Into the Holy Land for 20 Pesos

By Stefan Kaegi

23.01.2020 /

Every weekend in Buenos Aires, the biggest open-air theatre event in South America takes place. “The Holy Land” is open until midnight. Tour coaches find a cool parking place under plastic palms with loudspeakers. Even the cashier and the cleaning personnel are dressed in headscarves and sandals.

Admission costs 20 pesos. The Promised Land for five euros. There is a discount for pensioners. A group of senior citizens pushes through the turnstile in front of me. They have come from hundreds of kilometres away, but they don't look like simple pilgrims; photo and video cameras hang round their necks instead of rosaries. Oh audience!

“Tierra Santa” is no stage show but rather spreads itself across an area the equivalent of four or five football fields. Since the opening in 1999, more than two million visitors have come to the Bible Park. In search of a religious experience they have found theatre.

We are hardly through the “Grotto of Miracles” when there in front of us lay the Mount of Olives. A mixture of concrete and fake rock, decorated and painted to look historical. Grim Romans and other unbelievers stand on it in the form of life-sized figures. You can get to the Mount of Olives by way of a wheelchair-friendly ramp or by climbing the 20 metre-high stairs. Oh scenography!

In front of the stairs a somewhat glum Arabian woman sells postcards. Also hanging on her stand is a wooden sign with angular Asterix-style lettering: “Free cameras, we develop the films in 30 minutes”. And now I see the central photographic motif: a very real miracle, an enormous Jesus ascends from the Mount of Olives. He is dressed in Argentina’s national colour of light blue. From top to toe, Jesus stands 15 metres above the mountain and still continues to grow. Slowly and wobbly, the stage machinery pushes the Son of God towards heaven.

I focus and make to press the shutter but from behind the Mount of Olives there comes a deafening rumble. Only a few metres above the holy apparition of the bearded founder of Christianity, thunders an Aerolinas Argentinas Boeing. The theme park was built right next to the city airport. The runway is directly between Bethlehem and Nazareth, as if the pilots wanted to prove, in five minute intervals, that in the 21st century after Christ, technology has triumphed over the world of prophecy and miracle. Oh pyrotechnics!

Jesus descends again. Here, resurrections take place every half hour. The aeroplane rightly inserted itself between the crucified one and me. The resurrection comes, of course, in the last act. First I have to join the queue in front of the sign that says “To the Crib”. Like at airports, the queue is divided into looping sections. I am ushered into the mountain together with the next school group.

The way to the holy stable takes us first through the Old Testament. The Pre-Christian era is a gloomy tunnel; Abraham, Isaac and all the prophets have very little light. Even Adam and Eve's paradise seems like an opium den next to one of the many emergency exit lights. The school group uses the darkness to make an astonishing amount of noise, which sounds less like enlightenment and more like petting and pinching. Oh puberty!

The darkness lifts after 20 metres and we enter an incense-infused cave. We must be directly underneath the mechanical Jesus now. This is where the angel of annunciation glitters, and we seat ourselves in the 200-seat auditorium.

The birth of Jesus is a lightshow. The gobo star of Bethlehem is joined by a spotlight on the sheep; more rock concert than Bob Wilson. There are lasers. Accompanying this is taped bleating and an over-articulated voice: “There was in this time...”. The loudspeaker rattles. By and by the moving lights reveal the many stars of the Bible, made from cardboard, in the shadowy depths of the cave. My theatre heart beats loudest at the appearance of the three kings. Obviously, making them kneel was too complicated of a mechanical operation. Instead, a simple stage lift moves up and down rhythmically. And behold: the three kings all kneel repeatedly before the infant Christ. Oh stage mechanics!

After this mechanical theatre – somewhere between Bauhaus mannequins and Heiner Goebbels – the real role-playing starts: a tour guide in a monk's cowl calls us out of our platonic cave using a megaphone and leads us to the “Square of Belief”, a kind of marketplace. Here, several dozen souvenir sellers in historical costume offer everything the pious heart desires: holy land biros, Jesus key fobs and crosses in every format from wall hanging to bookshelves. Nearby, historical-looking Arabs offer kebabs in the “Damascus Tent”. Argentine children, unused to Middle Eastern cuisine, prefer Bedouin hamburgers.

“Now,” says the monk, “there is a ten-minute break, before we follow Jesus' ordeal to the Last Supper.” After which the guide in monk's cowl lights up a cigarette – obviously unwilling to continue playing the holy role. The performer's agility in moving between role and self is a familiar strategy seen in Belgian theatre. The employees of the bible park must have to pass a belief test before starting their jobs.

The school group don't resent his cigarette; the teenagers have long since started to dress up a paper-mâché kneeling sinner with a baseball hat and lipstick. Security is nowhere to be seen.

I find the break too long. I return to Lazarus. He is totally white. Frozen in the transition between paralysis and enlightenment. There is something of the dungeon creepiness about it. Then I hear a little one say, “Mummy, why isn't he moving?” – good question, but then comes a better one: “Mummy, where is God?” – exactly, I hadn't thought of that. Nearly 100 performers swarm about this city of cardboard and dust under the jet stream of the aeroplanes, but not a single God. Instead we see Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul (whether Ratzinger makes it there, time will tell), Francis of Assisi and a figure without a face, which has the advantage that tourists can stand behind it and be photographed. In a vault the bust of Jesus has been hewn from fake stone, and schoolgirls drape themselves across his oversized arms. Smoking is forbidden here – candles are allowed but cost a peso. Only God and the Devil are absent.

In addition to the nativity (12 min.) and the Last Supper (five min.) the following are also offered: Creation (20 min. in 3-D cinema), the Resurrection (eight min.) and a “Show Musical” (30 min.).

Seldom was the absence of a metaphysical sign so evident as in this Disneyland of symbols. The theatre of the Bible has turned itself completely to the here and now. Oh performance!

Back at the Square of Belief, the traders have disappeared into the souvenir stands. Now there is belly dancing with audience participation. A kind of dance-of-the-golden-calf as participatory theatre. Straight in front of us is the wailing wall, a cleverly designed sound-insulated wall that separates the park from the airport, in which visitors can also deposit prayers.

In the Bolivian quarter of the city, the praying is somewhat less concealed. In the Church of Saint Cajetan, the predominantly Indian immigrants pray that Saint Cajetan, the patron saint of the employed, will give them work. The faithful have left whole cupboards full of heartfelt letters to the saint.

In contrast, “Tierra Santa” is pop: glamour, surface and music. And yet the quintessence of the big, open-air theatre “Tierra Santa” is politically up-to-date: the Holy Land is under the control of security guards, has emergency exits everywhere and the dirty work is carried out by Arabs. At the exit, there is no applause, just a souvenir photo with the trusty Bedouin. If requested, he will sign his picture. Not “from your Jesus”, but with best wishes to the grandchildren. Hallelujah.