Jews and Christians enjoy new VR, multimedia exhibits in Jerusalem’s Old City

The variety of hi-tech religious attractions beckoning Jewish and Christian visitors and pilgrims to Jerusalem keeps getting rich.

In July, after five years of work, Father Francesco Patton inaugurated the multimedia exhibition “The Experience of Resurrection,” housed at the Franciscans’ Christian Information Center located inside the Old City’s Jaffa Gate. The 200-square-meter (656-square-foot) installation, spread over six rooms, takes 40 minutes to view. Visitors select from 13 languages ​​to hear the multimedia presentation.

“The idea of ​​this exhibition is to offer pilgrims more information about the city of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus and its transformations throughout history, with a particular focus on the Basilica of the Resurrection (the Church of the Holy Sepulcher),” said Patton , the custos of the Holy Land. The Custody of the Holy Land has been representing Roman Catholics in the Israel since 1217, when the order was founded by St. Francis of Assisi.

“The exhibition is organized into six multimedia rooms,” noted Father Tomasz Franciszek Dubiel, the director of the CIC. “Two explain to pilgrims the events up to Jesus’ resurrection, and three others explain what happened after the resurrection. The last room is a replica of the tomb of Jesus.”

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The first room includes a model of Jerusalem as it was 2,000 years ago. The topographic diorama gives a sense of the physical location of the second temple, the seat of Pontius Pilate at the Antonia Fortress, the Mount of Olives and Golgotha ​​— the Roman execution grounds.

The second room — thanks to virtual reality — takes viewers to the Garden of Olives — also called Gethsemane, which means “the place of the olive oil press” in Hebrew — then to the slopes of Mount Zion, the place where Peter denied Jesus three times before the rooster crowed and finally to Golgotha, or Skull Hill. Wearing 3D goggles and sitting in swivel chairs, the 20 visitors are fully immersed in these sites and their historic atmosphere.

The third room shows a film on the history of Jerusalem, highlighting key personalities and events impacting the city from the Roman era to the present.

The fourth room chronicles the 1,700-year-old Holy Sepulcher’s various stages of construction, demolition and rebuilding.

The fifth room explains the “status quo,” the unwritten rule regulating the ownership, use of space and prayer times of the five denominations that have uneasily shared the Holy Sepulcher since 1852, when Ottoman Caliph Abdulmejid I in Istanbul ordered, “Things, as they have been running until today, shall remain as at present, pending a final agreement.”

The sixth room features a reproduction of the rock-hewn tomb in which Jesus was laid on a Friday shortly before the Sabbath came in at sunset, and from which Christians believe he was resurrected on Sunday morning.

“It’s really great,” said Matteo, a pilgrim from Italy. “It’s very fantastic and really realistic!”

Admission is 30 Israeli shekels ($9), and 25 shekels ($7.50) for groups.

“The Experience of Resurrection” soundtrack, composed by Mateusz Kobialka of the Kraków Academy of Music, enhances visitors’ mystical experience.

“I’m a Catholic, of course. It was very emotional for me (to write the music),” he said. “I tried to build everything in all six rooms into one piece.”

Enhancing his music is the violin playing of Dominika Rusimowska of Przemyśl, Poland, a jazz and classical violinist who improvised with E-scale notes to give the music a haunting Asian or Arabic ambiance.

“The Experience of Resurrection” is the Franciscans’ second educational attraction for Catholic pilgrims in Jerusalem’s Old City. In 2018, the brotherhood opened the Terra Sancta Museum in the Monastery of the Flagellation on the Via Dolorosa, dedicated to the archaeological and artistic heritage of Christianity in Israel. Like “The Experience of Resurrection”, it includes a multimedia component apart from its archaeological section.

The museum’s third section, displaying the many treasures donated to the Franciscans over the centuries by the royal courts of Europe, will open in 2023 in a 17th-century cloister in the Monastery of St. Savior in the Old City’s Christian Quarter. Those artifacts were showcased in 2016-2017 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in a landmark exhibition called “Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven.”

The future wing will also display the “Treasure of Bethlehem” — rare liturgical objects, mostly made of silver and brass, from the Crusader period (1099-1291) that were discovered during the restoration of the rooms of the Franciscan Monastery St. Catherine “ ad Nativitem” in Bethlehem between 1863 and 1906. The treasure, likely concealed to protect it from plundering by Mamluk Muslims, probably was part of the sacred furniture of the Church of the Nativity nearly a millennium ago.

Jewish visitors to the holy city who may have little interest in the Franciscans’ attractions won’t want to miss “The Big Bridge”, a tour of a newly-exposed section of ancient underground Jerusalem operated by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. Opened at Hanukkah 2021, the tour is distinct from the classic Kotel Tunnels route that parallels the Western Wall and emerges on the Via Dolorosa. In the attraction, one explores Wilson’s Arch, an ancient bridge that carried Jewish pilgrims arriving at Herod’s temple.

“Wow!” said Sari Tahulian, a guide at the site. “Every time they (archaeologists) find a discovery, it’s a new piece of your history.”

The monumental bridge was built both as an aqueduct and as a pilgrims’ entrance to the temple, she explained. Likely first constructed by the Hasmoneans, it was modified under King Herod, and then perhaps again during the early Arab period by the Omayyads or the Abbasids, she added.

“People see something new. It’s a new perspective on the Kotel,” she added.

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Tickets are 38 shekels for adults and 25 shekels for children. The tour takes an hour.

For another perspective on the temple, this one in hyperrealistic 3D virtual reality, don’t miss the Western Wall Heritage Foundation’s “A Look into the Past.” David Keinan has worked at the site since it opened in 2017. “People like to see the temple in 3D. It’s crazy. There’s a big demand,” he said.

Like the Western Wall tunnels, the entrance to the attraction is on the north side of the Western Wall plaza. Tickets for the 10-minute long experience are 31 shekels for adults and 16 shekels for children.

These four sites, two Jewish and two Christian, allow visitors to appreciate the hyperbole of the Talmudic sages who declared, “Ten measures of beauty were given to the world; Jerusalem received nine while the rest of the world received one.” (Kiddushin 49a-b)

Today it’s all available in air-conditioned splendour.

Gil Zohar was born in Toronto, Canada and moved to Jerusalem, Israel in 1982. He is a journalist writing for The Jerusalem Post, Segula magazine, and other publications. He’s also a professional tour guide who likes to weave together the Holy Land’s multiple narratives.

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