Moving lithely in his brown Franciscan monk’s habit and sandals, Father Eugenio Alliata stoops next to a newly discovered Second Temple period flagstone to pick up a mosaic piece overlooked by the Israel Antiquities Authority crew that morning. Such finds, he confirms, are a typical byproduct of the ongoing expansion and renovation of the Terra Sancta Museum in Jerusalem’s Old City.
Located on the second station of the Via Dolorosa — the 14-station path Jesus walked from sentencing to crucifixion — the museum is housed in the lush Flagellation Monastery compound. Archaeological finds are sprinkled among the chapels and well-kept gardens that form an oasis away from the cramped hustle and bustle of the narrow street beyond its gates.
Alliata, the 70-something scientific director of the museum and a professor at the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, exhibits a curious combination of old school archaeologist — he enthusiastically points out a recently discovered Byzantine cistern and Crusader period tunnels forgotten by time — and an eagerness to adapt modern technology to enhance the museum’s vast collection’s records and display.
Implementing his vision is the museum’s reboot project director, Sara Cibin, who is on extended loan from the government in her native Italy.
The Times of Israel met Cibin on a steamy summer day outside the Old City’s New Gate, adjacent to the seat of the Franciscan Custos. Since 1217, a succession of custos have overseen the order’s work in the Holy Land, including the territories of Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt (in part), Cyprus and Rhodes.
Cibin is in charge of the Terra Sancta Museum renovation and re-imagination, as well as another museum concentrating on the Franciscan’s work in the Holy Land, which is a few minutes’ walk away from the main archaeology museum in the Saint Savior Monastery near the New Gate.
While we walk the narrow alleys to the Via Dolorosa, Cibin explains that the project has a multi-year roll out. What we are going to see first is a 15-minute immersive exhibition called “Via Dolorosa,” which is open to the public.
There are several tourist groups already in the Flagellation Monastery compound when we arrive, ready to see the exhibition in one of eight available languages. The multimedia sound and light show takes place among archaeological artifacts dating back to the Second Temple period, accompanied by a film shown on a central screen.
The welcome dank of the cavernous Lapidarium hall is blessed relief from the heat of the day. It is part of the Archaeological Museum of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, which is undergoing massive preparations for other future archaeology and multimedia exhibitions set to open in late 2017.
“We promise to open up another section of the museum every year,” said Alliata, who added that the speed of their work is only bound by budget.
Respectfully and tastefully done, the multimedia tour of the history of Jerusalem through Christian eyes begins with the birth and life of Jesus and continues with the history of Christianity in the Old City.
Lights shine on catapult projectiles from the Herodian fortress the Antonia Tower, and a column capital likely from the Temple Mount. But one of the most moving parts of the exhibit for this reporter was seeing the naked bedrock of ancient Jerusalem.
Still closed to the public, in the next segment of the museum’s renovation, the vast Terra Sancta Museum’s collection will be spotlighted. Among them are finds from Jerusalem throughout the ages, as well as other Christian artifacts from the Holy Land. A portion of the museum’s collection just returned to Jerusalem from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition, “Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven.”
In continuous operation since 1902, the museum has also served as a sanctuary for archaeology from war-torn areas. Mosaics, stone busts and clay tesseras from the Terra Sancta Museum’s private collection are currently featured in an Italian exhibit of artifacts from Islamic State-ravaged Palmyra, Syria.
As the immense halls of the museum are still being reworked and renovated for the next phases of the project, Cibin and Alliata give a behind-the-scene’s tour of the still-closed sections. Alliata points out a Byzantine cistern and a pair of arches that the museum intends to open to the public for the first time with an accessible wooden walkway.
Passing the cistern, a labyrinth of close ancient corridors and a modern staircase lead to a courtyard, above which is a tall building called the Herod House. The name, which Alliata sheepishly explains, is based on memories of medieval pilgrims, but not necessarily on historical fact.
Likewise, as the first accessible stop on the 14 stations of the cross (the first is a Muslim religious school that is closed to the public except for Fridays), the museum attempts to moderate between spiritual expectations from the pilgrims who desire to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, and the evidence that in many cases, the paving stones he trod upon are not exactly what is seen today.
It is a narrow tightrope that, if the 15-minute first exhibition is any indication, the monks and their staff walk well.
Over the course of our hour-long tour, there is a dizzying array of future plans for the site put forth by Alliata and Cibin. Among them, the Terra Sancta Museum hopes to build educational programming and to foster intercultural and inter-religious dialogue.
As evinced by the kippa-clad crowd waiting in the courtyard upon our exit from the bowels of the building, the museum already is reaching an interfaith audience.