What's the connection between Ilan Ramon's diary, Dead Sea Scrolls?

The Israel Museum’s new exhibit connects the unlikely story of the biblical character Enoch and Israel’s first astronaut, Ilan Ramon.

May 30, 2019 06:06
4 minute read.
Michael Maggen separating the pages in the Israel Museum laboratory

Michael Maggen separating the pages in the Israel Museum laboratory. (photo credit: ISRAEL MUSEUM)


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How do two people, separated by thousands of years – one, a biblical figure, and the other, the first Israeli astronaut – find common ground?

This month, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem has curated an exhibition connecting the biblical character Enoch with famous Israeli fighter pilot and astronaut Ilan Ramon. It has done this using a fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls mentioning the former and fragments from Ramon’s diary, recovered after he was killed in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster.

Titled “Through Time and Space: The Diary of Astronaut Ilan Ramon and a Scroll from the Dead Sea,” the curators of the exhibition, Hagit Maoz, Adolfo Roitman and Michael Maggen explained to The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday that the fragments recovered from both the Dead Sea Scrolls and Ramon’s diary “survived against all odds” and against “the laws of physics.”

The Dead Sea Scroll fragments survived through thousands of years of history, desert conditions, wars and looting, while the fragments of Ramon’s diary survived through subzero and boiling temperatures and the conditions of the Columbia disaster.

Maggen worked tirelessly piecing together the fragments of Ramon’s diary and in the process became close friends with his wife, Rona. Using photo lab technology – the same method used to read damaged parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls – Maggen and his team were able to read the unreadable and discover how each fragment of Ramon’s diary fitted together, an arduous and time-consuming task. The diary, too, is on display.

“It didn’t burn [but instead] came back to Earth,” Maoz highlighted as the small group walked into the exhibit. “This exhibition deals with the extraordinary; these manuscripts were not supposed to have survived.”

The state of the diary upon discovery in 2003

The exhibit is designed to make visitors feel as if they are floating, or not standing on solid ground.

It’s designed in the shape of three circles, with each of the exhibits being in the center of the internal, middle and outer rings. The lighting of each one almost looks like “a beam me up, Scotty” moment in the darkness of the exhibit.

“The design is a journey through space,” Maoz said, “to feel as if you’re flying outside of Earth.”

It’s as dark as space would seem from the atmosphere, with a few small, white inscriptions and animations on the wall – which almost make visitors feel as if they are looking at the stars.

Maoz explained that 34 pages of Ramon’s diary were found torn and tattered, just like the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.

“The documents are also strikingly similar in appearance – both were found torn with the text barely discernible,” Roitman said. “Great measures were taken to stabilize the pages and reconstruct the writing.”

“Eight pages of the diary were written in pencil and special ink, six pages had technical instructions, while 12 pages were empty,” Maoz said.

Debris from the Columbia were scattered across about 5,000 kilometers in the United States, Roitman later added.

“There is a poetic linkage between Ilan Ramon and Enoch,” he said. “There are two Enochs mentioned: one in Genesis, chapter 4, and another – the most famous Enoch – mentioned in chapter 5, in which the generations between Adam and Noah are explained.”

Enoch is described to have lived for 365 years – “which sounds like many years” – but there were other biblical characters who lived much longer during that time period.

Roitman said that the passage in Genesis describes how Enoch was taken by God, in the same way Elijah the Prophet was “taken to heaven” in the Book of Kings.

This was a later a topic discussed at length by Jewish scholars during the Second Temple period, in which several books were also written and several versions of the story told.

According to the Ethiopic version of Enoch, the biblical character ascended to the seven levels of heaven and described what he saw and how he felt in the writings.

Ramon also described his feelings in his diary, as well as the idea of gravity and what it felt like to experience zero gravity in space, which forms part of the fragments that were found.

Although initially it was believed that the Ethiopic version of Enoch was not part of Judaism, this version of the story was discovered on a Dead Sea Scroll, which is currently on display to the public in this exhibit for the first time.

Although separated by thousands of years, these two “astronauts” were both equally amazed by the sights they beheld and by the profound privilege of witnessing them.

As Enoch says, “So I, Enoch, saw the vision of the end of everything alone; and none among human beings will see as I have seen.”

Ramon said something similar in his diary, saying: “It is like something... that only a few get to experience.”

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