Armenian Jerusalem
The Isaiah scroll

 Six decades ago, an illiterate Arab Bedouin, his thick, black

moustaches' bristling with excitement, stumbled upon a treasure

trove in the parched wilderness of the Holy Land — and helped

inscribe a new page in the history of religion.

Mohammed   el   Dheeb   (the   Wolf)   was   out   chasing   a   stray   goat,   back   in 1944,   but   the   priceless   scrolls   he   uncovered,   in   the   limestone   caves   of   Qumran, near the shores of the Dead Sea, marked a turning point in his life-style. His    tribe,    the    Ta'amra,    increased    and    prospered,    and    the    shadowy middlemen   to   whom   they   sold   the   ancient   writings   ensconced   themselves   in posh villas around the hills of Bethlehem. But   the   world   of   scholarship   reaped   the   greatest   profit   and   pleasure   deciphering, decoding, analysing and speculating, with still no end in sight. Incredulous   archaeologists   have   been   sifting   through   the   accumulated debris   and   bat-droppings   of   two   millennia   for   more   scraps   of   ancient   writings that   may   still   be   entombed   —   and   the   results   have   been   staggering:   thousands of   fragments   have   been   discovered   in   11   caves,   most   written   on   parchment made from the skins of sheep and goats.                Israeli   archaeologists   were   in   the   vanguard   of   the   scholarly   blitz   and   the Israeli   Government   accorded   their   efforts   official   sanction   by   building   a   special Shrine of the Book to house the scrolls.                The   shrine,   an   adjunct   of   the   Israel   Museum,   only   a   stone's   throw   from   the centre   of   Jerusalem,   has   been   built   to   symbolise   the   eternal   struggle   between the   Children   of   Light   and   the   Children   of   Darkness,   so   magnificently   articulated in the Essene texts, some 700 of which have so far been put together.                It   has   been   a   Herculean   task:   some   of   the   scrolls   were   found   in   excellent condition,    particularly    those    sealed    in    ceramic    jars    (fired    in    the    Essene community's   own   kilns),   where   moisture   was   minimal,   but   others   had   developed a   decaying'   deep   brown   colour   and   some   of   the   writing   could   be   made   out   only with   the   aid   of   infra-red   photography,   as   in   the   case   of   the   Genesis Apocryphon, a   version   of   the   Book   of   Genesis,   retold   in Aramaic,   the   lingua   franca   spoken   in the Middle East around the time of Jesus.                Several   years   ago   a   full-scale   scientific   study   of   the   scrolls   was   launched   to 'discover   "exactly   what   happens   over   the   course   of   time   to   the   parchments,   why they   tend   to   deteriorate,   how   best   they   can   be   preserved   and,   not   least, whether   they   had   deteriorated   since   they   were   first   discovered,"   in   the   words of' curator Magen Broshi.                The   project,   turned   over   to   the   Weizmann   Institute,   delved   into   uncharted territory,   and   got   nowhere,   until   a   comparison   of   infra-red   spectra   of   the ancient   parchment   with   new   parchment   bits   revealed   that   in   the   deteriorated areas   the   collagen   of   the   animal   fibres   had   broken   down,   after   coming   into contact with heat and water.                Institute   scientists   Wolfie   Traub   and   Stephen   Weiner   developed   a   technique using   x-ray   diffraction,   and   were   able   to   measure   the   extent   to   which   collagen (a   fibrous   protein   existing   in   all   living   matter)   had   already   deteriorated   into gelatine.                Another   scientific   sleuth,   Emanuel   Gil-Av,   joined   the   hunt   —   and   it   was finally   determined   that   the   scrolls   had   taken   place   over   hundreds   of   years. Actually,   it   could   even   have   started   while   the   scrolls   were   still   being   used   by the Dead Sea .sect.                "We   have   found   no   evidence   whatsoever   that   deterioration   took   place   since the scrolls were taken from the caves," Weiner concluded.                With   a   clean   bill   of   health   in   their   heads,   the   shrine's   directors   have   now established   a   monitoring   system   to   warn   them   if   degeneration   is   resumed.   And to   slow   down,   possibly   even   to   halt,   decay,   Broshi's   staff   keeps   daily   watch   on the   scrolls.   Each   fragment   —   even   those   not   much   bigger   than   a   pencil   point   has   been   bedded   between   sheets   of   highly   absorbent   rice   paper,   laid   between sheets of heavy cardboard and kept in complete darkness.                "Nothing   is   as   devastating   as   intense   light,"   Broshi   said.   "Every   housewife knows that."                Dehumidifiers,   working   in   tandem,   keep   the   rooms   at   between   50   and   55 per cent relative humidity, considered ideal for preservation purposes.                "Like   human   beings,   the   scrolls   thrive   on   moderate   humidity,   the   kind   we find   most   comfortable   for   people,"   Broshi   said.   "We   think   we   have   found   the right   preservation   ambience.   If   it   is   not   —   and   no   one   can   say   for   sure   —   we   will find out through our monitoring."                Museum   sources   said   some   experts   had   suggested   placing   the   scrolls   in helium-filled   glass,   as   has   been   done   with   the   original   of   the   United   States Declaration   of   Independence.   But   because   of   the   length   of   the   Dead   Sea   Scrolls and   the   very   large   number   of   fragments,   this   would   be   highly   prohibitive   and cumbersome.      Moreover, Broshi said, helium often leaked from its containers.                The   gas   is   designed   to   prevent   bacterial   activity   —   but   the   real   danger   to the   scrolls   is   not   bacteria,   but   rather   the   degradation   of   the   collagen   into gelatine, an irreversible process.                Each   year,   almost   750,000   visitors   pay   homage   to   the   Shrine   of   the   Book, making   this   the   second   most   popular   tourist   site   (after   the   Western   Wall).   But they   do   not   see   all   of   the   scrolls.   In   fact,   those   in   poor   condition   may   never   be exhibited.   Even   those   sensitive   to   light   but   otherwise   healthy   will   also   lie hidden.                No   matter.   The   little   that   you   can   actually   see   is   enough   to   fill   your   heart with   untold   wonder   and   fascination   as   you   delve   into   the   secrets   of   a   sect   of ascetic   believers   who,   as   one   observer   put   it,   unlike   us,   with   "our   spiritual uncertainties", "were so clear about the difference between good and evil".

Proximity factor

Although   the   Armenian   community had   no   direct   role   in   the   discovery or    propagation    of    the    Dead    Sea Scrolls,    they    were    a    heartbeat away    from    the    action    a    lot    of which   transpired   on   or   very   close to   their   turf.   The   St   Mark   Syriac onastery    where    the    Scrolls    were domiciled    for    a    short    time,    is situated    at    the    periphery    of    the Armenian      Quarter,      and      abuts homes of residents of the Quarter.
This project has been supported by the Gulbenkian philanthropic Foundation, the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and members of the worldwide Armenian community. Reproductions of the genealogical documents [domar’s] are courtesy Photo Garo, Jerusalem. Copyright © 2007 Arthur Hagopian
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