Pontifical Biblical Institute in Jerusalem reminds world of European presence in Holy City

The Jerusalem branche of the Rome-based Pontifical Biblical Institute has a museum that displays a Pharaonic mummy and baby’s bones in a jar, among other archaeological finds.

al-monitor This photo shows a general view of the Notre Dame of Jerusalem, a Christian guesthouse and restaurant for pilgrims, April 16, 2019. Photo by Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images.

Jan 11, 2021

Near Bab al-Khalil on the western side of Jerusalem's walls and to the north of the King David Hotel lies the Jerusalem branch of the Rome-based Pontifical Biblical Institute that is affiliated with the Jesuit Catholic order. The Jerusalem institute is composed of a church, a library and a museum that displays rare relics dating back thousands of years.

To emphasize the sanctity of the site, a photo of Saint Ignatius of Loyola hangs on the entrance to the institute. Saint Ignatius, who was born in 1491 in the city of Azpeitia in the Basque Country, Spain, is the co-founder and first leader of the Jesuit order. He had visited Jerusalem in 1523.

Al-Monitor spoke to archaeological researcher Abeer Zayyad, who is also the former director of the Arab department at the Tower of David Museum in Jerusalem. “The building housing the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Jerusalem was built by the Vatican in the 19th century as a scientific and research institution affiliated with the Catholic Church. The three-story building is dedicated to teaching the Bible to students of various nationalities enrolled in the institute.”

She said, “On its first floor, the building houses a small church and a museum that contains a rare archaeological collection, dating back to the first Paleolithic period until the Islamic era. The museum is home to many artifacts discovered by the monks of the monastery who conducted archaeological excavations in the Dead Sea and the Jordan River during the 1930s. These artifacts are mostly related to the Ghassulian civilization in the region that ended at about 4000-3900 BC, and the archaeological findings date back to the Chalcolithic period.”

Zayyad added, “The museum contains findings from the eponymic site of Teleilat el-Ghassul such as drawings symbolizing the Ghassulian civilization, in addition to the bones of a baby buried in a jar, a ritual practiced in Palestine for burying children at the time, as well as a large collection of ancient pottery utensils and cooking tools.”

She noted that the museum also houses a mummy brought from Egypt to Jerusalem, distinguished by its distinctive mummification technique that preserved its structure intact. She asserted that the mummy is the only one in Palestine. “Many museums in Palestine and even inside Israel borrow the mummy to introduce their visitors to some of the Pharaonic civilization antiquities,” she said. “The museum [at Pontifical Biblical Institute in Jerusalem] opens its doors to visitors weekdays to view its rare collections."

She further said the museum displays copper and stone Pharaonic seals and statues along with various figures of a Pharaonic scarab. “It also includes pottery and glass utensils from the Abbasid, Umayyad and Ottoman periods, in addition to a large collection of oil lamps and small sharp weapons dating back to the Stone, Greek, Bronze, Byzantine and Islamic periods.” 

Robin Abu Shamsiyya, a researcher in the history of Jerusalem, told Al-Monitor, “The Pontifical Biblical Institute in Jerusalem includes a library, a church, a museum and a kitchen on the first floor. The second and third floors include classrooms and rooms for accommodating students coming to the institute from Italy and France to study the four Gospels of the New Testament, written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John during the fourth century.”

Abu Shamsiyya said, “The Jerusalem branch includes antiquities dating back to the Bronze, Copper and Stone ages up to the Islamic and Ottoman periods such as tools for agriculture and adornment, as well as statues of the gods worshipped during these periods in the Levant. These findings were brought by the monks from the Dead Sea, the Jordan River and the Negev as well as from northern Palestine in Safed and Galilee.”

He noted, “The papal museum is qualified to preserve all the archaeological finds just like any international museum. Many artifacts are preserved in glass boxes designed in a professional manner, with lighting from all sides to ensure an attractive display.”

He concluded, “The Old City of Jerusalem is witnessing an increasing tourist movement. Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre are also popular historical sites. Roughly 6.5 million pilgrims visited the church during 2019. Yet there are no official statistics about visitors to Al-Aqsa Mosque amid the Israeli restrictions imposed on movement from and to the mosque.”

Regarding the reasons why most Christian churches and institutes in the Old City of Jerusalem are affiliated with a number of European countries, Abu Shamsiyya explained, “These countries sought to control the city of Jerusalem and Palestine indirectly during the Renaissance in the 19th century. European countries would dispatch archaeologists and researchers as well as missionary monks whose task was to spread the message of the Latin Church by establishing schools and printing houses. This brought many of the archaeological sites in the Old City of Jerusalem under European control.”

Hanna Issa, secretary-general of the Islamic-Christian Commission in Support of Jerusalem and Holy Sites, told Al-Monitor, “Palestine includes 15 Christian sects, including the Greek, Catholic, Coptic, Latin, Greek Orthodox, Syriac, Circassian, Armenian, Ethiopian, Maronite and Protestant.”

He said, "The Old City of Jerusalem includes churches that house several museums and archaeological assets such as the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, the Armenian Cathedral of Saint James, and the Catholic Church of Saint Anne.”

Issa added, “Christian churches and institutions — just like Islamic institutions — are exposed to continuous Israeli attacks in the Old City of Jerusalem, most notably the attack on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1967, and the burning of the Greek Orthodox Church in 2015. Most recently, on Dec. 4, an Israeli settler attempted to set fire to East Jerusalem's Gethsemane Church in the Mount of Olives area. He poured fuel on the wooden church benches, but his attempt failed after the residents of the area intervened to control the fire before it consumed the entire church.”