I never miss the opportunity to visit an open-air museum, and this year I was able to see to one of the most original in the country: the Museumpark Orientalis in Nijmegen. There’s a very interesting story behind it. While most of the Netherlands embraced Protestantism in the 16th century, a significant Catholic minority still existed, especially in the South and East of the country. Marginalized for more than 200 years, the Catholics regained full civil and political rights only at the end of the 18th century, after the French invasion. The 19th century was a period of resurgence for the community, New Catholic churches and schools were built everywhere, Political parties, charity associations, hospitals and newspapers with a religious background were founded, giving back to the community the influence it had lost 200 years before. Nijmegen was one of the centers of this revival, and at the beginning of the 20st century it had become one of the Catholic strongholds in the Netherlands.
Museumpark Orientalis is one of the fruits of this rebirth. Founded in 1911, is the oldest open-air museum in the country. The concept behind it was simple: many Catholic believers wanted to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, but only few could afford it. In this case, why not bring the Holy Land closer to them? A careful reconstruction of buildings and landscapes from the time of Jesus would allow them to make at least an imaginary trip to Israel. Even better, it would be a trip to the land of Jesus as it used to look 2000 years ago, based on archaeological finds and historical documents.
The original design of the museum was based on three routes. The first route described the nativity story, the second route described the period leading to Christ’s crucifixion, and the third was about the public life of Jesus. The original buildings included the Palace of Pontius Pilate, a reconstructed synagogue from 2,000 years ago, the house of Mary and a traditional caravanserai.
While the museum was initially successful, public interest in it decreased after the second World War, due to the general loss of interest in religion. At one point, a part of the park’s land had to be sold for real estate development. Eventually, the state had to step in to save the project. To obtain public funding, the museum’s objective shifted, and it focuses now on the interaction between the three cultures connected to the “religions of the book”-Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The park developed a lot: besides the buildings mentioned before, it now contains a full Arab village, a Jewish village, a mosque, a Roman street, an Egyptian house, and a temple dedicated to Mithra. As such, it encompasses all cultures of the Middle East from 2,000 years ago. It also became a living museum, with actors performing the roles of the original inhabitants of the area.
It sounds like a weird idea, but the reconstructions look realistic (at least to me) and there is enough documentation about the cultures described to make the visit educative. It’s not too serious though, and the place is a perfectly enjoyable Sunday destination: an opportunity to explore three different cultures in one afternoon!
See below the museum’s site: