When the Dead Sea Scrolls travel, they’re treated like royalty – first class seats, restrictions on how many can be on the same plane, and no touching. And fittingly so.
“These are the oldest key texts underlying the great traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam,” Royal Ontario Museum chief executive William Thorsell said yesterday at a preview of an exhibit of the scrolls at the museum.
The show opens Saturday, featuring eight fragments of the 2,000-year-old scrolls, including the oldest known copies of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, a founding sacred text of the world’s three major religions.
Hidden in caves along the Dead Sea just as biblical Israel was crushed by the Romans, only to resurface 60 years ago as modern Israel was established, the scrolls are revered in the Jewish state as proof of a historic claim to the land.
As such, getting them out of Israel is a massive undertaking.
“They’re Israel’s greatest treasures,” says Julian Siggers, vice-president of programs at the ROM.
Only first-class seats are big enough to accommodate the scrolls’ steel travel cases, Siggers says, and there’s much less traffic in the high-priced seats, so less chance of passengers jostling them. And only direct flights are allowed, to lessen the chances of a mishap.
The cargo hold is out of the question. The scrolls’ required environmental conditions are very strict, and they can never be out of eyesight of the three or more officials from the Israel Antiquities Authority who travel with them.
Like royalty, often required to travel separately to ensure the line of succession is not wiped out in one tragic event, the scrolls travel in small groups on separate flights.
“They came in more than one flight, but I’m not at liberty to say how many,” says Siggers, who cautions there are some security measures that just can’t be discussed.
Given how important the scrolls are to the faiths of more than half the world’s people and the state of Israel, Siggers says it is “incredibly generous” of the IAA to let them out of the country at all, so does not mind the strict conditions.