Category Archives: Museum

A Look into Loggia at Herodium

At the Herod exhibit at the Israel museum there is a room that is a reconstruction of the loggia, the VIP box from the Herodium theater with its colorful panels on the lower part of the wall and above on light-colored plaster, unique paintings in secco, trompe de l’oeil views through an open window. Secco is a technique that requires less artisan skill and used when time is short as in the approaching visit of Marcus Aggripa in 15 BCE. In secco paint is applied on top of dry plaster whereas in fresco the paint is added while the plaster is still wet. The fresco technique requires skilled craftsmen who have to work applying small areas of plaster, smoothing it and then adding the mineral pigments.

Loggia at museum

The loggia at Herodium is not accessible to the public, room is enclosed by a wooden structure and a team of conservators are working to protect the delicate secco painting. Last week while guiding at Herodium I found the door open and was able to look in for a moment. Hence the photos below were taken in a rush, using my iPhone - since few images of the loggia have been shared I offer them for viewing here.

Loggia at Herodium

Two things struck me: 1) Through holes in the plaster you can see that the lower panels have two layers of paint and plaster implying that the walls were redecorated, probably for Marcus Aggripa’s visit. In talking to Dudi Mevorah, curator at the Israel museum, the outer layer is not fresco but a covering done in secco.

Loggia frescoes

2) There are delicate paintings still on the upper section of the wall that are being conserved in place. The painting on display in the museum exhibit is a painstaking reconstruction of thousand of tiny pieces of paint found on the floor of the loggia by museum staff. You can view it at http://israeltours.files.wordpress.com/2013/02/secco-loggia.jpg

Secco wall painting

Through My Lens at Israel Museum

Here is this week’s series of photos, week #3, of different views of Israel Through my Lens. These photos were taken at the Israel museum, Israel’s leading cultural institution and one of the leading encyclopedic museums of the world. The museum has nearly 500,000 objects of fine art, archaeology, Judaica and Jewish ethnography, representing the history of world culture from nearly one million years ago to the present day and should be on every visitor’s itinerary.

The museum campus underwent a major renovation in 2010 that included new entrance pavilions and an underground walkway, lit from the side by natural light with a view of streaming water that cascades down the steps above your head. This photo captures two custodians cleaning the glass side wall.

Cleaning glass

When you visit the museum plan some time to experience James Turrell’s installation in the sculpture garden, Space That Sees (1992) part of his “Skyspace” series. Observing the shifting hues and patterns of the sky from inside a pristine, rectilinear space, a shrine-like inner space evoking places of worship like pyramids, mausoleums, or temples, viewers can connect to the heavens. A square opening in the ceiling makes a frame for an ever-changing “picture” of the sky. Turrell, by confronting us with the empty space, turns our mind to our own way of seeing.

Turrell sky view

Another interesting structure is the Shrine of the Book that has been called “a milestone in the history of world architecture”. The two architects who designed it were an odd couple – the pragmatic Armand Phillip Bartos was evidently chosen based on his being married to Gottesman’s daughter (Gottesman was the philanthropist who had purchased the Scrolls as a gift to the State of Israel and donated the money to build the Shrine that houses the Scrolls); the oddball visionary Frederick John Kiesler who critics said had never built anything and was primarily an avant-garde stage designer who taught occasionally.

The exterior is dominated by two unique architectural features: a shimmering white dome reflected in a pool of water, representing the “Sons of Light” and a freestanding, polished black basalt wall, standing for the “Sons of Darkness” so vividly described in the War scroll. This photo captures the white dome under a cascade of water at night.

Shrine water light

Hisham’s Palace in Jericho

The Umayyads ruled from Damascus but built a number of palace complexes in this area – we have found ruins of their palaces in Jerusalem, at the southern corner of the Western wall and at Khirbet al-Minya, on the Sea of Galilee beside Karei Deshe.

Palace entrance

One of the most impressive sites from the Umayyad period (661-750) is the ruins of Khirbet al-Mafjar (meaning flowing water ruins), popularly known as Hisham’s palace just outside Jericho and I am now authorized to guide tourists there.

Hisham's name on marble, from Hamilton

Hisham’s name on marble, from Hamilton

The palace is identified with Hisham ibn abd el-Malik (ruled 723-743) because of an inscription containing his name, in ink on a marble slab, found at the site by Dmitry Baramki who excavated there under the British between 1934 and 1948. Based on the artwork that decorated the palace, Robert Hamilton, Director of Antiquities under the British, argued that the palace was a residence of al-Walid b. al-Yazid (ruled 743-744), a nephew of Hisham who was famous for his extravagant lifestyle which probably led to his assassination.  Al-Walid II was a hunter, poet and musician, something of a playboy who loved the good life.

Khirbet al-Mafjar planThe site is thought to have been destroyed by the severe earthquake of 749 CE before it was completed, but an analysis of Baramki’s detailed reports of the ceramic record indicates that the occupation continued through the Ayyubid and Mamluk periods, with a significant phase of occupation between 900–1000.

In walking around the site you will get to view the ruins of the palace, the bath complex, a pavilion and mosque enclosed by a wall; more recently, excavations to the north have uncovered an agricultural estate. The excavations uncovered fine mosaics and elaborate stucco figures, as well as stone sculpture and frescoes. The carved stucco is of exceptional quality in geometric and vegetal patterns; in the bath complex there are even male and female figures, their upper bodies naked.

Pavilion Facade

Caliph on Lions

A statue depicting a male standing figure with a sword on two lions, very likely the caliph patron himself, stood in a niche above the entrance to the bath hall.

The floors are decorated with incredible mosaics but unfortunately, besides the well-known Tree of Life mosaic in the bahw or special reception room in the bath complex, most are currently covered. This floor mosaic consists of a fruit tree (apple, lemon or quince) under which on the left are two gazelles grazing and on the right a lion pouncing on a gazelle. Given that the mosaic is in the bahw the image is more than just a popular hunting scene¹. Here the lion represents the ruling Caliph and the gazelles the subjects, living in peace or being subdued.

Tree of Life mosaic

There is little to see of the plaster sculptures and stucco as they were removed from the site during the British period and are on display in one hall at the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem.

Sculpted ceiling plaster

Entrance

In the back corner of the courtyard are some Umayyad architectural details, part of a sculpted arch with its original paint and an example of a merlon, a step-shaped stone that sits on the top of a wall.

Umayyad

As your guide I can help you create an itinerary that matches your interests and ensures that not only do you get to visit archaeological sites which enable you to understand the context but museums that display and explain the artifacts discovered at the site so that you get the most out of your visit.


Reference
Behrens-Abouseif, Doris, The Lion-Gazelle Mosaic at Khirbat al-Mafjar, 1997.

Lion & Gazelles

¹ Interestingly, I saw a similar motif in mosaic from a Byzantine church on display at the Israel Museum.

Lion killing ox

Grazing

Israel Roundup

Rockefeller Museum

Although few visit, the historic Rockefeller museum in Jerusalem is definitely worth a visit. A blend of western and local eastern architecture, combining historic architecture with modern innovations, the museum was built in 1938, during the Mandate period by the British architect St. Barbe Harrison.

Rockefeller courtyard

Ohanessian tile workIn the main hall is a model of the museum – exit to the courtyard to see the pool, the Armenian mosaics by Ohanessian and the 10 iconic stone reliefs sculpted by Eric Gill representing the major civilizations that left an imprint on this region. Many of the exhibits in the museum are a little dated, walnut wood framed glass cases with dozen of artifacts each, labelling is just a number which you have to cross-reference with a mimeographed book that you can ask for at security. But they have some important pieces: Greekthe Crusader marble sculpted panels from the lintels of the entranceway to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Roman sarcophagi, Umayyad architectural details with their original paint, Crusader capital with goblin from Church of Annunciation, mosaic from an early synagogue, like the one in Jericho also called Peace unto Israel, found in the Druze village of Usifiya.

Having visited the actual site of Hisham’s palace in Jericho and been Romandisappointed at how few of the mosaics and artifacts are on display it was heartening to see the impressive exhibit of sculpture and stucco from Hisham’s palace safe at the museum.

An incredible piece in the courtyard is a Roman wash basin from the 1st century that was found in the Crusader fortress at Montfort – striking how similar it is to the basin that Emperor Augustus sent with Marcus Agrippa as a present for King Herod on display at the Israel museum exhibit on Herod (viewable at http://israel-tourguide.info/2013/02/14/herod-design-realpolitik/).

Wash basin Montfort

There is a very interesting article about architects St. Barbe Harrison and Erich Mendelssohn and their contributions to beautifying Jerusalem. http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Op-Ed-Contributors/Jerusalem-the-beautiful-312517

BBC has an article about the Hula painted frog at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-22770959

A species of frog that was recently rediscovered after being declared extinct in 1966 has been reclassified as a “living fossil”.

Israel’s Hula painted frog had not been seen for nearly 60 years, but in 2011 one was found lurking in a patch of swampy undergrowth. Tests have revealed that the frog belongs to a group of amphibians that died out 15,000 years ago.

 

BBC interviewed me for their series, In the Prince’s Footsteps and asked me to take them to the Mar Saba monastery in the Judean desert. We talked about photographer Francis Bedford’s 1862 photograph of the monastery on his travels with Edward, Prince of Wales to the Holy Land. You can read my blog post at Mar Saba and Judean Desert Revisited.

You can hear the interview by clicking on the red button.

I am Gabriel A unique 87 line Hebrew inscription, ink on stone, from the beginning of the Roman period, I am Gabriel, is on display at the Israel museum. Its content is prophetic-apocalyptic, its style literary-religious, and its language reminiscent of the later books of the Prophets. Accompanying it are rare ancient manuscripts, the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and the Qur’an. The exhibition traces the changing roles of the angel Gabriel in the three monotheistic religions.

While thinking about the Israel museum plan to spend a day with Herod the Great, legendary builder and King of Judea. Combines an in-depth guided tour of Herodium, Herod’s palace complex in the desert and the site of his tomb with the monumental exhibit “Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey”.  http://israel-tourguide.info/herod-the-great-tour/

Jerusalem Botanic Garden is open for free on Fridays & Saturdays in the month of June 2013 for residents of Jerusalem with presentation of your teudat zehut. This is a great opportunity to wander around the garden and discover the lovely, shaded areas of green that are one of the best kept secrets of the City.  http://en.botanic.co.il/Pages/Show/7

Prince of Wales Pine Tree

I was visiting with friend and fellow tour guide, Tom Powers, in Bethlehem and we were talking about our interest in photography and what you can learn by comparing photographs taken 100 years ago or more with the same scene today. I mentioned Francis Bedford’s photographs from Edward, Prince of Wales visit to this area in 1862 and my guiding for the BBC to Mar Saba and my blog post http://israeltours.wordpress.com/2013/03/19/mar-saba-and-judean-desert-revisited/. This reminded Tom of a photograph from the Matson collection, image #00776, titled “Prince of Wales Tree near Palestine Museum” (link to the image online at http://lcweb2.loc.gov/service/pnp/matpc/00700/00776v.jpg).

Prince of Wales Pine Tree

Tom did the research and wrote the captions for several hundred high-resolution photographs taken between 1898 and the 1940s in the American Colony and Eric Matson Collection. The complete set of photographs, some 4,000 images has been produced as two DVDs by Todd Bolen – http://www.lifeintheholyland.com/49_matson_american_colony_8_volumes.htm
Here is the writeup for the Prince of Wales Tree:

The area pictured lies north of the northeast corner of the Old City. The view is to the southeast, with the Russian Ascension Tower on the Mount of Olives visible on the skyline (left). The Rockefeller Museum buildings, if they are visible at all (through the trees), would be in an early stage of construction.
A late 19th century observer describes this area as “a large field on the north-east side of the town, which extends from the town-ditch [rock-hewn Crusader moat at the Old City’s NE corner] to the splendid pine tree near an oil-press worked by the Moslems. This region is known by the general name of Kerm esh Sheikh [the Sheikh’s Vineyard]”
– Charles Clermont-Ganneau in Archaeological Researches (1899), Vol. 1, p. 248
The “Sheikh” was Muhammad al-Khalili a prominent member of an aristocratic Muslim family from Hebron who settled in Jerusalem in the 17th century and owned this plot of ground. In antiquity it was a cemetery, whose many documented burials stretch back to the Hellenistic period, and in Crusader times it served first as the staging-ground for Godfrey de Bouillon’s successful assault on the nearby city wall on July 15th, 1099, and later as a farm called by the Crusaders “Belveer.”
Muhammad al-Khalili, who served for a time as Mufti of Jerusalem, built a two-story summer residence here in 1711, the structure seen at right, which came to have the name Qasr el-Sheikh. It had an olive press on the ground floor and living quarters above and was one of the first buildings ever erected outside the Turkish city walls. Such buildings were especially useful for guarding the agricultural fields that covered the area, and the property of “Karem esh-Sheikh” was planted with olive and fig trees, date palms, and of course grapevines.
As for the tree, it is said that Muhammad al-Khalili brought the pine seedling from Hebron, wrapped in his head-covering, and planted it here. When it was grown, the venerable pine seems to have become a well-known local landmark, and over the years numerous dignitaries, including members of the British royal family, enjoyed its shade. Among them was Edward, Prince of Wales (later to be crowned King Edward VII) who visited Jerusalem in 1862 and made his encampment here, hence the tree’s name. In 1865 Prince Arthur likewise camped at the site.
In the late 19th century the Muslim Rashidiyah School was built on part of Karm el-Sheikh and it remains in use today as part of Jerusalem’s public school system. At the beginning of the 20th century the Arab neighborhood of Bab a-Sahairah, named after the nearby city gate (Herod’s Gate), grew up in the surrounding area. Then in 1919 the Mandatory government selected the site for the construction of an archaeological museum, although it was only in 1930 that the eight-acre tract, Karm el-Sheikh, was purchased from the al-Khalili family and the cornerstone was laid. Construction was completed in 1935, and the museum officially opened to the public in 1938.
At the time the Rockefeller Museum was coming into existence, the old “Prince of Wales Tree” still stood here, just to the west of the main museum site. In fact, the original architectural plan called for a rear (western) courtyard surrounded by cloisters, which would communicate between the historic villa structure, Qasr el-Sheikh, and the main museum building. And the old pine tree, at the suggestion of Rockefeller himself, was to have pride of place at the center of this court, as “an ‘organic’ counterpart to the imposing tower” at the front of the building. This meant, in concrete terms, that the central axis of the entire museum complex was aligned on the tree!
Rockefeller museum model
In the end, the envisioned rear courtyard was never realized, nevertheless the venerable tree — through all the vicissitudes of British, international, Jordanian and then Israeli control – stood as a silent witness behind the museum. In its later years it was actually propped up by a special concrete buttress, however by 1988 the so-called Prince of Wales Tree – then close to 300 years old – had finally died and had to be cut down. The great stump is still visible behind the museum. As for the historic villa, Qasr el-Sheikh, much of it remains intact; restored and modernized, it today houses the Restoration Department of the Israel Antiquities Authority.
Rockefeller museum and pine tree

Sources:
  1. A. Mertens, “Who was a Christian in the Holy Land? (Edward VII)”, an on-line resource at www.christusrex.org
  2. West Meets East: The Story of the Rockefeller Museum (2006), by Fawzi Ibrahim; excerpt online at http://www.imj.org.il/rockefeller/eng/index.html

Photo of the Week – Dor Habonim beaches

This photo is at sunset at one of my favorite Israeli, Mediterranean coast beaches. Just south of Haifa called Hof Habonim, it is part of a coastal nature reserve under the Israel Parks Authority. There are two natural lagoons protected by natural rock jetties, picturesque and calm.

Habonim beach

The technical details – the photo was taken with a Canon point and shoot camera in October (ISO 50, 12.5mm, F3.5 at 1/160 sec).

If you tire of hanging out at the beach there is a lovely walk along the coast south to the beach at Dor-Nachsholim. There you can rent sea kayaks, check out the excavations at the tel and visit the Mizgaga museum. The museum, housed in the 1891 factory that attempted to manufacture wine bottles for Baron de Rothschild’s wines, displays regional and nautical archaeological finds.

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Photographs on this website are © Shmuel Browns (unless marked otherwise) – if you are interested in purchasing one of my photos or using one of my photos for your own project please contact me.