It’s not often that burial caves and graves are discovered while digging the foundation for an archaeological museum. But in Jerusalem, it’s not surprising. This area, which from Biblical days lies outside Jerusalem’s city walls, was reserved for burials.
Today some of their funerary Roman and Byzantine pottery, coins, and jewelry are displayed upstairs, in the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum.
The Rockefeller, financed by John D. Rockefeller Jr. and opened in 1938, is located near Herod’s gate, just outside the walled Old City of Jerusalem, Israel. Its landmark architecture, fashioned from striking white limestone, combines elements of both the East and West, as does the country itself. Spacious exhibition halls illuminated by high, rectangular windows and featuring domed, vaulted ceilings, recall European cathedrals. A peaceful garden courtyard, tucked inside, featuring a rectangular pool, a spouting gargoyle, and an exquisite blue-tiled Islamic-style niche, reflects its Middle Eastern surroundings. This area also includes 10 picturesque stone bas-reliefs, one for each of the cultures that have influenced this corner of the world.
The Rockefeller displays extraordinary archaeological finds from Jerusalem, Jericho, Megiddo, Samaria, Ashkelon, Acre, and the Galilee that were discovered between 1920 and 1940. Most are pottery, tools, and household tools, and all are arranged in chronological order. Visitors, in the course of an hour or so, can stroll through one and a half million years of human history, from the Stone Age through the 18th century. Yet few do.
Some, in this city rich with museums, simply overlook this architectural jewel in favor of others. Some hesitate to brave its location, smack dab in Arab East Jerusalem. Others cite its small size, staid atmosphere, and old-fashioned rectangular display cases, unchanged since its beginnings. Yet the Rockefeller’s serenity, combined with an absence of crowds, allows for leisurely contemplation of long gone—yet achingly familiar—lives.
Who can view a Late Stone Age man, his head garlanded with a funereal band made of shells, without imagining the moment when they were wound round his brow? Who can view red-orange necklaces of carnelian beads, known in ancient times as “the blood of the goddess Isis,” without imagining the women who wore them?
Yet not all is left to the imagination. Jerusalem’s Israel Museum, which manages the Rockefeller, organizes shuttle service and bi-weekly guided tours. Presented by those in the know, even artifacts that are merely identified by number, as many here are, come to life.
A clay ossuary, a final resting place for human bones improbably featuring a gaping mouth, eyes, and a sharpened nose, heralds discussions about 4000 BC burial practice. Golden bracelets, part of a treasure trove stashed hurriedly beneath a floor as its owners fled three millennia ago, glitter like new.
A patched clay bathtub, similar to those we use today, turns out to be an ancient burial receptacle, a sarcophagus. A single marbled foot, forever severed from its towering, nameless body, mutely dramatizes the Roman conquest of nearby Ashkelon. A handful of decorative silver and bronze fibula, straight-pin-type brooches people once used to fasten their clothing, pinpoint more questions than answers.
An ancient game board, complete with triangular gemstone pawns and massive rolling dice, resembles senet, a similar game unearthed in Egypt. But another, a mysterious viol-shaped ivory board studded with cribbage-like holes from Megiddo, offers no clues to its past.
Remains of Hisham’s 8th century Winter Palace, however, which was discovered near ancient Jericho, speak volumes.
Though abandoned after a massive earthquake, decorative fragments of the caliph’s bathhouse survive intact. A bevy of charming, painted quails parade past an Arabesque window. A party of elaborately carved, painted three-dimensional stucco barely-clad human figures unique in Islamic Art, some perhaps of the fun-loving caliph himself, frolic as of old. A circle of plump cherubs, once doming the palace reception hall but today safely ensconced upon the floor, smile up at bemused visitors.
The Rockefeller’s broad sweep of human history, according to curator Fawzi Ibrahim, naturally reflects the region’s three great monotheistic religions. He cites the Museum’s Crusader-era lintels, carved marble swaths depicting scenes from the life of Jesus from the original Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the cedar panels from the original 8th century al Aqsa Mosque.
Ibrahim also cites a 6th century synagogue mosaic floor discovered in Biblical Ein Gedi, an oasis once renowned for its unique balsam perfume industry. It features a warning in Judeo-Aramaic, inscribed in stone: anyone who neglects his family, provokes conflict, steals property, slanders his friends, or reveals the secret of Ein Gedi’s balsam is cursed.
The Rockefeller Museum, located on Sultan Suliman St., in Jerusalem, is open on Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday from 10 a.m.-3 p.m., and on Saturday from 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
While private visits are free, guided tours (in Hebrew or English) through pre-registration with the Israel Museum, at telephone number 972-670-8811, are available twice weekly for a fee.
Visitors arriving in winter are advised to wear warm clothes, as the Museum is not heated.
Photos courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.