The BYU Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies

Stone, Glass, and Dreams

History of the Center

From the outset, the story of the Jerusalem Center has been one of audacious dreams. The story begins in 1966 with BYU’s request for First Presidency permission to sponsor a study abroad program in the Holy Land. President David O. McKay approved the university’s request with the condition that BYU’s programs give equal attention to Palestinian/Muslim and Israeli/Jewish narratives—a prophetically inspired condition that is reflected in the Center’s curriculum, activities, and local staffing to this day. The Six-Day War in 1967 delayed the initial program, so the first group of students didn’t arrive until May 1968.[1] Later, in 1972, President Harold B. Lee visited the Holy Land and established a formal Church presence there with the creation of the Jerusalem Branch and Jerusalem District. During his visit, President Lee voiced his hope that at some point a site could be found in Jerusalem where the Church could construct a facility. He envisioned this facility as a physical Church presence in Jerusalem that would also be used to house BYU’s nascent study abroad program. He also expressed his hope to honor Orson Hyde’s epic 1841 journey to the Holy Land.

Several years later, President Lee’s hopes of honoring Orson Hyde were realized when a large plot of land on the Mount of Olives came on the market. It was purchased, landscaped, and donated to the Municipality of Jerusalem by the Orson Hyde Foundation (a Utah LLC) in 1979 as the Orson Hyde Memorial Garden.

While President Spencer W. Kimball was in Jerusalem to dedicate the garden, he also selected a potential site for the facility that President Lee had envisioned. However, the site President Kimball picked was not among those sites that David Galbraith (the in-country BYU study abroad administrator) and Robert Taylor (BYU Continuing Education administrator of BYU’s study abroad programs) had determined were available. President Kimball appointed President Howard W. Hunter and Elder James E. Faust to oversee the Jerusalem Center project. In 1980, this apostolic committee sent Robert Thorne and Arthur Nielsen to Jerusalem to try to obtain the land that President Kimball had selected.

Thorne and Nielsen quickly determined that the title to the land was held by the Israel Lands Authority, which had obtained it when vacant land in East Jerusalem belonging to a Palestinian family trust had been expropriated by the Government of Israel in 1968. Persuading the Government of Israel to lease the land to the Church took more than three years. Finally, in early 1984, the government approved the Church’s request to lease the land and begin building a facility. Two architects were selected: Frank Ferguson of FFKR in Salt Lake City and David Resnik in Jerusalem. Construction began later that same year.

Because of challenges leading up to the signing of the lease in 1987 (which have been well documented elsewhere),[2] the Church agreed that the primary user of the building would be BYU’s study abroad program, and the building became the BYU Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies. Once the student housing on levels two through four was finished, the lease was signed and students were immediately moved from Ramat Rachel (one of several places in Jerusalem where BYU students had been housed since 1968) into the Center in 1987. Work continued on the building, and although it was not completely finished, in 1989 it was dedicated by President Hunter in a private ceremony. The Jerusalem Center was finally completed in 1992.

Renovations and Student Opportunities

Except for the stunning glass-cube auditorium on the eighth level, the interior of the building—top to bottom—has been renovated and updated over a period of years, starting in 2008 with the food preparation areas and the Oasis. The Center’s newly designed library and faculty offices on the eighth level will open in early 2023. When they do, the only original 1989 interior spaces that have not been renovated will be the two bomb shelters and the laundry. Renovation of these spaces will start this summer.

One of the most noticeable changes in the building is that its austere white ceilings have been mostly replaced with warm wood-lattice ceilings, giving the interior public spaces a warmer look and feel. The original stone arches, walls, and floors, as well as the large glass windows that make the Center a building of light and provide unmatched views of the Old City, have all remained. Substantial but less noticeable renovations have also been made to the exterior, with new energy-efficient exterior glass doors and windows. For the lattices at the roof level that provide dappled shade, the pergolas on all of the apartment patios, and the exterior curtain wall of the gallery on the eighth level, teak has been replaced with extruded aluminum. And unseen to the public, all electrical, mechanical, HVAC, communications, security, and plumbing systems have been replaced or updated as well. Except for the basic limestone-clad structure, the Jerusalem Center faces the future as, essentially, a new facility.

Important changes have also occurred in the size and number of the Center’s student programs as well as its curriculum. In the early 1990s, the Center enrolled between 160 and 170 students in each of two semester-length and three term-length programs each year. While this made opportunities to study at the Center more widely available, the intense use of the building was unsustainable, as were the demands on the faculty. When the Center reopened to students at the end of the Second Intifada in 2007, President Gordon B. Hinckley limited the number of students to two bus groups, and applicants were limited to full-time undergraduates at BYU, BYU-I and BYU-H. (Previously, a full-time student at any university could apply, and roughly half of the Center’s students each year were from non-Church-sponsored colleges or universities.) The curricular compromises necessary for term-length programs seemed unwise as well. As a result of these changes, the Center now enrolls between 92 and 100 students (two bus groups) in each of three semester-length programs each year (fall, winter, and spring/summer).

Each student enrolled at the Center takes an Old Testament class; a New Testament class; an Ancient Near Eastern History class; a field trip class; a class focusing on the Jewish/Israeli Modern Near East narrative; a class focusing on the Islamic/Palestinian Modern Near East narrative; and an introductory class in either Hebrew or Arabic. In addition to visiting a variety of sites from Tel Dan to Eilat, students travel to Jordan each semester. Depending upon the semester, they also travel to Greece, Turkey, or Egypt. Students study in the Galilee, staying at the Ein Gev Kibbutz for eleven days, which is fewer days than prior to the 2001 closure of the Center’s student programs. This adjustment was made to accommodate the second trip out of Israel—essentially, extra days in the Galilee have been traded for a week in Greece, Turkey, or Egypt. The Center’s curricular and cocurricular programs are focused and intense, and they require a student’s best efforts and full engagement. Still, particularly in the last half of each semester, students have ample opportunity to explore Jerusalem.

With the reopening of the Center’s student programs following the Second Intifada, we turned to local non-LDS (rather than expatriate LDS) administrators. Eran Hayet (an Israeli) is the Center’s Executive Director; Tawfic Alawi (a Palestinian) is the Associate Director for Administration and Services; and the Associate Director for Academics and Students is a rotating expatriate from BYU, currently Eric Huntsman. In addition to the seven faculty members (four locals and three expats), there are three Latter-day Saint service couples at the Center. One couple provides medical support and manages the Center’s housing and food services; a second couple manages the Center’s hosting program and helps with the Center’s concerts and art exhibits; and a third couple helps with hosting and manages the Center’s humanitarian outreach activities. (A fourth service couple has been added when requested by the Church to meet ecclesiastical needs.)

Visitors and Events at the Center

The Center welcomes visitors for tours Wednesday through Friday of most weeks. Upon arrival, visitors view a video which introduces them to the Church, BYU, and the Center. Exploring via this video areas of the building that aren’t included in the tour. The video also introduces visitors to the students who typically are either not in areas of the building visitor see or are out of the Center on field trips or exploring Jerusalem during the hours visitors are in the building. They then enjoy the spectacular view of the Old City while seated in the upper auditorium listening to a short organ performance; tour the public parts of the Center on the seventh and eighth levels; enjoy the views of the Mount of Olives, the Old City, parts of West Jerusalem, and a vista that extends to Bethlehem on the south horizon from the Center’s seventh-level plaza, where there are models of Jerusalem at various points in its history; and finally walk through the Center’s gardens as they return to the main entrance on the eighth level.

Visitors are also welcomed at the Center on most Sunday evenings and on one Thursday evening each month for musical performances in what has become one of the Holy Land’s best concert series, with classical music on Sundays and jazz, folk, and lighter fare on Thursdays. While on tours or waiting for performances to begin, visitors enjoy rotating art exhibits that feature art by Israeli and Palestinian artists displayed in a combination gallery, reception, and special-events room on the 8th level.

The Jerusalem Branch meets at the Center, and conferences of the Jerusalem District are also held in the facility. The Center also hosts shorter student programs, conferences, workshops, and meetings. Students in BYU’s Arabic Immersion Program visit the Center for two weeks at the end of their program in Amman every fall semester. Additionally, the Center hosts BYU students participating in an archaeology dig in the Galilee and J. Reuben Clark law students studying conflict resolution. It’s expected that the Center will host additional short programs for students where their academic studies are substantially enriched by being in the Holy Land.

The Center has also hosted a variety of celebratory events. On the 175th Anniversary of Orson Hyde’s visit to Jerusalem, senior Church officers and a prominent group of American Jews held a three-day celebration. The Center has hosted a conference for a several-day Jewish–LDS scholarly dialogue, as well as receptions and concerts, variously celebrating Israeli guests of the governor of Utah and donors to the Marriott School of Business. A number of East Jerusalem civic and school groups have held activities at the Center, including Jerusalem Academy of Music student recitals and choirs, high school graduations, municipal teacher training workshops, and gatherings of the Board of Overseers of Hebrew University.

In December, the Center displays a large lighted Christmas tree on the seventh-level plaza. Neighbors and invited friends join Center faculty, staff, and fall program students for a lighting ceremony with fireworks and desserts. The lighted tree, as well as the Christmas lights highlighting the Center’s architecture, can be seen throughout Jerusalem, bringing light to a dark corner of the city.

It is our hope that as the Center has hosted a variety of programs and visitors, provided a venue for local musicians and artists, engaged in humanitarian outreach in the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel, and facilitated conversations that lead to better understanding between Latter-day Saints and Jews and Latter-day Saints and Muslims, it has become an important Jerusalem institution rather than just a foreign enclave on Mount Scopus.

Archaeological Discoveries and Displays

Despite being a pilgrimage site for more than 2000 years and an active archaeological site for at least the last 150, Jerusalem has seen major discoveries in the past 30 years that have deepened understanding of the history of the City of David and of Jerusalem at the time of Christ.

Of particular note are the discoveries in the City of David/Silwan area and in the area to the north of the Western Wall. In the City of David area to the south of the Old City, excavations have uncovered part of the Siloam Pool from the time of Christ. They have also discovered an ancient road and drainage system extending underneath the current road from the Siloam Pool to the Temple Mount. After a subterranean climb up the steep valley between the ancient City of David to the east and the Upper City ruins from the time of Christ to the west, the 2000-year-old road surfaces at a large ancient palace complex that was uncovered beneath a parking lot across the street from Dung Gate.[3] To the north of the Western Wall, the Kotel Tunnel has been excavated, and it is now possible to walk beneath the Muslim Quarter of the city along the Herodian foundation of the Temple Mount to its northwest corner. More recent excavations near the Kotel Tunnel have uncovered structures with elaborate fountains and very large mikvah beneath the arches that once supported the approach to Herod’s Temple from the Upper City at the time of Christ. Now, these same arches support the markets and houses of the Old City to the immediate west of the Haram al-Sharif.

For many years, the Israel Antiquities Authority warehoused a huge collection of mosaics gathered from throughout the country, including items from the above excavation sites, either at the Rockefeller Museum or in storage facilities to the west of Jerusalem. However, about twenty years ago, a decision was made to display the best of these mosaics in public buildings. The Center was selected as one such location, and it now displays mosaics from Be’er Sheva and the Mamilla area just outside of Jaffa Gate in three areas on the eighth and seventh levels.

The Israel Antiquities Authority has also opened a spectacular collection of mosaics at the Inn of the Good Samaritan on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the Palestinian side, an equally spectacular, and huge, mosaic floor is on display at Hisham’s Palace in Jericho. Excavations at Herodian uncovered Herod the Great’s tomb; the fragments are now in the Israel Museum.

Matt Grey, BYU professor of ancient scripture, is part of a team digging at ancient Huqoq in the Galilee. This team has uncovered a wonderful mosaic floor in a 1600-year-old synagogue that, while not yet on public display, has caught the attention and support of the National Geographic with its mix of Old Testament stories and pagan themes in tesserae. Jeff Chadwick, Jerusalem Center Professor of Archaeology and Near Eastern Studies and BYU Professor of Religion, is part of a team digging at ancient Gath. His team has uncovered substantial ruins that can be linked to the Old Testament stories of David (Goliath was from Gath).

In short, in and around Jerusalem there is more to see of religious, historical and cultural interest than there was even twenty years ago. This poses an interesting challenge for the Center’s field trip program: what should be jettisoned if something new is added? In response, we periodically evaluate the relative merits of sites throughout the Holy Land, allowing the Center’s field trip program to change over time.

Alumni Organization

Three years ago, the Jerusalem Center Provo Office was approached by a small group of Jerusalem Center alumni about creating an alumni association. With April Cobb (a former Jerusalem Center student and a BYU graduate) taking the lead, the association was chartered as “Jerusalem Center Alumni” under the umbrella of the BYU Alumni Association. It has been very active, developing a remarkable website that, among other things, serves as a repository for recorded stories, memories, and photos. Jerusalem Center Alumni sponsored a well-attended conference in Provo last May, has had fireside speakers via Zoom so that they’re available to a wide group of former students, and has assisted with the orientation for new JC students held in Provo the day before they leave for the Holy Land. In September 2022, the Center hosted a group of about forty alumni and spouses for a two-week visit to Jerusalem and the Galilee. Current plans are to host Jerusalem Center alumni and spouses at the Center for a couple of weeks in May and October each year. Since these plans were announced, Jerusalem Center Alumni has garnered a long waiting list of potential participants. Membership in the association is open to all individuals who were students, faculty, expat administrators, or service couples from 1968 through the present, as well as others with an interest in connecting with the Jerusalem Center.


It has been my privilege to have been associated with the Jerusalem Center and its programs since 1989 and to have watched as the hopes and dreams of many have been realized. In the nearly thirty-four years that I’ve had administrative oversight responsibilities, I’ve been to the Center many times—averaging about three visits a year until the COVID-19 pandemic caused the Center to close temporarily in 2020.[4] And, joyously, last August I was able to visit the Center for the first time since 2019 with my two eldest grandchildren. Through the fresh eyes of these 17-year olds, I was able to see the Center, Jerusalem, and the dream of what is yet to come.

Each time I go, I’m as excited to see the Old City framed by the windows of the Center as I was on my first visit. At least once during each visit, I take my favorite walk: down and then back up the steps that descend along the inside of the outer west wall of the Center compound, with the rough chipped limestone of the wall on one side and the dressed limestone of the building softened by foliage and evening light on the other side. I enjoy the shadowy outline of the Ottoman walls and Dome of the Rock shrine of the Old City rising on the hill across the Kidron Valley, listening to the sounds, smelling the cooking, and feeling the breeze that sweeps across the Old City and its northern neighborhoods each evening. It never gets old.


[1] Since the Six-Day War, the Center’s student programs have been suspended four times because of three wars and a pandemic. The Center itself has remained open, however, with at least some of its nonstudent activities continuing uninterrupted since its dedication in 1989.

[2] See BYU Studies Quarterly 59, no. 4 (October 2020). Several of the articles in this volume discuss this history, such as David M. Whitchurch, “The Restored Church of Jesus Christ and the Holy Land: Beginnings,” 15–36; Amber Taylor, “Outside Perspectives,” 37–48; David B. Galbraith, “The Lead-up to the Dedication of the Jerusalem Center,” 49–60; Jeffrey R. Holland, “If I Forget Thee, O Jerusalem,” 83–96; and James R. Kearl, “The Jerusalem Center at Thirty,” 137–160.

[3] In Under Jerusalem: The Buried History of the World’s Most Contested City (Doubleday, 2021), Andrew Lawler details archaeological digs in Jerusalem over the past 150 years, virtually all of which have been done underneath the houses and streets where residents and tourists live and walk around today. As the title of Lawler’s book suggests, archaeology in (or rather under) Jerusalem is highly politicized.

[4] The Center’s student programs were resumed last May, and its hosting and concerts programs were resumed last September. We anticipate reopening the art gallery later this spring. Tourism, particularly by tour companies that cater to Latter-day Saint interest, is booming and we’re hosting large groups of members of the Church almost every Saturday during the tourist season.