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.