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Reconstructing a 12th-century pipe organ discovered in the Holy Land

J-P Mauro - published on 07/24/21

This is the oldest example of a pipe organ ever discovered, and it's in excellent condition.

In the early 20th century, a team of archaeologists unearthed a 12th-century organ from beneath the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The organ, which was preserved by the dry climate for centuries, is the oldest extant example of a pipe organ. Now, Spanish music historian and organist David Catalunya will attempt to reconstruct it so it might sound again. 

To call the piece an organ is a bit of an exaggeration, as only the pipes and bells were recovered. The rest of the organ is traditionally constructed from wooden pieces that would not have survived. Still, these metal aerophones are the heart of the organ, which produce sound as air moves through the pipe. 

Catalunya expressed his awe over the state of preservation the pipes were in. Although they seem to have oxidized a bit, there is little sign of rust or wear. Only a handful of the pipes shown in the video, featured above, show any sign of deterioration. Catalunya told Christian Media Center:

“The instrument is really like frozen in time … these pipes could have been made yesterday. Here we have the opportunity to really understand much more about the medieval history of the organ, technology in general and Church culture. We also have the opportunity to understand how these instruments were made in order to replicate them and bring their sound alive again.”

Music history

He went on to explain that the organ was most likely brought to the Holy Land by French Crusaders. Catalunya speculates that the organ was used for about a century at the basilica. It was not until the Muslim invasion of the 12th century that the organ was removed for protection.

The study of the organ is expected to deepen our understanding of music history and Church music practices. Before this organ was discovered there were no examples of organs from before the 15th century. The oldest playable organ has about a dozen pipes that date to 1435. 

Catalunya has begun the process of restoring and rebuilding the organ. The project is expected to last about 5 years and the goal is to hear the 12th-century organ sound once more. When it is fully restored, the historic instrument will be housed in the Terra Sancta Museum, in Jerusalem. There it will be on display as an exhibit and, hopefully, used in concerts.

ArchaeologyHistoryHoly LandSacred Music
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