Digging Up the Past Is a Source of Conflict, and Possible Connection, in Tension-Ridden Holy Land

Archaeological endeavors can be flashpoints in the deeply conflicted Holy Land, but some are hopeful that uncovering shared history can contribute to peace.

Franciscan Father Stéphane Milovitch presents replica jars that will be included in the recreation of the 17th-century Jerusalem pharmacy operated by the Franciscan friars of the Holy Land. By including exhibits that demonstrate the Christian contribution to the Holy Land, Father Milovitch hopes that a new expansion of the Terra Sancta Museum will build bridges between Israel’s different faith communities.
Franciscan Father Stéphane Milovitch presents replica jars that will be included in the recreation of the 17th-century Jerusalem pharmacy operated by the Franciscan friars of the Holy Land. By including exhibits that demonstrate the Christian contribution to the Holy Land, Father Milovitch hopes that a new expansion of the Terra Sancta Museum will build bridges between Israel’s different faith communities. (photo: Jonathan Liedl / National Catholic Register)

JERUSALEM — Despite being a pilgrimage destination for thousands of years, new sites of interest to believers are being uncovered on a regular basis in the Holy Land.

But these exciting archaeological endeavors, linking Abrahamic religions to the roots of their faith, also come amid trying times in the land’s present, characterized by conflict between members of the world’s three major monotheistic faiths.

In the past weeks alone, ever-simmering tensions between the Israeli government and Palestinians have violently intensified. On Jan. 26, nine Palestinians were killed after the Israeli Defense Force stormed a refugee camp in the West Bank in search of a “person of interest.”

The next day, a Palestinian shot and killed seven Jewish people at a synagogue in East Jerusalem. Following the attack, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel would strengthen the push to establish new Jewish settlements in the West Bank, a territory claimed by the State of Palestine and predominantly occupied by Palestinian Arabs.

Violence and discrimination against Christians has also been on the rise. Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzabolla and other Christian leaders have warned that the presence of Christians in the Holy Land, who are mostly Arabs, is threatened by radical Zionist groups that are not sufficiently curtailed by the Israeli government.

According to the Jerusalem Inter-Church Center and the Protecting the Holy Land Christians Campaign, there were five attacks against Christians in the first five weeks of 2023. By comparison, there were 13 such attacks in 2020 and nine in 2021.

These attacks have included desecration of a Christian cemetery in Jerusalem, vandalism of a Maronite Catholic center in northern Israel, graffiti saying “Death to Christians” scrawled in Hebrew on the wall of a monastery in Jerusalem, and an assault by Jewish settlers of an Armenian restaurant in the Christian quarter of the Old City.

Earlier this month, a Jewish person visiting from America desecrated an image of Christ at the Church of the Flagellation in Jerusalem. Recorded on video after the attack, the assailant said, “You can’t have idols in Jerusalem. This is the Holy City.”

Archaeology: Politics by Other Means?

In this context, archaeology doesn’t escape the complex web of political and religious tensions.

For instance, excavations related to the Pool of Siloam and the expansion of the broader City of David National Park to the southeast of Jerusalem’s Old City have led to forced removals of Palestinian residents, with some critics claiming the endeavor is using archaeology as an excuse to expand Jewish holdings.

In a place like Jerusalem, significant to three major world religions, the decision of what to excavate itself often carries symbolic weight, as digging to one depth typically involves destroying what lies above it. The evidence of historical presence and activity that archaeological digs can turn up is especially potent in a land where competing claims over who rightfully belongs still run hot.

For instance, the City of David Foundation, also known as Elad, has been criticized for unduly prioritizing the Jewish biblical period at its site, necessarily disrupting the Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Muslim layers that lay above. In turn, Jewish voices have been critical of Muslim-led digs on the Temple Mount, particularly excavation in 1999 for the el-Marwani Mosque that removed 9,000 tons of soil without proper archaeological oversight.

David Gellman, an archaeologist working at the City of David, said the enterprise tries to be as objective as possible, relying upon the guidance of universities and archaeological commissions to determine what they should excavate and what they should leave. But still, he acknowledged, “you can’t avoid high politics” in a place like the Holy Land and in times like these.

Uncovering Shared History

Still, some hope that archaeology and other efforts to unveil the past can be a source of connection, rather than conflict, by helping uncover elements of a shared heritage among Christians, Jews and Muslims.

For instance, in the Galilee region of northern Israel, the Catholic-run Magdala Center presents itself as the “crossroads of Jewish and Christian history.” The site’s archaeological park has certainly made important contributions on this front, uncovering the first-century-era Jewish fishing town that was likely one of the largest on the Sea of Galilee during the time of Christ.

Among the archaeological finds at Magdala are an ornamental stone with the oldest known depiction of a seven-branched menorah, as well as four still-functioning mikvah, or ritual baths, significant because they established that Jewish people in Galilee used ground water and not just the lake for ritual purification.

The central feature, however, is the foundation of a first-century synagogue. The oldest discovered in Galilee, and likely a place where Christ preached and ministered, the find is of great interest to Christians and Jews alike.

“How often do you hear a Catholic priest say ‘our synagogue?’” quipped Legion of Christ Father Eamon Kelly, vice director at Magdala.

Magdala Center Holy Land
The Magdala Center, explains Legion of Christ Father Eamon Kelly, sees itself at the ‘crossroads of Jewish and Christian history’ and hopes to bring the different faiths together by unearthing their common heritage. (Photo: Jonathan Liedl)

Additionally, Magdala’s cultural center regularly hosts events meant to bring together both Christians and Jews, underscoring shared history and beliefs.

Another “cultural crossroads” is being planned back in Jerusalem, where the Franciscan friars of the Holy Land are preparing for a significant expansion of the Terra Sancta Museum.

The museum, which already includes an archaeological section opened in 2017 near the Church of the Flagellation, is now planning for a historical section that will put on display the history and impact of the Christian presence in the Holy Land.

“Culture is a place where people can meet,” explained Franciscan Father Stéphane Milovitch, who is overseeing the new expansion, located at St. Saviour Monastery in the Old City.

The Franciscans have been present in Jerusalem for 800 years without interruption; they were the first Christians allowed entry by Muslim authorities after the Crusades. The historical section will include a replication of the 17th-century pharmacy from which Franciscan friars served the local community, a 12th-century organ, as well as immersive exhibits meant to help non-Christians discover the meaning and significance of Christian liturgy.

A room will also display mother-of-pearl art, which was taught by the friars to Christians as a way to make a living and has since become an important part of Palestinian culture. Additionally, the museum will display treasures from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, including rare Western vestments, chalices and art that can no longer be found in Europe.

Father Milovitch envisions that the historical section, slated to open in 2025 and still in need of financing, will be a place of interest for not only Christian visitors, but also Muslims and Jews. The physical layout of the museum itself, with doors on one end opening up to the Jewish quarter and the Muslim quarter on the other, is symbolic of the uniting force the Franciscans hope it can play.

But Father Milovitch hopes that the museum expansion will also demonstrate the importance of Christianity’s historical, but also continued, presence in the Holy Land — a presence that has fallen from about 10% of the population to just over 1% in the past 75 years.

“If you don’t occupy cultural space, you don’t exist,” he explained — an important insight into the conflictual nature of archaeology and cultural exhibits in the Holy Land, but also opportunities for coexistence.