MUSEUMS

Treasures from Israel

MALCOLM GRAY May 16 1988
MUSEUMS

Treasures from Israel

MALCOLM GRAY May 16 1988

Treasures from Israel

MUSEUMS

The land itself is a dry, narrow strip between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River—an area that is roughly two-thirds the size of Vancouver Island. But that sundrenched territory was the crucible of Judeo-Christian civilization—and it has enormous cultural, social and religious significance for Moslems as well. Now, a stunning display of 197 artifacts from Israel evokes the rich heritage of that ancient land in a summer-long exhibition that is scheduled to open at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto this week. Indeed, the collection spans 12,000 years of civilization with items that range from bone carvings from the Neolithic period to mosaic fragments that graced the floor of a synagogue in the sixth century AD.

Toronto will be the only Canadian city to host the display—the last stop on a two-year North American tour that has taken the exhibition to Los

Angeles, Houston and New York City. And in Toronto last week, Martin Weyl, director of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, said that he had helped select artifacts that reflect the vast sweep of Mediterranean civilization to commemorate a more recent event: the 40th anniversary of the founding of Israel. Declared Weyl: “It is probably the most important exhibition that Israel has ever sent out of the country.” Insurance adjusters estimate that the exhibition is worth more than $50 million—but, clearly, the items that will be at the ROM until Sept. 5 are irreplaceable.

Among them are two fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls—commentaries and the earliest known copies of biblical texts. The oldest, known as the Habbakuk Commentary, is a well-preserved document that was written in the first century BC. That interpretation of ancient Hebraic scripture was

one of seven scrolls that a Bedouin shepherd boy discovered in a hillside cave in 1947. The second fragment, called the Masada Psalms Scroll because it contains parts of four chapters from the Book of Psalms, came from the ruins of a mountain fortress near the Dead Sea. There, at Masada in 73 AD, 960 Israelite rebels chose to commit suicide rather than become slaves under Roman rule.

Many other artifacts, including a gracefully rounded jug whose handles take the form of two snakes, recall events from the Old and New testaments. That jug was made almost 3,500 years ago by Canaanites—a neighboring tribe that the Israelites denounced

because they worshiped idols. And a broken tablet from as early as 26 AD contains an inscription suggesting that Pontius Pilate was the Roman prefect of Judea at that time. The limestone fragment from the great port of Caesarea is the only known physical proof that the New Testament figure who agreed to Christ’s crucifixion actually existed. With such a treasure trove on display, ROM officials are confidently predicting that the show will prove to be the smash hit of the summer. Indeed, at prices ranging from $3 for children to $5 for adults, they have already sold more than 10,000 advance tickets for an exhibition that brilliantly evokes the profound legacy of the Holy Land.

MALCOLM GRAY