There is something powerfully evocative about looking at a jar of figs over three thousand years old. Ancient hands had picked them, laid them in the sun to dry, threaded them onto string and placed them in this large clay storage jar.
A glimpse into moments of an ancient life; the figs now blackened by the heat of a fire that had swept, 3300 years ago, through the room where the jar was stored; the carbonized fruit still lying in their threaded coiled patterns.
For me this Canaanite relic alone, uncovered at excavations at Tel Mikne (35 km south-west of Jerusalem), is enough to recommend a visit to the ’Sweet as Honey’ exhibition at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem.
This well-designed exhibition includes ancient objects depicting traditional sources of honey.
The term ’honey’ is traditionally identified not only with the sticky production of bees but also with the sweet fluids that ooze from ripe dates and figs. In fact a honey, or jam-like confection, has been made since ancient times from figs, dates, grapes and carobs.
And you can actually find recipes to make these honeys in the delightful book that the Museum has produced to accompany the exhibition. Sweet as Honey: A cookbook inspired by the exhibition is beautifully presented with whole-page illustrations of the artifacts alternating with pages giving over 40 recipes of honeyed delights including chicken, desserts, breads and side dishes.
The book begins with instructions for making honey from grapes and figs, courtesy of Aayasha Shachbari from the village of Daburiya, and a simple recipe for producing date honey, provided by Miriam Ya’akobi, a Kurdish immigrant from Iran. Then with your homemade honey (or one from the store cupboard) you can launch into the rest of this sumptuous book.
This book, available only from the museum’s shop, makes a lovely and rather novel cookery-book present for one’s culinary friends.
But of course don’t only go to the shop — the Bible Lands Museum itself is well worth a visit.
The honey referred to in the Bible was made from various fruits and became a source of trade in the region. It was valued both for its sweetness and its medicinal properties. The Romans applied it to wounds and Galen, the most famous Roman physician, even recommended a blend of bee venom and honey to cure baldness!
The healing properties of honey are being investigated by scientists today. There are certain honeys well-known to the medical world for their antibacterial properties. A leading children’s hospital in Germany has for the past few years routinely used a topical application of a honey product to promote wound healing in sick children. Last month, scientists from the Department of Biomedical Sciences at the Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga, Australia, published an article in the Archives of Medical Research showing that even their ordinary, local Australian honeys have a rather devastating effect on bacteria. Twelve out of thirteen disease-causing bacteria were zapped by the honeys they tested. Although this work was all done in glass dishes in a laboratory, it leads the way to further clinical research.
And of course many of us will be familiar with the homespun remedy of lemon and honey for sore throats... perhaps another anti-bacterial use of the golden liquid.
The young man who gave an excellent English guided tour round the ’Sweet as Honey’ exhibition confessed to taking a couple of spoonfuls every morning.
You probably know the name of the Bible Lands Museum but I wonder how many of you have actually been there. It is situated across the road from the Israel Museum — and therein perhaps lies the root of its neglect. Wander out of the Israel Museum and the long, low building of the Bible Lands Museum gently beckons you.
But by this time, you are probably already suffering museum overload, or at least your feet are, and to be honest the facade makes you think that you aren’t really missing much.
But go inside and you find that a wide flight of stairs (or an elevator) leads you downwards, as if entering an archaeological dig. The Museum opens up into beautifully laid out, bright, airy spaces. Its rich displays of artifacts of the Ancient Near East are primarily from the extensive private collection of Dr. Elie Borowski (1913- 2003). This museum was his inspiration.
Here you can wander through biblical history with artifacts and reconstructions to help conjure up peoples and places. Who can resist a glimpse of 5000-year-old lucky charms, a 3000-year-old clay model of a family or a sixth- century ’magic incantation bowl’ from Mesopotamia? The information alongside the exhibits is especially well- written and informative.
I recently sent friends visiting from England and they chose to take what they unreservedly described as ’an excellent tour.’ But at well over an hour, it succeeded in boring their children to distraction. I tend to prefer much shorter forays to museums, focusing on a few intriguing exhibits.
This to me is part of the appeal of a small exhibition such as ’Sweet as Honey.’ It is a visit that doesn’t exhaust you and leaves you wanting to browse the museum a little longer.
On these damp winter days a spoonful of honey sounds a tempting way perhaps to ward off winter ills. And a museum visit — dry and warm — at this time of year is especially enticing. But don’t make the Bible Lands an Israel Museum afterthought.