Some parents are lucky enough to have kids who enjoy spending a day off from school delving into Biblical history and archeology.
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Unfortunately, we're not one of them.
So it took a bit of arm-twisting and promises of “lots of cool stuff to do” (based, I confess, on little more than a quick website search) to convince the kids to head out to Jerusalem for a trip to the Bible Lands Museum.
Overshadowed both literally and figuratively by the much larger and grander Israel Museum just across the road, the Bible Lands Museum is a relatively new addition to the capital’s cultural landscape, established about 20 years ago by the late Eli Borowski, a collector of ancient Near Eastern art. The permanent exhibit at the museum is made up almost exclusively of his own private collection.
Bible Lands likes to bill itself “the only museum in the world dedicated to the history of the Bible and the ancient Near East.” It may very well be, but that’s not going to convince most 21st century kids – especially those already pretty Bible-weary from school – to line up at its door.
Admittedly, our expectations were rather low... until we met Shamshi, that is.
Shamshi, just to clarify, is not a real person, but rather a comic-book character from ancient times featured in a special animated booklet called “The Tales of Shamshi,” (available both in Hebrew and in English at a small extra cost) that targets young visitors to the museum.
The booklet takes children on a self-guided tour of the museum's galleries, pointing out artifacts of special interest along the way, as it retells, in kid-friendly language, some of the best-known Biblical tales. To keep them on their toes, Shamshi requires the children to answer questions in the booklet, forcing them (just in case it wasn’t part of their original plan) to take a closer look at some of the artifacts and peruse the accompanying texts.
The self-guided tour starts with Abraham’s journey to Canaan (demonstrated with the help of old maps) and ends with the period of King Solomon, covering along the way the stories of the descent of Jacob and his sons to Egypt, the years of slavery and eventual exodus from Egypt (quite appropriate for this time of year) and the reign of King David. Even young children are likely to have some level of familiarity with these stories, making it that much easier to engage them. As they move among the different galleries with the help of Shamshi, they’ll also pick up some fun facts about ancient tower building practices, the evolution of writing and mummification.
It’s basic enough so that children 9 and older can do the tour on their own. Depending on their reading level, younger ones may need the help of adults but will enjoy it as well, especially if it’s turned into a competition of sorts. It took our group two hours to complete the entire booklet, the pace picking up as our charges began to figure out where to look for what.
The exhibit on mummification was definitely the highlight of our tour, the collection of canopic jars deserving special mention. In these clay jars, the ancient Egyptians would store their inner stomachs, liver, lungs and intestines for use again in the afterlife. Just trust kids to gravitate toward the gross and the gory.
So if you happen to be on lookout for something child-friendly to do in Jerusalem – educational, but not overwhelmingly so – the Bible Lands Museum is definitely a good option. Besides its special holiday break activities, the museum also offers other children-friendly activities throughout the year, among them group treasure hunts, which allow young visitors to masquerade as Biblical characters.
For those seeking to inject some meaning into Jewish rite of passage ceremonies, bar and bat mitzvah celebrants are offered an opportunity here to pose as docents. As part of the program, they undergo special training so that they can guide their families and friends on the big day through exhibits with special relevance to their lives or their particular Torah portion.
Address: 25 Avraham Granot St., Jerusalem
Hours: Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays: 9:30-17:30 / Wednesdays: 9:30-21:30 / Fridays and Saturdays: 10:00-14:00
Admission: NIS 40 for adults and NIS 20 for children (on Wednesday afternoons and Saturdays, children get free admission)