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Fribourg University conceals an oriental gem

Hebrew, Christian and Islamic manuscripts enrich the museum's collection (

The narrow display hall of the Bible+Orient Museum is rich in treasures, some 15,000 unique pieces from the ancient Near East, valued at SFr8 million ($8.9 million).

Often overlooked, the museum serves to recall the common roots between the three monotheistic religions and to encourage dialogue between them.

The Bible+Orient Museum occupies a very modest space at the Institute of Biblical Studies of Fribourg University. Apart from the permanent exhibition inside its small, elegant display hall, which was established in November 2005, it organises special exhibitions in the corridors of the institute and mobile exhibitions that carry the museum’s pieces to cities in and outside Switzerland.

swissinfo’s tour with museum director Thomas Staubli, professor of Old Testament at Fribourg University, starts in the corridors of the Institute of Biblical Studies, where a special exhibition entitled “One thousand and one amulets” is being shown.

Charms of various shapes and colours meet the eye, including turquoise amulets, first produced by ancient Egyptians, and women’s necklaces, which surely inspired the designers of today’s jewellery.

The exhibition also displays a collection of cylindrical and flat seals, ancient Egyptian scarab artifacts, 3,700-year-old amulets from Palestine and others from Iran and Syria dating back to the fifth and sixth millennium BC.

Amulets for all

What catches the eye immediately looking at the first glass showcase is the deliberate link between old amulets and what can be called contemporary amulets.

An antique veil decorated with amulets and coins and bearing the name of God (see attached photo gallery) is juxtaposed by a set of modern medicines.

Belief in the power of charms to protect the body and provide reassurance is not just an old tradition, but has continued without interruption over 55 centuries; from Ancient Egypt to the Orient and Mesopotamia until our time.

 “The three stones adorning the left side of this decorated veil protect the woman from the side. The small coins also protect her because they bear the name of God,” said Staubli.

“In our society, we protect ourselves in other ways. We have modern amulets, such as placebo medicines. It has been proven that these have an effect on the body if the person believes they are medicine, exactly like the amulet.”

Honouring the Orient

From the lobby of the university we move to the heart of the museum: the small display hall with its lit showcases and drawers containing the bulk of the museum’s collections. These are divided into four categories: Ancient Egypt, the Near East, the Hellenistic world, and manuscripts.

Copies of the Torah, the Bible, and the Koran stand alongside the gods and goddesses of Ancient Egyptians – embodied in various human and animal forms –inviting visitors to discover the stories of the pieces from an area of the world that the museum wants to “honour”.

 “We almost never talk about the culture between Mesopotamia and the Nile, namely Canaan, which was a magnificent civilisation that produced many things that we still benefit from, such as the alphabet invented by the Canaanites, and the domestication of animals, such as goats, sheep and donkeys,” said Staubli.

“We study the Bible [Old Testament and New Testament] in its context, not only as a sacred text that came down from heaven.”

Changing views

The museum director talks of a vertical link between Christians, Muslims, and Jews, and between the three religions and the heritage of Canaan.

 “By the word ‘vertical’ we mean history and remembrance, as each culture has its own memory. The wounds the religions experienced are very significant. We remember some things and forget others,” said Staubli.

“Judaism, for example, is the mother of Christianity, but we – Christians – turned strongly against the Jews. Anti-Semitism in Christianity continued horrifically until the twentieth century, and led to the emergence of places such as Auschwitz. This means that this memory and these relations must be corrected.”

“I hope the museum will change visitors’ views about the Orient.”

Simplicity: In the Bible (Old Testament and New Testament) lands, the complex writing systems of the surrounding ancient civilisations were reduced to the alphabet which is still in use. The genius of that simplicity is a model for the museum’s supervisors.

Originality: The museum collections contain more than 15,000 unique pieces from the Ancient Near East collected at Fribourg University since the late sixties.

Remembrance: The museum recalls the roots of European culture in the Near East and explains that women and men, north of the Alps too, learned reading and writing thanks to the Bible.

Research: The exhibition is based on current research into the Bible, archaeology and the history of art.

Ecumenical: The museum promotes interfaith dialogue and expounds the vertical links between Christians, Muslims and Jews, and between the three religions and the heritage of Canaan.

(Source: Bible+Orient Museum website)

Many of the pieces were donations.

The museum now boasts the third-largest collection of ancient Egyptian amulets and scarabs in the world. The collection comprises more than 9,000 pieces, which Fribourg University acquired with Swiss government support in 1991.

The most important pieces displayed in the museum include the most valuable Swiss private collection of cylindrical and flat seals, a private donation to Fribourg University.

In 2005, the museum was recognised by the Swiss association of museums. Mainly funded by private donors, it also receives SFr10,000 a year from Fribourg University.

(Adapted from Arabic by Muhammad Shokry)

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