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Israel Museum Review

In 2010, this eclectic treasure trove and world-class, don't-miss museum emerged like a butterfly from a lengthy renewal of its entire main complex. The three main specialties of fine art, archaeology, and Jewish life and art have been much enhanced by new or rearranged exhibits, fresh ideas, and state-of-the-art presentations.

Some strategy notes: if you like museums, plan on two visits. The vegetarian/dairy café, Mansfeld, is a good place for a light meal or coffee. The more expensive Modern has tempting meat and fish combinations and remains open beyond museum hours. The lockers and an ATM in the museum's entrance hall are useful additions.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are certainly the Israel Museum's most famous—and most important—collection. A Bedouin boy discovered the first of the two-thousand-year-old parchments in 1947 in a Judean Desert cave, overlooking the Dead Sea. Of the nine main scrolls and bags full of small fragments that surfaced over the years, many of the most important and most complete are preserved here; the Antiquities Authority holds the rest of the parchments, and a unique copper scroll is in Jordan. The white dome of the Shrine of the Book, the separate pavilion in which the scrolls are housed, was inspired by the lids of the clay jars in which the first ones were found.

The scrolls were written in the Second Temple period by a fiercely zealous separatist Jewish sect, widely identified as the Essenes, a group described by contemporary historians. Archaeological, laboratory, and textual evidence dates the earliest of the scrolls to the 2nd century BC; none could have been written later than AD 68, the year in which their home community, known today as Qumran, was destroyed by the Romans. The parchments, still in an extraordinary state of preservation because of the dryness of the Dead Sea region, contain the oldest Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament ever found, authenticating the almost identical Hebrew texts still in use today. Sectarian literature includes "The Rule of the Community," a sort of constitution of this ascetic group, and "The War of the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness," an account of a future cataclysmic conflict that would, they believed, presage the messianic age.

The medieval Aleppo Codex, on display in the small lower gallery under the white dome, is considered the most authoritative text of the Hebrew Bible in existence. If this speaks to you, the excellent website www.aleppocodex.org will have you impatient to see the real thing.

The quarter-acre 1:50 scale model, adjacent to the Shrine of the Book, represents Jerusalem as it was on the eve of the Great Revolt against Rome (AD 66). Until 2006, the huge, intricate reconstruction was a popular attraction in its original home, on the grounds of the former Holyland Hotel in West Jerusalem. The outdoor model was originally designed and built in the mid-1960s by the late Professor Michael Avi-Yonah. He relied on considerable data gleaned from Roman-period historians, important Jewish texts, and even the New Testament, and based some of his generic reconstructions (villas, a theater, markets, etc.) on Roman structures that have survived across the ancient empire, from France to Turkey. Later archaeological excavations have sometimes confirmed and sometimes challenged Avi-Yonah's sharp intuition, and the model has been updated occasionally to incorporate new knowledge. The available audio guide is a worthwhile aid in deciphering the site.

Taken together, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the huge model, and certain Roman-period exhibits in the Archaeology Wing evoke the turbulent and historically momentous Second Temple period. That was the era from which Christianity emerged; and when the Romans razed the Temple in Jerusalem, it compelled a slow revolution in Jewish life and religious practice that has defined Judaism to this day.

The Archaeology Wing has been reorganized to highlight particular treasures in galleries that follow a historical sequence. If you know a bit of Bible, many artifacts in the Canaanite, Israelite, and Hellenistic-Roman sections offer evocative illustrations of familiar texts. Don't miss the small side rooms devoted to glass, coins, and the Hebrew script.

Jewish Art and Life is the new name for the wing made up mostly of finely wrought Jewish ceremonial objects (Judaica) from widely disparate communities. The "synagogue route" with its reconstructed old synagogues from Cochin (India), Germany, and Venice (Italy) has acquired an addition from the Caribbean community of Suriname.

The Art Wing is a slightly confusing maze spread over different levels, but if you have patience and time, the payoff is great. Older European art rubs shoulders with modern works, contemporary Israeli, design, and photography. The flyer available at the museum entrance lists new and temporary exhibitions. Landscape architect Isamu Noguchi designed the open-air Art Garden. Crunch over the gravel amid works by Daumier, Rodin, Moore, Picasso, and a number of less-legendary local luminaries.

The Youth Wing mounts one new exhibition a year, delightfully interactive and often adult-friendly, designed to encourage children to appreciate the arts and the world around them, or be creative in a crafts workshop. Parents with restless kids will also be grateful for the outdoor play areas.

    Contact Information

  • Address: Ruppin Rd., Givat Ram, Jerusalem, 95435 | Map It
  • Phone: 02/670–8811
  • Cost: NIS 50 (includes audio guide); half price for return visit within three months (keep your ticket); free entrance for young visitors (under 18) on Tues. and Sat.
  • Hours: Sun., Mon., Wed., Thurs., Sat., and Jewish holidays 10–5, Tues. 4–9, Fri. and Jewish holiday eves 10–2.
  • Website:
  • Location: West Jerusalem
Updated: 05-19-2013

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