The office of Eugenio Alliata in Jerusalem looks like the home base of any archaeologist who’d rather be in the field dirtying his hands than indoors tidying things up. A tumble of dusty, defunct computer equipment sits in one corner, and excavation reports share crowded shelves with measuring reels and other tools of the trade. It feels like the office of every archaeologist I’ve met in the Middle East, except that Alliata is wearing the chocolate brown habit of a Franciscan friar and his headquarters are in the Monastery of the Flagellation. According to church tradition, the monastery marks the spot where Jesus Christ, condemned to death, was scourged by Roman soldiers and crowned with thorns.
“Tradition” is a word you hear a lot in this corner of the world, where throngs of tourists and pilgrims are drawn to dozens of sites that, according to tradition, are touchstones of the life of Christ—from his birthplace in Bethlehem to his burial place in Jerusalem.
For an archaeologist turned journalist like me, ever mindful that entire cultures rose and fell and left few traces of their time on Earth, searching an ancient landscape for shards of a single life feels like a fool’s errand, like chasing a ghost. And when that ghost is none other than Jesus Christ, believed by more than two billion of the world’s people to be the very Son of God, well, the assignment tempts one to seek divine guidance.