh, Monet, Pissarro and Corot. I browsed the Arnold Maremont Gallery of Pre-Columbian Art (of which I had seen I very similar collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts several months prior), and then the exhibit “Costume and Jewelry: A Matter of Identity” which covers traditional dress of Jews the world over.
Entering the Wing for Jewish Art and Life, I was blown away at the incredibly rich and extensive collection of all things Judaica. It’d be quite a difficult undertaking to even list the highlights of the exhibit so I shall simply cover my favourite section, “The Synagogue Route”. Featuring four reconstructed synagogues, each to a different degree of restoration, the section really interested me from a religious and cultural, as well as architectural, standpoint. I first entered the sandy-floored Tzedek ve-Shalom Synagogue from Suriname, a small Caribbean country in South America just north of Brazil. Built in 1736 by Portuguese Jews who lived in the Netherlands before starting a new life in the New World, the synagogue has influences from both European cultures. Next I visited the Kadavumbagam Synagogue from Cochin, India, with its large carved wood aron (holy ark) and balcony. In terms of opulence, it was the small yet grand Vittorio Veneto Synagogue from Italy which was completed in 1700 that took the proverbial cake – a masterpiece of Italian Baroque style, reminiscent of an aristocratic palace. The final synagogue is the Horb Synagogue from Germany, which sadly didn’t stand the test of time since being built in the early 1700’s. All that remains are the walls and elaborately painted wooden ceiling, dating 1735 by Jewish Galician artist Eliezer Sussman, which is the last surviving synagogue artwork of its kind.
Leaving the phenomenal Judaica department, I walked, and at times nearly ran, through the ghastly contemporary art wing – only a mere few pieces holding any redeeming value in my critical opinion. I dashed for the exit and passed some sculptures in the Art Garden outside as I made my way to the Holyland Model of Jerusalem, a 1:50 scale-model of what Jerusalem might have looked like during the Second Temple Period.
At last I reached the most iconic feature of the Israel Museum, the Shrine of the Book containing the Dead Sea Scrolls under a meringue-looking white dome. Unfortunately, photography is forbidden within the building and so I have nothing to show for, other than my [written] word itself. And so, after enjoying a look at the famous scrolls found in caves in and around Qumran, I bid farewell to the famous museum and rushed back to Bar Ilan University for a computers class…