Museum exhibit becomes front in Israeli-Palestinian struggle


A museum worker does preparatory work before the opening of the "Herod the Great" exhibition, at the Israel Museum this week in Jerusalem. (Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)
February 13, 2013

A major exhibit at Israel’s national museum that is devoted to Herod the Great, the Roman-era king of Judea, has become the latest front in a struggle between Israelis and Palestinians over cultural heritage.

The show is billed as the most ambitious and expensive archaeological exhibition put on by the Israel Museum outside of its permanent collections, and its centerpiece is a partial reconstruction of what is believed to be the king’s tomb at Herodium, a hilltop palace-fortress south of Jerusalem in the West Bank.

On display are some 30 tons of material from the site, including masonry from the tomb structure and a reconstructed sarcophagus thought to have held the king’s remains, along with frescoes and mosaics restored by the museum staff, a massive royal bathtub and other finds excavated in Jerusalem and at desert palaces in Jericho and ancient Cypros, also in the West Bank.

The exhibit, which opened to the public Wednesday and is scheduled to run for eight months, has drawn criticism from Palestinian officials. They charge that the removal of the ancient artifacts to Israel violates international law and appropriates cultural property that should remain in the West Bank, which the Palestinians seek as part of a future state.

Maintained by Israel as a national park, Herodium is in Area C, the part of the West Bank that remains under full Israeli control and where excavations are supervised by the Israeli military administration.

James S. Snyder, the museum director, said the material from Herodium is on loan and would be returned to the site after the exhibit closes. He said restoring and showing the finds at the museum was in keeping with the Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians and with the Hague Convention on protection of cultural property during armed conflict.

“We are but custodians,” Snyder said. “This is not about politics or geopolitics. We are trying to do the right thing and preserve the material cultural heritage.”

Three years in the making, the exhibit was conceived by Ehud Netzer, an archaeologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who directed excavations at Herodium. In 2007, after a ­decades-long search, he announced that he had found the tomb of Herod, the ruler of Judea from 37 to 4 B.C., whose colossal building projects included the expansion of the Second Jewish Temple.

Netzer wanted the finds exhibited at the Israel Museum, Snyder said. But while surveying the site with museum staffers in 2010, he fell to his death when a safety rail he was leaning on gave way. The exhibit is dedicated to his memory.

Herod’s building projects also included the cliff-top fortress of Masada and the port of Caesarea, both major tourist landmarks in Israel. Sophisticated video graphics in the exhibit re-create the grandeur of those projects, along with the fortifications, towers and buildings of Herodium.

Hamdan Taha, director-general of the Palestinian Authority’s Department of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage, called the exhibition of the Herodium finds in Israel illegal, noting that Palestinian officials were not consulted before the material was moved.

“Displaying objects uncovered in an archaeological site in the occupied Palestinian state is a violation of international law and the bilateral agreements between Palestine and Israel,” he said.

Protocols to the Hague Convention prohibit removal of cultural property from occupied territory. Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

But a spokesman for the Israeli Defense Ministry department that is responsible for the West Bank said it was following inherited Jordanian law there. That law, he said, permits loaning artifacts outside the territory.

Taha said the finds at Herodium were “part of the Palestinian heritage, which includes the different cultural and historical layers, including the figure of King Herod. History is indivisible, and this is part of the cumulative history of this area. Archaeology can play a more constructive role as a bridge between the two peoples, rather than displaying archaeological objects from occupied sites.”

Yonathan Mizrachi, an Israeli archeologist with Emek Shaveh, a group that focuses on the role of archaeology in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said the Israel Museum’s spotlight on Herodium served efforts by the government and Jewish settlers to appropriate West Bank sites as part of Israel’s national heritage.

“The museum can grant legitimacy to the occupation this way, by presenting this as part of Israeli and Jewish heritage,” he said. “The message is: This past is ours.”

Herodium has been listed as a national heritage site by the Israeli government, and a model of Herod’s tomb was dedicated there last year as part of state-funded renovations. The Palestinians, for their part, plan to nominate the area of Herodium and neighboring monasteries for recognition by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as a world heritage site.

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