Remembering Zion

‘By the Rivers of Babylon’ at the Bible Lands Museum tells the story of the first Exile, including from the Babylonian perspective.

Oil lamp depicting Daniel in the lions’ den, the angel of the Lord and the prophet Habakkuk holding a meal intended for Daniel. (photo credit: MOSHE CAINE/BLMJ)
Oil lamp depicting Daniel in the lions’ den, the angel of the Lord and the prophet Habakkuk holding a meal intended for Daniel.
(photo credit: MOSHE CAINE/BLMJ)
The story of the fall of the city of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, the destruction of the Temple and the captivity of the House of Judah – kings, princes and the rest of the Jewish people of the Kingdom of Judah – is well known. The story is told in the Bible, with all its dramatic details – the siege, the fire and the destruction. The prophecies of Jeremiah and Ezekiel before, during and after the beginning of the first Exile are the major components of the history of our People and its fate – before and after the Exile. Who isn’t familiar with the famous verse from the Psalms depicting the agony of the exiles, who lamented, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept when we remembered Zion” (Psalms 137:1)? But until recently, little was known as historical fact backed by the evidence required by any academic or scholarly historian, such as archeological findings. Now on display at the Bible Lands Museum, a new exhibition called “By the Rivers of Babylon” features some fascinating fragments of clay tablets written in cuneiform. These historical documents tell the whole story from the other side, from the Babylonian perspective.
“This is a very moving exhibition,” says Filip Vukosavovic, chief curator of the museum and this exhibition. “It is the story of the Babylonian Exile, presented through documents that had never been seen by anyone except the researchers and scholars in museums abroad. For the first time, we are bringing them to the Israeli visitors. It is a great joy.”
One of the examples presented is the story behind one of the verses of the prophet Ezekiel during his stay with the exiles in Babylon: “Then I came to them of the captivity at Tel-abib, that dwelt by the river Chebar, and I sat where they sat...” (Ezekiel 3:15).
Vukosavovic says that until now, there had been no explanation for the names of these places – neither Tel-abib nor the Chebar river – “until we obtained a tablet written in cuneiform from Babylon in which we could find the exact location of that river. And also, according to the Accadian translation, we understood that ‘Tel-abib’ in Babylon meant the ancient hill of the flood – aviv in Hebrew is abubi in Akkadian, which means ‘flood,’ and now it has become clear.”
But not only locations and their names are on display in the exhibition but also the names of the exiles, from generation to generation. The first part of this exile went on for 70 years until a new conqueror appeared on the scene by the name of Cyrus, king of the Persians. Unlike the cruel Babylonian kings, he authorized the Jewish exiles to return to their land and reconstruct the Temple.
The name of the village established in Babylon by the Hebrew exiles was called Al-Yahudu, according to the tablets found and translated, but there is much more.
The earliest known text of that period and region documents the exiles – who can be easily recognized by their names – less than 15 years after the Exile. A clay tablet found in southern Iraq gives the names: “Tub-Shalam, son of Ahiqar; Azar- Yama, son of Yahu- Kullu; Ah-Lumur son of Balassu; and the scribe Nabu- Naid, son of Nabu- Zar-Iqisha [written in] Al-Yahudia, on the 20th day of Nisan, year 33 of Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon.”
More names found and on display in the exhibition include the families of Hagai, Pedayahu and… Netanyahu – all from the Exile from Judea.
The exhibition “By the Rivers of Babylon” depicts, through original samples of tablets – clay instruments that survived the terrible fires of the destruction in Jerusalem – interactive stories and findings, which are on display on computer screens and in three short animated films.
“But above all else,” adds Amanda Weiss, the director of the BLMJ, “this exhibition traces the epic saga of the Judean people from Jerusalem, in 604 BCE through their rebuilding of their lives by the rivers of Babylon in Al-Yahudu – literally the City of Judah, tracing the lives of the first generations who witnessed the history that irrevocably changed the fate of the Jewish people.” 
The exhibition opened on February 2. Guided tours are available in various languages, as well as a special course for the public called “Jerusalem That Was in Babylon.” For more details, visit