A little-known story of Russian pilgrims lies in Jericho

Russian pilgrims have been visiting sites all over the Holy Land since Ottoman times. A recent museum recounts their stories.

Russians with the Dome of the Rock in the background, seen at the Russian Museum in Jericho. Courtesy Dalia Hatuqa
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In the heart of the ancient city of Jericho lies a museum that traces the little-known history of Russians in the Holy Land. The structure, complete with domes and columns inspired by Byzantine splendour, was built on a three-acre piece of land once owned by Russian Tsars, then handed back to Russia by the Palestinian Authority in 2008.

“The museum traces the presence of Russians in the region, which dates back to the Ottoman times,” says Igor Zhuravlev, the director of the museum, which was inaugurated in 2011 by Russia’s then-president Dmitry Medvedev. Attesting to this historical phase is a photo exhibit of Russian pilgrims – often flanked by sword-wielding Ottoman soldiers – visiting religious and holy sites in Jerusalem, Nazareth, Nablus and Hebron. Among the pictures retrieved from homes of pilgrims who once made the journey from Russia to Palestine is a black-and-white photograph of about 100 visitors with Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock in the backdrop.

In addition to artefacts and remnants of a Byzantine-era mosaic salvaged during a dig just behind the building, the museum features a lush garden complete with citrus trees, herbs and other plants mentioned in the Bible, says Hasan Abu Samra, the museum’s guide and a history expert. Its backyard is also home to a 2,000-year-old sycamore tree, believed to be the one Zacchaeus, the short tax collector, climbed up to get a better view of Jesus as he passed by. Besides the regular visits by tourists, the ancient tree is often visited by Russian scientists to cure it of diseases and prolong its life.

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