Father Michele Piccirillo was a Franciscan friar of the Custody of the Holy Land, archaeologist and professor at the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum in Jerusalem. He has inextricably linked his name to Christian archaeology in the Middle East and to public archaeology, dialogue and peace building activities in Palestine and Israel.
Youth and the “call”
Born in Carinola, a town in the province of Caserta, on November 18th, in 1944, he felt the religious vocation from a very young age. At the age of 16 he moved to Palestine, to the Custody of the Holy Land, where he undertook the novitiate in the order of the Friars Minor: already during the years of high school Michael had felt the religious vocation but, above all, the deep interest in Palestine, the land of Jesus, rich in archaeological evidence which the young novice was immediately interested in.
Father Michele finished his high school studies in Bethlehem in 1965 and then attended the Faculty of Theology at the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum in Jerusalem, where he obtained his license in 1969. In June 1967 he had made his vows at the church of the Upper Room in Jerusalem. A few months later, the “Six Day War” led the Israeli army to occupy East Jerusalem, hitherto under Jordanian sovereignty. During fightings, Father Piccirillo brought relief, together with his brothers, to the victims of the conflict in Jerusalem, Hebron, Jenin and other places in Palestine.
Returned to Rome, in 1969 he was ordained a priest, he obtained a degree in Sacred Scripture at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in 1973 and that in Archaeology at Sapienza, with relator Paolo Matthiae, in 1975. In 1974 he had already returned to Jerusalem, where he had taken up teaching at the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, a role he will cover for his entire life, becoming, in 1984, Full Professor.
The first digs and the discovery of Mount Nebo
In the early 1970s, the Franciscan had conducted the first archaeological digs at some proto-Christian buildings in Jordan, on the slopes of Mount Nebo, the mountain from which, according to the Bible, Moses would have seen the Promised Land and on which he would have been buried.
Mount Nebo, since then, has always remained a very important place in the life of Father Piccirillo: in 1976 he took over the direction of the excavations at the memorial of Moses on Mount Nebo, bringing to light the important mosaic of the baptistery. Since that year, the restorations and findings made by Father Michele and his collaborators have not been counted: the identification of Umm ar-Rasas – the biblical Kastron Mefa’a – in ’86; the start of the Mosaic School in Madaba in ’92; the publication of the volume “The Mosaics of Jordan”, with the preface by King Hussein of Jordan in ’93; the work on the area of the ancient sanctuary of the Baptism of Jesus in Bethany, beyond the Jordan, in ’96; the organization of the International Congress for the centenary of the Madaba Charter in ’97.
The mosaics of peace
Although he was an excellent epigraphist, historian and theologian, Father Michele certainly had a predilection for the study and restoration of Byzantine and early Christian mosaics in Jordan and Palestine. Since 1976 he never abandoned his research on Mount Nebo, where he also wanted to build a new guesthouse for pilgrims, as well as his “headquarters” for research in Jordan.
The “archaeologist friar” had the fortune of living most of his life in occupied Palestine, a land of conflict, yet he was able to maintain excellent cultural and diplomatic relations with all the parties involved, so much so that he was one of the few to whom he was allowed to move freely between Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Israel.
According to Father Michele the scientific study of archeology was a vehicle of faith: archaeology allowed him to know the past, but also, and above all, to witness a complex and troubled present. The archaeological research was an important means of returning the monument to local communities, creating tourist itineraries that could incentivize sustainable development, create awareness and pride in a past too often distant from colonial archeology, conducted for almost a century on both sides. shores of the Jordan. In the projects of the Custody of the Holy Land, the Franciscan archaeologist introduced workshops for young people, professional courses for the restoration of the mosaic (in Madaba and Jericho) and guided visits for schools.
In this sense, archeology was for Father Piccirillo a way to build peace. In one of his latest diaries he writes: “Among the ways to contribute to understanding and peace among the peoples of the Middle East, on Mount Nebo we have chosen the one that is most congenial with our work as archaeologists (…), and we are amply rewarded not only professionally, but also as friars minor followers of Francis, who went to Egypt to speak peacefully with Sultan Malik al-Kamil, Saladin’s nephew. The restoration of the mosaics, mostly floors of the churches built in the region from the 5th to the 8th century, has given us the opportunity to preserve a heritage of art and faith and to develop at the same time a work of dialogue and friendship that are the foundations of peace “.
In 2008 Father Piccirillo had to return to Italy due to an incurable disease. He died on October 26th,in 2008, in Livorno, where he was being treated. Many fellow archaeologists, architects, historians and restorers took part in the funeral. The body was buried at the sanctuary of Mount Nebo, from where we imagine that his soul looks over the Jordan Valley, waiting to see a Holy Land that shines with a just and free peace.