The most famous museum in Israel is the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Founded in 1965, it was primarily built to display the numerous archaeological finds from throughout the country. It is located across the street from the Knesset, Israel’s government building, and houses approximately 500,000 items.
Perhaps the most popular display at the Israel Museum is the Shrine of the Book, which is a smaller building on the Museum complex that houses the Dead Sea Scrolls. More information about the Dead Sea Scrolls can be found in my Previous Post. These First Century A.D. era scrolls are the oldest Biblical texts ever found (not including a tiny Biblical inscription found at Ketef Hinnom).
Right outside the Shrine of the Book building, visitors can see a huge model depicting Jerusalem from the Second Temple Period, the time that the Dead Sea Scrolls were written. The model was originally built for the Holy Land Hotel in 1966, a year before Israel took of control of the Temple Mount area. People, including my dad, would visit the Holy Land Hotel just to see the model. However, the model was disassembled into 100 parts and moved to the Israel Museum in 2006.
The Israel Museum’s archaeology wing is probably its second largest attraction, after the Dead Sea Scrolls. It not only houses archaeology found in Israel, but also archaeology from other areas of the world, especially the Middle East. One famous item displayed there is the Ketef Hinnom inscription, which I mentioned above as being the oldest Biblical text ever discovered. In 1979, Dr. Gabriel Barkay found two silver scrolls that contain the priestly blessing from Numbers 6:23-27. He found them in a burial cave in Jerusalem’s Hinnom Valley. (Fun Fact: the word Gehenna is an anglicanized version of Gei-Hinnom גֵי־הִנֹּם, which means “Valley of Hinnom.” Because it was used as a dump and a place where evil kings performed child sacrifices in ancient times, the word came to be associated with Hell.) Today, you can visit the burial caves where the Ketef Hinnom inscription was found by going into the Menachem Begin Heritage Center and asking if you could see their archaeolgical garden.
In addition to archaeology, the Israel Museum has also become Israel’s main art museum. However, I am less knowledgable and interested in art, so do not know what famous pieces they have there. While at the museum, I did not have enough time so sped through the art wing.
One other wing at the museum is called the Jack, Joseph, & Morton Mandel Wing for Jewish Art & Life. This wing houses Judaica from throughout the centuries and throughout the world. My favorite part of this wing is called “The Synagogue Route.” This exhibit is a reconstruction of four synagogues, using pieces from the originals. It includes synagogues from 18th century Italy, 16th century India, 18th century Germany, and 18th century Suriname. From what I remember, as you walk into each of the gorgeously recreated synagogues, you hear Jewish music playing from that synagogue’s country and time period.
During the mid-20th century, over 900 Jewish texts were discovered at Qumran, which is located in present-day Israel’s Judean Desert. These scrolls are known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, because of Qumran’s close proximity to the Dead Sea. They date to the last few centuries B.C. and first few centuries A.D., and are primarily written in Hebrew, with several texts in Aramaic and Greek. The scrolls’ content includes Old Testament books, the books of the Apocrypha, and texts written by the Essenes, a Jewish sect of the time. The Dead Sea Scrolls are the oldest Biblical texts ever discovered (not including the Ketef Hinnom scrolls) and include fragments from every Old Testament book except for the book of Esther. However, the book of Isaiah is the only complete Old Testament book found in the collection.
In 1947, a Bedouin shepherd accidentally found seven of the Dead Sea Scrolls in clay jars in a cave in Qumran. During this time, Israel was part of the British Mandate of Palestine. Since the Bedouins could not read Hebrew, they did not know what to make of the scrolls. Eventually, a member of the Syrian Orthodox Church who lived in the area learned about the scrolls. He thought that the script might be in Syriac, the script used for modern Aramaic. Since Syriac is the script used in the Syrian Orthodox Church’s liturgy, he brought the scrolls to his archbishop, Mar Athanasius Yeshue Samuel, who oversaw the Monastery of Saint Mark in Jerusalem. (For more information about the Monastery of Saint Mark in Jerusalem, see my Previous Post.)
After Mar Samuel looked at the seven Dead Sea Scrolls, he immediately realized that they were written in Hebrew, not his cognate language of Aramaic. He ended up buying four of the scrolls, including the one containing the full book of Isaiah, and took a few fragments as well. Eleazar Sukenik, an archaeology professor at Hebrew University, purchased the other three scrolls. When Israel’s War for Independence began in 1948, Mar Samuel fled to New Jersey, where he eventually posted an ad in The Wall Street Journal offering to sell the scrolls. Sukenik’s son, the archaeologist, Yigael Yadin, learned about the ad, and ended up purchasing Mar Samuel’s scrolls in 1954. However, Mar Samuel kept his few fragments. To this day, the fragments remain at St. Mark’s Syrian Orthodox Cathedral in Teaneck, New Jersey, under the ownership of the Syrian Orthodox Church (Home #1).
Yigael Yadin’s scrolls and Mar Samuel’s scrolls ended up going into the new Israel Museum, an archaeology museum built in West Jerusalem in 1965. However, the Dead Sea Scrolls are not in the main building, but in their own climate-controlled building called the Shrine of the Book (Home #2). The building is shaped like the clay jars that originally housed the scrolls. Today, visitors to the Israel Museum can still see the first seven scrolls, as well as most of the others ever found, on display there. Only a few scrolls are displayed at a time, though, in order to minimize the amount of light exposure that they receive. Some of the scrolls have been digitized and can be viewed online here: http://dss.collections.imj.org.il/.
In 1938, when Israel was still under British rule, the British built the Palestine Archaeological Museum to house the discoveries of the archaeological digs that were being conducted at the time. The American philanthropist, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. helped finance the museum, so today, it is known as the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum. When Israel gained its independence in 1948, the city of Jerusalem was divided in half. Israel owned West Jerusalem and Jordan owned East Jerusalem. The Rockefeller Museum fell into the jurisdiction of the Jordanians. However, an international team of archaeologists managed the museum. As more Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered between 1947 and 1956, they were added to the Rockefeller Museum.
During this time, a few of the Dead Sea Scrolls were moved to the Jordan Archaeological Museum, which was built in Amman, Jordan in 1951. This included the “Copper Scroll,” which is made of copper instead of parchment or papyrus and contains a mysterious treasure map. When I visited Amman in 2010, I saw the Copper Scroll at the Jordan Archaeological Museum. However, when Jordan built the Jordan Museum in 2014, the Copper Scroll was moved there instead (Home #3). I am thankful for this, because the Jordan Archaeological Museum’s displays looked outdated, lacked descriptions in some areas, and had questionable climate control.
After Israel took control of East Jerusalem in 1967, during the Six-Day War, it also took control of the Rockefeller Museum, which is now owned by the Israel Museum. Any Dead Sea Scrolls found there were transferred over to the Shrine of the Book. You can still visit the Rockefeller Museum today, free of charge, to see archaeology found during the British Mandate era. However, it does not house anything particularly famous. Additionally, the building’s age shows, and the displays are not as impressive as the displays at the Israel Museum.
In addition to the Shrine of the Book, the Jordan Museum, and the Syrian Orthodox Church in Teaneck, NJ, a small number of Dead Sea Scrolls are located in several academic institutions in the United States, as well as in a private European collection. When the Museum of the Bible opened in Washington D.C. in 2017, it allegedly had 16 Dead Sea Scroll fragments on display. However, since then, investigations have revealed that the Museum was deceived, and that the fragments are all forgeries.
Although Qumran no longer has any known Dead Sea Scrolls there, people can visit the archaeological site today. It is owned by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, and has some interesting videos that you can watch at the visitor center, if you want to learn more about the scrolls and the group (possibly the Essenes) who may have written them. The site itself contains the archaeological remains of the mysterious group who wrote the scrolls.