The heart of the world: The star of Jerusalem 3D talks about her hometown and seeing herself on the Giant Screen for the first time

Farah Ammouri and her brother Mohammed after viewing Jerusalem 3D in our Giant Screen Theatre for the first time.

If you haven’t yet heard the mountains of praise for the wildly stunning Jerusalem 3D movie, climb out from under your rock right now. This epic film from National Geographic Entertainment whisks and winds you through one of the world’s most important cities with arguably one of the most storied pasts of all time.

But in a city as multifaceted and layered as Jerusalem, how do you do justice to its many tales without focusing on its politics?

Well, you hear it from the perspectives of those who live it every day.

The production team of Taran Davies, George Duffield, and Daniel Ferguson said in a press release, “Our goal is to look at the roots of the universal attachment to Jerusalem: Jewish, Christian and Muslim. We hope the juxtaposition of these different religions and cultures — all with profound spiritual and historical connections to the city — will reveal how much Jews, Christians and Muslims have in common and inspire all of us to better understand each other.”

So the team asked three girls — a Christian, a Jew, and a Muslim — to lead them around their city for a day. Each girl revealed surprisingly different perspectives — perspectives that form the backbone of Jerusalem 3D‘s magic.

Farah Ammouri, an 18-year-old Muslim, was one of these young women. She spent her entire life in Jerusalem, and she currently attends college in Dallas. We sat down to talk with Ammouri after she traveled to Houston for her very first viewing — ever! — of Jerusalem 3D.

So this was the first time you’d seen the full movie. What did you think?

It was awesome. I loved it. Most of my own footage I’d seen — they’d shown me the clips of what was happening and how they were filming — so I was up-to-date on how it was going to be. But I didn’t see [any of the other girls'] footage; [Director Daniel Ferguson] only showed me mine.

How did you end up in the movie anyway?

First of all, I’m not an actress, obviously. [laughs] I went to a Catholic school, and our nun asked for girls whose families originate from Jerusalem to be interviewed for a movie. A lot of my good friends were auditioning for the movie. It was awkward for awhile, being selected out of a lot of girls that you know. I auditioned in October and I found out in January of the next year. It was a shock; I didn’t know what to expect. [Ferguson] told me about the movie; that it was going to be about religion but nothing political, and I was fascinated by the idea.

You didn’t want to be a part of it because you have acting aspirations?

Nooooo. [giggles] The girls who casted for the movie … we’re all going into something scientific. I have no aspirations to become an actress.

Did you know either of the other girls [Nadia Tadros, from a Greek Orthodox and Catholic family, and Revital Zacharie, a Jew] before the movie?

I knew the Christian girl [Nadia Tadros]. She’s really good friends with me; she used to go to my school and graduated two years before me. I didn’t know she was a Christian girl, and once I knew, we started talking to each other even more. She helped me a lot [throughout the filming of the movie]; we would give each other mental support and encourage each other.

Has your life changed at all as a result of the film?

It has given me experience. I’ve met a lot of new people, and I’ve learned a lot. My personality has gotten stronger from the movie. Imagine seeing yourself walking down the stairs [referring to a scene in Jerusalem 3D], and everyone looking at you and they are trying to tell them not to look at you. When they don’t look at the camera, they’ll be looking at me, and they tell them, “Don’t look at the girl; act normal.” It’s funny.

How do you view your relationship with Jerusalem now that you’re in the United States?

I’m a bit homesick. I do want to go back to live. I came here to study Genetic Engineering and it’s really hard to study that in Jerusalem. After that, I really want to go back home to my family.

Explore the cherished land of Jerusalem in our Giant Screen Theatre. Get your tickets to Jerusalem 3D.

The Siege of Masada: Piecing Together the Puzzle

Our guest blogger today, Jodi Magness, Ph.D., holds a senior endowed chair in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A noted archaeologist, she has spent a lot of time working at Masada, the location of a famous siege during the First Jewish-Roman War. In conjunction with our current special exhibition, The BIrth of Christianity: A Jewish Story, she will explore the significance of this event in a lecture at HMNS on March 9: Masada: Last Stronghold of the Jewish Resistance Against Rome.

Masada and Dead Sea
Creative Commons License photo credit: heatkernel

The ancient Jewish historian Flavius Josephus ended his monumental, multi-volume account of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome (the Jewish War) with the story of a mass suicide at Masada.  According to Josephus, some 960 Jewish rebels holding out on top of Masada – the last stronghold to remain in Jewish hands after Jerusalem’s destruction in 70 C.E. – chose to commit suicide rather than surrender to the Roman troops besieging the fortress.  It is because of Josephus’ story of the suicide, which includes a speech allegedly given by the rebel leader Eleazar ben Yair, that Masada became a symbol of Jewish resistance and the modern state of Israel.

However, Yigael Yadin’s 1963-65 excavations atop Masada failed to turn up conclusive evidence of the mass suicide.  In fact, the archaeological evidence from Masada can be interpreted either as proving or disproving the mass suicide story, depending on how one evaluates Josephus’ reliability as an historian.  For example, a group of inscribed potsherds (ostraca) found at Masada, including one bearing the name “ben Yair,” might be the lots drawn by the rebels prior to committing suicide or could simply be food ration tickets.  Most likely, some rebels committed suicide while others were killed or surrendered to the Romans and were taken captive.

Roman encampment_1465
Creative Commons License photo credit: hoyasmeg

However, archaeology sheds valuable light on other aspects of the Roman siege of Masada, which was conducted in the winter-spring of 72/73 or 73/74 C.E. and probably lasted no longer than 2-3 months.  The Roman siege works, including eight camps that housed approximately 8000 troops and a circumvallation (siege) wall, still are clearly visible encircling the base of the mountain.  In June-July 1995, I was privileged to co-direct excavations in the Roman siege works at Masada, together with Professor Gideon Foerster (Hebrew University of Jerusalem), Dr. Haim Goldfus (Ben-Gurion University of the Negev), and Mr. Benny Arubas (Hebrew University of Jerusalem).

We focused much of our attention on Camp F, which is located on the northwest side of the mountain and housed about half of the Tenth Legion (with the other half in Camp B at the eastern foot of Masada).  Our excavations brought to light low stone walls over which the Roman troops pitched leather tents.  The floors of the tent units were covered with broken potsherds; altogether we recovered 240 kilograms (about 530 pounds) of pottery.  The overwhelming majority of the pottery belongs to local types of storage jars, a finding that sheds light on the provisioning of the Roman troops during the siege. 

Because Masada is in the desert, supplies (mainly food and water) were likely brought in skins, bags, and woven baskets from other parts of the country, transported overland on pack animals or on small boats across the Dead Sea.  Upon reaching the camps at Masada, the supplies were emptied into large ceramic jars for storage.  The jars protected the contents from dampness, insects, and vermin. Most of the soldiers probably prepared and consumed their food using utensils in their individual mess-kits.  However, the commander seems to have dined in style, judging from delicately painted bowls with eggshell thin walls found in his tent unit, which were imported from nearby Nabataea (southeast of the Dead Sea).

For me, archaeology is not a means of validating (or negating) personal faith and beliefs.  Instead it is a means of recovering and understanding the past, often one potsherd at a time, as in the case of Masada.  These potsherds are pieces of a puzzle which enable us to reconstruct part of a picture that was otherwise lost.

For more information on Masada and the Jewish resistance, hear Jodi’s lecture at HMNS on March 9th. For more information on our distinguished lecture series, click here.

Can’t get enough Judeo-Christian history?
Attend one of our upcoming lectures
Check out this video with the curator.
Go behind-the-scenes to discover how the exhibit was built.

Genghis Khan & The Battle of Ain Jalut

Reading history never gets boring. Why make it up if one can read up on the real stuff? (There are exceptions to this, but in general I would argue that this is true).

Consider the battle of Ain Jalut.

The year is 1260AD. The place is in modern Israel. The combatants were the Mamluks and the Mongols. On the sidelines: the Crusaders and the eyes of Europe. Firsts: this was the first decisive defeat of the Mongols and it was one of the first battles in which firearms were used (yes, firearms in 1260 AD).

Mongolian warriors were known for their skill
with the bow & arrow – such as the one pictured
here. See it on display in the world premiere
exhibition Genghis Khan, opening Feb. 27 at HMNS.

In 1260, thirty-three years after the death of Genghis Khan, a mighty army was poised to strike into Egypt. Led by Hülegü Khan, one of Genghis Khan’s grandsons, this army had swept into Iran, Iraq and Syria laying waste to cities like Baghdad, Aleppo and Damascus.  Their goal was to expand the Mongol empire as far as they could. Upon the capture of these famous cities, envoys were sent to the court of the Mamluk leader Qutuz in Cairo.

The envoys brought with them a demand for unconditional surrender. Qutuz was urged to “Hasten your reply before the fire of war is kindled… Resist and you will suffer the most terrible catastrophes. We will shatter your mosques and reveal the weakness of your God and then we will kill your children and your old men together.”

Qutuz refused to yield. He ordered the Mongol envoys to be beheaded and went on to prepare for war. He faced a Mongol army of more than 300,000 extremely mobile and battle-hardened soldiers. Then the unexpected happened. Word reached the Mongol army that the Great Khan, Möngke, son of Genghis Khan, had died. According to tradition, all princes had to return to elect a successor. The bulk of the Mongol army withdrew, leaving a much more modest force of 20,000 behind to tackle Egypt. The odds had improved tremendously for Qutuz and his cause. Because of this changing situation, he decided to go on the offensive.

A Mongolian siege, depicted in a mural that will
be on display in the world premiere exhibition
Genghis Khan, opening Feb. 27 at HMNS.

On July 26, 1260, the Mamluk army marched northeast. The Mongol leader took his army to meet them. The armies met at a place called Ain Jalut (“the Spring of Goliath”), in the Plain of Esdraelon. This plain was bordered on the south by Mount Gilboa and on the north by the hills of Galilee. Ideal ambush country, it turned out. Qutuz ordered the bulk of his troops to hide in the hills, while the rest of his army moved toward the Mongols.

The Mamluk general in charge of the troops who had engaged the Mongols ordered a retreat at one point. Whether this was a genuine order, caused by the ferocity of the Mongol attack, or a strategic feint, is still up for debateit seems. However, the end result was that this withdrawal drew the Mongols into the area where the bulk of the Mamluk army lay in wait. The Mamluk heavy cavalry rode down from the hills and attacked the Mongol flanks. The retreating Mamluk army stopped and turned around as well. The battle was on.

At first the Mongols proved superior and started to envelop the Mamluk left flank. Qutuz rallied his troops and fate intervened again. The Mongol general was captured, causing the Mongols to experience their first defeat. They abandoned the battlefield, pursued by the Mamluks. Damascus and Aleppo were re-taken by Muslim forces.

Victor Lawson 'Crusader' (1850-1925)
Creative Commons License photo credit: puroticorico

This battle is important and interesting for many reasons. In some cases, one has to wonder “what if” the outcome had been different. The Mongol tide has reached its zenith. In the following years, Mongol attempts to avenge this defeat were rebuffed. Mamluk Egypt remained a force to be reckoned with in the Muslim world for another 200 years. Crusader forces played a minor role in these hostilities. They were very small, certainly in comparison with the overwhelming might of the Mongol army. Most of them were holed up in fortified positions, like the city of Acre. Realpolitikeventually caused the Crusaders to abandon a policy of neutrality and allow the Mamluk army on the march to come through their territory, camp and acquire provisions. Seeing a huge Muslim army camped outside the walls of their cities must have caused many a Crusader heartburn, to say the least.

The battle may also be one of the earliest in which firearms were said to have been used. These handheld devices were extremely primitive, but may have served a purpose of frightening the Mongolian cavalry with loud noises and smoke.

Unfortunately for Qutuz, all was not well in the end. Before he could return to Cairo for his triumphant entry, he was murdered by a close ally, who took over the reigns of his dominion. Without Qutuz’s decisive actions, however, the world would have looked very different today.

Learn more about Genghis Khan and the mighty Mongolian civilization he built in the world premiere exhibition Genghis Khan, opening Feb. 27 at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Looking Back…Christmas Edition

In the past when I have written these “Looking Back“ posts, they have always been science-oriented. However, not much science has apparently happened in recorded history on this day, perhaps because so many people take this day off to spend it with their family and loved ones. So I thought I would share a few historical events that occurred on Christmas Day that spread the message of hope and peace (and one science event because I really just can’t resist.)

World Wide Web
Creative Commons License photo credit: Bull3t

On Christmas Day of 1990 (you get your science fact first today) developers executed the first successful trial run of the system that would later become the World Wide Web, including an early web browser, the first web server, and the first web pages, which described the project. The web went public on August 6, 1991 – less than a year later. Less than 20 years later, we have billions of websites on every topic imaginable, and most youths can’t imagine their lives without the internet superhighway.

And now for the history…

On Christmas Day, 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as the President of the Soviet Union. The very next day Ukraine left the Soviet Union, and the Union “collapsed.” This ended the Cold War that had existed between the US and the Soviet Union since the mid 1940s.

On Christmas Day, 1977, Prime Minister of Israel Menachem Begin met with Anwar Sadat, the President of Egypt, to discuss a peace treaty between their two countries. The two neighboring states had been fighting on and off since the formation of Israel in 1948. On March 26, 1979 the two countries announced a peace treaty that still exists today. The two leaders also received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Ninetta mia crepare di maggio ci vuole tanto troppo coraggio
Creative Commons License photo credit: khyes

On Christmas Day, 1914, German and British troops on the Western Front of World War I called a temporary cease-fire. Against the orders of their superiors, all artillery fire stopped along the line. The truce had started in some places the night before, as German troops began decorating their trenches and singing Christmas carols in German. The Scottish troops across the battlefield responded by singing carols in English. Soon, troops began to leave the trenches and to socialize in the area between the two sides, exchanging drinks and cigars. In one area, the troops met outside the trenches and began a game of soccer (it is rumored the Germans won 3-2.) In some places along the lines the fighting resumed the next day, but in others the truce lasted until after the New Year. Although the war saw three more Christmases, no widespread cease-fires were ever called again.

Happy holidays!