See video at end of article
I cannot talk to these people!” our Israeli tour agent exclaimed after yet another person hung up the phone as she tried to speak.
The tour agent had spent a long day calling various phone numbers for information about whether we could receive a permit to film at the Temple Mount, one of the most important holy sites in Jerusalem’s Old City.
But as soon as she said, “Shalom” in Hebrew, the line would go dead.
I was among a group of Seventh-day Adventist theologians and filmmakers from the Voice of Hope media center in Tula, a city located two hours by car from the Russian capital, Moscow. We flew to Israel in March with the ambitious plan to film a series of Russian-language documentaries about the life and teachings of biblical prophets.
Filming in the area around the Temple Mount was extremely important for our project. The theme of the temple — its significance for the people of Israel, its destruction as a part of the covenantal curses, and its restoration as an act of God’s mercy to His people — permeates the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.
At the same time, the temple has become a source of major confusion for Christians. Many evangelical preachers and even theologians believe that the temple has to be restored for Jesus to return. They use a dispensationalist model for interpreting Scripture and especially apocalyptic texts such as Daniel, Revelation, and the last chapters of Ezekiel, which describes a reality that was never fulfilled.
Adventists do not interpret the Bible this way. Adventists do not read the last chapters of Ezekiel literally and wait for a new temple to be built on the original Temple Mount. We believe that many of the prophecies in Ezekiel were for a messianic age that, due to Israel’s hardened hearts, never became a reality and have no bearing upon end-time events.
To demonstrate this to viewers, we wanted to film around the Temple Mount.
The task, however, was proving complicated.
The four remaining walls of the grandiose Herodian temple are controlled by three different entities. The Southern Wall is part of the Davidson Archeological Park, which belongs to Israel’s Tourism Ministry. The park contains the remains of the unique Double and Triple Gates, also known as the Huldah Gates, named after the prophetess who lived during the reign of King Josiah. Excavated by Benjamin Mazar in 1967, the gates served as the main entrance to the site for pilgrims who visited annual festivals during the first century AD.
The Western Wall is the holiest site for Jews. Thousands of people — Jews and non-Jews alike — come to this wall every day to pray.
But the commonly known religious site and tourist destination represents only the tip of the Western Wall complex. Its main treasures are found inside a tunnel excavated by Charles Wilson and Charles Warren from 1864 to 1870. The tunnel follows the street level of the first century, which lies about 30 feet (9 meters) below the current level of the Western Wall plaza where the tourists and worshipers usually gather. It exposes magnificent stones measuring 45 by 9.8 by 11 feet (13.7 by 3 by 3.3 meters) and weighing 520 metric tons. The stones comprised the foundation of a retaining wall that King Herod ordered so he could create a level platform for the temple complex.
A significant site is found 150 feet (46 meters) inside the tunnel. It is a sealed-off gate close to the place where the temple’s most holy place, the Holy of Holies, is believed to have been located. The site of the Western Wall and its tunnel are managed by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation.
The upper part of the Temple Mount where both temples once stood is controlled by the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf foundation, financed by the Kingdom of Jordan. Arabs refer to the place as Haram al-Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary. The complex includes the golden Dome of the Rock, which stands on the supposed spot on Mount Moriah where Abraham prepared to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice. The area controlled by the foundation also includes the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site for Muslims.
The political situation around this area is extremely difficult. Representatives of the Waqf foundation did not wish to speak to our Israeli tour agent because any mention of the biblical fact that Solomon’s temple once stood on what is now a Muslim holy site is taboo among many Muslims.
We realized that it would be nearly impossible to obtain full access to the site for filming. Only God with His intervention could destroy the wall of suspicion. Our crew from the Adventist media center needed to prove our peaceful intentions and political neutrality to all sides.
While the Western Wall Heritage Foundation allowed us to film in the Temple Mount synagogue, we did not even dare hope that we would gain permission to film inside the Dome of the Rock. Non-Muslims are not allowed to enter the buildings of the Dome of the Rock or the Al-Aqsa Mosque. In addition, it is forbidden to even hold a Bible on camera in the tourist plaza between the two buildings.
But we decided to ask for a permit to film in the plaza. I would carry a microphone and make a few brief remarks during a quick walk through the area.
Our slim hopes that this request would be granted vanished rapidly as our Israeli tour agent’s repeated attempts to connect and actually talk with anyone at the Waqf foundation failed.
Suddenly, a new, unfriendly voice on the phone informed our frustrated tour agent that we would have to write a letter to the foundation detailing the goals of our project if we wanted to get the permit. We also would need to submit the names of every participant with copies of their passports to show that none were Israeli citizens.
This condition immediately left us without a vital helper. Vadim, born in Moldova, is not Jewish but has Israeli citizenship because he is married to an Israeli Jew.
We spent many hours in thought and prayer before finalizing the letter explaining who we are and what we hoped to accomplish. In essence, the letter stated that we represented a Russian television and radio center that produces spiritual and educational programs targeting all of Russia, which has both Christian and Muslim populations. The proposed documentaries would cover the stories of the prophets of old.
Seven days passed with no answer. We lost hope and rearranged our shooting schedule.
Suddenly, while filming at the Shepherds’ Fields around Bethlehem, my phone rang. The tour agent excitedly told me to call the Waqf representative, who wished to talk to me personally.
I really needed to be as wise as a serpent and as innocent as a dove.
I prayed and dialed the number.
“Hello, I am from the Russian television and radio center that is seeking permission to film,” I said in English, remembering the negative reaction that the tour agent received for speaking in Hebrew.
The voice at the other end was still not very friendly.
“Do you understand that we are under Israeli occupation here at our holiest site at the Noble Sanctuary?” he said, speaking in English with a strong Arab accent.
God give me wisdom about what should I say now, I prayed.
“Sir,” I said politely with my strong Russian accent. “We are Russians. We are filming a historical documentary about the prophets. We are not interested in politics at all.”
The voice on the other end mellowed.
“OK,” the man said. “Come tomorrow at 9 a.m. You will have three hours before the beginning of our noon prayer. I will see you at our northern entrance.”
I could not believe my ears. The northern entrance was open only to Muslim worshipers! Our crew praised God for the news.
The next morning we passed through the Lion’s Gate of the Old City, turning left toward a police checkpoint. At the garden near the checkpoint, our group was greeted by two Waqf representatives. Both smiled at Vasily Nichik, the speaker and director of Voice of Hope, who wore a national Arabic headscarf that he had purchased the previous day.
“I love Russia and I love Putin,” one of them said. “I will take you on the tour.”
What a tour it was!
Although only Muslims are allowed inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque, nobody asked us any questions. We took off our shoes and followed our guide, who told us about the building, its architecture, and its history. To my great surprise, my request to speak on camera inside the mosque was granted.
But the biggest prize lay ahead. The guide took us through the courtyard toward the Dome of the Rock, where no tourists have been allowed to enter since 1999. The dome of the octagonal rotunda is located directly above a limestone rocky formation that supposedly was the summit of Mount Moriah. According to the Talmudic tradition, the Ark of the Covenant was placed right on that very rock.
Indeed, God helped the filming crew from the Voice of Hope media center obtain unique access to hard-to-reach areas. The material shot there is currently being edited. I pray that the resulting 10 half-hour documentaries featuring the life and teachings of the biblical prophets will bless thousands of Russian-speaking viewers in the former Soviet Union and around the world.
Watch Alexander Bolotnikov and a group of Seventh-day Adventist filmmakers from the Voice of Hope media center in Tula, Russia, visit Temple Mount. In Russian, Hebrew, and English.
Alexander Bolotnikov, PhD, is director of the Shalom Learning Center, North American Division Jewish Ministry, and speaker for the Voice of Hope Media Center.