Inside Christian Jerusalem's New Makeover
A museum recently opened by the Franciscan order is trying to tell the story of Jerusalem, and reassert the city's centrality for Christianity alongside Judaism and Islam.
JERUSALEM—In the proverbial Matryoshka doll that is the Holy Land, the outer layers give way inevitably to Jerusalem, the holiest of cities going back millennia. Yet the core of Jerusalem is the Old City, a one-square kilometer patch of land that is home to monotheism’s most sacred sites: the Western Wall and Temple Mount (Judaism), the Al Aqsa Mosque and Haram al-Sharif compound (Islam), and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Christianity). As it has been for most of recorded history, Jerusalem’s Old City is the crux of all matters, a sensitive spiritual crossroads and highly contested piece of real estate.
Since conquering East Jerusalem in the 1967 war, Israel has retained full control over the Old City. But within its 500-year-old stone walls there is a division of influence: Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Armenian quarters dissect the area, giving distinctive identities to each as they blur into each other on the ground. These days, the Old City is a warren of narrow streets and cobblestoned alleyways, cacophonous with a mix of tourists,believers, and residents, all under the watchful eye of the Israeli Border Police.
On the most famous of these throughways, a new archeological museum run by the Franciscan Order recently opened trying to make sense of all this history, while also promoting the Christian connection to the Holy Land. Rare ancient artifacts, part of a centuries-old collection, have been put on display to the public—some for the first time. What emerges is a snapshot of life on these very streets (and beyond) during the time of Jesus Christ. What emerges, too, from the museum is that rarest of commodities in the maelstrom of Jerusalem’s Old City: simplicity.
The Terra Sancta Museum (Latin for “Holy Land”) is located near the start of the Via Dolorosa, the “way of sorrow,” which according to tradition is the path Jesus walked after his trial to his crucifixion. Pilgrims have trod this route since the 14th century, 14 stations traversing westward towards the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site where Jesus is believed to have been crucified, entombed, and then resurrected.
On one recent morning, a large tour group replete with matching hats streamed by carrying a big wooden cross, singing. Up the Via Dolorosa is the Convent of the Flagellation, inside of which the museum is located. Appropriately for the Old City, the convent sits just past a row of Palestinian carpet merchants, across the street from the exit to the Western Wall subterranean tunnels (a major Israeli/Jewish attraction), and around the corner from a Muslim-only entrance to the Haram al-Sharif compound.
The convent got its name—flagellation—from Pontius Pilate, the 1st century Roman governor of the area, who found Jesus guilty and had him flogged; according to tradition, the Antonia Tower, site of the trial, was located nearby. The convent is, like most Christian structures in the Old City, a compound enclosed by high white stone walls. The only indication of what lies through the small gate is the dedication sign, in Latin, above the entranceway, explaining the history of the site that the Franciscans purchased two hundred years ago.
The Franciscans, to be sure, have been in the Holy Land for much longer than that. St. Francis of Assisi, the ascetic founder of this Roman Catholic religious order, first sent emissaries from Italy to what he called “the land across the Mediterranean” in 1217. Two years later, in a mysterious tete-a-tete with the Muslim Sultan in Egypt (who controlled most of the region), Assisi was able to secure a Christian foothold in Jerusalem even as the bloody Crusader wars raged. Today, the Franciscans are the most high profile Roman Catholic representatives in the Holy Land; indeed, they are the official representatives of the Latin Church at the Holy Sepulchre, famously divided between the various (ancient) Christian denominations—Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Coptic, Syrian Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox. (Every so often, the Israeli police are called in to break up scuffles between competing priests, when the 160 year-old “status quo” provisions at the site are perceived to have been violated.)
For Father Eugenio Alliata, Terra Sancta’s director, the above history sometimes comes into contestation with his full-time position in the Franciscan order: archeologist. More Marcus Brody than Indiana Jones, Alliata, nearing 70, is bespectacled, grey-haired and clean-shaven. A green flannel shirt collar sticks out from under his dark brown robes, tied together by a simple rope. Alliata arrived in Jerusalem 40 years ago and is a world-renowned expert in biblical archeology; he remains faculty at the Department of Biblical Sciences and Archeology of the Pontificia Universitas Antonianum, a Franciscan university based in Rome. In the contest between science and faith, however, there would be only one winner. “In religion, everyone will follow tradition,” he told me in his Italian-inflected English as we made our way through the compound’s arch-covered courtyard. “Tradition is more important than opinions, even of scholars and archeologists.”
Yet the Franciscans, it turns out, have been doing archeology for centuries, excavating and rehabilitating holy sites around the Middle East and amassing a unique collection of artifacts. Always tied to the archeology school, a museum for this collection actually opened in 1902, as a service to both the public and scholars—but it was, as Sara Cibin, the project manager for the museum, told me, “inconsistent and limited… with visiting hours difficult to coordinate.” This past summer, though, the museum—refurbished and expanded—reopened fully, with regular service hours throughout the week and a reasonable entrance fee (15 NIS, approximately USD 4). Hard as it may be to believe, it is the only Christian museum currently operational in Jerusalem, which explains much of the Franciscan motivation.
As Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzabala, the then head (or Custos) of the Franciscan Order in the Holy Land, explained when announcing the project a few years ago, he envisioned “not only a place… to put the large quantities of objects, but a living cultural center whose aim will be to make known to all the bonds between this city with the Christian traditions, local and international, from the first centuries till nowadays.”
These bonds go back to the birth of Christianity, a fact that Cibin says is both obvious as well as unfamiliar. “It’s strange, lots of pilgrims visit all these [Christian] places, but we don’t have a place in Jerusalem to present the history” of the faith, she told me. This was in sharp contrast to the Muslim and Jewish stories, she went on, and so “we wanted to present this identity to everyone, and to preserve this identity—especially since the Christian community [in the Middle East] becomes smaller and smaller every year.” For this, they needed the story of Jesus and Jerusalem to—sometimes literally—speak to people.
“I am Jerusalem,” a female voice says in the pitch darkness. The only light in the vaulted ceiling-hall, just off the convent’s main courtyard, was directed at ornate stone pillars “two millennia old,” she went on. This is the first part of the museum: a unique multimedia exhibit laying out in dramatic visual detail the holy city’s story, atop ancient excavations from the convent itself. The disembodied first-person narration, the darkness, and the deliberate roving spotlight all gave the timeline an effective theatrical heft.
Centuries of complex history is boiled down to a 15-minute show, from the Second Jewish Temple (rebuilt by King Herod the Great, the local ruler of Judea just before Jesus was born) to the Romans, the first wave of Muslims, Crusaders, and Ottomans. There used to be a mammoth basilica at the site of the Holy Sepulchre, built in 336 A.D., but it was later destroyed. The First Crusaders conquered the city in 1099. Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman sultan, built the Old City’s walls in 1540. In between these global history lessons were more localized stories: the nearby Herod’s Gate, Via Dolorosa, Antonia Fortress, and the Ecce Homo Arch (“behold the man,” where Jesus was presented to the people at his trial).
The exhibit ends with shadows of people projected on the walls behind ruined stones, carrying a cross.
“Listen to the voices of the pilgrims,” the narrator/Jerusalem implores visitors. As Father Alliata later explained to me, “What’s written in our religious texts belongs to the real history of humanity. Jesus was a real person, not a fable.” The purpose of the second part of the museum—the actual artifacts—was meant to “put his teachings in a historical and archeological context.”
The museum does this in a separate wing next door, which itself is a below-ground archeological site. Tight pathways excavated in this Herodian-era palace are accessed via low doorways set against exposed rock walls; at one point visitors have to cross a small wooden bridge over an ancient cistern.
Two sections of the exhibit (out of four planned) have so far been opened: one holding relics from Christian sites found throughout the Holy Land—Bethlehem, Nazareth, Capernaum, Mount of Olives as well as the remote monasteries of the Judean Desert—and the second rare objects specifically from the time of Jesus.
Officially called “The House of Herod: Life and Power in the Age of the New Testament,” the second exhibit culminates in one room filled with artifacts that recreate daily life right before, during, and after Jesus was alive. This is done via six glass enclosed installations, corresponding to different quotidian elements. Context is provided from both historical research and New Testament texts, giving the merely curious as well as the ardent believer something to grasp.
So, for instance, there are artifacts from “the jobs”: bronze fish hooks, military arrowheads, inkwells and papyrus, iron nails, ivory gaming dice, and the like. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad,” a caption reads, quoting the Book of Matthew.
Next comes “the marketplace,” including coins mentioned in the Gospels. The bronze “coin of the widow,” so named because the New Testament tells us she offered what little she had to the Temple, as well as a silver half sheqel (the customary Jewish tax for the Temple) are on display. The changing politics of the time are also explained via numismatics. On some, silver and copper Roman coins prominently bear the faces of emperors. On others, the Jewish temple with a star above it have replaced the emperor’s visage, dating to the time of the Bar Kochva Revolt, a doomed Jewish rebellion against the Romans; Hebrew writing is tellingly interspersed with the imperial Latin.
And on it goes, but not overly so. The entire exhibit is small, emphasizing, as Alliata put it, “quality over quantity.” Just like the multimedia wing, the experience is insightful and to-the-point, not overwhelming. At certain moments it’s even whimsical.
Lighting and oil lamps give way to grooming and makeup accessories, including bronze hair pins, glass toilet bottles, and terracotta oil cruets. “And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment,” the Book of Luke tells us. Then come the necklaces, rings, and earrings, punctuated with a golden leaf wreath and the Greek inscription, “Good luck to the newlyweds.” This was important, the exhibit explains, since Jesus miraculously turned water to wine at a wedding. Finally there is “the purification” – limestone vessels used as part of everyday life, including to wash before meals, at prayer in the Temple, or after the market. “At the time of Jesus,” the caption reads, this “Rabbinic tradition had extensively developed and given greater importance to this kind of precept, one that was based on the Law of Moses and also on oral tradition.”
As anyone visiting the nearby mosques and synagogues can attest, such purification still goes on. The Terra Sancta Museum, rather than emphasize Christianity’s differences, actually bridges the ancient divides.
“These are three religions connected all together and born from each other. We’re not strangers to one another, we worship the same God and love the same prophets,” Alliata said. Especially in the Holy Land, especially in Jerusalem, and especially in its highly contested Old City, these were important words. “But maybe that’s part of the problem,” he added with a quiet laugh.
While often forgotten in the interminable battle here between Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians, Christianity is, for billions around the world, an integral part of the Holy Land’s past and present—and, hopefully, its future too.