Tourism Among The Ruins

Tourism Among The Ruins

Israel’s archaeological legacy poised to lure a new generation of sophisticated travelers.

At a construction site near the coastal city of Ashkelon recently, workers dug up something most unusual: a 72-foot-high Byzantine temple.

It was just one of numerous antiquities unearthed around the Holy Land lately. While excavating in Jerusalem’s ancient City of David, archaeologists turned up the remains of a Hasmonean-period building, the first of its era to be discovered in Jerusalem, containing a trove of Antiochian coins.

Nearby, on Burma Road, excavators discovered a 2,300-year-old village — complete with rows of alleys, courtyards and stone houses filled with cooking pots and tools — dating back to the Second Temple.

As these finds reveal, Israel is host to an archaeological legacy that is arguably unrivaled. So it is fitting that the country is finally getting an institution dedicated to preserving, archiving and exposing this legacy: the Schottenstein National Campus for the Archeology of Israel, which will open next to the Israel Museum on Jerusalem’s Museum Hill in 2016.

As the new, public face of the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Schottenstein is evidence of how central Israel’s archaeology is to its identity — and, not incidentally, to its tourism. For a new generation of sophisticated travelers, that tourism has evolved from a largely passive activity to a more engaging, holistic one.

Instead of merely ogling the 3,000-year-old Hebrew letters on a mug recently dug up in the capital, today’s visitors want more information: Who drank out of that mug? What is the inscription’s significance? Where was the mug found, and what else was around it?

“It used to be that you went to Israel, you saw a few sculptures, you visited a few archaeological sites, you were thrilled by it and you left,” said Jacob Fisch, executive director of the Friends of the Israel Antiquities Authority. “Today, people want to see the whole context of the objects. What we’re building, really — and why we call it a campus and not a museum — is to have an experience of the multitude and the complexity of the finds.”

As such, Fisch elaborated, the opening of the Schottenstein Campus represents a new era for Israeli archaeological tourism by showcasing not necessarily Israel’s major treasures — that will remain largely the province of the Israel Museum and its lauded Archaeology division — but the process of cleaning, restoring and preserving them.

“It’s like an open kitchen, in some sense,” Fisch said, explaining that in the way a restaurant unveils the process of preparing the food, the new campus will lay bare the process of conserving and cataloguing Israel’s tangible heritage.

There will be plenty to see. The IAA will showcase the more than two million objects in its treasury — “not just the highlights that you’d see in a museum, but thousands of oil lamps, or 20,000 ancient glass vessels, or 180,000 coins,” elaborated Fisch, drawing a contrast between a museum’s mission and the more comprehensive responsibility of the largest archaeological library in the Middle East. “People will be able to see the whole overview of the archaeology of Israel under one roof.”

Renowned Israeli architect Moshe Safdie designed the 350,000-square-foot campus, which will house the 150,000-volume Mandel National Library for the Archeology of Israel as well as the archives of the IAA and the British Mandatory Archive, a trove of historical information about excavations from the British Mandate over Palestine through today.

Safdie’s space also includes restoration laboratories, an auditorium, a rooftop garden and a café. Of particular interest to many visitors will be 15,000 Dead Sea Scrolls, on view in their own gallery.

James Snyder, director of the Israel Museum, said the Schottenstein “fulfills the IAA’s mandate in a collaborative way,” noting that the two institutions will benefit from the symbiosis of proximity. Last year’s landmark exhibit on King Herod drew nearly a half-million visitors, an enormous number for an archaeological exhibit, Snyder said. With an eye to continuing that momentum, he added, the museum plans another large-scale archaeologically focused show about Egypt and the Canaanite Era.

Impressive as all this may seem, Israeli tourism authorities are aware that they cannot afford to rest on their proverbial laurels. “People are getting more sophisticated, and we have more competition from other places around the world,” said Fisch, citing Turkey and Greece in particular. “We have to be savvy about it.”

That means not only unearthing and unveiling new sights, but also enabling visitors to further appreciate those sights by way of interactive and enjoyable experiences, Fisch added. In addition to education and context, “they want creature comforts, they want food and drink,” he said.

Increasingly, they also want technology. That’s why, for example, the IAA has an iPhone app in development; children will be able to play games to learn about many of the sites they may be visiting.

The Jerusalem Archaeological Park, which opened in 2000 southwest of the Temple Mount, has a new multimedia focus, Fisch said. And the Israel Museum recently launched its new Digital Dead Sea Scrolls online library, allowing visitors to explore its treasures in greater depth.

Another way Israel is promoting its archaeological heritage is through a more global reach. Case in point is the Lod Mosaic exhibition, organized by the IAA and currently thrilling audiences around the world (some of whom, it is hoped, will plan visits to Israel and open their checkbooks to support conservation). Excavated in 2010 in the city of Lod, a portion of the mosaic — from the villa of a wealthy Roman — is traveling from New York, where 800,000 people saw it at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to Berlin, Paris and St. Petersburg.

Next year, the entire 1,850-square-foot mosaic will come to rest at the brand-new Lod Mosaic Museum, with a convenient location off the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv Highway.

As for the other recent finds around Israel, Yoli Shwartz, a spokesperson for the IAA, said they would be gradually opened to be public over the next several years. Southwest of Jerusalem, a national park has been declared at Khirbet Qeiyafa, the spot where David fought Goliath — and where a residential development was nearly built instead.

The City of David site, where the Hasmonean building was discovered during construction, typifies the serendipitous process that has so often led to touristic gold. “The City of David wanted to build something, and they had to excavate,” said Shwartz. The IAA was involved to ensure the protection of area antiquities, and lo and behold, the first-ever Hamadan-era building was unearthed in Jerusalem.

“It’s all a matter of luck,” Shwartz added. But as tourists are increasingly learning, luck is only the starting point for understanding Israel’s complex subterranean legacy.

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