Jar from Qumran
The most profound moment at the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit came, for me, in the very last display case.
Not that the moments before that weren’t profound, of course. It’s not every day you see items from one of the most important archaeological discoveries ever made. And the Royal Ontario Museum, currently hosting the exhibit, did its best to guarantee that every visitor understands the meaning and significance of the unearthing (or should I say, uncaving) of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
You need a timed ticket to get in. And when you step inside, you move slowly among the huge, slanting pillars in the lower level of the Garfield Weston Exhibition Hall, a new era of ancient Jewish history appearing before your eyes with each turn. We began in a town in Galilee created by Herod the Great: Sepphoris, a beautiful town that existed at the time the Dead Sea Scrolls were written. But quickly we moved on to Jerusalem and its priestly culture of ritual purity, where intriguing clues suggested the atmosphere that both produced the scrolls and led to their burial.
I had a couple of moments of goosebumps here. One came while viewing a big chunk of masonry from the Jewish Temple complex itself, from the large space where the trumpet was blown to signal the beginning of the great religious ceremonies. Then there were the three decorative chunks from the carved, arched tunnels leading underground from the base of the walls around the complex, up into the pavement around the Temple itself.
Cave 4, where 500 of the 900 total scrolls were found
Real people stood there, to blow that trumpet. Real people walked under those masonry chunks, going to meet their God.
On from Jerusalem to Qumran, below which the scrolls were actually found. We learned some of the things known about the religious community there, and heard that 900 scrolls in total had been found in the nearby caves. Then we learned about Masada, the great cliff top fort, the last place of resistance against the Roman destroyers.
And finally, the Scrolls. Set deep into atmosphere-controlled cases standing at some distance from each other, the area enclosed by a high, dark curtain, the lights dimmed as much as they could be to protect the ancient documents. These weren’t full scrolls, but fragments, some written on papyrus, others on thin leather. But as you bent over each case to peer at the stitching still visible on some edges, or to view the writing, there was that moment again: real people wrote that tiny, beautiful script. One fragment from the Biblical book of Genesis, another from Daniel, one from the Book of War, more from the Psalms, and still more. We people are separated by 2000 years, but our eyes and theirs have both looked upon these things. The atmosphere in the Scrolls enclosure itself was quiet, contemplative, almost reverential.
Then on to the last room, displaying the legacy of the Scrolls. A room full of very old copies of the Torah, the Latin Vulgate Bible, the first Greek Bible to be brought to Canada, a Bible translated into Mohawk, and – two volumes of the Qur’an.
That’s right. Of all the profound moments along the way, that was the instant where I stopped dead cold, gazed into the glass case, and felt tears coming into my eyes. As I looked at these beautiful books, a short film played on the wall just beyond them, in which representatives from all three faiths of the People of the Book spoke about the Scrolls as part of their heritage.
With my own background, once being a fundamentalist Christian, I had always thought of the Scrolls as the particular heritage of my Jewish friends and my own faith. But that’s not so. They are as much the heritage of my Muslim friends as they are mine. Their sacred books are based on these ancient writings as much as mine were.
The Royal Ontario Museum views this exhibit more as a “project” than an exhibition. It sees the Scrolls, as well as the extensive series of lectures, debates, and events surrounding them, to be the basis for interfaith dialogue, an “extended public conversation about shared roots and diverging paths.” I followed two men in turbans through many parts of the exhibit, and wondered if they were Muslims, Hindus, or Sikhs. It actually didn’t matter, in the end. All of us walk as heirs to sacred history.
Quran, Kashmir, 18th century