Virtual tourism: The next best thing to being there

NEW YORK & JERUSALEM — “You’re standing at the Dome of the Rock, one of the holiest sites in Israel,” you hear a tour guide say. As that voice explains the significance of the place to people of Muslim, Christian and Jewish faiths, you can see the golden roof glistening in the sunlight. You imagine it’s a warm day in the Holy Land, but you can’t feel the sun on your skin. Perhaps Muslims are entering the Dome of the Rock, or the nearby Al-Aqsa Mosque, to visit the site and pray, but you can’t see or hear them. You can move around the site in all directions, not by turning your head, but by using a computer mouse.

This is the virtual pilgrimage experience.

“For every person who goes to Israel physically, there are hundreds of people who can’t,” said Gary Crossland, the founder of the Octagon Project, a non-profit that produces live-action, virtual tours of Israel and posts them online.

The cost of travel, lack of mobility, and family obligations are just a few factors that might keep people from making the trip, said Crossland, a Texas native, who has traveled to Israel 30 times.

Gary Crossland preparing video for virtual tours at the Judean Desert in Israel. (The Octagon Project)

Virtual tourism is nothing new. Pilgrims have always brought back “holy water,” a chunk of earth or a relic to hold on to and share the experience of the journey. Once photography was perfected, tourists brought back pictures of the holy places they’d visited. The embrace of video cameras, gadgets and social media to help people feel closer to the Holy Land is more recent. For years, there has been a 24-hour stagnant live feed of The Western Wall, one of the most religious sites for Jewish people. A few sites accept prayers via tweet to place in the cracks of that wall, an old tradition. On YouTube, there are thousands of traditional video tours, some with photo montages and some narrated.

But with more high-tech devices comes a more immersive experience. Organizations like the Octagon Project use virtual reality to offer that, along with a free, all-access digital pass to Israel. With the help of 360-degree cameras, online tourists can “visit” churches, historical locations, and get a glimpse into the country without a passport, luggage or a plane ticket.

Twenty years ago, Terry Modica, who is Catholic, actually made the 15-plus hour journey from her home in Florida to Israel for a pilgrimage. She saw the Church of the Annunciation, one of the most sacred places of the Christian faith, the Nativity site, where Jesus is said to have been born, and the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth.

With a few clicks, you can experience Modica’s journey, too. Back then, she did not have the devices to create a high-tech experience like the Octagon Project, but the 1990s-era photos she collected during the trip are now on her website, Good News Ministries, in the form of a virtual tour. To see the inside of the church, click on the doors and after the webpage loads, you’re inside. Or click for a closer look at the loaves and fish mosaic at the Church of Multiplication, where Christians believe Jesus multiplied enough food to feed a large crowd of followers.

“People once looked at my low-resolution photos and thought ‘oh wow,’” Modica, 63, said. “Now I look at them and say ‘Oh crap.’”

Modica saves the notes from people who still appreciate the virtual journey.

“Although I am a born Catholic,” one virtual pilgrim wrote, “my knowledge of the places where all the miraculous and painful events took place were only imaginary…until now.”

Modica wants to return to the Holy Land to capture the trip for those behind a computer screen. This time, using virtual reality for a more immersive experience.

But some say a virtual trip to Israel won’t do.

“For me, I had to come back,” said Bonnie Bergman, a Boca Raton, Florida native who is Jewish.

On a warm Sunday in Jerusalem, she was back in the Holy Land for the first time in 40 years to meet long lost family members. Bergman stood on the outskirts of the Western Wall in awe.

"It’s emotional,” said Bergman, who is a retired teacher.

That type of meeting is something that can’t be done online. That, and walking into the crowds in the women’s section of the Western Wall to touch what’s believed to be the remains of the retaining wall of an ancient Jewish temple.

While Crossland’s virtual tour company also offers 10-day physical excursions to Israel, he does not think the emergence of the type of technology that may allow virtual travelers to engage other senses — like sight and smell — will have any impact on that business.

“We’re on the bleeding edge of that technology,” Crossland said. But there’s “nothing like being there.”

"When you can actually have boots on the ground and feel the heat on your skin, the packing, the anticipation — it’s a totally different feeling.”

A modern miracle in Galilee: Jews, Muslims and Christians co-exist

TABGHA — Here, on this spot on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, Christians believe that Jesus fed thousands of people with nothing but five loaves of bread and two fish. The Church of Multiplication that was rebuilt in Tabgha in the 1980s was built over a fifth century mosaic that depicts these sacred fish and bread. The church is on a picturesque piece of land with gardens, farmland and a little stream running through the grass to the sea.

The Christian population in Israel is less than two percent but the church draws thousands of visitors each year from around the world. Today, the church and surrounding land are the property of the German Association of the Holy Land. This site is maintained by five Benedictine monks, among them the Rev. Matthias Karl. Dressed in long black robes and wearing circular-framed glasses, Karl noted that while, “We [Christians] are a minority [in Israel], it is true that minorities have problems all over the world – and in theory, in front of the law, we are all equal.”

Father Matthias Karl (Godland News / Kat Moon)

The theology of equality that Karl espouses is played out in a program at the church called Beit Noah, the house of Noah, a place where people of all faiths are welcome. Generosity is built into Tabgha’s mission, said Karl, because Jesus preformed his most generous deeds on these grounds. For the last 40 years, with a particular growth in the last five years or so, the church has been inviting disabled and traumatized Israeli and Palestinian children to stay on the property. The groups that most commonly come to the church may be either physically or mentally handicapped – particularly children with autism or Down syndrome.

The diverse and all-encompassing nature of Beit Noah seems to fit perfectly within the context of the parables of Tabgha. Rev. John Duffell at the Church of the Blessed Sacrament in New York explained that the main theme of the “feeding of the multitude” is inclusivity. “The entire holy community gathered, not just [Jesus’] followers. He didn’t make any distinctions, and he said to feed ‘all who are there.’ As long as they are good people, it doesn’t matter about the color of their skin, their language or sexual orientation.”

The story exemplifies how Jesus was radical in society for his time, said Duffell. This kind of thought process is how society is going to be made better today, he added.

Paul Nordhausen, the Pedagogical Director of Beit Noah (who is also a German and Christian, but not a monk), said that, “The idea of the program is from the moment the children enter the gates, we try to encourage them to come in as humans first – not as Muslims, Jews or Christians.”

The groups of children come in three different “categories” – from Israel, from East Jerusalem and from the West Bank. They currently cannot bring any groups from Gaza, Nordhausen said, because the current political situation there is too difficult. The groups of children that come from Israeli schools are required to have an armed guard with them at all times. Groups from the West Bank sometimes won’t tell the children they are traveling to Beit Noah, because they don’t know if they’ll be able to make it through the West Bank checkpoints.

“We make people meet on a very basic level here,” Nordhausen said. “I don’t impose any program on them, because first of all, I don’t believe as a German I can tell anyone here what to do. And second, I believe the meetings have to be done by parties in the conflict.” He stressed, however, the importance of leaving the conflict in the outside world, and to focus on having a good time together.

While most groups are special needs, the program does not provide any specialty assistance or healthcare. The offer of the space is that it’s free, but they do not offer any kind of mental health care or physical therapy. They do, however, take volunteers who are mostly German or American to help the program run smoothly.

Carolin Willimsky, a recent German volunteer at Beit Noah, described working at the organization as “the best thing that ever happened” to her. It is a peaceful place, with serene work like feeding animals, gardening, welcoming guests and prayer, she said.

Willimsky recalled one of her favorite times at Beit Noah when the group SOS Children Village from Bethlehem came to stay at the retreat. She and the children were playing a counting game. “We played in Arabic and English and suddenly we starting playing in Hebrew. One of the girls [from Bethlehem] started to count in Hebrew which was very exciting for me. These kids don't have good experiences with Israelis. They just know them as soldiers or as superior power. To play in Hebrew with these kids from Bethlehem meant hope.”

The main “hang out” place for the kids and the volunteers is in the steam in the center of the garden. Everyone can swim, converse and cool down in the hot summer – the most popular time for the Beit Noah program. “Perhaps the different groups can take this sense of peace and diversity back into the outside world after their stay,” said Nordhausen. “But that is definitely not our first priority because this is not a political or even religious thing. It’s to forget the outside world and have fun.”

For a shrinking group of Palestinians, Bethlehem is still a Promised Land

BETHLEHEM — Salwa Musallam gets to visit the site where Jesus was born nearly every day. As a tour guide with a local nonprofit, she ushers groups through the so-called Door of Humility, using her booming voice to implore visitors to bend at the waist in order to enter the sacred space within the Church of the Nativity. She knows every historic detail related to the church and doles out tidbits of information as her tours move through the multi-room compound. She even stops to explain that Jesus was born in a cave and not a stable, as is commonly thought.

“You are lucky to be going in the birthplace of Christ,” she declares, later adding that it’s important to keep quiet while at the church. It is a lesson she apparently has not learned. “I’m known here as a troublemaker. As soon as someone hears a group laugh, they know it’s me,” she tells her audience. “They’ll kick me out of the Church. One Greek priest, he can hear me even if I whisper,” she adds, jokingly.

With pitch-black hair, lined eyes, and sunglasses perched on top of her head, Musallam stands out from other guides. At 57 years old, her background reads like the passport stamps of a world traveler. She is Palestinian, Arab, Christian, North American and Latin American. She was born in Colombia and moved to Bethlehem when she was six years old. For a while, she and her husband and their four daughters lived in Michigan before deciding to move back to Bethlehem.

(Godland News / Vildana Hajric).

Musallam’s family story is very different than that of most Palestinian Christians. While many of them want desperately to leave places like Bethlehem, her family left several times but kept coming back to Palestine. Her story is a reminder that for many Palestinians, even those with options, Bethlehem continues to be a Promised Land, even if it comes with troubles.

The Holy Land’s Palestinian Christian population is a small minority in the region. Palestinian Christians comprise only a tiny fraction of the population but made up around 10 percent of the overall Palestinian population at the beginning of this century, according to Bishop Hanna Kildani, the Latin patriarch for Nazareth.

In fact, a new census estimate by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statics stated last month that out of more than 4.7 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, only around one percent are Christian. The main reason for the recent drop is attributed to foreign migration – many Palestinian Christians continue to emigrate out of the country.

“We have this problem of emmigration. Many Christians and Muslims can’t find housing, work, business so we are moving out of the Holy Land,” said Kildani, who wrote his Ph.D. thesis on Christianity in Jordan and Palestine.

Top reasons for emigration among Palestinian Christians include economic and political difficulties, as well as social and religious reasons, according to a recent study by Dar al-Kalima University College in Bethlehem. The study also found that nearly a quarter of Palestinian Christians had family members who have emigrated in the past year and that more than 70 percent did so for economic reasons.

This migratory trend is not new. Financial ambitions and escaping poverty and malady were some of the reasons Palestinian Christians left the Ottoman empire at the turn of the 20th century, wrote Pastor Mitri Raheb, founder of Dar al-Kalima University College of Arts and Culture in Bethlehem, in the recent report. Many settled in New York, while others continued on to places like Brazil and Chile.

Musallam’s father was among those who left. Around 1913, he moved to Barranquilla, Colombia, where some of his other family members were already residing, and took a job selling pants door-to-door.

He settled in Colombia and married Musallam’s mother, ultimately raising a family there. But his daughter retained her Palestinian heritage and married a man from Palestine. At first, she and her husband lived in Michigan but then moved to Bethlehem.

“There is a strong loyalty towards being Palestinian and the land their forefathers grew up in,” said Randa Kayyali, who has written a book on Arab-Americans and has done research on Palestinian Christians.

Today, Musallam’s job as a tour guide with the Holy Land Trust – where one of her daughters also works – keeps her in tune with the religious history of the land. In fact, it was her daughter who recommended her for the job due to her ability to speak many languages, including English, Spanish, French, Hebrew and, of course, Arabic.

But while Musallam came back, most Palestinians want to leave. They have many reasons. Constraints, arbitrary arrests, discriminatory policies and confiscation of land add to a sense of hopelessness and put Christian Palestinians in despairing situations “where they can no longer perceive a future for their offspring or for themselves,” stated the report by Dar al-Kalima. Many Palestinians Christians, therefore, set their sights to Europe, the U.S. and Canada to find refuge.

“Christians are being heavily impacted by the occupation and their livelihoods are being drastically reduced,” said Kayyali, the researcher. “So, if you had the opportunity to go somewhere else, maybe you would take it,” she said, adding that there are Christians in other areas of the world and many might feel that they won’t be persecuted in those places.

More people are leaving the country than are returning, said Marc Frings, head of the Ramallah office for Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, a German political foundation. “What I’m observing is that Christians here are becoming more aware of their minority status even though it’s not new. They’ve been a minority ever since Islam conquered the region. But now they don’t feel protected and are seriously afraid.”

Sami Awad, founder of the Holy Land Trust non-profit and Musallam’s employer, echoed that sentiment, arguing that many Palestinians feel a sense of resignation. “This feeling that Palestinians have is complete hopeless, apathy and that nothing works – diplomacy, violence and non-violence,” he said.

Though Western media rarely explores the plight of Palestinian Christians, Musallam’s situation is different – as a tour guide, she gets to recount her story to any willing listener during her daily tours of the church.

Musallam emigrated to the United States with her husband while he worked as a journalist in Ann Arbor. She still holds American citizenship. But she regrets moving back to Bethlehem. “I miss the States,” she said. “I cried when my husband wanted to come home. I said ‘you’ll regret it,’ and he did,” she added. “As a good wife, for the last 30 years, I’ve been telling him ‘I told you so,’” she said jokingly.

Many of Musallam’s relatives and friends didn’t understand her family’s decision to move back to Bethlehem. “They think me and my family are crazy first when we came back,” she said. “Life is good here, it’s not boring. But, it’s kind of hard.”

Awad, director of the Holy Land Trust, agreed that there are challenges to living in the region. “There are a lot of restrictions on Palestinians. For me, it’s the psychological aspects of daily restriction,” he said, describing the frustrations he feels due to a lack of movement imposed by Israel within the West Bank. “We don’t live like normal people everywhere.”

However, despite the reduced number of Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land, many don’t see the population disappearing completely. “The level of Christian presence will be quite low but it will not disappear, this is clear,” said Frings. “If you ask me openly, I will say there will always be Christian life here because it’s the Holy Land and people are rooted here.”

Voices from Godland, Episode 3: The annunciation in Nazareth

To speak of Nazareth evokes images of the New Testament and of centuries past. There’s the angel Gabriel coming to visit Mary, and of Jesus growing up. But Nazareth today is a modern city, in the heart of Israel. Every day, pilgrims from around the world come to the site to continue searching for meaning in the life of Christ. That search, while deeply personal, can also suggest of broader different ways for reaching peace in the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Voices from Godland introduces listeners to the Holy Land through the eyes of the people who worship there — pilgrims and religious gatekeepers. Episodes highlight the human voices of holy sites, explore the relationship between place and faith, and commemorate the religious experience. Listen on Soundcloud or in the iTunes podcast app.

Sacred stone and the fault lines of conflict

JERUSALEM — Our journey through the Holy Land has finally brought us to the city holy to three faiths, Jerusalem. After two days immersed in the tension, trauma and faith of the West bank, we drove through the Bethlehem checkpoint and into Jerusalem’s Old City, where the fault lines of conflict are tangled in the sacred geography of the world’s major religions. We also got to see the city’s Jewish holy sites through the eyes of Professor Goldman.

We began our tour on a rooftop with a panoramic view of the Old City. Professor Yarden pointed out the tangle of holy sites and ethnic enclaves that spread in every direction. In the near distance, we looked past the Arab and Armenian quarters towards the Western Wall and the Haram al-Sharif. In the distance, Jewish tombs poured down the slopes of the Mount of Olives, feet pointed towards the former Temple.

Goldman told the group about his great-grandfather, who, like my great-grandfather, is buried on the Mount of Olives. These were Jews who traveled to what was then Palestine at the end of their lives to die in the Land. Yarden made the point that this ancient practice was consciously countered by the modern Zionist movement. The Zionists declared that they were not coming to Eretz Israel to die – they would come to live.

We made our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The church was built on the site where Jesus is traditionally believed to have been crucified, buried and resurrected. Pilgrims flow through the church doors to fill relics with sacred energy and to have a moment of contact with a place that has touched the divine.

But while the site brings Christians together from across the world, it is also a place of division. The building itself is a patchwork of jurisdictions and boundaries between the six Christian denominations who oversee it. Where clergy from each denomination can pray, burn incense, hang relics or repair the church’s crumbling infrastructure has been prescribed by a complex series of agreements dating back to the 1800s.

Yarden said that while many like to emphasize the divisions within the church, it runs remarkably well, an elegant ballet of carefully choreographed coexistence. But the slightest deviation from the agreed-upon divisions – no matter how mundane – can reveal the spiritual fervor and tension just beneath the surface. On a hot day in 2002, a Coptic monk moved his chair from its designated spot into the shade, setting off a brawl with Ethiopian Orthodox monks that sent 11 clergymen to the hospital.

In the cramped confines of the Old City, it’s not only co-religionists who share real estate. We visited David’s Tomb, a Jewish holy site, where tradition says the biblical King David is buried. Directly above David’s Tomb sits The Cenacle, believed by many Christians to be the site of the Last Supper.

The site is one ancient building with two floors of ecstatic worship performed in the traditions of two different faiths. These two layers of believers generally exist in different orbits, but it is a tentative coexistence. Yarden recalled seeing a group of ultra-Orthodox worshippers, upset that monks chanting above them would impede their prayers from reaching heaven, once attempted to drown out a Christian ceremony with blasts from their shofars. The police were called but could do nothing to settle the dispute. “Israel guarantees freedom of worship,” he explained.

From the roof above David’s Tomb and the Cenacle, one can look eastward across the Jewish Quarter and see the twin domes rising above the most significant piece of shared real estate in Jerusalem – and possibly the world. To Jews it is the Temple Mount: the site of the second temple and the source of all holiness in the world. For Muslims, it is the Haram al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary: the home of the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, the place from which the Prophet Mohamed ascended to heaven.

While the State of Israel controls the land surrounding the site, the Haram al-Sharif itself is controlled by the Waqf, an Islamic authority appointed by Jordan. Jews can get permission to access the site but Jewish prayer is strictly forbidden.

Unfettered access to the Temple Mount for Jews is limited to the plaza below its Western Wall, abutting the Jewish Quarter of the city. Many visitors press their foreheads against the stones, trying to be as close as possible to the spot where the Holy of Holies once stood. Many slip written prayers in the cracks between the stones. For some, access to the Wall is a miracle of history and a place where they feel the presence of the divine. For others it is an unacceptable substitute until the day the Temple is rebuilt.

Even the slightest diversion from the status quo at this physical intersection of Judaism and Islam has the potential to send the region into chaos. Reverence for the site by both Jews and Muslims is both a cause and a reflection of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Goldman told the group that when he first came to Jerusalem after his bar mitzvah, the Western Wall was in the sector of the city controlled by Jordan, so the closest he could get was the Jaffa Gate. He was finally able to visit the Wall in his 20s, after Israel took control of the city in 1967. He recalled standing on the plaza in front of the Wall and overhearing a father tell his young son about the Temple, its destruction and its connection to 3,000 years of Jewish history. Goldman said he decided then that he would one day do the same with his children – a promise he fulfilled.

Over and over again, Jerusalem tests the idea that the same space can be sacred to different peoples at the same time for completely different reasons. Declaring something sacred is in some ways to declare ideological ownership of it, yet the city is a tangle of intertwined claims of both spiritual and physical ownership.

Yet, as intractable as these competing claims can seem, and while it’s true that a tenuous coexistence is enforced by armed soldiers and high-tech surveillance systems, Jerusalem also gives reasons for hope. Sitting within the walls of the Old City, we watched the intermixed processions of Muslims heading to the al-Aqsa for Friday Jumu’ah prayers, Orthodox Jews descending towards the Western Wall and Christian pilgrims following Franciscan friars along the Via Dolorosa. These competing currents squeezed, mixed and diverted through the ancient, narrow streets, as they do every Friday.

As the Christian pilgrims approach the final Stations of the Cross and enter the courtyard in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, they pass through the shadow of another piece of Jerusalem’s sacred geography, the Mosque of Omar. Yarden told us how the mosque was built to honor the Caliph Omar, who conquered Jerusalem in 637. Omar met with the Patriarch Sophronius at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to accept his surrender and receive the keys to the city. When it was time for prayer, Omar’s assistants suggested he pray in the church. Yet Omar feared that later generations would learn that he prayed there and would attempt to build a mosque over the site of Jesus’s death. Out of deference to the Christian holy site, he prayed outside. The Mosque of Omar stands as evidence that Jerusalem’s sacred spaces can be the core of conflict, but, Yarden reminded us, these two houses of worship can also be monuments to dialogue and coexistence.

Photos from day 6: