Essential Museums in Jerusalem

Visit Jerusalem Israel Museums
The anthropomorphic sarcophagi mark the dramatic entrance to the Archeaology Wing of the Israel Museum

I don’t care how many people tell you you must visit both the Israel Museum and the Tower of David in Jerusalem. We’ll tell you again. The fact is, there's more history in Jerusalem than a soul can absorb without help. Do yourself a favor and get a sense of the place and its history by visiting these essential museums before scattering yourself about town.

Israel Museum

We spent five hours at the Israel Museum, almost as long as we spent wandering all of Pompeii a few years ago. The museum site and architecture are minimalist–very appealing upon entry and a little confusing once you’re inside. Our visit route took us first through the long entry hall with select sculptures, installation art, and a few windows. Next we ditched our jackets and wandered into the temporary exhibit space. Then we started in the expansive archeology wing. Two hours later, Tom wondered if we were done. There were four more sections to go.

The temporary installation “Dress Codes: Revealing the Jewish Wardrobe,” was way cooler than you’d think, both because of its curated content (from the permanent collection) and its presentation. The central theme of the entire Israel Museum becomes apparent in this temporary exhibit; thousands of years and hundreds of distinct cultures have left their influence here. The exhibit asks quite plainly, were these fashions adopted due to coercion or to a driving need for cultural self-identification?

Visit Jerusalem Israel Museumss
Embroidered clothing from (l. to r.) Turkey, Morocco, Italy, Israel, Iraq.

The Archeology Wing is the backbone of the museum. From rare anthropomorphic sarcophagi to Islamic art, from Egypt to Ancient Greece, from Muslims to Crusaders, and including jewelry to cookware, it’s a sprawling display of cultures unique to this part of the world. Refer to the museum floor plan so you don’t miss anything. The continuum itself is impressive. There are no real Dark Ages. Civilizations build upon the prior civilizations in a continuous if convoluted thread of endurance, creativity, and spirituality.

The Fine Arts Wing is a surprisingly complete survey of world art history. Sprinting through the European Art section will reveal examples of Renaissance forms to Impressionism. The Americas and Africa have their place, and you can spend another hour in the modern art rooms, though we didn’t. We would have enjoyed seeing some of the Museum’s Design and Architecture collection, but that section was closed for changing exhibits. The first time visitor senses the curators’ thrill in connecting works from distinct genres and eras. Apparently, the permanent collection allows for regular re-invention of the museum.

Finally, the Jewish Art and Life Wing showcases Israel’s cultural heritage through objects of Jewish faith and tradition. An impressive section holds entire reconstructions of four synagogues from around the world: India, the Americas, and Europe. Precious illuminated texts are also found in these galleries.

Visit Jerusalem Israel Museums
Large glazed amulets from 7th-4th Centuries B.C., representative of the beauty and condition of artifacts in the Israel Museum

Within the grounds of the Israel Museum, but housed in a separate building, are the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Shrine of the Book building is an architectural work of art, recalling the shape of ceramic jars in which the scrolls were found. The scroll remnants offer yet another view of people ensconced in the desert, trying to make sense of life. The short walk from the Museum to the Shrine will lead you through a sculpture garden.

Are you not sated yet? The Israel Museum also operates the Rockefeller Archeological Museum and the Ticho House, a stone house in central Jerusalem, once home to the artist Anna Ticho and her husband.

Tower of David/Museum of the History of Jerusalem

This is where it’s possible to learn why everyone claims Jerusalem as his or her own. The Tower of David is a citadel and a misnomer. The tower was never David’s but Herod’s. And more confusion was heaped on when Westerners headed to Jerusalem in the 19th Century and thought the Turkish minaret added later was the ‘tower’ of the scriptures.

Visit Jerusalem Israel Museums
The uppermost section (when the floor was up near the arches you see here) was a prison from Ottoman times to recent history. But excavations now reveal layers of use over the past 2000 years.

The Tower of David is also the Museum of the History of Jerusalem. Given the environment–the excavated ruins of the citadel–this museum really feels as if it is living, breathing, and coughing up new stories all the time. Our visits included both the Nighttime Spectacular and a daytime ramble through various citadel nooks and crannies, where rooms have been updated just enough to accommodate lighting, walkways, museum didactic and other creature comforts to keep visitors happy. (Coffee, for one.)

The great thing about this museum, in all its living wonder, is that visitors walk inside and outside, up to the top of the tower, and down to the excavated baths carved out of bedrock. Recent excavations, intended to clear a space for education, led to a much more important dig revealing layers dating back to Christ’s time. While that has opened a whole new set of questions, as reported here in the Washington Post, the museum is probably still looking around for classroom space.

Visit Jerusalem Israel Museums
The open air “Night Spectacular, ” projected onto the citadel walls, tells a few millennia of history in 45 minutes.

The Museum of the History of Jerusalem is also fun. Yes, fun! With the citadel as its gallery walls, the museum combines the wonderful old stone structure with state-of-the-art technology. Audio tours are recommended, but the amazing “Night Spectacular” light show is a must. The larger than life display summarizes the history of Jerusalem in 45 minutes. The open air show is projected across 180 degrees of the massive citadel stone walls. How they avoid coloring outside the lines, I’ll never understand. It’s like surround sound, Imax, and a time warp all in one tasteful and evocative hour. Best of all, the show makes sense of the exhibition spaces, and vica versa.

The museum is committed to staying on top of technology to answer visitors’ ancient questions in real time. Kudos to Tower of David.

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