Every year, hundreds of thousands of Christian pilgrims make their way through Jerusalem’s Via Dolorosa, retracing what are believed to be Jesus’ last steps before his crucifixion.
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For many, however, the experience is disappointing or at least not what they expected. Instead of walking through quiet biblical landscapes conducive to prayer and contemplation, these pilgrims often find themselves elbowing their way through crowds in congested alleyways, as vendors hawking their wares vie for their attention.
Nobody bothered telling them, presumably, that most of the Stations of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa, or way of sorrow, are smack in the middle of the Old City’s bustling Arab souk — not quite the setting in which they imagined Jesus to have spent his last hours on earth.
“It’s a very weird experience, and many of these pilgrims come out of it totally confused,” notes Sara Cibin, project director at the new Terra Sancta Museum in Jerusalem’s Old City.
Strange as it sounds, she says, a desire to provide visitors to the Holy Land with a more “authentic” Via Dolorosa experience is what prompted the idea for the city’s newest museum. The multimedia exhibition of the Terra Sancta Museum, tracing the history of Christianity in Jerusalem from Roman times to the present, opened recently at the Monastery of the Flagellation. It is the first of three planned permanent exhibitions being built by the Franciscan Order in its complex.
The location is not coincidental. The Monastery of the Flagellation, in the Old City’s Muslim Quarter, is the second station on the Via Dolorosa. In Christian tradition, it is the site of Antonia Tower, where Roman soldiers flogged Jesus after he was condemned to death by Pontius Pilate. King Herod the Great, who ruled Judea from 39 B.C.E. to 4 B.C.E., built the tower in honor of Marc Antony.
The 15-minute immersive multimedia installation incorporates music, narration and moving lights that draw attention to the archaeological relics on display, among them fragments believed to have come from Antonia Tower, stone bullets used by Titus when he set out to destroy Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and pieces of paving stone by Hadrian to create a square over Struthian Pool, directly beneath. A visitor who strains her ears may even be able to hear the water below.
The kid-friendly exhibit traces the history of Jerusalem through the centuries, highlighting the Christian holy sites along the Via Dolorosa. The tradition of the Via Dolorosa walk, it notes, developed in the 14th century when Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land sought ways to identify with Jesus’s suffering.
Using animation to recreate that last journey, the multimedia installation depicts the 14 stops Jesus made, according to Christian tradition, on his last walk through Jerusalem before he was nailed to a cross on Mt. Calvary. Life-sized figures, some of them bearing crosses, are projected onto another wall, allowing visitors to imagine themselves participating in a walk down the Via Dolorosa many centuries ago — long before noise, congestion and other elements of modern life could get in the way.
The multimedia installation is housed in an ancient stone structure, once used by Franciscan monks in Jerusalem to store their archaeological findings. The second wing of the museum, which will be dedicated to archaeology, is slated to open at the end of this year. No definite date has yet been set for the opening of the third wing, which is meant to house many of the gifts sent to the Christian community Jerusalem over the centuries. It will be located in St. Saviour Monastery, adjacent to the New Gate of the Old City.
Funding for the nearly $1 million project came from private donors and government institutions in Europe. “We understand that our main target audience for this museum is Christian pilgrims, but we hope to reach other audiences as well interested in learning more about the Christian history of this city,” says Cibin.
Her advice to them: Before embarking on the real thing, get your first taste of the Via Dolorosa experience at the museum.
The multimedia experience is currently available in eight languages: Arabic, Hebrew, French, English, Italian, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish. The museum is open between 8 A.M. and 6 P.M. from April to September and from 9 A.M. to 5 P.M. between October and March. Admission is 15 shekels ($4), or 10 shekels for members of groups.