I’ve been based in the USA since August 2012, at the National Humanities Center in North Carolina, with not many medieval Calvary sites close by. I did, however, make the journey in May 2013 to Orlando, Florida, to the Holy Land Experience theme park, a large and apparently successful venture only a few miles from popular tourist destinations like Universal Studios, Walt Disney World, and Wet n Wild. I was interested in seeing what the Holy Land Experience had in common with the medieval sites I’m studying and how visitors interacted with the sites there. One scholar, Annabel Wharton of Duke University, has written some interesting material on the Holy Land Experience in her book Selling Jerusalem; in brief, she explores the park through a Marxist/Situationist lens, thinking about the relentless commercialisation and commodification of Jerusalem-as-spectacle, as spiritual capital is turned into financial capital. I was interested to see if my reactions to the park chimed with those of Wharton.
This picture shows the Whipping Post, a replica of a non-site, ‘the place Pilate had Jesus scourged’: a place known from liturgy and iconography, rather than archaeology or history. It’s one of the first sites one encounters on entering the park, in a dazzling and rather bewildering jumble of religious times and narratives: the Whipping Post is situated on top of the Tiny Town of Bethlehem, a miniature model of Bethlehem, and just in front of a bold and rather dazzling replica of the Second Temple. The Whipping Post does not strive for authenticity – the ‘blood’ is so thickly applied that it appears that someone has dropped a pot of paint onto it. Most of the visitors to the site walked past it, apparently oblivious, but one little girl walked up to it, touched it, as if to check if the blood/paint was dry. She examined her fingers and walked away.
There are many things to be said about the Holy Land Experience, but here I’ll restrict myself to just a few of the things that struck me most about it.
The most noticeable thing about the park is its thoroughgoing and strident Christian Zionism. In the car park, the Bethlehem Bus Loop is surmounted by a giant Star of David. One enters through the ticket booth to be greeted by staff with a ‘Shalom’; staff wear name badges saying ‘Shalom my name is …’. In the entrance area the bracing sounds of Hava Nagila blast out on a loop. In the gift shop, one can buy a menorah, a kippah, a tallit. There is mock-Hebrew signage (pictured below). In the restaurant, ‘authentic Israeli food’ was on offer, though lamb kebabs don’t seem to me particularly authentically Israeli. This uninflected Zionism is messianic and eschatological in flavour, and uses Jewish narratives as a way of constructing a Christian story. It is telling that, nestling amongst the Judaica in the gift shop, one can buy the Life of Jesus. The politics of the project are revealed in the labelling of Bethlehem as being in Israel, when the town is, in fact, in the West Bank area, occupied by Israel in 1967.
The other thing that very much struck me was that very few of the visitors were wandering, gazing, exploring – that is, they were not acting like tourists. The Holy Land Experience is organised by itineraries and activities, recalling the directed, teleological itineraria that governed medieval pilgrims’ journeys. On entry to the park, one is handed a timetable of the day’s events: this includes ‘Holy Communion with Jesus’, in which one sits at a Last Supper-style table, with a little piece of matzo and a tiny communion cup made of Israeli olive wood, and takes communion under the instruction of an actor playing Jesus; ‘Sermon on the Mount’, a live drama on the He is Risen hillside, complete with a living hedge bearing the legend ‘He is Risen’; and emotive playlets based, loosely, on biblical narratives (I found myself gripped by the melodrama of the repentance of Hosea’s wife, the harlot Gomer, but the canned applause was bathetic).
I wouldn’t say that the park discourages reflection, but very few, if any, of the guests seemed to be entering it in a spirit of contemplation. It’s a very noisy place, with music emanating from hidden speakers all over the place. Instead, large groups went busily from place to place, tableau to tableau, mostly photographing as they did so. Yet there was a great deal of prayerfulness: the whole park was imbued with a meaningful religiosity for many of the guests, who prayed at various sites, not just in the giant church at the back of the park.
Perhaps most instructively for medievalists, the Holy Land Experience revels in its dizzying mixing of different times and places: it does not seek a seamless authenticity but revels in a medievalish ‘double-think’ (pace the scholarly work of Richard Krautheimer and Sabine McCormack) in which the original and the copy, the old and the new, co-exist quite happily, seamlessly, purposefully. This might be troubling to professional historians, concerned with chronology and authenticity, but it is decidely enabling in the transference of holy space. A case in point is the fibreglass fishing boat (pictures below, with the He is Risen hedge in the background): visitors are attracted to the forlorn boat by a placard asking ‘Was this the boat that Jesus used?’ The boat can be seen in the third picture, below, with a sign saying ‘Please, no passengers! (I’m an antique).’ It’s a copy of a boat found on the Sea of Galilee in 1986, which has almost no relationship to the historical Jesus (it is simply the kind of boat Jesus may have sailed in). The Holy Land Experience deals in emotive simulacra, copies without originals. These things mostly have only a slight resemblance to the physical Jerusalem; even the fruit in the Jerusalem street market (pictured below) is not real. Unique things can disappear, whereas copies, simulations, fakes and replicas certify each other through their mutual, but apparently valuable, inauthenticity.
Further photos are available here: https://rememberedplaces.wordpress.com/the-holy-land-florida-photographs/