For nearly two years, Eilat Lieber, director and chief curator of the Tower of David Museum in Jerusalem’s Old City, has been excited for this April, when Passover, Easter and Ramadan — touchstone holidays of three major religions — would collide for the first time in nearly two decades.
To prepare for the 400,000 or so tourists who had been projected to visit Jerusalem in April, the Tower of David Museum began collaborating with two virtual reality production houses — Blimey, based in Israel, and OccupiedVR, based in Canada — to create an immersive augmented reality experience for the crowds expected at its medieval stone citadel.
And then the coronavirus shut everything down. Israel closed its borders to foreign visitors; all nonresidents are now banned from the Old City. So Lieber made the decision to put “The Holy City,” a virtual reality experience that lets viewers drop in on Jerusalem’s holiest sites and festivals, online for free starting Thursday at tod.org.il/en. Her move came as virtual reality experiences of holy sites across the globe are more readily available, allowing shut-in pilgrims of multiple religions a window into virtual worship in an unprecedented time.
“We thought about the people from all over the world who won’t be able to come here this year, and how we can bring the spirit of Jerusalem to them,” Lieber said in a phone interview from Jerusalem. “This year, all the festivals are canceled, but we can still show the beauty of Jerusalem to the world.”
“The Holy City,” a documentary shot in stereoscopic, 360-degree virtual reality, takes viewers to some of Jerusalem’s most important religious events: the Holy Fire ceremony (the Orthodox Easter celebrations at the Holy Sepulchre); Ramadan prayers at Al-Aqsa Mosque, and the priestly blessings for Passover at the Western Wall. The documentary consists of footage from the 2019 ceremonies as well as sweeping shots of Jerusalem’s archaeology and architecture.
One thousand miles south of Jerusalem, in Saudi Arabia, the annual Hajj pilgrimage — which traditionally brings some 2 million or more Muslim faithful to Mecca — has also been banned this year. Ehab Fares, the chief executive of BSocial, a digital agency in Cairo, said he could never have imagined that Mecca would be closed when he began working on an updated version of Experience Mecca, an app that offers a virtual walk-through of the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest site. He is aware that the timing will likely mean a spike in downloads. First released in 2017 through OculusVR, Experience Mecca uses 3D modeling to give viewers a firsthand walk-through of Islam’s holiest city and the rhythmic circumambulation of the Tawaf ritual that bookends each annual Hajj.
The application is built by Vhorus, BSocial’s production arm, and its 2.0 version will be available for Google Cardboard, the technology giant’s virtual reality platform, before Ramadan begins April 23.
“The timing was purely coincidence,” Fares said in a phone interview from Cairo. “We were planning to release the updated version in June or July for the Hajj pilgrimage, but when the epidemic hit the world, the mosque and all the landmarks were locked and no one can enter. So I asked our team, please accelerate.”
Fares says that Experience Mecca was not designed as a substitute for the Hajj, but in a time of lockdown, it does offer an opportunity to connect to the ritual.
“It’s not a replacement for the real experience,” he said. “But it’s educational and inspiring, and it gets you closer to the experience.”
And in Rome, where Holy Week usually sees crowds of tens of thousands, this year the pope will preach in the absence of the faithful. Catholics who would have otherwise attended Easter services, including Palm Sunday Mass, Good Friday commemoration and the Easter Vigil, have all been banned because of the coronavirus pandemic, but those who still wish to drop in to Vatican City virtually can do so via the Vatican’s website, where a number of landmarks can be visited in 360-degree immersive panoramas, thanks to a 12-year collaboration between the Vatican and Villanova University.
“If someone wanted to see these locations, or, better yet, if they wanted to get themselves into the spirit of their sacred season, they could set up a virtual pilgrimage to all the papal basilicas,” said Dr. Frank Klassner, a computer science professor at Villanova who has helped oversee the project. “More than ever, these experiences are very valuable right now.”
FOR NIMROD Shanit, a Jewish Israeli who created “The Holy City” and co-directed it alongside Timur Musabay, a Canadian Muslim, there’s also a silver lining to this homebound holiday season.
“Jerusalem is a holy ancient city for Jews, Christians and Muslims,” Shanit said. “In times of crisis, people do look for guidance from something more powerful than they are. And if they are looking to connect virtually to their faith this year, I hope they won’t see just their religion, they’ll see how all three religions are sharing this moment, and this need for the power of spirituality.”