Fine art, ancient artefacts and rare historical documents: Jerusalem is home to a whole range of museums that are bound to fascinate and educate all who set foot in them. For those curious about biblical archaeology or modern Israeli history, or simply looking to soak up some world-class culture, these fascinating institutions are not to be missed.
With more than 200 museums, Israel has the world’s highest number of cultural institutions per capita. A criss-cross of ancient streets and thousands of years of history, Jerusalem’s museums hold extensive collections of modern European and Israeli art, as well as ancient findings that were pivotal to the development of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
For an entirely different experience away from the city’s history and antiquity, the Bloomfield Science Museum is an interactive educational institution that makes science fun for the whole family. Located near the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in the Givat Ram neighbourhood, this popular establishment features colourful hands-on exhibits that are great for children and young adults. The popular permanent displays include a show on mind-boggling optical illusions and a section explaining how electricity works and how it can be created in different ways. Everything inside the Bloomfield Science Museum is designed to be touched and to make learning as fun as possible. The museum is closed on Sundays, offers special discounts for family admission fees and is free for children under the age of five.
The Museum of the Underground Prisoners is a somber and controversial historical institution located in Jerusalem’s Downtown Triangle, in an area known as the Russian Compound. In the late 19th century, the building served as a hostel for Christian pilgrims, but it was transformed into a prison during the British Mandate. Hundreds of Jewish and Arab criminals or political prisoners were incarcerated there before the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Today, visitors can learn about some of the darker aspects of Israeli history, touring the detention areas, prisoner cells and execution chambers. Guided tours are available in English, though it’s best to book these in advance. The museum is open from Sundays through Thursdays and costs 15 Israeli shekels (around £3) per person, cash or cheque only. Please note that the building is not entirely wheelchair accessible.
Explore the origins of Christianity at this hidden gem in the Old City. It’s concealed behind a stone wall close to the Monastery of the Flagellation, the site where Jesus was said to have been flogged by Roman soldiers 2,000 years ago. The Terra Sancta Museum features a newly restored archaeological wing that reopened to the public in 2018. On show are incredibly rare antiquities from the time when Jesus is said to have lived, including a Byzantine cistern, an ancient coin minted by Jews revolting against the Romans in 66 AD, tools used by Jerusalem’s inhabitants centuries ago and coffins marked with crosses. Another curious item is a pair of engraved ivory gaming dice, probably used to play backgammon during the same period. The Custody of the Holy Land, founded by Saint Francis of Assisi in 1217, has been instrumental in collecting the artefacts displayed at the museum today. Admission fees are payable in cash only, and visitors should dress modestly, as the museum is located on a holy Christian site.
Formerly known as the Palestine Archaeological Museum (PAM), the Rockefeller Museum is situated in an eye-catching white limestone building in East Jerusalem near Herod’s Gate. The museum houses an impressive collection of archaeological items found in excavations conducted in Mandatory Palestine during the early 20th century, with some of the most prized items being the 8th-century wooden panels from the Al-Aqsa Mosque and 12th-century marble lintels from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Also on display is one of the Lachish Letters, rare ancient Hebrew inscriptions from 2,500 years ago which were found on clay pottery shards and provide a glimpse into how the ancient Israelites lived during the reign of Zedekiah, the last king of Judah. Other highlights include Roman-era antiquities and early Christian inscriptions. The castle-like edifice of the Rockefeller Museum itself is an architectural masterpiece designed by British architect Austen Harrison. It was built in the 1930s and integrates Eastern and Western-inspired design. Entrance to the Rockefeller Museum is free, but it is closed on Tuesdays and Fridays.
This is an updated version of a story created by Noam Matas.