Words that have shaped both religious and secular life for centuries are making a brief, 80-hour visit to the Royal Ontario Museum as part of an ongoing exhibit, Dead Sea Scrolls: Words that Changed the World.
The Ten Commandments, written on 2,000-year-old parchment, are on view under a light- and humidity-controlled display until Sunday. “This is the oldest parchment of the Ten Commandments known to us,” said Risa Levitt, the exhibit’s curator and a religious studies professor at San Diego State University.
Not only are the Ten Commandments among the earliest sets of laws, they are also some of the most influential, having helped shape Christianity, Islam and Judaism as well as many secular laws.
The first set of eight Dead Sea Scrolls, on display at the ROM since mid-summer, have been very well received, said the museum’s director and CEO, William Thorsell. Those scrolls have now made their way back to Israel and have been replaced with eight new passages that will be exhibited until early January.
The parchment and papyrus scrolls are a collection of the oldest biblical records, and contain passages found in the Christian Bible, the Jewish Torah and the Islamic Koran. They were discovered near the Dead Sea between 1947 and 1956. Although the Ten Commandments are part of the Dead Sea Scrolls, they’re on separate display because of the high volume of expected visitors.
Walking into the exhibition space, viewers are welcomed by a mural-sized print of the stone tablets said to have been given to Moses on Mount Sinai.
Various paintings, drawings and texts line the walls of the gallery, including French and English explanations of each commandment. Images of Moses also cover the walls, ranging from a child-like, colourful representation to a 19th century classical painting to a contemporary lithograph by the late Jewish artist, Marc Chagall.
The sounds of Hebrew prayers play in the background of the exhibit, adding to the ambiance of the dimly lit exhibition space. “(Levitt) created a whole experience in approaching this scroll with the most beautiful text and graphics,” Thorsell said.
Also on display in the gallery is Hamra Abbas’s sound-based installation, Read, which looks at the role of Islam in Pakistan, her native country. The piece is a hanging, wooden maze with a looped recording of children reading passages from the Koran.
“So, we’re coming at these traditions using different media,” Thorsell said. “It’s very inspiring seeing people from the different traditions working together in this interesting way to capture the spirit of this exhibition in Toronto, which is the right place to have a conversation about shared roots and different destinations.”
• The Ten Commandments are on display until Sunday, with extended hours and half-price admission on Friday and Saturday.
• The Dead Sea Scrolls are on display until Jan. 3.