Visiting the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, No Time Machine Necessary

A controversial virtual-reality tour showing the Temple before its destruction is dazzling. But that doesn’t mean the producers want it rebuilt.

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A visualization of a visitor exploring the virtual Temple Mount.
A visualization of a visitor exploring the virtual Temple Mount.Credit: Courtesy of The Western Wall Heritage Foundation
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

The moment the virtual-reality film ended, I sank into my swivel chair stunned. I had spent 15 minutes visiting the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. I watched the priests flit about, blessing the crowds. As I looked around through my high-tech binoculars, every angle offered new detail, and the 360-degree panoramic view gave a remarkable perspective.

For most of the film I found myself looking up. The Temple seemed enormous, soaring high above me, its gold adornments dazzling in the sunlight. Pilgrims moved across the surrounding plaza. It didn’t feel crowded, and the atmosphere was pleasant. In some places people were singing.

I slowly removed the binoculars and headphones and stared around me. The sharp transition from the virtual Temple Mount that I had seen just before to the room’s slightly dim interior was a little cruel. In the virtual world, everyone wore long white robes and walked in sandals or barefoot. In the real world, the guy sitting next to me wore glasses and Crocs, plastic bags on his lap.

I went out to the Western Wall Plaza and the blinding glare of the noonday sun. Several dozen real worshippers in jeans and T-shirts had congregated there. The sparse remains of Robinson’s Arch, which only minutes earlier had soared above me in all its virtual splendor, were disappointing.

The virtual-reality attraction was produced by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, a government body established by the Religious Affairs Ministry in 1988 with a mandate to preserve and develop the Western Wall area and the tunnels connected to it. In an ancient underground chamber, visitors are transported back to the Second Temple Period, some 2,000 years ago, letting them wander around the Temple Mount – Robinson’s Arch, the Royal Portico, the Temple’ courts, and of course the Temple itself.

The project was the product of research by historians, rabbis, archaeologists and art scholars. They leaned heavily on the Talmud, the writings of Flavius Josephus, archaeology finds, and evidence elsewhere of Roman architecture. The structure of the Temple Mount and the Temple itself was recreated in fine detail and actual dimension.

“The research opened the way for restoration at the level of the kind of marble, flooring and construction materials used at the time,” said an official at the Western Wall Heritage Foundation who requested anonymity. “So a new layer was added to the excavated ancient remains. This allowed for a clear mapping of the position of every element in the Temple area.”

According to the official, “Our goal isn’t technological excellence. For us, technology is simply a tool that has to be used with restraint. We’re not Disneyland.”

At this point, I wasn’t yet aware of how often the word “Disneyland” would resurface among the people in the project.

Some 9 million people visit the Western Wall Plaza every year. Almost 1 million of them tour the Western Wall Tunnels and the adjacent sites, but the tours are designed for groups. The new attraction, created by the scientists and designers of the Israeli outfit ArchTour, targets the individual, though that’s not the only motivation.

“We looked for a common denominator for Jews everywhere,” said the Foundation official, as it turned out, shortly before UNESCO’s controversial decision this month overlooking the Jews’ ties to the Temple Mount. “We wanted to create a place that’s not divisive, not controversial and focuses on pilgrimage. That’s our task, to show what was here in the past, to transmit the Western Wall heritage, which draws on the Temple.”

Some might think a presentation on the Temple crosses into politically loaded territory.

“The Temple we present to visitors isn’t the Third Temple it’s as accurate a reconstruction of what existed in the past so that visitors can understand the Western Wall experience in its proper context,” the official says.

“We oppose going up to the Temple Mount. In our view it’s not an option. The film we produced deals with yearning. It’s not a logical yearning, it’s an emotional one. We want visitors to leave with the feeling that the virtual experience was moving and exhilarating.”

Holy Land, not Disneyland

Is it possible that Israel has overlooked the most promising branch of tourism in the Middle East – Temple tourism?

It’s easy to dismiss as weird anyone who tries to restore a temple that stood 2,000 years ago. But it quickly becomes clear that the people in this project are serious, thorough, intelligent and high-tech savvy.

They understand what tourists want to see, and exactly what historical research is necessary to convince people of lesser faith. Of course, some Israelis push a dangerous religious-political agenda, but this program deals with tourism, not messianism.

The simplest and most obvious place to begin is the Israel Museum. Alongside the Shrine of the Book, where the Dead Sea Scrolls are housed, is a model of Jerusalem in the Second Temple period. It represents Jerusalem in 66 C.E. on the eve of the Jews’ Great Revolt against the Romans.

The model was completed 50 years ago in the grounds of the Holy Land Hotel in Jerusalem’s Bayit Vegan neighborhood. This was before the Six-Day War, and the Jewish west side of the city was entirely cut off from the Old City. The model was built on the initiative, or perhaps at the whim of, Hans Meyer Zwi Kroch in memory of his son Jakob, who was killed in the 1948 War of Independence.

The model was built in the early 1960s, based on Prof. Michael Avi-Yonah’s interpretation of the city’s description in Josephus’ writings. It covers some 2,000 square meters (21,530 square feet) on a scale of 1:50. The model’s representation of the Temple has become the accepted image of the Second Temple.

In 2006, in a complicated engineering operation, the model was cut up into a thousand pieces and transferred to the Israel Museum. In the process, repairs and improvements were made based on information gained in the 40 years since the model was built.

Dr. Adolfo Roitman, the curator of the Dead Sea Scrolls and director of the Shrine of the Book, is currently responsible for the model as well. “The largest Lego in the world,” he likes to call it.

“We see the model as an artwork,” he says. “As curator, I supported the idea of installing it alongside the Shrine of the Book. The discussion was one of principle: Was it appropriate for a national museum? We were afraid it would be depicted as Disneyland.”

In 2003, Roitman mounted a special exhibit in the museum, “Envisioning the Temple: Scrolls, Stones, and Symbols.” One chapter of the book accompanying the exhibit dealt with the Temple in contemporary Judaism. Beyond the Temple’s obvious importance for religious Jews, Roitman made a convincing case for it being no less important for nonobservant Israelis. He thinks the Temple is part of the worldview of any Jew with an education in Jewish tradition.

Regarding the Second Temple’s appearance, Roitman says the most reliable source we have is the tireless Flavius Josephus. “Josephus was born in [37 C.E.], and the Temple was destroyed in the year 70. He saw the Temple in all its glory. Its final restoration, begun by Herod, was completed in around 60 C.E., and Josephus’ accounts are usually accurate.”

Building the Third Temple – in animation

To expand the subject, I visited the Old City’s Jewish Quarter, armed with three addresses. The first seemed incorrect or out of date. I was looking for the Temple Mount Information Center at 56 Chabad St., which once housed a model of the Temple. Instead I found a large sign announcing that the premises were occupied by the Museum of Psalms, which was currently closed.

I walked the short distance to the Center for Jerusalem, First Temple Period, founded by the Yad Ben-Zvi Institute. It contained a model of Jerusalem, and I expected that the Temple would be part of it, but I was denied entry by the woman on duty because I had come without “my group.” She stuck to the rule that only groups may visit, and I couldn’t get in until I had found “my group.”

Five minutes later I had bought my 35-shekel ($9) ticket for a 50-minute guided tour of the Temple Institute at 40 Misgav Ladach St., on the route from Zion Gate to the Western Wall, and just before the steps down to the Wall itself.

A guided tour departs every 15 minutes. As I waited for the start, I discovered how popular this site was among both foreigners and Israelis, and the institute’s shop was crowded. I was impressed by the Temple models on sale there. The director, Yitzhak Aloni, told me the institute exhibit attracts around 70,000 visitors a year, half of them Israelis.

A wonderful model of the Second Temple, created by artist Michael Osnis, greeted me in the first room of the exhibit. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Pictures on the walls describe the various activities of the priests in the court of the ancient Temple. Glass cases along the walls display musical instruments: eight harps, two large trumpets and six small ones.

The second room contains a model of the altar and a huge copper basin in which a dozen priests could wash their hands and feet. Another glass case shows dolls of two bearded priests. One, representing the high priest, wears an ephod and the breastplate over his white robes.

The third room includes a gilded incense altar, a seven-branched candelabra, a large gilded table, and – behind a red screen that opens automatically – the Holy of Holies, and within it the Ark of the Covenant complete with angels on its roof.

The visit ended with the screening of a 15-minute film that explains that the time has come to build the Third Temple. The impressive animation places the future Temple in the heart of the Temple Mount, where the Dome of the Rock, holy to Muslims, stands today.

The film doesn’t go into details of the construction process, and at a certain stage in the film it seems the Temple descends from the heavens – an act that would save a great deal of effort and even more controversy.

They’re not messianists

In fact the Temple Institute website declares that “the Temple Institute considers it of primary importance to educate about the great significance of Mount Moriah, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the only site in the world that is considered holy by the Jewish people, and the only site in the world in which G-d chose to rest His presence through the establishment of the Holy Temple.”

Rabbi Chaim Richman, director of the Temple Institute’s International Department, told me by phone that the institute sought to ignite the Jewish people’s yearning for the Temple.

“We are very aware of the human and political situation in Jerusalem. We are not interested in confrontation; we are interested in stirring interest. For us, the vessels on display are important because they let the visitor feel that the light of the Temple is not just a myth. It’s something real,” Richman says.

“There are 93 vessels that were used in the Temple rituals. There are descriptions of every vessel, its size and the material from which it’s made. These are not simply exhibits or reconstructions. They’re vessels that can actually be used in the Temple when the time comes,” he adds.

“That has transformed our exhibit into an act of faith. This isn’t Disneyland but a fascinating historical process. To manufacture the vessels, we met with professional artisans, experts in their field, who helped us create unique casting techniques. Just imagine the amount of research needed to produce the stones in the high priest’s breastplate.”

Richman says the people of the Temple Institute aren’t messianists, they’re the followers of Maimonides. “Which is to say we’re sensible and grounded. Out of the 613 mitzvoth [Torah commandments], 202 of them, almost one-third, are connected to the Temple,” he says.

“How can we ignore this? But it’s important to remember that we’re not obsessed with a building. We’re not Freemasons. The idea is that the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, wishes to be in this place.”

Richman says the Temple Institute has become increasingly popular in recent years. “We’re feeling the transformation. For 30 years the institute worked in education, and now we’re seeing the results,” he says.

“Our activity has become far more mainstream. When I joined the institute in 1989, we were considered a marginal or even strange group. There is no trace of that today. And we feel good about the change.”

Dr. Sarina Chen of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev studies Jewish groups active around the Temple Mount. She says these groups have gone from being religious zealots to a kind of mainstream in the religious-Zionist community.

“Visits to the Temple Mount were insignificant in the past, but for many today they’re an integral part of their experience. It represents an important change in relation to the place,” she says.

“But it’s important to note that not every visitor to the Temple Mount is looking to build the Third Temple. There’s a big gap between the visit and the desire to rebuild the Temple, and that’s part of the change.”

Dr. Motti Inbari teaches religion at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. His book “Jewish Fundamentalism and the Temple Mount: Who Will Build the Third Temple?” (English translation, SUNY Press) addresses movements that seek to rebuild the Temple. I ask him to explain the strong need to see the Temple that has been stirred within me.

“Our need for [concrete] realization is very deep. It’s a natural human tendency. There were already models and reconstructions of the Temple over a century ago. This yearning is of course part of the complex issue of messianic expectations in Jewish culture,” Inbari says, noting how every religious Jew mentions the Temple three times a day in prayer.

“So it’s only natural that he would want to know what this place, which is so talked about, looks like. This curiosity is completely understandable. If worshippers pray with sincerity [for the rebuilt Temple], they need to somehow prepare for it.”

I ask him if the yearning for the Temple has changed in recent decades.

“There have been dramatic changes. The subject was not as popular 20 years ago as it is today. The Temple Mount was closed to Jews then, and for many the frustration was overwhelming,” he says.

“Since then, the Temple Mount has been opened for visits but not for prayer, and its status has changed. Today, going up there is widely accepted. That has naturally had an immediate effect on the need for a visualization of the ancient Temple. The number of such visualizations has rapidly increased in the last few years.”

To Inbari, the most interesting development is that the Western Wall Heritage Foundation has invested in virtual reality projects.

“It’s important to understand that the Western Wall people and the Temple Mount Faithful are involved in an ongoing conflict. For many years the Western Wall was regarded as the holiest place for Jews. Many now say that this isn’t correct, and that the Temple Mount and the Temple itself are the holiest places,” he says.

“That’s exactly the slogan that the Temple activists shout out. It’s possible we’re now witnessing a feeling among the Western Wall Heritage people that they’ve lost the battle with the Temple Institute and are therefore promoting attractions that show the ancient Temple. That’s only a hunch – I can’t tell for sure – but it’s an interesting development.”

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