By Judy Lash Balint
A few years ago, The New York Times called Temple Mount “the world’s most contested piece of real estate.” This week, a new exhibit of photographs of the site that’s holy to billions of people around the world and has been a tinderbox throughout its history will open at the Tower of David Museum in Jerusalem.
“The Mount: A Photographic Journey to Temple Mount” incorporates images from the beginning of photography in 1836 all the way through to the virtual reality, or VR, of today.
“This is a clear and sober look at Temple Mount,” says Eilat Lieber, director and chief curator of the Tower of David Museum. Lieber notes that the exhibit captures “snapshots” from diverse historical, religious and political viewpoints, and doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the different claims to the site that’s sacred to Jews and Muslims and meaningful to Christians.
The new exhibit includes a 24/7 live feed over the western side of the Mount from a camera atop the Phasael Tower; an interactive table with touchscreen where visitors can get information on different parts of the compound and two virtual-reality experiences.
On a recent sunny Jerusalem spring day, the live cam showed a few dozen people wandering between the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aksa mosque. Lieber says that the live feed enables everyone to “see it [the Mount] from a safe distance, up high and far away.”
Despite the increase in non-Muslim visitors to the Mount over the past several years, the status quo arrangements between Israeli authorities and the Waqf (Muslim religious body that administers the site) forbids Jews and Christians from praying there, in addition to restricting access by non-Muslims to a few hours per day.
That’s where the two virtual-reality experiences of the new exhibit come in. Both are the product of the Tower of David Innovation Lab that launched in 2017.
One VR features a 3D camera that was set up inside the Dome of the Rock when it was completely empty. Developed into one 360-degree photo, anyone putting on the VR gear can experience the nature of the place.
It’s the closest any non-Muslim will get inside the dome, which has been officially closed to non-Muslim visitors for the past 20 years.
The second VR experience is a three-minute encounter with prayers on the mount at the conclusion of the 2018 Ramadan season.
Putting on the Oculus Go headset, what’s most striking is the immediacy and informality of the scene.
Moving your head in one direction or another, you are virtually in the thick of the tens of thousands who stream onto the Tempe Mount during Ramadan.
Look straight ahead and you can see men of all ages wander casually about the compound, some glancing with curiosity into the camera lens.
Tower of David officials declined to divulge how they persuaded authorities to place a camera in the thick of Ramadan prayers.
‘A powerful and complicated story’
The exhibit (housed in the Crusader Hall of the museum) features seven sections of chronologically organized photographs taken of the mount during different periods since the advent of photography in 1839. The first photos focus on various structures in the compound with people posed to draw attention to the scale of the buildings.
There’s a section of pictures with fading colors and images, taken by Jews and tourists who ascended the mount between the reunification of Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War and the mid-1980s, shortly before the first intifada started in December, 1987.
Shimon Lev, curator of exhibit, told reporters: “This has been by far the most difficult exhibition that I have ever curated, due to the sensitiveness and the explosive nature of the subject we are exploring.”
The advisory committee for the exhibit included Hebrew University scholars, as well as Islamic experts who were reluctant to publish their names. “Our philosophy at the Tower of David Museum is that we don’t have to agree, but we do have to respect each other,” she stated.
Through the hundreds of photographs on display in the exhibit—some iconic, others rarely seen — a picture emerges of one of the most potent symbols of religious and political divisions in the world.
Lieber is hopeful that the exhibition will offer opportunities “for encounter and dialogue.”
The exhibit is open at the Tower of David Museum, Jaffa Gate through October. Guided tours in English on Mondays from 9:30 a.m-11 a.m., and Thursday from 1:30p.m-3 p.m. Information: www.tod.org.il/en.