The California Science Center at Exposition Park near downtown Los Angeles is hosting interconnected multimedia events: the new 45-minute IMAX film “Jerusalem” and an exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls contextualized by historic and remarkably preserved artifacts from the Holy Land.

The film, narrated by Oscar-nominated actor Benedict Cumberbatch, is a soaring examination of the beauty of the Old City of Jerusalem and its importance for half of the world’s population: Jews, Christians and Muslims.

The city was chosen as a site because it was a source of water in the desert. One of the scenes in the film shows the tunnels bored through stone by the Jebusites, a Canaanite tribe, long before King David conquered the city around 1000 B.C.E. These tunnels allowed the people to access water and water still flows through them today.  

Jews believe that Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac here, and Solomon built the first temple at the site of the Temple Mount in 957 B.C.E. The Wailing Wall, or Western Wall of the second Temple, is a sacred place for Jews. Christians revere this place because Jesus preached there.

According to the Koran, this is the site Mohammad visited during a dream, or night journey, in 621, during which he ascended to heaven. When Muslims conquered Jerusalem in 637, they built a shrine on this now contested spot, now known as the Dome of the Rock.

“Jerusalem” seeks to inform audiences and inspire viewers by showing us the mystery and majesty of the city, to let us get a sense of the city’s history and the people who call it home. It is not a political film, nor does it detail the many invasions and conquests of Jerusalem over the centuries, or its current conflicts.

“Jerusalem” was produced as an immersion experience for students who would see it on a gigantic IMAX screen and come away with some understanding of why the city continues to be so important to so many people.

The 3D IMAX cinematography, with sweeping aerial views that take in the lands surrounding Jerusalem, is stunning.  

It takes special large cameras to film an IMAX movie. To film in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is believed to be the site of the crucifixion and hold the tomb where Jesus was buried, the crew had to be locked in overnight, from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m., because that’s when the church opens and closes, without exceptions.

Producers Taran Davies and Daniel Ferguson said that it was a unique experience to fall asleep on or near their equipment when they completed filming near the Stone of Unction, a flat surface on which Jesus’ body was prepared for burial.

Our guides for the exploration of this ancient city are three 16-year old girls who were born and raised in the Old City: Revital Zacharie from the Jewish Quarter; Farah Ammouri from Muslim Quarter, and Nadia Tadros from the Christian Quarter (the fourth quarter of the city is the Armenian Quarter; it has its own distinct characteristics, and is also Christian).

Revital tells how her family came to live in Jerusalem. The girls explain what it is like to live in this exciting yet divided city. They let us see some of the religious feasts celebrated in their homes and explain a little about what they mean.

I asked the producers why they chose three females to describe their lives growing up in Jerusalem, when the three religions they represent are patriarchal, that is, led by men. They explained that because the film is essentially for students they wanted narrators that the audience could relate to. These three young women were simply the best of all the students, boys and girls, they interviewed in Jerusalem.

The producers said that the budget for the film was $9.2 million and it took over five years to produce. It also took many cups of coffee and tea with various agencies and community leaders throughout the course of five years to obtain permission to access the places that appear in the film.

The film tries very hard to give equal time to the three religions that call the Old City home. “Jerusalem” is distributed by National Geographic Studios.

nThe Dead Sea Scrolls

“The Dead Sea Scrolls: The Exhibition” is the largest exhibit of its kind to be created by the Israel Antiquities Authority and travel outside of Israel. The discovery of the scrolls, which date back more than two millennia, began in 1947 when a Bedouin shepherd found clay pots containing scrolls in a cave near the Dead Sea. This discovery led to uncovering thousands of scrolls and fragments in eleven caves over the following eight years.  

The centerpiece of the exhibition features 20 texts (10 scrolls at a time, in rotation) from the Dead Sea Scrolls. These date from 250 B.C.E to 68 C.E. The parchment texts are written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. There is even a first century marriage contract.

Here, fragments of the scrolls on exhibit are some of the oldest texts of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, in existence. They include passages from Genesis, Isaiah, Psalms and Lamentations, as well as some non-Biblical writings.

The fragments are extremely fragile and are in low light displays. Enlargements are displayed next to the scrolls, along with English translations. You can also see a video about the scrolls and their preservation efforts.

The exhibition contains 600 artifacts such as pottery jars of all sizes as well as daily artifacts such as combs, jewelry, coins, arrowheads and sling-stones.

Seeing the large sling-stones made the story of David and Goliath very real to me. The bathtub with a built-in seat intrigued me. Meant to be functional, it is quite stylish.

Visiting this exhibition and seeing the film “Jerusalem” engaged my imagination to no end and brought history and religion, through archeology and modern scientific technology, into the present. I can see so many possibilities for dialogue, understanding, and respect. This excursion was certainly educational, yet I felt as if I had made a retreat.