‘Jerusalem’ at The Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum’s Johnson IMAX Theater by Leslie Weisman

If Secretary of State John F. Kerry is willing to think way outside the box in his attempts to break the seemingly eternally intransigent deadlock in Middle East peace negotiations, he could do worse than sit down for a tête-à-tête with Daniel Ferguson. Ferguson, who wrote, directed and co-produced National Geographic Entertainment’s Jerusalem, and his crew managed over a period of five years to gain unprecedented access to the holiest sites in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, including permission from Israeli authorities to fly a helicopter-mounted camera over “some of the most sensitive sites in the world.”


Introducing Jerusalem at the IMAX Theater in the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, where it will screen from today through December 27th, Ferguson acknowledged that he and his Co-Producers Taran Davies and George Duffield knew the challenges they would face, but were determined to realize their vision to make a film that would “reveal how much Jews, Christians, and Muslims have in common and inspire all of us to better understand each other.” What it took to achieve that was the equivalent of several diplomatic missions; in one case, “Thousands of cups of tea is what it took to get the kind of trust that we needed,” said Ferguson, adding: “It’s incredible, and somewhat sad, that a foreigner could have that kind of access.”

For Ferguson, Jerusalem is “a city of many layers that gets richer the more you peel it.” The same could be said for the film, a 3D extravaganza packed into 45 minutes of rapid-fire images and information that seeks to show us the city that many of its inhabitants, regardless of their worldliness in other matters, know little about, cloistered as they are in their own religious communities. Jerusalem the movie brings these communities and their inhabitants, the multilayered richness of their histories and cultures, to a larger world that, much like those who call the city home, know but a few pieces of the giant puzzle.

Jerusalem is “a mosaic of cultures and beliefs,” narrator Benedict Cumberbatch (most recently Sherlock Holmes in the BBC series Sherlock) observes, and we will be led through them by three young women who grew up there: Farah, who is Muslim; Revital, who is Jewish; and Nadia, who is Christian. “Most people don’t think I’m Muslim,” says Farah, then adds: “But Jerusalem is full of surprises.”

For Revital, her connection to the city is both physical —“I feel like I’m walking on the same stones as my ancestors”— and spiritual: When Jews come to Israel, “We say we’re making Aliyah, which means ‘going up.’ And for Jews, there is no higher place than Jerusalem.”

Says Nadia: “Though we live in the same area, we don’t know a lot about each other.” Farah and Revital would probably agree.

Known as the “cradle of civilization,” this crossroads of Asia, Africa, and Europe is both an enduring place that has drawn pilgrims from the seven continents for four millennia, and a place of endurance that has been conquered 44 times, besieged 23, transferred from one religion to another, eleven—and annihilated twice. “Jerusalem,” Cumberbatch intones, “is many cities, one built on top of another.”
We are taken, via aerial shots that will make your stomach leap into your mouth (thanks to Israel’s leading aerial photographer, Duby Tal, and his crew), to the storied ancient Judean fortress of Masada, where 960 Jewish rebels and their families committed suicide in the face of an impending assault by 15,000 Roman troops. Dr. Jodi Magness, a frequent National Geographic Channel, History Channel, PBS, and BBC guest scholar and a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is our guide here, telling us that “What drew people to Jerusalem in the first place” was something very fundamental: “Water—springs, all year round.”

We go on a tour with Dr. Magness and a group of archaeology students, illuminated by flashlight, through a dark brick tunnel ca. 8th century BCE that leads to a perennial spring, which stunningly, breathtakingly draws you in. Then there’s the scene shot in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Christianity’s holiest shrine, where “the team arranged to be locked overnight . . . in exchange for rare access to a subterranean quarry with ancient graffiti left by early Christian pilgrims” nearly two centuries ago.

We see people praying against the Western Wall, known to Jews as the Wailing Wall; a girl places a note in one of the cracks. According to tradition, we are told, such notes go to heaven.

One of the film’s greatest achievements now lies before and below us: a 360-degree aerial shot of the sacred site known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, built after the destruction of Solomon’s Temple and completed in the sixth century BCE, its golden dome a beacon whose magnificence the centuries have not dimmed.

With the site itself under the jurisdiction of Arab authorities and the skies above it controlled by Israeli security forces, permission to film required an enormous amount of diplomacy and goodwill on all sides. “To this day,” says International Line Producer Marcel Chauvin, “we are still amazed at how we managed to get our crew, a 30-meter camera crane and massive lighting equipment up there to capture the footage we did.”

For Farah, whose family has lived in Jerusalem for “hundreds of years,” the Dome of the Rock, located on the Temple Mount and constructed on the site of the Second Jewish Temple—for Muslims, upon a rock from which the prophet Mohammed ascended to the heavens—the site is significant on more than one level. “You come out into the open space with birds and trees. It’s like you’re in another world.”

Another seminal achievement for Ferguson and company is the aerial view of the ancient Judean fortress of Masada overlooking the Dead Sea, known for the tragically courageous resistance of Jewish patriots in 73 AD. We see a vast, crumbling mass of brown and gray rubble on an elevated plateau about 1,300 feet high, whose juxtaposition against an inserted image of a model of Herod’s Temple, geometrically precise and pristine white with gold, which was destroyed a few years later, provides a stark study in contrast.

With Nadia, whose family emigrated from Italy hundreds of years ago, we watch the Easter procession; here, the 3D impact is extraordinary, with thousands of worshipers carrying huge, swaying fronds that seem to stream from the viewer’s own body as he watches from his IMAX seat. Continuing with her, we see a newer part of the Old City: the buildings are whiter, fresher; the Garden of Gethsemane, at the foot of the Mount of Olives, is inviting, its gorgeously sculpted greenery a sharp contrast to the broad expanse of ancient devastation we have just seen. We follow the faithful along the Via Dolorosa, or Way of the Cross, on Good Friday, the 3D Steadicam capturing not only the rapt faces of the people, from toddlers to seniors, but the long, substantial wood balustrade gleaming like dark honey.


One of the most challenging scenes to film in the Christian part of the city was the Ceremony of the Holy Fire inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, requiring over three years of planning to obtain permission from all six of the churches with custodial authority (Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Latin Catholic, Syrian Orthodox, Egyptian Coptic, and Ethiopian Orthodox). “Once the church was full,” said Ferguson, “we had to politely convince pilgrims to put down their iPads and camera phones in front of us or not to set our cameras on fire as they waved their torches. The whole thing was divine madness!”

The same might be said for the entire project, which brought together people from communities occupying a space of less than one square mile that for centuries have all too often managed to avoid, ignore, or kill each other, often in the name of the same God known by different names. “Our local crew was a mosaic of cultures and communities nearly as vast as the city itself,” said co-producer Taran Davies. “At one point, one of our non-religious Muslim team members didn’t believe that Muslims venerate many of the same prophets venerated by Jews and Christians (David, Solomon, Isaac, Zechariah, etc.), so she asked a religious Muslim, who confirmed it.

“Everyone learned something about the other during this production. We set out with this film to foster understanding and tolerance between communities, and we saw it in action every day on the set.”

Now, Secretary Kerry: about that conversation . . .


Jerusalem is screening at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History’s Samuel C. Johnson IMAX Theater – 10th Street and Constitution Avenue, NW, in Washington, DC. Here are screening times. Purchase tickets here.


  1. Leslie: Thank you for this wonderful review. Having just returned from our odyssey to Jerusalem, I am able to relive the healing forces we experienced. Rosalind


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