Hidden In Plain Sight

Israel Correspondent
Friday, March 20, 2009

When east and west Jerusalem were reunited in 1967, Israelis — who had been denied access to the eastern part of the city, including the Western Wall, from 1948 to 1967 — flocked to the Kotel, to the Old City’s decimated Jewish Quarter, and to the colorful stores, restaurants and cultural sites that dotted the eastern half of the city.

The Jewish love affair with overwhelmingly Arab East Jerusalem ended abruptly when the first Palestinian uprising began in 1987. For years even many religious Jews were too fearful to visit the Kotel and other East Jerusalem holy places, and non-Orthodox Israelis and tourists stopped visiting altogether.

Even now, when the Old City is packed with local and foreign tourists, few venture across the street to the Rockefeller Museum, which houses some of the most impressive archeological finds in the Middle East.

Given the museum’s extraordinary collection, which is housed in a venerable Mandate-era building complex surrounded by wildflowers and olive trees, it is a shame that so few people know of its existence. The majestic inner courtyard, with a serene reflecting pool flanked by priceless millennia-old artifacts, is worth a visit in and of itself.

On a pleasant March afternoon only about 20 visitors could be seen strolling through the halls filled with wonderful finds from the first Land of Israel archeological excavations.

The numbers swell on Mondays and Wednesdays, when the Israel Museum runs a shuttle service to the Rockefeller, which is part of its network. In fact the first exhibition visitors encounter (“Beliefs and Believers: Ancient Art from the Israel Museum”) is comprised of 30 stunning pieces from the Israel Museum, which is largely closed to visitors while it undergoes a massive renovation.

In a personally guided tour of the Rockefeller, Fawzi Ibrahim, the 37-year-old curator, noted that the Rockefeller is housed in the oldest (and arguably most beautiful) museum building in the country. It was built in the 1930s with funds from the New York Rockefellers.

“Most of the objects were excavated in the first excavations in the country, at the end of the late 19th century, the 20s, the 30s, the 40s. Most come from important excavations in Jerusalem, Megiddo and Samaria, the capital of the Kingdom of Israel during the First Temple Period.”

Back then, Ibrahim said, most of the British and American archaeologists were trying to link what they unearthed to the Bible. One of the museum’s most important pieces is a large stone inscription referring to the oldest synagogue in Jerusalem from the First Temple Period.

“Most people think that when the Temple stood in Jerusalem there were no synagogues. The inscription tells us that there was another synagogue at the time,” Ibrahim said.

These early archaeologists uncovered household items, tools, pottery and sometimes exquisite gold jewelry from the many civilizations that settled here. Original display cases from the 1930s contain finds dating from the Stone Age and the Iron Age to the Roman and Byzantine eras. Each had its own culture and left its mark on history.

Even the Egyptians left their mark on ancient Israel. An imposing Egyptian statue of Ramses III that was made here, and not in Egypt, attests to the fact that “during some of the Canaanite period, the country was ruled by Egyptian kings,” Ibrahim noted.

Upon entering the museum, visitors encounter “Beliefs and Believers,” which contains early shrines, altars, an Islamic prayer niche, amulets and statues of worshippers dating back as many as 10,000 years.

While many visitors come especially to see the “Beliefs and Believers” exhibition, they would be short-changed if they stopped there. The permanent collection contains many eye-popping items, like an indigenous elephant tusk and several ancient human skeletons.

“A million and a half years ago it was like a savannah in Africa here,” Ibrahim said, pointing to the tusk displayed near the arrowheads.

Walking through the halls you see 4,000- to 5,000-year-old board games with their original playing pieces; exquisite Roman glass vessels and pottery that somehow survived perfectly intact for thousands of years; similarly preserved coins with delicate etchings; ancient bones and sarcophagi.

Ibrahim is particularly proud of the 250,000-year-old skull from the “Galilee Man,” the oldest remains of a human ever discovered in the Middle East, which he cradles in hand.

“We don’t actually know if it belonged to a man or a woman,” the curator admitted with a smile.

Other favorites: 12th-century beams from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and perfectly preserved wooden panels from the original Al Aqsa mosque dating from the eighth century.

“It is highly unusual for organic material to survive,” Ibrahim said, pointing to intricately carved reliefs in wood. “You see influences from Persian, Byzantine, Coptic art. There is a fusion.”

For those fond of gorgeous ancient palaces, nothing beats the hall housing discoveries from Hisham’s Palace in Khirbet el-Majr, located just north of Jericho, which is now under Palestinian control.

Built in the eighth century, the winter palace was mostly destroyed in an earthquake, but much of its interior survived because it was buried in rubble. The stucco used to build the magnificent palace was easier to craft than marble, and artisans reveled in their ability to craft sophisticated designs with floral and geometric motifs for walls, arches and windows. The museum hosts many of these finds as well as frescoes with the paint still vibrant, and whimsical statues of people, gazelles and birds.

Although the palace’s magnificent mosaic floors remain at Khirbet el-Majr, most visitors will consider a mosaic from the ancient Ein Gedi synagogue more than ample compensation.

Ibrahim said the number of visitors is inching up, he hopes the summer will bring an influx of tourists.

Pausing at the entrance, where three artifacts, one representing Judaism, a second Islam and the third Christianity were very intentionally placed within close proximity to each other, Ibrahim said, “Everyone is welcome here.” n

The museum’s Web site is  www.english.imjnet.org.il/htmls/Rockefeller_Museum3.aspx?c0=13395&bsp=12940

The museum can be visited individually, or through a group GROUP tour. To register for tours call 011 972 2 670-8811.

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