Rockefeller Archeological Museum, Jerusalem, Israel

Antique Trader

Rockefeller Archeological Museum, Jerusalem, Israel
Rockefeller Archeological Museum, Jerusalem, Israel


It’s not often that burial caves and graves are discovered while digging the foundation for an archeological 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 Archeological 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   ten picturesque stone bas-reliefs, one for each of the cultures that have influenced this corner of the world.


The Rockefeller displays extraordinary archeological finds from    JerusalemJerichoMegiddoSamaria, 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 Eighteenth 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 marble 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 arabesqued 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 am – 3 pm, and on Saturday  from 10 am – 2 pm. 
While private visits are free,  guided tours  (in Hebrew or English)  through pre-registration   with the Israel Museum, at  telephone number (972) 
6708811,  are available   twice weekly for a fee. 

Visitors  arriving  in winter are advised to wear warm clothes, as   the Museum is not heated