The entrance to the Church of the Flagellation, where the Terra Sancta Museum is located. Emil salman

The First Jesus Museum in Israel Is Resurrected on Via Dolorosa

The Franciscans have reopened their museum in the Old City of Jerusalem’s Church of the Flagellation — the first dedicated to the life and times of Christ

More than 100 years after it first opened, the Terra Sancta Museum in Jerusalem has reopened, with new, modern exhibits dedicated to telling the story of the life and times of Jesus. Somewhat surprisingly, this is the first time an Israeli museum has mounted a modern exhibition on life in the Holy Land in Second Temple-era Jerusalem. 

The museum, which originally opened in 1902, is in a fantastic location: in the Franciscan Church of the Flagellation at the eastern edge of the Old City, a short walk from the Lions’ Gate. In Christian tradition the spot got its name because it is said to be where Roman soldiers flogged Jesus. It is the second stop on the Via Dolorosa, the route Jesus is believed to have taken while carrying the cross to the place of his crucifixion. 

A visit begins in a lovely courtyard with a garden, next to the Chapel of the Flagellation. The church was built by Antonio Barluzzi, an Italian architect who worked in Palestine for the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land (Custodia Terra Sancta) in the 1920s and ‘30s. Among his other designs are the Church of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, the Church of the Beatitudes above Lake Kinneret and the Church of All Nations at Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives. 

The museum building is very old: One section, which bears the name Herod’s House (where three nuns currently live), is 2,000 years old. Other parts date to the Byzantine era (about 1,500 years old) and the Crusader period (about 1,000 years ago). Two more wings will be opened in the coming years. 

Father Eugenio Alliata, the professor of Christian archaeology who heads the museum, explained that this is now the third incarnation of the museum. Aside from many items from Jerusalem, there are also artifacts from the Lake Kinneret area, from Bethlehem and Herodion and also from Jordan. Many of the pieces have sat in the museum’s warehouses for dozens of years, while some have been stored for 100 years and have never been displayed.  

Emil Salman
Emil Salman
Emil Salman

Many remarks by Alliata, an Italian archaeologist who has lived and worked at the Jerusalem monastery for 40 years, reveal a broader perspective than the one we may be used to. For one, Alliata thinks in regional terms. Some of the items in the Terra Sancta Museum come, for example, from the fortress at Machaerus in Jordan.

Direction to the Terra Sancta Museum on Via Dolorosa, Jerusalem

Machaerus is one of three fortresses in which the last of the Jewish fighters barricaded themselves during the First Jewish Revolt against the Romans, in 72 C.E. Christians attribute great importance to it as the place where John the Baptist was jailed and executed. At times the site has been dubbed “Masada’s twin sister,” but while Masada draws more tourists than any other fee site in Israel, Machaerus, on the East Bank of the Jordan River, is perceived as distant, forgotten and inaccessible. Alliata sees it differently — after all, the borders in Herod’s time were different.

Realizing the vision of peace

The exhibits are arranged thematically: There are displays about palaces, houses of ordinary people, the goods that were sold in the markets, means of payment, pottery and glass. The display skips easily between sites that are geographically close, but conceptually disconnected. 

One of the most prominent items on display is a half-shekel coin made by rebels during the first year of the revolt against the Romans, 66 C.E. Other coins, most of them Roman, are exhibited alongside. Facing them are delicate glass vessels that have survived for 2,000 years. Nearby is beautiful ancient jewelry made in Jerusalem.

Emil Salman

The museum’s great novelty is that it explicitly appeals to an Israeli audience, both Jewish and Arab, and not just to Christian pilgrims. “We are in the Old City and in Israel. Our languages include Hebrew, Arabic, English and Italian,” said Alliata. 

Father Francesco Patton, the Custos of the Holy Land (the chief Franciscan cleric), said at the museum’s inauguration, “The uniqueness of the Holy Land is that it’s a supporting pillar for a vast space of knowledge, encounter, and dialogue between cultures. The opening of the new museum is an incredible opportunity to realize the vision of peace in a country that’s still finding its way toward peace.”

Sara Cibin, museum project manager for the Association Pro Terra Sancta, explains the approach to the general public this way: “Our collection is of great importance and it has enormous relevance to archaeology and art history. This is the only place that displays the Christian character of Jerusalem. Given these two advantages, it’s clear that we expect to stand out on the local museum scene.”

Cibin notes that what’s so special about the new exhibition is that it’s modern and is aimed at a broader audience than it did in its previous incarnation. 

“We decided to use more contemporary technology and a variety of languages to make the museum understood and accessible to a wider and more varied audience,” she says.

Emil Salman
Emil Salman

“We’ve added new items that have never been displayed before, like an ancient Georgian inscription, beautiful glassware from a private collection and many interesting coins.”

On the beaten track

After the visit one is very tempted to compare the new, modest Terra Sancta Museum to the City of David National Park in Jerusalem’s Silwan neighborhood. There are similarities and differences. Both sites use archaeology to prove the authenticity of the holy places. Just as in the City of David, the Franciscans’ archaeological exhibition is a contemporary development of a tourist site based on archaeology, which seeks to demonstrate the historic and emotional link (in this case of the Christians) to life in Jerusalem. Still, one could assume with a certain degree of certainty that when the planned visitors’ center in the City of David opens, the municipality and the Tourism Minister will promote it extensively.

The problem the founders of the Franciscan Museum were forced to contend with is the clear and fixed path of the pilgrims and Christian tourists in Jerusalem: The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Christian Quarter, Via Dolorosa, Gethsemane and a number of other churches. It is possible to pray and be moved in each of them, but not necessarily to understand what daily life was like during the period of Jesus.   

The extent of the Terra Sancta Museum’s influence on the Israel Museum will only become clear with time. The latter has invested a great deal of effort and money in recent years to draw Christian tourists; it is not clear how many will be drawn away to the new museum. Christian tourists need an exhibition on Jesus’ life — and now the Franciscans have provided it in the Terra Sancta Monastery in the Old City, across from the Mount of Olives, rather than on Givat Ram in the new city. 

Terra Sancta Museum: 1 Via Dolorosa (Not far from the Lions’ Gate). Open daily, 9 A.M. to 5 P.M. Entrance fee: 15 shekels. 

Emil Salman

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