13 April 2023

Dima Musallam: “The Terra Sancta Museum, a hope for those who want to defend and spread the Christian faith in the Holy Land”


Dima is one of the faces of Palestinian Christian youth that allows the heritage of the Holy City to shine! Visitors to the archaeological section of the Terra Sancta Museum have been lucky enough to meet Dima, who for six years has welcomed the public, guiding groups of pilgrims in the history and spirit of Jerusalem. She shares her journey and her meetings with us.

Award of the diploma in Biblical studies by Father Eugenio Alliata OFM © TSM

Dima, can you tell us about the diploma they awarded you?

It is a diploma in “Biblical studies” given by the Faculty of Biblical and Archaeological Studies of Jerusalem (the Studium Biblicum Francescanum), attached to the “Antonianum” Pontifical University. When I started to work at the museum, visitors would continuously ask me questions I could not answer, so I had to go to the director of the collections, Father Eugenio Alliata OFM, to ask him for explanations… One day, Father Eugenio offered me the opportunity of expanding my knowledge by studying at the Studium Biblicum Francescanum, so that I would be better prepared to welcome groups. It was a gift from heaven for me to be able to study and work in the same place, where I found archaeological teaching of a high scientific standard. I was able to learn much more about the Holy Land and get to know my country better. This also contributed to strengthening my faith.

What is your background?

I was born and grew up in Bethlehem, in Palestine. My family is small, most of the Musallems emigrated to Chile during the 1948 war. They come to Jerusalem, they say, only to see me and the multimedia! I was given the faith and, ever since I was small, my family has encouraged me to travel and study abroad. At 23, I had the chance to travel to different European countries, Latin America and Korea, where I learnt many languages. At that time, I was doing “Linguistic Studies” at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, where I learnt four of the Latin languages: Italian, Spanish, French and Portuguese!

What were you doing before the museum opened in 2019?

In June 2017, I arrived at the Convent of the Flagellation as a guide for groups of pilgrims and schools. At that time, there was only the multimedia room, where Italian volunteers worked. The archaeological museum, established in 1902, did not reopen until June 2018. In 2019 we had almost 30,000 visitors! During Covid, the museum was only open on request. This let me work on cataloguing the archaeological pieces of the museum. It was work that had begun in 2009, and now has more than 22,000 digital records! Today, I deal with the ticket office and visits, but I also continue to study to expand my knowledge more and more in this field.

Dima at work on the object inventory. © TSM

What types of visitors come to the museum?

Visitors come from all over the world and are of different religions: Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism… Their visit is a sign of open-mindedness and the attractiveness of the Christian identity. The affluence is conspicuous especially during the Easter period and in the summer and autumn months. Amongst the most represented nationalities there are Italians and Americans, but also Spanish and Portuguese, followed by French, Israeli and lastly Arab, Polish and Russian visitors (especially from Tel Aviv and Haifa). We are expecting a new public from central Europe, now that the multimedia has also been translated into German. When they come to the museum, I realize that most of them are looking for something, and I see them becoming moved as they walk in the footsteps of Jesus… Some pilgrims have told me that their greatest dream was to come to this land. At times they entrust me with intentions of prayer! We also welcome many atheists who, during the visit, end up in tears !

The archaeological collections of the Terra Sancta Museum comprise over 40,000 objects from the Bronze Age (3rd millennium BC) to the Mameluke period (16th century).

Which of the objects on display are of particular interest for you ?

This museum has a significant Christian identity. Think of an unguentarium (a vase for perfumes) that recalls the episode of the unction of Bethany near the Mount of Olives, where the sinning woman anointed the feet of Jesus with perfume (John 12, 1-3).

Alabaster unguentarium of the Greek-Roman period © TSM / Giuliano Mami.

Or the collection of ancient coins including the famous denarius shown to Jesus: the Christian has to give God what belongs to God and to Caesar what belongs to Caesar (John 20, 24-26).

A coin recognizable as a denarius of the Emperor Augustus (27 BC – 14 AD) with the inscription CAESARAVGVST[..]DIVIFPATERPATRIAE “Cæsar Augustus Divi Filius Pater Patriae” © TSM.
“The light of Christ illuminates all men” is the most common formula of the Byzantine lamps of the Holy Land. © TSM

The Terra Sancta Museum also possesses one of the richest collections of Byzantine lamps from the Holy Land (IV-XI century)! Of various typologies, most often decorated with cross motifs, these lamps for domestic or liturgical use are testimonies of faith that have a particular importance for me.

What does the museum mean to you?

This museum has a meaningful Christian identity for me. The Terra Sancta Museum is a wonderful initiative that presents, through authentic archaeological science, the origins of universal Christian history. In fact, one out of every two objects, i.e. 20,000 artefacts out of the 40,000 preserved, is of Christian culture. I have learned to adapt my words to make the Gospel and the works dialogue with the different type of public. With children, for example, I use stories, parables or verses from the Bible to help them understand better the original archaeological pieces. For the more expert visitors, I also present the long-term work that the Franciscan archaeologists have done and continue to do to make the sanctuaries and shrines better known.

Visitors’ book with dedications and signatures of visitors from all over the world © TSM / Henri de Mégille

What do you think of the expansion of the museum?

With the completion of the museum, with the Room of the Holy Sepulchre and Nazareth, I intend to expand my skills to be able to guide visitors as best as possible in these new rooms as well. With a Christian population of less than 1% in this country, the museum is like a “miracle” for us: the success of presences is a hope for those who want to defend and spread the Christian faith in the Holy Land. Those who have stayed here, despite the war and the lack of work, have to transmit the Christian message all over the world. I am very grateful to the Custody of the Holy Land for this appointment, which is a vocation for me! I am grateful for the great work of the Franciscans and especially to Brother Eugenio Alliata ofm and Brother Stéphane Milovitch ofm, director of cultural goods, for their presentation of these precious objects for the Holy Land.

Translated from French by Joan Rundo.

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