The Rockefeller Archaeological Museum in East Jerusalem holds a rare collection of antiquities uncovered in the Holy Land. It was established during the British Mandate (1919-1948), and most exhibits are from excavations during the same period. Artifacts are arranged chronologically from the prehistoric era to the Ottoman Period. Exhibits trace the civilizations that have passed through the Land of Israel and left behind a wealth of archaeological treasures. The museum building is an impressive structure with a white limestone exterior and a blend of architectural styles.
Beginnings of the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum
The history of the Rockefeller Museum goes back to the British Mandate period. A national antiquities museum in Jerusalem was first proposed in 1919. This was a new concept for the British Empire. Previously, antiquities found in British territories were brought back to British museums. The new policy left some archaeological treasures to be exhibited in the countries where they were found. Several proposals for a national museum were discussed, and rejected. Then in 1925, John D. Rockefeller put his money behind the project. Austen St. Barbe Harrison, Chief Architect of the Public Works Department of the Mandatory Government from 1923 to 1937, designed the museum building. He was known for blending local architectural styles with colonial architecture. This can be seen in the museum’s domes, arches, colored tiles, round stone roofs, and other elements of Harrison’s Mediterranean Modernism style. The museum opened to the public in 1938. At first, it was officially called the Palestine Archaeological Museum (PAM). But even then, many referred to it as the Rockefeller Museum. Today the museum shares the building with the Israel Antiquities Authority.
The Rockefeller Museum Building
The museum was built on the site of Karm el-Sheikh, a property owned by the Mufti of Jerusalem in the late 17th century. Elements of the original historic structure were incorporated into the museum design. The museum building has a central courtyard with a sunken area in the middle and a reflecting pool. Large exhibition items are displayed under arcade arches that flank the courtyard. The exhibition halls are arranged symmetrically on two sides of the courtyard. Two diagonal wings project from the courtyard, giving the building a hexagonal shape. The wings hold the museum library and an auditorium. At one end of the inner courtyard is a tower where the 17th-century Mufti could look out over his fields. The main entrance doors are copper plated and adorned with decorative Islamic North African motifs. Cork, limestone, and polished black mortar were used for the floors. One of the oldest pine trees in Israel stood in the back courtyard of the museum until 1998. Arab legend holds that Ezra the Scribe sat beneath the tree to write the Torah for Israel. You can still see the 300-year-old tree stump on the museum grounds.
Highlights of the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum, Jerusalem
The most significant museum exhibits are displayed in two main galleries. Other rooms contain exhibits that focus on a particular subject, era, or excavation site. Exhibits include the stucco sculpture from the Umayyad Hisham’s palace at Jericho. You can see 8th-century doors from the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and 12th-century decorative architectural elements from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. There are exhibition rooms devoted to ancient coins, Jewish culture from the Talmud period, and archaeological finds from the period when Egypt ruled Palestine. The exhibits come from archaeological sites in Jerusalem, Ashkelon, Samaria, Megiddo, Lachish, Jericho, and Samaria. A more recent addition to the museum is a collection of historic photographs of archaeological sites in Israel.