Overwhelming. Fascinating. Thrilling. The newly opened Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition conjures up many superlative adjectives — none of which can completely describe the historical, religious and spiritual importance you encounter when you step into the exhibit, now at the California Science Center in Downtown Los Angeles.
Mounted in cooperation with the Israel Antiquities Authority, the exhibition presents the largest Dead Sea Scrolls collection ever assembled outside of Israel; these are pieces from the actual scrolls and manuscripts written and hidden in caves 2,000 years ago and first discovered in 1947 by local goat herders.
On display are sections from 10 scrolls which shed light on the formative years of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. More than 600 ancient artifacts are also part of the exhibition that runs until Labor Day.
Letting such treasures out to the public from their safekeeping vault in Israel was no small feat, explains David Siegel, the Consul General of Israel. Choosing the right venue for the exhibition was critical.
“We had to make sure we have the right climate control, security and lighting,” he says, adding that the scrolls and pieces currently on display will rotate out after three months to ensure their integrity. “People who come today will have the chance to see a new display three months down the line.”
The journey to the scrolls for visitors begins with a short film and multimedia presentation that sets the historical stage. Once the lights come up and doors are opened, the feeling of stepping into the past is overpowering.
“Here we walk back in time,” concurs David Bibas, the Science Center’s curator of technology programs. He points to dates which have been illuminated on the floor and corresponds to the artifacts on display, such as coins, jewelry, pottery shards bearing royal seals and ancient sling-stones and arrowheads, some dating back 3,000 years.
A display of a typical four-room home in the Holy Land features the types of tools people used daily.
Elsewhere, other artifacts help illuminate the ancient culture: four-legged altars and small deity figurines represent a time when multiple gods were worshipped; ossuaries (burial bone boxes); and numerous jugs, some “mass produced” for royals or the wealthy, as well as others created for commoners that would hold grains, water and other foodstuffs.
“Look here,” says Bibas as he moves to a terracotta bath tub complete with a hued seat. “It’s a 3,000-year-old Jacuzzi.”
Visitors enter the darkened inner room with a hushed reverence. Surrounding the scrolls are wall display cases which contain even more artifacts: a peek of a Greek-influenced mosaic tile, a glimpse of a Holy Land kitchen and a close-up view of ancient miniature leather phylacteries or tefillin (cases which contain biblical passages and are bound to the head and arm during Jewish morning prayers).
There is also extensive information about the significance of Knirbet Qumran, a community on the northern shores of the Dead Sea where the scrolls were uncovered.
Presented in a circular arrangement, the scrolls are the exhibit’s centerpiece.
Pieces and fragments are gently illuminated and visitors often get extremely close to the texts, their noses nearly touching the protective glass.
In addition to parts of the Old Testament, this exhibit features non-biblical books (like the Book of Giants), liturgical texts and other manuscripts, including a ketubah, a Jewish marriage contract.
Bibas points out the selections from Psalms; that book made up the greatest number of scrolls found in the Dead Sea Scroll caves. This case holds perhaps the oldest of all Psalm scrolls discovered and one with as many as nine different psalms preserved.
Here visitors can see Psalm 71:1-11, which begins: “In you, Lord, I have taken refuge; let me never be put to shame. In your righteousness, rescue me and deliver me; turn your ear to me and save me.”
The lettering appears fresh and strong; anyone who reads Hebrew can make out words and phrases, says Siegel. “It’s the same characters we know today.”
The reverential spirit continues when visitors encounter the three-ton stone from Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall. Paper is available nearby and visitors of all ages write, fold and place prayers into crevices near the stone in quiet contemplation.
Written prayers will be gathered and sent to Israel to be buried with the others rountinely collected at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Nearby, a television monitor presents a live feed from the wall, furthering the connection to the Holy Land.
“Overall, this is an emotionally moving exhibition,” says Siegel, who adds that he hopes Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious leaders encourage their congregations to visit.
“The Holy Land is beloved by three major religions that share much of the same Holy Scripture that is on display here. This exhibition has the power for uniting us, reminding us of what we have in common.”