The new Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein National Campus for the Archaeology of Israel. Emil Salman

New Archaeology Complex Shows There's Hope for Jerusalem Yet

The city’s buildings and towers have been lumbering or kitschy in recent years, but the new campus in the museum district will be a modern gem housing ancient artifacts.

The Talmud says 10 measures of beauty descended on the world, and Jerusalem took nine of them. But that beauty is in limited supply nowadays. It sometimes seems the country’s pride and joy has been abandoned to developers and politicians, and one after another new buildings are provincial at best and ugly at worst, from Cinema City to the Pais Arena.

Even the newer residential complexes are foreign to the city’s historical fabric in their materialism and size. Examples include the Mishkenot Ha’uma neighborhood at the city’s western entrance and the new lumbering luxury buildings near the 1864 Anna Ticho House.

And the future doesn’t look too promising when on Jaffa Road fearsome towers are under construction, when the unnecessary Kedem Center visitors’ compound is going up outside the Old City, and when there’s haphazard construction in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods and Arab East Jerusalem. These places look a lot like South American slums.

Given this depressing situation, the new Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein National Campus for the Archaeology of Israel, which is going up near the Israel Museum and the Bible Lands Museum, is good news. Construction is still underway and at least 14 months will be needed to finish it, but even at this stage it’s easy to perceive the building’s archaeological language.

Emil Salman

Among the better efforts, the idea is to do as little as possible to undermine Jerusalem's delicate fabric, and Moshe Safdie and Irit Kohavi get a high grade for meeting this challenge.

The proposal for the Schottenstein campus came up after the Oslo Accords over two decades ago. East Jerusalem’s future wasn’t clear, and because the Rockefeller archaeological museum was already there, it was thought a new building should go up.

The planning was delayed until 2006 and the building was conceived with a number of other functions. It will house the Israel Antiquities Authority, storerooms for some 2 million artifacts, laboratories, a magnificent library and exhibition space. The 35,000-square-meter (376,737-square-foot) structure will have nine stories and cost 400 million shekels ($104 million) to build.

Emil Salman

No quirky icon

Construction only began in 2012, and since it’s dependent on donations – the state has only allocated 60 million shekels – the project has yet to be completed. A ceremony held during Sukkot was essentially a fundraising event, according to antiquities authority head Israel Hasson. A quarter of the necessary funds must still be raised.

“We planned a building that burrows into the ground; something that reminds you of an archaeological dig and that will integrate into the museum district’s topography,” Kohavi says.

“It’s a building that integrates into its surroundings; you descend more and more and barely see the building, except for the tent that looks like the tarps that shade archaeological digs.”

The tent is striking when you approach it from the parking lot. “We designed the tent with international consultants, and it was created to be suitable for Jerusalem’s precipitation amounts, both rain and snow,” Kohavi says. “It has four anchors and is connected to pressure rods.”

Emil Salman

The tent, which looks like a funnel, descends into the courtyard, which boasts a pool surrounded by stone cubes suitable for sitting on. The rainwater will descend through the funnel into the pool.

So will this new campus enter the annals of archaeology like the Rockefeller Museum? It’s hard to say, and even Safdie stresses that he didn’t want to create a quirky icon but rather a functional building.

The Rockefeller Museum, named after John D. Rockefeller and designed by British-born architect Austen Harrison, contains breathtaking spaces and exciting details like precision-cut tiling, cork flooring, beautiful carpentry and a unique typography in three languages invented by British artist Eric Gill especially for the building.

Safdie says he approached the new museum, the 14th he has planned, as a piece of a puzzle and not as an isolated structure. “It’s a simple building and I hope that a borough of public buildings will be created here,” he says. “On Sukkot it was full of people.”

Safdie has put up other buildings that stand out in their environment – which isn’t always a good thing, like Tel Aviv’s Rabin Center and Jerusalem’s kitschy Mamilla complex. This time Safdie showed some restraint.

The museum will have 240 parking spaces and all visitors will enter from the front of the tent, a fact somewhat painful to Kohavi. “For 15 years we’ve been recommending that ... access should be through a park-and-ride system from the parking lot like in Washington D.C.”

Indeed, though the museum area, which is near the Knesset and where the National Library and other public buildings are going up, isn’t far from downtown and the light-rail route, the most convenient access is still by car.

Emil Salman

Mosaic on the roof

Hava Katz, the chief curator of the exhibits, notes that on the entry plaza’s roof sit mosaics from the Byzantine era, “like those that were in public buildings or public spaces, most of which are being exhibited here for the first time.”

One of the mosaics was brought from the Rockefeller Museum; it was discovered at Beit She’an in the north in a burial chapel during the Mandate period by archaeologist Michael Avi-Yonah. This mosaic has scenes of grape harvesting, fruit, grazing and animal hunting.

On the roof there is also a rare mosaic recently found in the excavation of a synagogue at Hukok in the north by University of North Carolina archaeologist Jodi Magness. The section on display portrays the biblical story of Samson carrying off the gates of Gaza City after the Philistines tried to kill him.

The building contains display space for rotating exhibits, and the roof will be transparent so visitors can see in from the public square. An exhibit is already open on artifacts from the Chalcolithic period, which began in the late fifth millennium B.C.E. On display are pitchers and household utensils you can almost touch.

Katz, the chief curator, notes that ceramics are less sensitive than glass objects, so they can remain exposed, while glassware is displayed in glass cases.

Also on display is the Ghassulian Star, “the most ancient mural found in our region,” Katz says. “It’s 6,000 to 7,000 years old. It was in the Rockefeller warehouses for years, and our trained staff worked on it until we reached a very good resolution.”

Emil Salman

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