Bringing civilizations together

The Bible Lands Museum uses the past to encourage mutual understanding in the present.

'The future of mankind has its roots in the past... only through understanding our history can we build a better future." Those are the words of the late Dr. Elie Borowski, the builder and founder of Jerusalem's Bible Lands Museum, which celebrated its 16th anniversary this month. The museum's managing director, Amanda Weiss, believes that Borowski would be proud of what has been achieved from his vision, not least the fact that the museum hosted US President George W. Bush and his wife during their visit to Jerusalem earlier this month. "The museum is about putting the Bible in its historical context. It's not a museum of religion, it's a museum of history," Weiss told In Jerusalem. "It was a fabulous experience having the president here. He came [to the museum] because he is a believing Christian, and the museum is a unique institution that shows the places and culture of the biblical period," she says. "The segments on early Christianity and the Patriarchs spoke deeply to his personal faith. It was exciting for them to see first-hand the development of writing, the time period of Abraham and the ancient city of Babylon with its richness, power and might," says Weiss. Now back to their normal routine after the presidential visit, museum guides bring to life the thousands of artifacts whose history spans thousands of years, three world religions and countless civilizations, such as Mesopotamia, Egypt, Rome and the kingdoms of Israel and Judea. The artifacts drawn from across the Middle East are intended to encourage coexistence among the diverse citizens that make up the State of Israel. For example, the sarcophagus of Julia Latronilla, a Roman-era burial chest, is engraved with scenes from both the Bible and the New Testament. And fragments of seven-branched menoras carved into a Byzantine synagogue sit a few feet away from coins dated to 8th-century CE Jerusalem engraved with a five-branched candelabrum. Arabic inscriptions on the tiny coins read "There is no god except Allah alone" and "Muhammad is Allah's messenger." "We see how symbols passed from one religion to another eventually end up with completely different meanings," comments Eran Attia, head of the museum's Arabic program. "All the religions are sisters, but each is unique and wants to express how it is different." Understanding and learning are key themes at the Bible Lands Museum, so it is fitting that this year the museum chose the theme Excellence in Education to mark its birthday. On May 29 five Jerusalemites were honored for their contributions to the field. "We selected five people who are the unsung heroes of education; not politicians but the people doing the hard work on the ground who have devoted their hearts and souls to education," says Weiss. The honorees were Prof. Dan Baker, one of the excavators of the Western Wall tunnels; and teachers Rivka Shabtai, Hadassah Amar and Daphna Zuckerman. Also honored was Mai Abdo, assistant principal of the Al-Ukhwah School in east Jerusalem. The school participates in the museum's Images of Abraham project which, along with the Adam and Keshet schools, brings together fourth- and fifth-grade students from across Jerusalem's east-west divide, using the journey of Abraham to encourage communication and mutual understanding. The museum is home to three new temporary exhibitions: Sound of Ancient Music; Glories of Ancient Greece; and the Three Faces of Monotheism. Upcoming events at the museum include the lecture "Prayer, Spell and Magic in Ancient Mesopotamia" on June 4; and "Where Is Jerusalem Hidden and Where Is It Revealed?" on June 18 and 25.