5000 sq m is a lot of space, but not enough for the Israel Museum to display all the artistic and cultural monuments of the Jewish people and the Holy Land. 8000 years of history is too much time. However, what the museum in western Jerusalem is truly remarkable for is symbolism, hidden in the sculpture garden and the architecture of the ethnography, archeology and contemporary and modern art wings.
Because of the city’s complex topography, the first-time visitor starts thinking about the symbols in the Israel Museum only after passing by the Knesset. The parliament of the still young Israeli state and the complex containing its millennia-long past are quite close to each other.
The best view of the Knesset, whose picture can be seen in any tourist brochure, is from a terrace with a strange pool. The round white structure at its center is something other than a part of a fountain. It is the dome covering the underground Shrine of the Book, the home of the oldest preserved biblical texts – written in the days when Jesus was still having runins with the Pharisees.
The history of the shrine began in 1947, when a Bedouin, Mohammed Ahmed el-Hamed, came across some strange-looking covered clay pots in a cave near Qumran, on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea. They contained 2000-year-old scrolls. Excavations started immediately on the site and eventually unearthed fragments of nearly 800 texts.
Several years later the two American architects of Jewish descent, Armand Bartos and Frederick Kiesler, who were designing the Shrine, decided that the lids that el-Hamed opened were as valuable as the contents they preserved and replicated their shape in the white dome.
The Shrine was inaugurated on 20 April 1965 as part of the just opened Israel Museum. Amazingly – albeit, given the list of donors, understandably – the latter’s art collections quickly acquired sculptures by Moore, Cezane, Gauguin, and Van Gogh.
The mosaics from Horvat Berachot are among the few Christian works of art in the Israeli Museum, whose art gallery is a breath of fresh air after the Madonnas, St Sebastians and Crucifixions that recur endlessly in European galleries. But the truly eye-opening part of the museum is the Judaica and Jewish Ethnography Wing.
The collection of religious receptacles in the Judaica and Jewish Ethnography Wing includes items from synagogues across the world.
The Jews spread to all parts of the known world as early as 8th Century BC, when some groups moved to Horosan, Iran. During the Hellenistic Age, Jews appeared in the large cities of the East, and after the destruction of the Second Temple they could be found practically anywhere: in Europe, from Morocco through Yemen and from Ethiopia to India.
Living in farflung locations, different groups developed eclectic traditions, costumes, religious respectable and tastes in decorating synagogues (three of these have been moved to the museum) that mix the teachings of Judaism and their adaptation to different climes and neighbors.
While viewing the sumptuous bridal costumes from Yemen and the humble clothes of the Jews in Kurdistan, or scrutinizing the amulets for warding off evil spirits and the exquisite silver Torah scroll cases, the visitor may feel giddy. Which of these are true?
Nobody knows who wrote the scrolls bearing biblical and apocryphal texts during the long period between the 2nd Century BC and the 1st Century AD. Nobody knows who the people lived in the caves and settlements around the Dead Sea and kept the manuscripts were. The Essenes, who left Jerusalem after a dispute with the Pharisees regarding the religious calendar, and only one hypothesis. The only thing that is relatively certain is the date when the scrolls were stored in the caves: when the Romans suppressed the Great Revolt of 66-73, conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the Second Temple and with it all hopes that the Jews had for a state of their own.
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A second visit to the Shrine will remove your doubts. Bartos and Kiesler have hidden another symbol in the dome. The latter stands for the forces of good, which, as the Dead Sea scroll entitled “The War of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness” says, will one day face the forces of evil. What does the blank black basalt wall symbolize? The Sons of Darkness, of course.