Isaiah Scroll (Image from Dead Sea Scroll Foundation)

Some of our regulars may have noticed my absence in the last several days. In part, I attended a Southern California show in San Diego’s Balboa Park where I was able to see the present exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls at the San Diego Natural History Museum.

One word: WOW!


I’m not kidding. Get on a plane and fly there right now.

I’m going to share my personal reflections rather than others’ reactions, but we all left happy including the little one. The San Diego Natural History Museum boasts that this exhibition is “the largest, longest, most comprehensive ever assembled in any country. Spanning two floors and 12,000 square feet.” I think the hyperbole matches reality. This was such a rewarding experience in so many ways that I was sad when the visit had to end.

What resonated with me emotionally and intellectually, especially when I had the chance to reflect on it later, was the way the exhibition guides you from the setting, to the history and finally to the scrolls. The curator, Risa Levitt Kohn, and the team that worked on it did a great job of establishing the story and setting. There was a lot of information to read and hear, but sometimes it was also easy to hang back and experience everything because there were a ton of visual aids.

When you first enter the exhibition, the exhibition halls are filled with enlarged photographs of Israel’s landscape at night and during the day. Some flora and fauna are included as well. I know the work of two of the photographers well, Duby Tal and Neil Folberg. Tal is well known for his aerial photos of Israel and Folberg’s night landscapes are stunning (his day shots are great, too, but I really like his night stuff).

With the images in the first section, it is easy to be swept away to this faraway landscape. The absence of people in most of the photos really helps to communicate the idea of the land where the scrolls were created. As one moves forward through the image gallery, slowly the landscapes turn to images of the desert, revealing its beauty and giving it a sense of life. It really lays a foundation for the entire exhibition.

Later, on another floor, I found a gallery that offered many original prints by these photographers for sale. I’m sad to report that I can’t afford them. Well, I can afford them but it wouldn’t be, uh, prudent.

I have to add that I kept noticing how people were walking through everything quietly and slowly, absorbing the surroundings. They were actually learning, not rushing through or speaking to friends or family. I guess part of the reason is that most people haven’t seen Israel this way. Not a CNN war report in sight.

Prepped with striking images of the landscape, in the next section, we entered an area showing the story of the discovery of the scrolls. It unfolds in photos, films and descriptions and evokes an era when these historians and archaeologists who first touched the scrolls and understood their meaning must have been absolutely captivated by their discovery. Everybody talks about the Bedouins who discovered the scrolls, but for me, there was one photograph which captured my attention. It was of the Arab merchant who served as a go-between and marketed and sold the scrolls. I’m sure he made a tidy fortune.

Some of the history of the scrolls is mixed in with the politics of the era. It was around 1947-1948 and later when most of the original scrolls were discovered and the Qumran caves were on the side conquered by the Jordanians. I understand that Israeli and Jewish scholars had no access to most of the scrolls for many years as a result. There is one plaque describing how no Jews were allowed to join the original team of scroll researchers.

(Please click on the link to see the rest of my review).

There were some scrolls that ended up in Israeli hands when some key scrolls were sold to Israelis (unknown to the seller) through a classified ad in the Wall Street Journal. In this section, there is also a short film of a researcher unrolling a scroll. That scroll had been sitting in caves for 2000 years!

This discovery section folds into the section showing the archaeological explorations of Qumran, the site near which the scroll caves were found. On the opposite wall, the painstaking work of putting the scrolls together again and preserving them is shown. I am describing all of this in brief, but this section was full of information and people were walking through it slowly and intently. There is an image of the scrollery where people sifted through the small fragments of scrolls, trying to piece them together like a puzzle. While the environment appears sterile, you cannot help but think that they’re handling these ancient treasures as part of their day job. Finish the day off with some hummus and what more do you need?


View of Dead Sea by Neil Folberg (source is San Diego Natural History Museum)

I assume that by design this top floor provided the intro because then we had to descend to the downstairs where the scrolls were kept. You go through a cave entrance, and appropriately enough, it is dark in this cavernous room. This area is also divided into sections. The first part contains photos of Qumran as well as authentic scroll jars and authentic-looking replicas of various pots and plates. There is one photo of a mikveh which stopped me in my tracks, as did another of a flash flood in the Judean desert. I think the flood was shown to reveal how water could arrive in large quantities and then be stored for future use even in this hot and inhospitable area.

Walking through this area was far more interesting than I expected because I assumed that once you’ve seen one ancient pot, you’ve seen them all. Wrong! Listening to the audio tour it seems there are a variety of theories about who lived in Qumran and what they were up to. A pot ain’t always just a pot, especially if different scholars are guessing whether the pot is just a pot or something else…

Between the audio tour, descriptions on the wall and actual artifacts, it took a while to get through this Qumran section. Oh yeah, they had these ancient sandals there and seeing them made my Naot sandals take on a whole new spiritual, almost holy, dimension. Dammit, my forefathers walked in those things over those Judean desert sands a couple of millenia ago.

And with that behind us, we entered the hall with the scrolls. Brrrrrrr….chillin’! No, really, I felt tingles go up my spine in front of some of these.

They are small. Granted. They are also aging and in some cases hard to read. Granted (the museum helps with this by offering enlarged photos and information and translations above each scrolls stand). Some of them are in script I couldn’t decipher. Granted. They are disappearing. Granted. But holy beans, was it amazing to see these things and be able to identify letters and words, to recognize prayers and sections of torah. It was deeply touching. Even those scrolls that are broken up into smaller fragments have a certain aesthetic beauty to them.

It was also interesting to watch others there. Most people in there were probably non-Jewish, but these scrolls held similar importance and may even have had religious significance to them from what I could tell. I was able to look carefully at others because I got into a traffic jam, the exhibition is very busy. Fortunately, that eased up after a couple of scrolls.

The scroll that made me gasp was the Copper Scroll. I don’t know why exactly, because I had some difficulty making out the letters, but this small section of what had to have been a much larger piece is gorgeous. It’s oxidized but seems fairly legible. They only found one of these scrolls and then chopped it up to gain access to the inside parts. On the one hand, this is sad and probably a bad thing to do to an irreplaceable treasure. On the other hand, the researches who did this would not have had access to its contents otherwise.

Not to bore you with more details, because you really have to be there to experience this in full, but from there I moved on to a Psalm scroll, where a quiet female voice sang it back to life. Did I say chillin’? This was understated but had a really strong impact.

Then they showed thousand year old Middle Eastern Hebrew bibles from, of all places, Russia. There is a period of about 900 years from the scrolls to the next bibles that were discovered, and pages from some of these were on display. There were also Hebrew medieval torahs, Middle Ages Christian bibles and modern day Christian bibles. This was the conclusion of the show and a nice way to move from the ancient world to the modern world. It also brought to life how the words of the bible have been passed down to this day.

I know I didn’t do the exhibition justice in this post. The museum will be replacing the scrolls after three months and bringing in a new bunch, so if someone can do it, there’s a good reason to revisit the exhibition. The museum is also hosting a 22 part lecture series that includes a variety of scholars including some of the best known names in the fields of archaeology, bible history and scrolls history. I’m not an expert but I recognize prominent names in the series such as Emanuel Tov, James VanderKam, Esther Chazon, Lawrence Schiffman, David Noel Freedman, Martin Abegg, Eric Meyers, Jodi Magness and others.

The museum should be proud.

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