Art

The Stakes Are High for a Museum in the Holy Land

A museum in Jerusalem addresses skeptics who doubt the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth.

Monastery of the Flagellation and the Terra Sancta Museum, Jerusalem (photo courtesy Neva Gasparo)

JERUSALEM — Can you imagine how Jesus of Nazareth lived his ordinary life? How he ate, bathed, dressed, shopped at the market? What items did he use around the house? A new archeological wing of the Terra Sancta Museum (TSM) provides answers to these questions in an exhibition concisely titled “Daily Life at the Time of Jesus.” In contrast to the sanctimonious glitter of the grandiose churches that surround the museum, the exhibition instead focuses on everyday items, like hairpins, mirror and make-up spatula sets, hygiene appliances, tableware, work tools, ancient coins, and burial tombs. They are all retrieved from decades-old excavations by Franciscan friars, primarily the renowned Franciscan archeologist Virgilio Corbo, who has dug several key sites in historic Palestine, including Capernaum at the shore of the Sea of Galilee, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, and the Herodium fortress in the Judean Desert.

Monastery of the Flagellation at Via Dolorsa Street in Jerusalem, the Second Station of the Cross (photo courtesy Neva Gasparo)

Established in 1902 by the Franciscan Custody of The Holy Land, The Terra Sancta Museum is an annex to the Monastery of the Flagellation, which stands at the second of the eleven Stations of the Cross — Jesus’s path to crucifixion after he was judged and condemned by the Romans. It was at that stone alley, on the south side of the Old City, that a humiliated thorn-crowned Jesus took up his cross along his Way of Suffering (Via Dolorosa). For more than a century since its establishment, the museum was accessible only to pilgrims and bible scholars. It wasn’t until a decade ago that it opened its doors to the public, but it remained a small unknown venue that suffered from archaic facilities unfit to meet international museum standards. That all changed last June, when the museum announced the opening of three renovated ancient Byzantine rooms. Revamped with a modern display, a multimedia show, and wall texts written in plain language (with minimal use of Latin), the new wing is designed to appeal to tourists and museum goers of all faiths, even the secular. “There’s something in Jesus for everybody,” says the museum’s director Father Eugenio Alliaita in a conversation with Hyperallergic. Alliata, a professor of archeology himself, has spent the last 40 years of his life working and living in Jerusalem.

Unguentaria Jars (alabaster, terracotta), hair pins, spatula, mirror (bronze). “A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume.” (Luke 7:37) (photo courtesy Nadim Asfour/CTS)

The appeal of the exhibit comes not so much from the beauty or novelty of the displayed objects, but from their historical provenance and ability to help the viewer visualize the daily life at the time of Jesus. Passages from the Gospels that accompany the wall texts provide a historical backdrop dating the items to the era when Jesus is said to have lived. The story and the everyday items affirm each other’s authenticity.

Fishing hooks (bronze) and net weights (lead) from Apostle Peter’s house. “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, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad” (Matthew 13:47-48) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

For instance, a set of Alabaster jars on display alludes to a certain Sabbath day described in the Gospels of Luke, when Mary Magdalene (or Mary of Bethany, depending on the source) anoints the feet of Jesus with an oil kept in what would have been the same type of jar. A set of fishing net weights arranged over a stone slab comes from the house of Peter at Capernaum, where Jesus lived after he moved from Nazareth. There is an assortment of stone vessels and a large limestone basin that were used for purification before meals or prayers at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Purification was also required after being at the market or in contact with a corpse, and for women after each menstrual period.

Stone basin (soft limestone) from Herodium in the Judaean Desert. “And they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.” (Mark 7:4) (photo courtesy of the Terra Sancta Museum)

A collection of silver coins features portraits of the different Roman Emperors who ruled over Palestine, from Augustus (27 BCE-14 BC) to Hadrian (117-138 BCE). Greco-Roman culture is evident in garments and accessories that bear images of Greek deities, and also in Herodian-style oil lamps that show damage to what was pagan imagery.

Gaming Dice (engraved ivory). “When they had crucified him, they divided up his clothes by casting lots. And sitting down, they kept watch over him there. Above his head they placed the written charge against him: THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS.” (Matthew 27: 35-37) (photo by Nadim Asfour/CTS)

Most curious among the pots, plates, axes, arrowheads, and ink-pots on display, is a pair of ancient gaming dice stones. Backgammon is one of the oldest games in history and it was a common pastime in the area, but the dice were also used in settling disputes. In relation to Jesus, they were used for an especially brutal purpose: after nailing him to the cross, the Roman soldiers rolled dice to determine who got to keep Jesus’s clothes, all the while listening to his cries, “Father, forgive them, because they don’t know what they’re doing” (Luke 23:34).

Given the rich trove of domestic and everyday items that has been excavated in the region, why then did it take the Franciscan Custodian so long to put together an exhibition of this kind at the cradle of Christianity? Up until now, artifacts from the period could only be seen in a proper museum display at the archeological wing of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, where the Holy Land is referred to as “The Land of Israel.” Sarah Cibin, a project manager at the Terra Sancta Museum, explains that due to the intractable political complications in the region, an agreement has not been signed between the Catholic Church and the State of Israel. As a result, the museum has been dismissed by the Israeli Ministry of Tourism and kept off official itineraries that it offers the millions of tourists visiting the country every year. In 2017, a record-breaking number, 3.6 million tourists, visited Israel and brought in a total revenue of $5.8 billion. According to data collected by the Ministry of Tourism , Jerusalem was the destination of 78% of the tourists, 25% of whom were pilgrims or stated a religious purpose to their visit.

Father Alliato adds that by addressing the past, the exhibition also answers questions about the present. “The problems that we have today in the Holy Land were also the problems of our ancestors, and yet they were able to live together in a mixed society of Jews, Muslims, and Christians.” Friar Alliato nostalgically describes the ecumenical ethos of empire in contrast to the chauvinism of the nation-state. In those times, he explains, a multicultural society lived in relative harmony in the Holy Land. People of all faiths visited the Temple in Jerusalem to pray to god and the divisions were a lot less volatile than they are today.

Via Doloroza, Jerusalem. “And they bring him unto the place Golgotha, which is, being interpreted, The place of a skull.” (Mark 15:22) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Alliato’s concerned words fall against the backdrop of increasing tensions between the Catholic Church and the State of Israel. Earlier this year, the Municipality of Jerusalem demanded to collect property tax from church-owned properties, in breach of the “status quo” between the church and the State of Israel. The term “status quo” refers to an Ottoman era edict that preserves the division of ownership over the holy sites in Jerusalem between the three religions and prohibits any unilateral changes that could disturb the delicate balance in the city. In an unprecedented move, church leaders closed the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to visitors to protest the new tax and accused the Israeli authorities of leading a “systemic campaign of abuse against churches and Christians.” The fierce reactions that flowed from churches around the world forced the municipality to back down, but it vowed to examine the subject again in the future. In the summer of 2017, church leaders criticized Israel for breaching the status quo again and instigating a wave of violence after it decided to place metal detectors at the entrance to the Muslim Al-Aqsa Compound on Temple Mount.

With all that, the Terra Sancta Museum promotes its new exhibition as a chance for interfaith dialogue. “What better place for dialogue between the three Abrahamic traditions than the Holy City. What better place for believers and non-believers to meet than Jerusalem?” says Father Francesco Patton, the Custos of the Holy Land, at the opening ceremony of the new wing. His dream, he added, would be that “through this museum, Jerusalem, the Holy City, could really achieve its vocation as the City of Peace.” Patton is referring to the name given to the city by King David after he conquered it in 1010 BCE (ura [city]-salem [peace]); a sentiment that stands in contrast to a comment in the Book of Luke, which warns that Jerusalem will be trampled many more times before it finally fulfills its destiny, holding on to its former Canaanite name, Jebus, “the trodden down.”

Terra Sancta Museum is open daily from 9am-5pm (Monastery of the Flagellation, 1 Via Dolorosa Street, Jerusalem, close to the Lions’ Gate).

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