Scrolling for lost secrets

1st May 1998 at 01:00
The Dead Sea Scrolls offer amazing historical insights - and they're now in Glasgow. Julie Morrice reports

Fifty years ago in the desert cliffs above the Dead Sea in Palestine, a Bedouin shepherd searching for a lost goat stumbled upon the greatest archaeological find of the 20th century. Everyone has heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls - the oldest known manuscripts of the Jewish and Christian faiths - but few know much about them, and even fewer have set eyes on them. Indeed, until the early 1990s, only a handful of people had seen the originals and even leading scholars were prevented from studying the ancient parchment manuscripts.

Twelve years ago Harry Diamond, then head of public relations at Glasgow City Council, heard that Paris was hosting an exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls. "If Paris can have the Dead Sea Scrolls, Glasgow can have the Dead Sea Scrolls," thought the irrepressible Diamond. Making use of his contacts at the Israeli embassy in London, he got in touch with the chairman of the Israel Antiquities Authority. "He said the exhibition in Paris was all facsimiles and the original scrolls were too fragile to travel. So I gave up the whole idea."

The extraordinary thing is that 12 years later, thanks to a series of chance encounters, Harry Diamond has finally pulled it off. For four months this summer, nine of the 2,000-year-old manuscripts are on show in Glasgow, the sole British venue. It is only the second time that original scrolls have been on display in Europe. Four years ago the exhibition visited the Vatican Apostolic Library - the Pope's contacts must be on a par with Harry Diamond's.

Due to the extremely dry climate of the Qumran caves where they were found, the Dead Sea Scrolls, written in soot-based ink on parchment and papyrus, and punched onto copper, survived two millenniums more or less unscathed. On such a time scale, a few decades are neither here nor there, but it is the years since the scrolls were discovered that have made them notorious.

Unearthed as the state of Israel was born, the scrolls emerged into what was effectively a war zone, and they seem to have carried that dust and strife with them ever since. In the late 1940s and early 1950s the authorities in the Middle East had more immediate concerns than the fate of ancient artefacts, however important. Scrolls and scroll fragments passed from hand to hand, from Bedouin shepherds to monks, dealers and academics, from Palestine to the United States, and were sold, appropriated and, inevitably, lost.

In 1953 an international team of academics was appointed at the Rockefeller Museum on the West Bank to piece together, translate, assess and publish the scrolls, which were spread out in a room called the "scrollery" that has been likened, for all the secrecy surrounding it, to the monastic library in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. After 45 years the task is still not complete.

Admittedly, the job is vast. After the first finding in 1947, further explorations turned up more than 800 scrolls and tens of thousands of fragments, and one of the academic team has described the scrolls as "the world's most fantastic jigsaw puzzle". Yet over the years, the scandal of non-publication and the refusal to allow other scholars to examine the scrolls has led to suggestions thatmaterial was being suppressed, perhaps because it threatened to undermine the position of the Christian church.

Simon Eccles, curator of ancient civilisations at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, is unimpressed with such suggestions. Scholars may argue about the religious significance of the scrolls, but for him their value lies in the window they provide on a period of history that is central to the Jewish and Christian faiths, but of which we know very little.

"This was a critical time, a traumatic time, in terms of world history, culture and belief," he says. "Christianity makes its break from Judaism, which itself is in the middle of huge changes. And suddenly we have this insight into that particular period. It puts your feet on the ground. We're actually looking at factual origins rather than relying on scholarly interpretation of biblical material. It helps us to understand what was actually happening."

The scrolls, most scholars agree, were the library of a Jewish sect known as the Essenes, and were hidden in caves before 68AD when the Essene community was destroyed by invading Romans. "It is strange, but Christians are unaware of the Essenes," Eccles says. "There is nothing about them in the Bible. Yet we now know more about them than we know about any other group, such as the Pharisees or Zealots."

The scrolls are closely written in Hebrew and Aramaic script, and fall into two groups: biblical ones, which are versions of known Old Testament texts; and sectarian ones, which relate to the Essenes themselves - how they lived in their isolated desert stronghold, and how they interpreted the holy law and the words of the prophets.

The Glasgow exhibition attempts to place the scrolls in their cultural context, and includes many artefacts discovered at Qumran: sandals, combs and amulets, and stacks of cups and plates, hauntingly suggestive of the communal meals eaten by this ascetic sect in the first years of the first millennium.

It has been suggested that Jesus may have visited the Essenes, and some of their beliefs and phraseology are strikingly similar to those of Christianity. "These are Jewish documents," Eccles says, "but they make Christians and Jews recognise they have a great deal in common. We're very keen that the exhibition promotes reconciliation."

For his part, Harry Diamond, as an orthodox Jew, is fascinated that these 2,000-year-old documents contain the same texts he reads every Saturday in synagogue. He has seen the scrollsseveral times in Israel and, indeed, was serving with the British Army in Egypt when the first scrolls were unearthed.

And his interest continues. Once the exhibition is over and the scrolls are safely on their way, he intends to write a thriller based on the theft of the Dead Sea Scrolls from the Kelvingrove museum.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum,Glasgow, May 1 to August 30

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