The Dead Sea lies between Israel and the West Bank on one side and Jordan to the east, with Jordan River as its main tributary. Known as the deepest and saltiest of lakes, at 1,385 feet below sea level, it is also said to have been the refuge of King David; the place where Herod went for health reasons and from where the chemicals to mummify the Egyptian royals were brought.
Most importantly though, it is the surrounding area of the caves at Qumran from where the most ancient archaeological objects were discovered, namely, The Dead Sea Scrolls. Qumran is a dry plateau bordering the Dead Sea in the West Bank.
The aura surrounding the Dead Sea Scrolls is still somewhat mysterious as their exact origins have not yet been confirmed. Were they all written in Qumran from where they were discovered or were they simply stored in the caves which served as an archive for such precious and sacred testaments?
Currently on display at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), the revered aura of the Scrolls is tangible as one walks into the exhibition which begins with a history of Jerusalem and the prevalence of Judaism in and around that much fought over land today.
Along with a gigantic picture of Jerusalem with the title, 'Judea city of the temple,' an inscription from The Psalm (1375-6) greets the visitor “If I forget you O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither. Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.” The reverence of Jerusalem for the followers of Judaism is definitely an educational journey for the non-Jews visiting the exhibition.
Featuring 16 authentic Dead Sea Scrolls, the ROM is showcasing one of its most important exhibitions for a six-month period which it subtitles as; 'Words that changed the world'. Representing the so far acknowledged earliest text record of biblical patriarchs and prophets known to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the current display includes eight different Scrolls including fragments from the books of Genesis, Deuteronomy and Psalms. Spread over two, three-month periods the display includes four fragments never before publicly displayed and specially conserved for the exhibition. A fragment of the Ten Commandments is also supposed to be displayed for a brief period at a future date not yet disclosed.
The history of the Scrolls apart, the discovery, publication and the final acquisition of all the 900 Scrolls by the Israeli Antiquities Authority is in itself an amazing story which the exhibition details expertly alongside the magnificent display of the Scrolls and other artefacts found from the surrounding area including the parchment containers and shards of utensils and ornaments. Just like all things religious, theories regarding their origin, religious significance and the actual right to claim of the Scrolls are issues mired in controversies.
The 'who dunnit' of the Scrolls is equally controversial as one group is convinced that it was the Essenes—a Jewish religious group—who wrote the Scrolls since they were the main settlers of Qumran who were residing there from the 2nd century BC to the 1st century AD. But there were others too in Qumran, say scholars who present variations on this theory, and say other sects who resided there were also involved in the writing of these Scrolls.
Then there is the Christian-origin theory which says that the text refers to the earliest beliefs of Christianity, hence they were not all written by Jews. Lastly the Jews also lay claim that it was the Jews of Jerusalem who wrote them and then buried them in the Qumran caves.
Without doubt though, there is one indelible truth that emerges from the discovery of the Scrolls that there are more similarities in the origins of the three Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—than disparities.
For 2,000 years a collection of 900 ancient manuscripts, mostly in fragments lay concealed in the Qumran desert caves. These parchments—some on papyrus—lay above the salt-laden waters of the Dead Sea, untouched by light or any other elements until their discovery in 1947. But from the minute that they were discovered and taken out of the caves, any change in climate, atmosphere and in handling, accelerated their deterioration. The conservationists finally realised this and stopped the processes of deterioration caused by sunrays falling directly on the scrolls, for instance, and the activities of the scholars who would eat and smoke in the 'Scollery' where they lodged them for studying.
It was acknowledged that the three main factors that preserved the scrolls for two millennia were a right mix of humidity, temperature and darkness. At any point when the Scrolls are not being handled, they are kept in a climate-controlled storeroom in the dark. And the temperature and the humidity in the storeroom are an average of summer, winter, day, night of the caves in which they were found.
Their travel of the Scrolls to Toronto for the exhibition was on first-class seats because only those were big enough to accommodate the steel travel cases. And since they are Israel's greatest treasures they can never be out of eyesight of the three or more officials from the Israel Antiquities Authority who travel with them. Also, like the heirs of a royal family, never do more than a small number of Scrolls travel in one group!
The displayed Scrolls at ROM include about 230 Hebrew and Greek biblical manuscripts, 1,000 years older than previously known manuscripts, revealing a previously undocumented time in the history of the biblical books.
The Scrolls have shed light on many eras including Judea in the Second Temple period; on the once magnificent city of Herod; into the significance of Sepphoris and all religions and on the elements of commonality with the Quran. Mainly though, the discovery of the Scrolls is said to have revolutionised the understanding of Jewish beginnings and Christian origins.
The ROM exhibition is an exhilarating and awe-inspiring experience. The build up to the actual display of the Scrolls is most skillfully executed and it leaves one saturated with every piece of information on the worth, discovery, origin and geographical detail of the Scrolls' resting area. The artefacts include numerous shards and complete pottery vessels, glass and stone vessels, coins that signified the various stages of the site, jewelry, ostraka and organic materials. Objects found were from the Iron Age and from the Second Temple period.
The first set currently on display—from June 27, 2009 until October 2009—includes biblical scrolls, non-biblical texts and Apocryphal (i.e. non-verified) Psalms. Intriguing were the fragments from the Book of War (non-biblical text, 1st century AD, Hebrew), which scholars believed contained the text of a blessing describing how God will enable the universe to produce fertility and prevent disease and destruction. It is supposedly a description of the apocalyptic war between good and evil.
The other most astounding scroll display for me was the biblical text from Genesis (150 BC to 68 AD, Hebrew). The details state that approximately 20 manuscripts of the Book of Genesis were uncovered in the caves and this scroll contains some of the oldest fragments of Genesis discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Twelve fragments had to be pieced together to reconstruct this portion of the Scroll.
The displayed fragments contain parts of the story of the death of Jacob's wife Rachel and of Joseph's encounter with the wife of Potiphar. To my own amazement reading the text translation in archaic English was almost identical to reading a verse (Surah 12; verse 23-25) from the Quran which narrates the same tale. That was my moment of becoming a believer in the authenticity of the scrolls.
The ROM exhibition has been curated by Risa Levitt Kohn, a PhD, author and expert on subjects including the world of Hebrew Bible, Jewish and Christian Origins and Judaism. The visualising is the most skilful aspect of the display and is complimented by soft strains of hymns in Hebrew.
Basically the scrolls consist of just eight very small parchments, yet the exhibition is turned into an extensive journey into the past and an educational trip through ancient lands. Especially the video presentations that are strategically set up in various areas complete the history tour leaving very vivid imprints.