If You're In the Neighborhood

If you've visited or are planning to visit Israel, you may already know what Israelis sometimes forget: that the Israel Museum in Jerusalem is one of the finest in the world. It has a spectacular collection, concentrating mostly but not exclusively on archeology, some lovely gallery spaces, and a diligent, clever staff. I was reminded very forcefully of this last fact when I visited the museum two weeks ago to see how the new Shrine of the Book looks (as it turns out, the renovation changed nothing about the Shrine's appearance except that the Deuteronomy scroll is no longer on display--which is a shame, because I used to get a kick out of taking visitors there and reading aloud from it) and ended up checking out some of the rotating exhibits while I was there. Utilizing mostly artifacts from the museum's own collection or from other Israeli museums, the curators have come up with a fascinating exhibit, In the Beginning, about the origins of religious practice in the Middle East region.

Highlights include some of the earliest known examples of decorative art, such as a 233,000 year old (!!!) figurine, or "Adam and Eve", the earliest (10,000 years old) known image of lovers, believed to be a fertility icon. Further down the line are 9,000 year old ceremonial masks, and the familiar big-hipped fertility images, 8,000 years old. Did you know that for several centuries about 10,000 years ago, the custom existed of plastering over the skulls of certain deceased members of the community, painting them with stylized faces, and worshiping these images?

From the exhibit booklet (an actual catalog is forthcoming, in cooperation with the Israeli publisher MAPA):
Influenced by the universality of the phenomenon, scholars in the field of the study of religion used to assume that religious belief has existed since the emergence of humankind. The archeological evidence, however, suggests that religious behavior appeared relatively late in human history and is principally characteristic of our own species, Homo sapiens sapiens. It is possible that the rise in religious practice, like the significant increase in the manufacture of personal ornaments and works of art, is related to the cultural change called "the sudden revolution", which took place in the later stages of the Stone Age, 40,000 years ago.
40,000 years. We like to think of ourselves as advanced beings. We enjoy comparing ourselves to humans living only decades and centuries ago and deriding them as primitive and backwards (alternatively, some of us enjoy looking back decades or centuries and lamenting a lost golden age). Living in Israel is a constant reminder that the basic structures of human civilization, the fundamental ideas of what humans are and what humans do, have existed not for millennia but for tens of millennia. We are old, and we haven't changed nearly as much as we think--something that, I have found, Americans and even Europeans can have trouble grasping.

The exhibit will remain on display until the end of May 2006.


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