The Holy Land Experience in Spectacularized Jerusalem

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The Holy Land Experience, located in Orlando, Florida, is described by Annabel Wharton as a spectacle, comparing it to theme-parks like Disneyland (Wharton, p. 191). The Holy Land Experience contains reconstructions of some of the holiest sites mentioned in the bible from Jerusalem (Wharton, p. 193). It claims to be a non-profit, authentic, and historically accurate (Wharton, p. 229). Wharton claims that it reflects a Protestant/Evangelical view of Jerusalem, and, therefore, is based on revelation rather than historical understanding, which is exactly what we see in The Holy Land Experience (Wharton, p.227). According to Wharton, it is a Jerusalem completely devoid of the history that has shaped it, getting rid of important symbols of the Holy Land, such as the Protestant Garden Tomb, and focuses on the Jewish Temple (Wharton, p.227). Wharton posits the argument that The Holy Land Experience is not a relic, a replica, or even a reproduction of Jerusalem, rather it is a “spectacle.”
Wharton, through her assessment and description of the history of Jerusalem, tries to prove why The Holy Land Experience cannot be considered a relic, replica, or reproduction of Jerusalem. It seems odd that it would not be considered any number of these things because the creator of the theme park, Rev. Rosenthal, describes the park as more of a shrine that provides the experience of a place far away (Wharton, p. 195). However, Wharton begins by arguing that there is no way The Holy Land Experience can be a relic because it “lacks the material connection to the originating power” (Wharton, p. 231). This basically means that there is nothing making up the theme park that actually comes from Jerusalem itself, and definitely nothing that is considered holy. She also states that it cannot be a replica of Jerusalem because it does not allow “the recreation of ritual as did the Temple Church,” which is a true replica of the Holy Sepulchre (Wharton, p. 231). Meaning, The Holy Land Experience cannot provide people with the same ritual and worship opportunities as the people in Jerusalem have. Finally, the Holy Land Experience cannot be called a reproduction of Jerusalem because holy landmarks are not represented properly, and you cannot “walk in the footsteps of Jesus” (Wharton, p. 231). Rather than feeling real, there is a production-like feel to The Holy Land Experience that prevents it from feeling like the Jerusalem of Christ (Wharton, p. 231). The Holy Land Experience is a ‘space of spectacle’ because it has been modernized and altered to fit the fascination of the Western world. This Jerusalem represents the modern imagination’s view of not what Jerusalem was but what it will be in the eyes of the evangelical Christian, according to Wharton. Therefore, it is not a replica, a relic, or even a reproduction of Jerusalem, but a spectacle meant to dazzle and entertain its visitors.

It is easy to accept Wharton’s argument because just by observing the layout of The Holy Land Experience it is clear that the park behaves to fulfill a particular vision of Jerusalem based on Evangelical beliefs and the goals of Rev. Rosenthal (Wharton, p. 195). When entering The Holy Land Experience, it is very clearly not Jerusalem, especially not an ancient version, with the landmarks being condensed into a small area and “merchants” lining the streets that do not sell what would be sold on the streets of Jerusalem (Wharton, p. 123). Furthermore, only some of the Bible’s greatest landmarks are being displayed in The Holy Land Experience, but the theme park is described, on pamphlets and the website, as an authentic representation of ancient Jerusalem and claims that it will transport people to the real Jerusalem (Wharton, p. 193-195). Whether there was intent to actually create an authentic recreation of Jerusalem or not, it is plainly obvious that authenticity is in question, and there is merit to Wharton’s claims.

It is obvious that Wharton does not agree with Rosenthal’s claim that The Holy Land Experience is similar to a shrine (Wharton, p. 195). She spends some time outlining the features of a shrine compared to those of a theme park with the intention to prove that The Holy Land Experience more closely resembles a theme park. In order to clearly define and contrast the two Wharton uses one of the holiest Christian sites, The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as an “archetype holy shrine” because it fulfills very fundamental characteristics of a shrine, and Disneyland as a prime example of a theme park because it is often used as a basis for the creation of other theme-parks (Wharton, p. 191). The Holy Sepulchre’s primary visitor is the pilgrim, control is communal, and entrance is free as it is maintained by gifts and donations (Wharton, p. 191). Furthermore, time is repeated (“isochronic”) in the Holy Sepulchre, filled with deep “antiquity” and remnants of its history, showing the marks of the people who have occupied it over the centuries (Wharton, p. 192). On the contrary, Disney, as a theme park, has many different qualities and visitor expectations. The main visitor of Disneyland is the tourist, possession is corporate not communal, and the admission is expensive as it is maintained for profit (Wharton, p. 191). Additionally, within the theme park everything happens just once (“synchronic” time), and it is constantly cleaned to ensure that it is spotless at all times, meaning it is devoid history or remnants of visitors that were there before (Wharton, p. 191). Also, Wharton describes Disneyland as homogeneous in its construction because it was singular in its conception and entry is controlled, whereas the Holy Sepulchre is heterogeneous because it is “irregularly ordered” and people typically come and go as they please (Wharton, p. 193). Finally, another major distinguishing feature between the theme park and the shrine is that tourists go to Disneyland for pleasure and temporary oblivion, whereas the pilgrim will go to the shrine to find “solace and redemption” (Wharton, p. 193).

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The Holy Land Experience, according to Wharton, may attract both the pilgrim and the tourist, but according to the criteria laid-out above, it resembles a theme-park much more than it does a shrine (Wharton, p.193). There is a controlled entrance, a fee to enter, it is corporately constructed, and offers commodities such as souvenirs just like Disney (Wharton, p.193). Wharton even goes as far as to say that The Holy Land Experience may be one of the many smaller-scale theme-parks modeled after Disneyland (Wharton, p. 196). Clearly The Holy Land Experience is in essence a theme-park, not a shrine, which is really driven in by Wharton’s statement that “A medium that promotes pleasure is adopted in The Holy Land Experience for spiritual instruction” (Wharton, p. 197). Based on these distinctions described by Wharton, and which title The Holy Land Experience falls under, it is safe to assume what kinds of visitors will be coming to the theme-park and what they can expect. While it might attract both the pilgrim and the tourist, The Holy Land Experience is a theme-park constructed to induce pleasure, excitement and cater to the expectations of a tourist. In comparison to the Holy Sepulchre, which has a focus on reverence and a highly historical atmosphere with remnants from past visitors that allows those who go to have an encounter with divinity. This is going to appeal more to the pious pilgrim. In reflection of these points it seems like The Holy Land Experience showcases a very hollow representation of Jerusalem, and resembles a theme-park more closely than a shrine.

After making her point about The Holy Land Experience not being a relic, replica, or reproduction, Wharton makes a further claim that the Empty Tomb and Model of Jerusalem exhibits featured at The Holy Land Experience both show their attachment to the Western imperialism present in the 19th and 20th centuries (Wharton, p. 197). The Empty Tomb exhibit originates from the Protestant’s contempt for the Holy Sepulchre and General George Gordon’s 19th century reconfiguration of Jerusalem that placed Golgotha/Cavalry on the outside the Damascus gate in order to more accurately represent the West’s expectations of the Holy Land (Wharton, p. 205). This site was eventually bought by English Protestants that were part of the Garden Tomb Association, and has remained unbuilt and empty as it is believed to be the tomb that Jesus was laid to rest in (Wharton, p. 206). Both the Garden Tomb and Gordon’s Cavalry are an “expression of a Protestant piety that required an immediacy in its experience of God that only nature seemed to offer” (Wharton, p. 206). In other words, it was the land that satisfied the Protestant desire to experience holiness, and not the monuments littered there (Wharton, p. 206). However, Wharton posits that this move was not warranted and was driven solely by creative re-imagination that was not supported by historical record (Wharton, p. 206). Despite the lack of historical support, Protestants still believe it to be Jesus’ resting place, and the Empty Tomb exhibit found in The Holy Land Experience is modeled after it.

The Model of Jerusalem exhibit within The Holy Land Experience is apparently the largest indoor model of an authentic Jerusalem from 1st century A.D. (Wharton, p. 194-195). This replication of Jerusalem is connected to Ronald Storrs, who according to Wharton was the British governor of Jerusalem in the early 20th century that followed the policy of “rebuild the old and resist the new” (Wharton, p. 208). Storrs wanted to re-model the Jerusalem of his day to resemble as much as possible the 1st century CE Jerusalem that Jesus lived in. This involved many modifications, including the removal of late-Turkish structures, but also the restoration of many buildings, including the Dome of the Rock (Wharton, p. 210). In essence, Storrs was working to realize an image of Jerusalem that had been popular in the West throughout the 19th century (Wharton, p. 215). This embodiment of history and rejection of the present, in correlation with the Western notion of religion and art, is in effect dangerous as it allowed opinionated religious anxieties and historical claims to circulate (Wharton, p. 217). While this restored Jerusalem was never fully completed to Storrs’ preference, the idealized Jerusalem imagined by Storrs was completed in the Holy Land Hotel in the form of a replica model of the city. This model is described by Wharton as a product of the “distinct expectations of its various viewers both by what is present and by what is absent” (Wharton, p. 220). Meaning, that anyone who looked at it, whether Christian, Jewish, or Muslim could find relevant and meaningful landmarks. While the creators of the model emphasized their objectivity Wharton reveals that some landmarks were specifically included to satisfy the broader audience’s expectation (Wharton, p. 221). Both the model found in Jerusalem and the one in The Holy Land Experience, according to Wharton, were designed to be empty “the city of the debris of those religions that, for both Jewish and Christian extremists, got it wrong,” therefore, representing a nostalgic idealization of “unitary Judaism and apostolic purity” (Wharton, p. 228). Thus, as Wharton clearly demonstrates, these models are clearly Evangelical and Jewish motives for the idealization of a spectacularized Jerusalem.

While Wharton provides a lot of solid evidence and opinions about the Jerusalem portrayed by Storrs and The Holy Land Experience there is a large problem with her argument that such models represent the Western attempt to spectacuralize the city. It could be argued that these models were not products of Western imperialism, but simply attempts to actually recreate, as closely as possible, the actual city that Jesus would have lived in. Wharton focuses on the fact that these models are completely devoid of the history that has presented itself over the years in different forms and the removal of the marks of religious traditions, but fails to consider that the models only remove the later additions to Jerusalem because they are not authentic to the historical 1st century Jerusalem that they were trying to recreate! Focusing on the fact that there is no representation of the marks left by the history of Jerusalem in these models leaves a gaping hole in Wharton’s argument because that is the whole point. Wharton refers to the removal of important holy sites such as the Dome of the Rock being replaced by the Temple and the al-Aska Mosque being substituted by a lecturer (Wharton, p. 225). However, the fact of the matter is that the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque were intentionally not included in the model of 1st century Jerusalem because they were constructions of a later time. While obvious Protestant Evangelical bias causes the lack of any representation of the Holy Sepulchre, it could easily be argued that The Holy Land Experience is not at all attempting to be politically correct, but as historically correct as possible, and to a large degree it is. Inclusion of many of these sites and historical marks that have appeared over the centuries would not allow for a correct or authentic representation of the Jerusalem that Jesus would have experienced.

Looking at The Holy Land Experience with the same argument, that it is itself a model of Jerusalem similar to that of what Storrs imagined, is equally problematic. It cannot be applied to the park’s attractions which are based on only some of the Bible’s holiest sites, and do not appear to actually represent any real intention to create a completely accurate recreation of 1st century Jerusalem (Wharton, p. 193). The park much more resembles a series of scenes from a “Biblical epic,” with many exhibits that have no origin in historical Jerusalem. More likely, the intentions for the park were to turn it into a spectacle. A lace for entertainment rather than a remodeling of Jerusalem in the political sense of what Storrs was trying to accomplish. The park’s inclusion of an actual historical model of the city of Jerusalem, like that of the model found in the Holy Land Hotel, goes to show that any misconceptions that the visitors may gain about what Jesus’ Jerusalem may have looked like, based on their experience at The Holy Land Experience, can be corrected. Any historically ‘incorrect’ information that is portrayed within the actual park itself, such as the misleading distance between attractions due to the compacted theme-park or the exclusion of some of the Bible’s holiest sites, can be rectified when visitors look at the actual model of ancient Jerusalem.

In conclusion, The Holy Land Experience and its relationship to the interest of the West to possess and spectacularize Jerusalem, as described by Wharton, shows both strengths and weaknesses to her argument. It is plainly obvious that The Holy Land Experience is neither a relic, replica or reproduction of Jerusalem, but one cannot say with certainty that the theme-park is anything more than a spectacularized version of some of the main sites of ancient Jerusalem where Jesus lived. The political recreation of Jerusalem attempted by Storrs does not seem to align with the intent of the creators of The Holy Land Experience. Rather, it seems the purpose of the theme-park is the pleasure and entertainment of tourists, and potentially pilgrims, based on Biblical recreations.

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