For Shut-In Pilgrims, the World’s Holiest Sites Are a Click Away

The pandemic has closed holy sites across the globe, but virtual reality is providing worshipers a digital window into ceremonies during touchstone holidays.

By Debra Kamin

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 this 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 coronavirus shut everything down. Israel closed its borders to foreign visitors; all nonresidents are now banned from the Old City. So Ms. 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 April 9. 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,” Ms. 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.”

Jerusalem

“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.

Mecca

One thousand miles south of Jerusalem, in Saudi Arabia, the annual Hajj pilgrimage — which traditionally brings some two 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 3-D 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.

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