Klara, daughter of Kyrana, was about to give birth. All she needed in order to be safe was something to keep the evil spirits away. Being Jewish, she looked for the answer in a Jewish book of magic recipes – and found the perfect solution.
Following the instructions, she inscribed a spell inside a solid gold band which she rolled up and began wearing next to her body. Hopefully, it worked, but we’ll never know: Although it happened right here in the Land of Israel, Klara lived (and presumably bore a healthy baby) over 1,400 years ago.
Klara’s gold amulet is on display in a fabulous new exhibit at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem. Called Pure Gold, it was created to honor the museum’s 20th anniversary by featuring glittering items that were almost exclusively culled from the in-house collection. Through the stunning, ancient displays, visitors to the exhibit not only learn why gold is held in universal high esteem, but also are offered a look at some of the oldest, and most exquisite, golden pieces in the world.
Museum founder, the late Elie Borowski, was a genius obsessed with the idea of bringing the Bible to life. He decided to accumulate antiquities unearthed not only in the Holy Land, but from countries whose ancient cultures preceded our own. Aware that these customs and traditions influenced our forefathers and provided the backdrop to the Jewish religion, the Jewish spirit and the Jewish homeland, he determined to make them accessible, and understandable, to the general public.
But when he started collecting in 1943, Borowski was nearly penniless. Therefore, goes the story, he borrowed the wherewithal to acquire two Assyrian seals and sold one for enough cash to repay his lender for both. The remaining seal, on display in the museum, is engraved in Hebrew with the word “leshallum.” Dating back to the First Temple Period, it could refer to Shallum – the 15th King of Israel. (Shallum assassinated King Zechariah in the sixth month of his reign, took his place, and was murdered in turn 30 days later.)
As you wander through the museum’s open galleries, symbolically resembling an archeological dig, you see for yourself how Father Abraham traveled to Canaan. You discover why the plague of darkness terrified the Egyptians of Moses’ day, and how the ancients were able to keep robbers away while lying in a coffin!
And you will get the answer to that burning question: how was Rebecca able to keep her make-up fresh on the long, hard journey to the land where Isaac awaited his betrothed?
But make-up wasn’t all that Rebecca was wearing, for Abraham’s servant Eliezer had given her a golden ring and two heavy gold bracelets (Gen: 24:22) when he came looking for just the right bride for Isaac. Other biblical figures were weighed down with gold as well, including the High Priests who served God at the Temple.
Which is one reason, of course, why the museum’s Pure Gold exhibit is so special. For gold, not naturally found in Israel, is plentiful in the countries around us. Thus, while apparently using imported material, locals living in Samaria 6,000 years ago produced gold ingots for commerce!
Visitors to the exhibit learn where and how gold can be found, in displays that are organized according to geographical area. As you wander from Greece to China, by way of Egypt, Italy, Mesopotamia and the Black Sea, you find out that the inhabitants of Varna, Bulgaria, were fashioning gold jewelry at least 7,000 years ago.
But what makes gold so special? I asked Rivka Elitzur-Leiman, assistant curator at the museum that question when I toured with her last week. Did some caveman on a nature hike spot gold sparkling in the sun, and decide that it would make a great nose-ring for his woman?
Nobody knows how gold was first discovered, replied Rivka, but we do know why it has become so valuable. For one thing, it is rare – but still accessible: otherwise, how would so many women have at least one piece of golden jewelry in our collections?
Some gold has to be mined, and the Egyptians did a good job of digging it out of rocks with the unwilling help of prisoners, their spouses, and their children. But gold can also be panned in riverbeds, for nuggets sometimes break off of the rocks and are swept away into streams. Besides, gold is a soft metal and easy to process, lasts more or less forever, and, of course, it glitters.
Among the exhibits on display: ornamental gold belt buckles from ancient China, golden wreathes dedicated to pagan gods and goddesses, delicate fibulae (pins),a gilt mask, straps made of minuscule golden threads, and several examples of an exquisite type of gold-work called granulation.
Keep your pocketbook handy when you visit the exhibit. For when you finish browsing the items on display you can’t help but head for the gift shop – and a selection of inexpensive replicas of some of the finest works on display.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel. Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed private tour guide.
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