Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem

BY THE RIVERS OF BABYLON

In addition to its impressive permanent collection and its admirable educational programs, the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem will soon be opening yet another extraordinary exhibition sure to attract large numbers of visitors from near and far

Theres never a dull moment at the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem (BLMJ). Its dedicated and enthusiastic staff constantly finds new ways to appeal to visitors of all ages, religions and nationalities – inspiring people who often have little previous background in biblical history or archeology. In fact, thanks to its creative, contemporary approach, BLMJ succeeds in making the field of biblical history accessible – and fascinating – to a large and diverse audience.

An interactive time capsule

The museum, which was founded in 1992, is in fact an interactive time capsule for visitors of all ages and faiths, laymen and scholars alike. Visitors from Israel and from around the world enjoy touring the galleries and discovering the wonders of the ancient cultures. The museum has earned international acclaim as a universal center for cultural and educational programming, notes Amanda Weiss, BLMJs energetic director and driving force. It is the only museum of its kind in the world where the civilizations of the Ancient Near East are brought to life from the dawn of civilization to the early Christian era.

Activity for families at the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem

BLMJs superb permanent exhibition spans more than 20 galleries, taking visitors through the chronological history of the Bible Lands, unlocking the key to the origins of writing and revealing the daily lives and religious rituals of our ancestors. History unfolds through artifacts such as figurines, mosaics and sculptures.

The geographical boundaries of the Bible Lands extend from Afghanistan in the east to the Mediterranean Sea in the west, and from the Caucasian mountains in the north to Nubia in the south. The permanent exhibition features rare and unique treasures from these lands dating from the earliest civilizations to the Byzantine period, enabling visitors to discover the remarkable wealth of the neighboring cultures and how they have influenced each other.

The real story for the first time

The museums newest exhibition, By the Rivers of Babylon, set to open on January 1st, 2015, promises to be just as thrilling – if not more – than its other blockbuster exhibitions from the last few years, such as Pure Gold and The Book of Books. Both of these remarkable recent exhibitions were hugely successful and, due to demand, stayed open far beyond their original closing dates.

Jewish Women Weeping in Exile, oil on canvas by Ellan Hofman Bang, 1911, private collectionMeidad Suchowolski

By the Rivers of Babylon will be the first time ever that the real story of the Babylonian exile will be told. Dr. Filip Vukosavovi, the curator of the exhibition, explains that, the Bible Lands Museum has had the opportunity to receive on loan the Al-Yahudu Tablets – approximately 100 Babylonian texts documenting the lives of the exiled Judeans in Babylon in the 6th-5th centuries BCE . A large archive of over 200 of these unique tablets surfaced on the antiquities market in the early 1970s, and is currently owned by two private collectors. The museum now has the most important part of the collection, belonging to Cindy and David Sofer.

Each tablet is relatively small and contains texts written in cuneiform in the Akkadian language with sporadic writing in Aramaic and Paleo-Hebrew. The result is a wealth of information about the every-day lives of the Judean exiles who lived in a number of cities in Babylonia, the most important of them being Al-Yahudu (the city of Judah). We now know so much, effuses Dr. Vukosavovi. They were considered state dependents, paid taxes and followed Babylonian law. It was a multi-cultural society, since there were also groups exiled from other nations in addition to the Judeans.

This rich archive of information is about to be published and made public for the first time. Two separate scholars have been working on the texts for nearly two decades and the academic world is eagerly awaiting their publication. In addition, thanks to a Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem initiative under the supervision of Prof. Wayne Horowitz, the tablets have now also been translated into Hebrew, and exciting information relevant to Jewish sources has come to light. The Hebrew translation will be published with the support of the Israel Exploration Society.

Showing how the people lived

So how can an exhibition based on 100 small clay tablets be so sensational? Well, this is precisely the type of challenge the BLMJ team enjoys! They wisely decided to focus on one of the people who is mentioned in the tablets, Haggai Ben Ahiqam, and to tell the story through his eyes. Haggais great-grandfather, who was from Judah, was exiled to Babylon, which means that Haggai was a 4th generation exile. Thanks to the tablets, we know a great deal about Haggai Ben Ahiqams father, four siblings, grandmother, grandfather and great-grandfather, explains Vukosavovi. We are going to show what really happened in Babylon behind the scenes, the way the people lived.

Museum director Amanda Weiss reveals that a leading design team from Tel Aviv was hired to ensure that By the Rivers of Babylon will feature cutting-edge displays and technologies that will make the story of Haggai and his family come alive. Among other techniques, they will be using state-of-the-art animation.

The exhibition will be divided into three sections: pre-destruction Jerusalem, the siege and destruction of Jerusalem, and the Babylonian exile. The exhibition will be very accessible to both children and adults, insists Weiss. We expect that every school child in Israel will come through this exhibition. We will also have iPads and computers for visitors who want to go more in depth. There are many different sources that we will make available; in addition to Jewish sources, there are also Babylonian sources and later manuscripts. Its so exciting because this is the first time this story is really being told.        

Abraham and Ibrahim

At a time when contact between Jews and Arabs is rather uncommon, the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalems groundbreaking educational project In the Image of Abraham is celebrating its 18th year of promoting coexistence. This remarkable project provides a platform for Jerusalems Jewish and Arab children to meet and get to know each other. In acknowledgement of the projects unique contribution, it has recently received an official endorsement from the U.S. Embassys American Center in Jerusalem. This is a very exciting development, says museum director Amanda Weiss, as the official U.S. support will allow us to reach more children.

Arab and Jewish children in the "Image of Abraham" project

Maysoon Kheir, who heads the In the Image of Abraham project, explains that the biblical patriarch Abraham – who is a common denominator for both the Jewish and Moslem religions – is the central theme used to connect between Jewish and Moslem children. During a series of five sessions, 4th graders from Jewish schools meet with peers from Arab schools and are often astonished to discover how much they actually have in common.

Before they meet each other, children from both sides often tell us that they expect the other group to be monsters and evil. They are usually surprised to find that the other kids are not so different after all, says Kheir. Girls typically connect to each other faster than boys. Last year, though, one Arab boy was amazed to discover that the Jewish boys enjoyed playing soccer as much as he did, and that made him realize how much they all had in common.

Each mixed Arab-Jewish group is guided by two facilitators – one Arab and one Jewish. This year, there are six facilitators involved with the project, who have been specially trained at the museum. Since most of the children dont share a common language, the facilitators help them translate and communicate. The kids in the program also receive a basic Hebrew-Arabic phrase book, which often helps break the ice.

We talk a lot about our similarities and differences, concludes Kheir. Using the story of Abrahams journey, we discuss the common concepts of tradition and family, as well as the similarities between the two languages. By the end of the program there are always friendships formed between the Jewish and Arab children, and they often remain in contact through Facebook or email.

For more information about the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem, go to www.blmj.org.

Illustrations of the new “By the Rivers of Babylon” exhibit (designs aren’t final)Design Mill