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By the Rivers of Babylon, the fascinating must-see exhibition at the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem, has generated so much interest that the museum has decided to postpone its closing until May 2016

Rebecca Kopans
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When By the Rivers of Babylon opened at the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem (BLMJ) in the beginning of 2015, it was obvious that this groundbreaking exhibition would attract a great deal of attention. After all, historians knew almost nothing at all about the Babylonian Exile until recently, when momentous discoveries – showcased for the first time in this exhibition – finally made it possible to shed light on this crucial period in Jewish history. Thanks to this unprecedented exhibition, an important piece of history has come alive and, for a limited time, the public has a rare opportunity to peek into the world of real people who lived in Babylon and left written records detailing their lives.

Pottery found in the Jerusalem area dating from the Babylonian destructionCredit: Avi Noam

Not surprisingly, a whopping 150,000 people have already visited the exhibition! There are throngs of people every day, attests Dr. Filip Vukosavovi, BLMJ Chief Curator and the curator of By the Rivers of Babylon, adding that at the beginning even he had to lead a guided tour at least once a day in order to meet the demand. Due to its popularity, the exhibitions original closing date of December 2015 has been pushed back by four and a half months until May 15, 2016. It has really surpassed our wildest dreams, admits Vukosavovi.

Priceless new insights

So what is all the fuss about? Well, the breakthrough can be attributed to a large archive of over 200 small clay tablets covered with cuneiform writing in the Akkadian language that surfaced on the antiquities market in the early 1970s, and is currently owned by a few private collectors.

Newly deciphered clay tablets with Akkadian cuneiform that tell the story of the Babylonian Exile for the first timeCredit: Clay tablets from Al-Yahudu archive, "By the rivers of Babylon" exhibition at the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem. Courtesy: Cindy and David Sofer Collection, Photographer: Moshe Caine

The Bible Lands Museum has had the opportunity to receive on loan approximately 100 Babylonian tablets from the Cindy and David Sofer Collection, documenting the lives of the exiled Judeans in Babylon in the 6th-5th centuries BCE, explains Dr. Vukosavovi. Deciphering these ancient texts has given historians priceless insights into the everyday lives of the Judeans/Jews who were exiled to Babylon following the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem in 587 BCE. These Jews lived in a number of cities in what is today Iraq, the most important of which was Al-Yahudu (the city of Judah).

Most of these clay tablets were legal deeds used for documenting mundane transactions among Jews in Babylon during the years 572-477 BCE. By piecing together the information from these tablets, scholars learned a great deal about the lifestyle of the Jews in Babylon in general, and the lives of specific men and women in particular.

A central part of the exhibition focuses on one man who is mentioned repeatedly in the tablets, Haggai son of Ahiqam, and his family. Haggais great-grandfather was exiled to Babylon from Judah, which means that Haggai was a 4th generation exile. Thanks to the tablets, we know a great deal about Haggai son of Ahiqams father Rafa-Yahu, his mother Yafa-Yahu, his four brothers, grandmother, grandfather and great-grandfather, adds Vukosavovi.

From left: David Sofer, BLMJ director Amanda Weiss, Prof. Wayne Horowitz, and BLMJ chief curator Dr. Filip VukosavovicCredit: Oded Enteman

Thanks to the exhibitions beautiful cutting-edge design, visitors of all ages and backgrounds can easily grasp the story of Haggais family – as well as the rest of By the Rivers of Babylon. Amanda Weiss, the museums director, notes that a leading design team from Tel Aviv was hired in order to ensure that the story of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian Exile comes alive through a variety of innovative techniques, such as state-of-the-art animation and interactive touch-screens.

This exhibition is also special due to the wealth of information and the numerous sources it comprises. Every piece of information about the Babylonian Exile is here, either the actual item or a photo or replica, says the curator, Dr. Vukosavovi. There are both Biblical and extra-Biblical sources. In fact, this is the best-documented Biblical story ever, with a great deal of supporting evidence from outside the Bible. Our work consisted of taking bits and pieces and putting them all together, like a puzzle. However, rather than being overwhelming, the exhibition is very friendly and accessible, inviting visitors to explore the various subjects as much as they want.

Three fascinating stories

By the Rivers of Babylon is divided into three sections: pre-destruction Jerusalem, the siege and destruction of the First Temple, and the Babylonian Exile. All displays are in both Hebrew and English, and each section consists of a separate room with its own design. The first section, covering Jerusalem prior to the destruction of the First Temple, sets the scene through movies and animations, as well as displays and panels with clear explanations.

The second section is particularly poignant, depicting Jerusalem one minute after the destruction in 587 BCE. A large central display shows a collection of pottery that was found in Jerusalem, Ein Gedi and Lachish in the layers of the Babylonian destruction. Another fascinating vitrine exhibits small clay figurines that were used for idol worship – a practice believed to be one of the main causes leading to the demolition of the First Temple. Equally remarkable is a display of arrow heads and sling stones that were used during the battles for Jerusalem and Judah.

This section also features a large assortment of works of art from different historical periods that depict the fall of Jerusalem. When viewed together, they tell a very compelling story and really make the history come alive. Highlights include a vividly detailed depiction of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem from a 13th-century Spanish manuscript, an illustration from a 14th-century French Bible of King Zedekiah being brought before King Nebuchadnezzar for judgment, and a stunning Destruction of Jerusalem from a 15th-century German book.

It is actually only the third section of the exhibition that covers the Babylonian Exile itself. This is where we learn about Haggai son of Ahiqam and his family, and this is also where we can view 70 of the clay tablets which provided all this exciting information. In the center of the room is a lovely model of a typical Babylonian village from the 1st millennium BCE, replete with flowing rivers, date palm orchards and cereal fields.

Although its certainly possible to enjoy this exhibition on ones own or to use an audio guide, its preferable to join one of the many guided tours in Hebrew or English that are available throughout the day.    

The only museum of its kind

The dedicated staff of the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem (BLMJ) constantly finds new ways to appeal to visitors – 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.

The museum, which was founded in 1992, is an interactive time capsule for visitors of all ages, nationalities and faiths, laymen and scholars alike, who 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.

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, enabling visitors to discover the remarkable wealth of these ancient cultures.

The museum is also known for its fabulous temporary exhibitions. In addition to On the Rivers of Babylon, there is also an important retrospective exhibition of world renowned contemporary sculptor and Judaica artist Moshe Zabari that is currently on display through December 2015. Zabaris extensive range of sculptures and ceremonial art objects reflect a range of influences, from ancient sources to Bauhaus. Many of the artists works are inspired by the Bible, creating a powerful dialogue between the roots of our culture and contemporary design, asserts Weiss. 

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