Something new in the Old City

A visit to Jerusalem's Terra Sancta sheds new light on the historical route of the Via Dolorosa and renews the hope for a dialogue in the tension-fraught capital.

At the Terra Sancta Museum, which means ‘Holy Ground’ in Latin (photo credit: TERRA SANCTA MUSEUM)
At the Terra Sancta Museum, which means ‘Holy Ground’ in Latin
(photo credit: TERRA SANCTA MUSEUM)
A peaceful walk through Jerusalem’s Via Dolorosa (Way of Grief) on a scorching weekday doesn’t seem to convey much of the suffering and sorrow associated with the street traditionally considered the path that Jesus trod on his way to the crucifixion.
In fact, as the sun reaches its peak in the sky around noontime, the Via Dolorosa gives quite the opposite impression – it is teeming with life and movement.
Tourists crowd the sidewalks of the narrow cobblestoned street, snapping pictures excitedly. Vendors beckon to passersby, offering merchandise, memorabilia and a selection of strongly scented foods on display in a makeshift market.
The colorful ambiance in the Old City is so lively that even the most religiously devout visitor might momentarily fail to remember that the winding route is believed to be the site of a dreadful agonizing journey.
Then church bells punctuate the boisterous cacophony of the market, and as the road turns, it suddenly gives way to the modest arches of the Monastery of Flagellation. As one steps into the shaded courtyard that is home to the fittingly named Terra Sancta (holy ground in Latin) Museum, even the most steadfast skeptics will be quick to forget any notion of being lured into a tourist trap.
Run by the Franciscan Monastery, the museum’s management has toiled for more than a year on an installation that aims to do the unlikely – breathe fresh life into a tale that dates back 2,000 years: the story of the Way of the Cross.
By bringing together ancient history and modern technology, the recently unveiled multimedia wing of the museum has taken on the challenge of crafting a new and novel presentation of the old story.
Immediately upon walking through the gates, it appears that one of the most crucial elements that make up the experience the museum seeks to offer – the atmosphere – is fully intact. The animated chatter of visitors that dominates the alleyways surrounding the monastery is immediately reduced to hushed, respectful whispers. It is as if the site – identified traditionally with the Antonia Fortress (the military barracks named after its Roman patron Marcus Antonius and built by Herod the Great) and the Praetorium of Pilate – demands respect in the form of silence.
The awed quiet brings to mind the story of a leader from the Torah who went through his own fair share of misery: Moses, who was tasked with leading the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. When God reveals himself to Moses for the first time, the reluctant prophet is as uncertain – as some of the visitors may very well feel prior to seeing the spectacle at the Terra Sancta for the first time – but then God makes himself known to Moses in the form of a burning bush, saying: “Do not come near here; remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5).
More than three millennia later, a group of visitors from all over the world enters the darkened hall of the multimedia installation. Some are people of faith, others are curious tourists with a passion for history, and others simply happened to wander into the monastery amid traveling. They all seem a little hesitant, not quite aware of the surprise that awaits them.
For the next 15 minutes, the group is transported back in time to a Jerusalem when Jesus is believed to have been condemned, crucified and resurrected. An impressive integrated display combining video and audio provides a thorough explanation about the different stations of the cross and sheds light on the countless transitions the city underwent as it swapped hands between a succession of emperors, military generals, kings and leaders.
Under the spell of the dimly lit hall, the installation gracefully skips between periods of prosperity and peaks of construction that marked the city as a hub of architecture and culture to some of the capital’s darkest, most embattled eras.
While Jerusalem did know plenty of bleak moments, such as the first Jewish- Roman war in 66 CE, during which the Jewish population revolted against the Roman Empire, the installation places a strong focus on more glorious, if complicated, times.
The historical account is set in a first-person narrative, conveyed by the steady and soft whisper of the storyteller – Jerusalem itself.
“I have been here for a long, long time,” the voice intones. “I have seen many rulers, gods, secrets,” it professes as it retells stories of Jerusalem’s years under the rule of the Byzantine Empire or prior to that, during the days of Roman emperor Hadrian, who had renamed Jerusalem Aelia Capitolina and rebuilt the foundations of the Old City in the second century.
The story is intensified by the music, lights and carefully planned animation work, based on 3D maps that redraw Jerusalem’s outlines and intricate, changing topography as it experienced endless downfalls and rebirths.
When the lights flick back on, the group slowly stumbles out, still very much influenced by the sights it witnessed.
Countless other groups are expected to follow in its stead, as a million or so visitors flock to the Via Dolorosa every year. For that reason the display, planned and executed by the Berlin-based company Tamschick Media+ Space GmbH, is available in eight languages (Hebrew, English, Arabic, French, Spanish, Italian, Russian and Portuguese).
Sara Cibin, the project manager and international marketing director of the museum, explains that the museum shares a core value with the Franciscan custodian: to provide an opportunity for people to bridge language, religion and culture barriers.
“We already have children from local schools that come to visit. They are mostly Muslims, and it is a beautiful experience for them and for us,” she tells In Jerusalem.
“Jerusalem and the Holy Land are home to many different people and faiths, and we believe in the possibility of being together in a peaceful way. We want to offer everybody the opportunity to know about our history, faith and presence. We give what we have because this can open the doors to a sincere dialogue.”
Father Eugenio Alliata, the scientific director of the museum and a professor at the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, echoes Cibin’s commitment to preserving the Terra Sancta’s status as a neutral space amidst a Jerusalem fraught with unrest and tension.
“As a person living in the city I am used to it, because Jerusalem has always been a point of dispute,” he explains, “but for us the appeal of Jerusalem is first and foremost spiritual. It was important to help facilitate a place here at the Via Dolorosa where every person can have that unique experience by themselves.”
The Terra Sancta Museum has built the multimedia wing as well as its other facilities with the help of the Association Pro Terra Sancta, which sponsors the museum’s work and regularly raises funds to help promote the museum’s activity on behalf of the Franciscan mission.
Perhaps Cibin and Alliata are right in sharing the belief that in a city like Jerusalem, it is especially important to take the higher, and in this case more spiritual, ground.
Long after the sun sets over the secrets and beauty of the Via Dolorosa and the group of visitors has left the Old City, the news reports that another terrorist attack has struck not far from the museum.
While the resolution to the conflict seems far from sight, one can only hope that in the face of the unabating violence, the voice of Jerusalem will continue to be heard loud and clear – at the Terra Sancta and across the region.
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