Going beyond words

A new exhibition at the Tower of David Museum tells the story of the alphabet.

alphabet museum 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
alphabet museum 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Children of all ages are likely to find “Letters and More” – the exhibition on the development of writing that opened Sunday at the Tower of David Museum just inside the Old City’s Jaffa Gate – to be the “write stuff,” learning made fun in a castle that’s a cross between King Herod and Harry Potter.
The ancient fort was transformed into a museum in 1967. Located in a Crusader vault, the new exhibition by curators Liat Margalit and Sara Rosenfeld engagingly tells the history of written communication and the alphabet in the Middle East, where writing first developed some 3,700 years ago. It’s a story that originates with hieroglyphs in pharaonic Egypt, then moves through the Sinai peninsula where Canaanite workers at the Sarabit al-Kadim turquoise mines created the Proto-Sinaitic script, to cuneiform in Assyria, and finally ends here around 1050 BCE when the Phoenician or “Proto-Canaanite” alphabet was invented.
“Je tiens l’affaire [I’ve got it],” Jean-François Champollion, the founder of Egyptology, proclaimed upon deciphering the hieroglyphics on the Rosetta Stone in 1822. It’s that kind of thrill from a communications breakthrough museum chief curator Renee Sivan is aiming for. “While it’s didactic, it’s also an interactive experience. We wanted to speak to our audience.”
Here one encounters words like “papyrus,” “cartouche,” “epigraphy” and “ostraca.” But children will be equally intrigued to create messages in Egyptian hieroglyphics, and then challenge their parents to decipher them. Another interactive game teaches expressions in Yiddish, Ladino and Judeo-Arabic.
The exhibition ends where it all began – with pictographs. These show contemporary language-neutral symbols that convey messages – like the images for “bicycle path” and “wheelchair access.”
“For children, coming to the Tower of David is like opening a treasure chest,” says Caroline Shapiro-Weiss, the Tower of David’s PR spokesperson.
“As a city that is a mosaic of peoples and cultures, Jerusalem is also a patchwork of alphabets and languages. At times, it seems as though Jerusalem is the Tower of Babel. Throughout history, various conquerors have overtaken and ruled the city, bringing a large collection of languages and scripts with them – Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Arabic, Aramaic, just to name but a few. A large proportion of the languages brought over the many centuries of the city’s long and colorful history are still used on a daily basis today in the Old City. The differences often seem greater than what they have in common. Even though these alphabets developed in different places, they all share a single source: the system of signs that was born here, in Canaan.”
“Letters and More” will remain open until the end of the school year. Museum director Shosh Yaniv notes the temporary exhibition was developed in light of the Education Ministry’s recent decision to emphasize the Hebrew language.
There is no additional charge for the exhibition. The Tower of David is open Sunday to Thursday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Combined tickets are also available for the museum and the evening light show, The Night Spectacular, held in the Citadel archeological courtyard, Prices are going up Junuary 1.
For more information, see www.towerofdavid.org.il