On 13 January 1902, Friedrich Delitzsch, Professor of Assyriology at Berlin University and the founding director of the Royal Museums’s Ancient Near East Department, gave a talk at the Berliner Singakademie that would go on to have dramatic effects. In the presence of the Kaiser, he presented the revolutionary thesis that the Jewish religion and the stories contained in the Old Testament could be traced back to Babylonian precursors. Though the Kaiser was initially quite taken by these ideas, he abandoned Delitzsch in the wake of vociferous protests. When the scholar of the Ancient Near East stuck to his theories in two further lectures, a fierce conflict broke out between theologians and proponents of the nascent discipline of Ancient Near Eastern Studies. A conflict whose after-effects can still be felt today.

The Ancient Near East Department of the Royal Museums, which had been founded just three years earlier, already housed the first finds from Palestine, Assyria and Babylonia, including several thousand clay tablets. As scholars’ understanding of the texts grew more sophisticated, they were able to establish more and more connections with the stories contained in the Bible. It was in this context that Delitzsch wrote his lecture, titled ‘Babel and the Bible’. The ensuing debates, which were at times highly polemical, led to an enormous popularisation of the German-led excavations in the Near East, and in particular those in Babylon. Even feature articles in newspapers, satirical magazines and caricatures addressed the different world views tied up in these issues, allowing the educated middle class to participate in this scholarly conflict in an entertaining fashion.

In cooperation with the FU Berlin, a special exhibition at the Vorderasiatisches Museum aims to shed new light on the so-called ‘Babel/Bible Conflict’. Additionally, in the permanent exhibition, the material objects from the cultures of the Ancient Near East that were available in fin-de-siècle Berlin will be showcased. Alongside the objects on display in the exhibition, this look back on a significant event from the museum’s past also provides an opportunity to present objects from the museum’s holdings which are rarely exhibited, and which can be viewed as the origins of Delitzsch’s ideas.