Since I arrived, I’d been hearing about the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, home of the fabled Dead Sea scrolls. While I wasn’t sure exactly what the scrolls were, I knew the story about a Bedouin shepherd boy stumbling across the treasure trove of history in some desert caves. So, I knew this museum had to go on my Israel bucket list, and Sergey and I arranged a sherut trip to visit it.
Now, I’ve been in some pretty huge museums before—the Met, the Louvre, the Prado—places where you can easily spend an entire day walking through galleries and still see only a fraction of the collection. While surely smaller than those museums in square footage, the Israel Museum was still giant in scope, covering not only the history of humanity in its archaeological section, but also artwork ranging from the Renaissance to contemporary times with a surprisingly substantial impressionist exhibit, and of course, being the Israel Museum, a series of galleries displaying aspects of Jewish culture, including reconstructed synagogues from around the world.
Suffice it to say, Sergey and I felt like we had run a six-hour marathon running from the Paleolithic to the present by the time we finished!
From the blur of fertility figurines, sarcophagi, and pottery, stone, and glass vessels, we drew two conclusions:
- Humanity has progressed incredibly fast over the last 200 years compared to the rest of our history, when it took thousands of years for simple advancements in technology, like the transition from stone to metal tools.
- Popular souvenir motifs in the Middle East, like the eye beads and pomegranate sculptures you can find in many bazaars and stores here, have not changed for the past few millennia. (One of my favorites from the glass gallery where we saw these popular decorations were small date-shaped glass vials.)
Next up was the Shrine of the Book, the amphora-shaped building that houses the display of some of the Dead Sea scrolls. Here I learned that current theory holds that the scribes of the scrolls belonged to the Essene sect, which had left Jerusalem and moved near the Dead Sea, where they established a sort of farming commune and bathed a lot (one of their tenets was ritual immersion). Moving to the Dead Sea to farm today would be a fool’s errand, unless you had a sort of crop that enjoyed growing in rocks and thrived on saltwater, but at that time, the climate of the Negev Desert was wetter. Seeing the delicate parchment, torn and tattered samples of the collection of almost a thousand such scrolls, made me marvel at how long they have lasted. For adherents of the Hebrew Bible, it must have been an extraordinary find to discover such ancient versions of the chapters still read today. And the scrolls had to survive not only the caves for thousands of years, but also the greed of discoverers—we read a story of a man who smuggled several scrolls to the US and tried to sell them…by posting an ad in the newspaper. They were returned to Israel, thankfully.
Finally, we raced through the art galleries, past Monets and odd contemporary installations, and soon we were on the highway back to Haifa, mulling over the past hundred millennia.