Prior to the SGOA’s foundation on the 4th of February 1977, various initiatives were taken with the aim of coordinating and intensifying ancient Near Eastern research in Switzerland.
Ancient Near Eastern conferences in Zürich
Hans Heinrich Schmid, then assistant to Prof. Victor Maag in Zürich, made the first attempt at setting up a forum for scholars of the Old Testament and ancient Near East. On 22nd May 1965 he organised a conference in Zürich, the purpose of which was to foster informal exchange. On this occasion, Prof. Walter Baumgartner (Basel) gave a talk with the title “Die römisch-katholische Forschung seit 1900”. From then on, such events were held in Zürich regularly.
Founding of the series ORBIS BIBLICUS ET ORIENTALIS
In the year 1973, the series ORBIS BIBLICUS ET ORIENTALIS (OBO) was founded, published under contract with the Biblical Institute of the Universität Fribourg. Content relative to the Old Testament and ancient Near East came under the supervision of Othmar Keel. Up to volume 50, the series also included New Testament Studies. As of 1986, New Testament Studies were taken over by a new series, NOVUM TESTAMENTUM ET ORBIS ANTIQUUS, edited by Max Küchler. Starting with volume 51 (1986), the series OBO was equally published under contract with the SGOA, as a scientific organ of this institution. A number of SGOA members went on to publish in this series. Many talks held at SGOA conferences were also published in this series.
The conference on 6 February 1975 in Fribourg
On the 6th of February 1975, Othmar Keel, then Assistant Professor, organised a conference under the auspices of the department of Old Testament Studies of the Universität Fribourg which brought together not only scholars of the Old Testament and ancient Near East, but also Egyptologists. The following talks were held: Françoise Bruschweiler (Genève), “Le thème de Dumuzi dans les textes mésopotamiens”; Erik Hornung (Basel), “Die Arbeit des Basler Ägyptologischen Seminars an den thebanischen Königsgräbern”; Georg Walser (Bern), “Achämeniden-Forschungen. Forschunsgbericht und Forschungsvorhaben”; Hans Heinrich Schmid (then Bethel bei Bielefeld), “Das alttestamentliche Verständnis von Geschichte in seinem Verhältnis zum gemeinorientalischen Denken”. To close the conference the following topics were discussed: “Kurzinformationen; Diskussion über die wissenschafts-politische Situation unseres Fachbereichs; Situation der Museen und Sammlungen; Bibliotheksverhältnisse; Ausbauwünsche und Möglichkeiten; ähnliche Tagungen”. Following this discussion, the sixty participants of the conference decided that Fribourg, by reason of its position between the German and French speaking parts of Switzerland should host more of such conferences in the future. A committee was set up to organise these conferences and more generally represent the interests of the subject areas involved. The following professors formed part of this committee: Peter Frei (Zürich), Erik Hornung (Basel), Othmar Keel (Fribourg), Philippe Reymond (Lausanne / Genf) und Johann Jakob Stamm (Bern). The committee took over the assignment of preparing the founding of the Schweizerischen Gesellschaft für Orientalische Altertumswissenschaft. Four months later, on 21 June 1975, Peter Frei was elected as chairman at a meeting in Fribourg. It was decided that statutes should be drafted in which the aims of the society would be formulated. The society should institutionalise and guarantee the continuity of scientific exchange, building on the Fribourg conference of 1975. It should be an institution that represents the interests of Oriental Studies in Swiss higher education and museums. In order to take on that representative function in the most optimal way, it should also become a member of the Swiss Academy of Humanities and Social Sciences, which was also important for financial reasons. Finally, it should also be an institution that brought forward the concerns of Swiss Oriental Studies to similar scientific organisations and archaeological services abroad.
The common ground to these early initiatives
The various initiatives previous to the founding of the SGOA had in common that: 1) inasmuch as Biblical scholars were involved, the activities were of course ecumenical and made no distinction between Protestants and Catholics; 2) the events gathered around the same table Old Testament Studies, Ancient Near Eastern Studies in the broadest sense and Egyptology. Barring the interdisciplinary orientation of the initiators, this approach made a virtue of necessity: Switzerland was simply too small to limit such activities to Assyriology or Egyptology, as was the case in France or Germany.
Founding of the SGOA
On behalf of the committee, Othmar Keel invited all Ancient Near Eastern Studies scholars, Old Testament scholars and Egyptologists of Switzerland to the founding assembly of the SGOA on the 4th of February 1977. The programme included three scientific talks and the actual founding assembly. It should be pointed out that the organisational aspects were thereby restricted to the essential minimum. The choice of speakers was likewise programmatic: two Swiss and one foreigner. Prof. Charles Maystre (Genève) presented his fieldwork in Sudan with the title “Quelques données nouvelles sur les royaumes soudanais de Kerma et de Méroë”, Dr. Michel Sguaitamatti (Zürich) discussed “Die altorientalischen und altägyptischen Bestände der Sammlung des archäologischen Instituts der Universität Zürich” and the already then world renowned Prof. Giovanni Pettinato (Rom) gave a talk entitled “Die Textfunde vom Tell Mardich (Ebla) und das Eblaitische”.
Prof. Frei (Zürich) presided the actual founding assembly. The more than seventy persons present agreed unanimously on the founding of the society. After some minor modifications, they also accepted the draft of statutes. Subsequently, the steering committee was established. Othmar Keel, Fribourg, was elected as Founding President. The steering committee was constituted upon the first meeting. Françoise Brüschweiler (Genève), Erik Hornung (Basel), Albert de Pury (Neuchâtel), Philippe Reymond (Lausanne), Hans Heinrich Schmid (Zürich) and Rolf Stucky (Bern) were elected as members. All universities in which at least one of the participating subject fields were taught had to be represented in the steering committee. The main task of the steering committee consisted in organising at least three events every year, one on Old Testament studies, one on Ancient Near Eastern Studies and one on Egyptology, if possible interdisciplinary.
The conference on 4 February 1977 cost, including the expenditures and honorarium of Prof. Pettinato, Fr. 1332.10.
In the beginning, it was often debated whether the SGOA should publish its own scientific journal. The idea was abandoned in view of the large number of such journals already available, and of the important time investment a journal of this kind would have implied. The President made the commitment however to produce and send around twice a year a circular addressed to what was at the time a hundred members. In the circular should be presented a report of successful conferences and of new publications, advertising especially the new OBO volumes. Members could (and may still) purchase these volumes with a special discount. Thematically relevant museum exhibitions were also to be announced through this medium.
First board meeting of the SGOA
On 8 June 1977 was held in Fribourg the first board meeting. The steering committee was constituted on this occasion. Albert de Pury was elected as Vice-President and Actuary and Hans Heinrich Schmid as Treasurer. The remaining members held office as observers. For a start, it was decided that every measure should be taken so that Ancient Near Eastern Archaeology and Philology (Assyriology) obtain each a professorship in Switzerland. Furthermore, an Orient-Museum should be created. Amongst the fruits yielded by these early ambitions are the Institut für Archäologische Wissenschaften der Universität Bern and the BIBEL+ORIENT Museum at the Universität Fribourg. Both institutions were not as generously endowed as was originally planned but we may say that in its first forty years of existence the SGOA achieved something at least.
The first three presidents were Othmar Keel, Fribourg (1977–1985), Albert de Pury, Genève (1985–1993) and Christoph Uehlinger, Fribourg (1993–2003). Keel wrote the circulars nos 1-19, de Pury the nos 20-33, Uehlinger the nos 34-50. Under Uehlinger, the circulars were so comprehensive and professional that one could speak of a journal. In the following years the President’s commitment towards writing the circular diminished significantly. The main reason for this being the rise of the internet and its new communication possibilities.
The 10th anniversary of the founding of the SGOA was celebrated in June 1987 on the estate of Erlenbach above the Bieler See, the 20th was celebrated on the 29th of November 1997, on the occasion of the international symposium “Images as mass media and sources for the cultural and religious history of the eastern Mediterranean and the Near East in the first millennium BCE” which was held at the Universität Fribourg. The closing talk was given by Hans Schmid, then rector of the Universität Zürich. It touched upon the position of Ancient Near Eastern Studies in the Swiss higher education landscape. A few years later (2003), Antonio Loprieno, who was to become rector of the Universität Basel, became president of the SGOA. In 2006 he handed over the presidency to his colleague Susanne Bickel so that for the first time the SGOA had a female president, thereby finally making it into the present age.
Othmar Keel and Christoph Uehlinger, Fribourg, February 2017