AFP, June 18, 2003
MONTREAL (AFP) – Fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, considered one of the greatest archeological discoveries of the 20th Century, went on display in a Montreal museum Tuesday, the first time they have been out of Israel.
Stumbled upon in 1947 in a cave near Khirbat Qumran on the Left Bank of the Dead Sea by a bedouin searching for an errant goat, the scrolls are considered a direct link to the origins of the Bible.
Fragments of them are on public display at Montreal’s Pointe-à-Callieres Archeological Museum until November, when they will be moved to the Museum of Civilizations in Ottawa.
“The Dead Sea Scrolls are the greatest patrimony of Israel, maybe of the Jews. They are our Mona Lisa, but they are more than that,” said James Snyder, curator of the Jerusalem museum that loaned the pieces to the Canadians.
In all, more than 950 fragments of the scrolls have been recovered from caves overlooking the Dead Sea. Some were found in earthenware jars, others on tablets. They are providing archeologists and theologians with data of inestimable value on the origins of Christianity and Judaism.
The Montreal museum has received three of the first seven scrolls found, considered the most symbollic. Conditions of the loan are that the treasures be displayed under very low level light, illuminated only 40 seconds per minute, in display cases sealed against humidity.
Two of the texts, dating to the first century BC, suffered more light damage in the 56 years since their discovery than in the 2,000 years they spent in the darkness of the caves, said Michal Dayagi-Mendels, preservationist at the Israeli museum.
The third fragment, an extract from the Book of Isaia, has been shrunk to just a few square centimeters by natural oxidation of the atmosphere. It has never been shown in public.
“Specialists worked for months to prepare it for the journey,” said Dayagi-Mendels.
Francine Lelievre, curator of the Pointe-a-Callieres museum here, said the city is bubbling with pride at being chosen first among the world’s museums to show the scroll fragments.
That came about, she said, thanks to the museum’s close links with its Jerusalem counterpart and the support of Montreal’s large Jewish community, particularly the wealthy Bronfman family, former owner of Seagram, which has merged with the Vivendi group.
“The section of the Shrine of Sacred Books has been closed for a year,” said Dayagi-Mendels of the Jerusalem museum. “That’s why it was easier for us to let them travel.”
In addition to the scroll sections, the museum’s “Archeology of the Bible” exhibit includes other antiquities being shown for the first time outside Israel, among them a sculpture of a pomegranate engraved with a biblical passage, believed to be the only existing relic from the first temple of Solomon.
Archeologists said the stone pomegranate, whose inscriptions are barely readable even under magnification, might have been part of a scepter used by priests in ceremonial rites.
The exhibit — a total of some 100 artefacts — tells a tale of Jewish history dating from King David to the invasion of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD.
It includes a 9th Century BC tablet with mention of the King David dynasty and a vault containing what are believed to be the bones of the high priest of the second temple of Jerusalem.