Sounds of long ago

A new exhibit reminds us that once upon a time, music was something experienced live - or not at all.

satues 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy, Bible Lands Museum)
satues 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy, Bible Lands Museum)
In the 21st century, music has become an ever-present commodity, providing a soundtrack for our daily lives. But before the modern age, while music was still part of daily life, it was perhaps more precious. With the proliferation of cheap MP3 players and easy access to music on the Internet, it's easy to forget that once upon a time music was something only experienced live, or not at all. A new exhibit at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem illustrates the role of music in the ancient Near East with an elegant display of musical instruments and iconography. Entitled "Sounds of Ancient Music," the exhibit opened on January 7 and features many noteworthy items, including some from as long ago as 12000 BCE. As well as covering ancient Rome, Greece, Egypt and Mesopotamia, the display also has a special section examining music during the Second Temple period, and features a cornerstone from the Second Temple compound believed to be from where the priests would blow trumpets to usher in Shabbat. Also on display from the same period is an exquisite flute fragment found in a burial site in Jerusalem; due to its fine workmanship, assistant curator Moshe Piamenta speculates that it may have been actually used in the Temple itself. ALTHOUGH THE only instruments that have survived the ages are those made from bone or metal like flutes, cymbals and rattles, the exhibit displays modern reproductions of ancient lyres, harps and drums created by closely following iconography found on vases, pottery and other implements. The iconography itself is very interesting, a fascinating gallery of mythological figures and statues playing ancient instruments. Especially noteworthy is the large number of females portrayed playing frame drums, a rare silver bowl from the Roman period showing Eros playing an ancient harp, and a cult item from 10000 BCE (found in Ashdod) depicting a five-person musical ensemble. Along with the standard commentary and explanations (In Hebrew, Arabic and English), Sounds of Ancient Music also features multimedia, interactive displays, audio guides and educational tools. In one exhibit, a Mesopotamian cuneiform tablet is displayed on a touch-sensitive screen that reveals the translation of a prayer with the wave of a finger. This particular tablet is famous for containing what scholars believe to be the first examples of musical notation indicating notes and rhythms. Sounds of Ancient Music is scheduled to run throughout 2008, and in a great bit of programming has been placed next to The Three Faces of Monotheism, an exhibit dedicated to the symbols of Judaism, Christianity and Islam up to the 13th century CE. This enables a visitor to literally walk through 13,000 years of Middle Eastern history and witness the transition from polytheism to monotheism in a single day. The Bible Lands Museum is at Rehov Granot 25 (next to the Israel Museum) in Jerusalem and is open from 9:30 a.m. - 5:30 p.m. during the week (until 9:30 p.m. on Wednesdays) and from 9:30 - 2 p.m. on Fridays.