Topsy-turvy times in the Holy City

Jerusalem in Original Photographs 1850-1920
February 20, 2004

Sean Kingsley excavates the troubled past of Christianity's sacred centre.

Modern Jerusalem is infamous as a religious and political volcano. For Jews, the Temple Mount cradles the foundations of the Solomonic and Herodian temples. For Muslims, the Dome of the Rock is the source of the Rivers of Paradise. Close by rises Christianity's holiest shrine, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, that Claude Conder perceived in 1879 as "a grim and wicked building... No other edifice has been directly the cause of more human misery, or defiled with more blood." Today, Jerusalem may be the closest place on earth to God but it is also a melting pot for hatred.

Conder was well placed for observation as an explorer of the Holy City on behalf of the London-based Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF). This charming institution was founded in 1865 under the patronage of Queen Victoria. Its archive includes a dazzling collection of 8,000 photographs of the entire Near East taken between 1850 and 1920, on which Jerusalem in Original Photographs is based.

The Jerusalem of 1850 was a sleepy Ottoman village, with many customs alien to westerners, and where the traditional locations of biblical sights were fossilised in folklore. Diarist Ada Goodrich-Freer, perplexed at this topsy-turvy world, wrote: "The native entering a sacred place, takes off his shoes and keeps on his hat; you begin to read a book at the end... they put carpets on their walls and pictures on their ceilings."

However, social commentary was not the main stimulus behind PEF representation in the Holy Land. Under western benefaction Jerusalem was expanding fast from 1860, with construction work disturbing the city's ancient secrets. It is within this climate that a few hardy pioneers of history and photography toiled under great hardship to bring the archaeology of Jerusalem to a western consciousness for the first time.

The present book contextualises these antiquarian awakenings with rare imagery. The artefact forgeries that were eventually to lose Moses Shapira his life are pictured in showcases. The Herodian Western temple (wailing) wall and 1st-century AD "Robinson's Arch", which supported a flight of steps leading down from the royal Roman stoa , attracted a knowledgeable lens. In photographs of 1897, intrepid explorers pose by the newly surveyed tombs of Joseph of Arimathea and King David, and at Solomon's quarries, little knowing the controversy that their incorrect identification would cause a century later.

Unlike today's digital revolution, early photography was a complicated art. Invented in 1839, it was standardised only with the introduction of the more efficient wet-plate collodion process in 1851. At that time, photographers travelled with cumbersome equipment, often attracting unwanted attention. Lieutenant Warren of the Royal Engineers and the PEF reported that the local people "objected to our using a dark tent, as they said we were charming the treasure away. They were anxious to stone Corporal Phillips as a magician." Such was the paradox of Jerusalem, a conflict of old and new.

Yet, in many ways, the pioneers of the city's history were far more sensitive to the indigenous populations than modern politicians. In 1917, General Allenby accepted the surrender of Jerusalem by promising: "Since your city is regarded with affection by the adherents of three of the great religions of mankind... I make known to you that every sacred building... will be maintained and protected according to the existing customs and beliefs to whose faiths they are sacred." More exuberant was Flinders Petrie who, in 1919, proposed that the contemporary population and the city's medieval architecture could be removed and preserved as a sanctuary museum for the three faiths.

This book is a thoughtful concoction of detailed archival research and original imagery that bridges academia and popularism. Shimon Gibson is himself a pioneer "veteran" of three decades of archaeological research in modern Jerusalem and writes an emotive conclusion, expressing shame that the Holy City is no longer a melting pot where Jew and Arab rubbed shoulders as equals. Instead, "Today we gaze at the photographs and yearn anew for that precious homogeneity. The harsher reality confronting anyone standing in the gates of Jerusalem today pierces the heart."

Sean Kingsley is managing editor of Minerva , the international review of ancient art and archaeology.

Jerusalem in Original Photographs 1850-1920

Author - Shimon Gibson
Publisher - Stacey International
Pages - 204
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 1 900988 32 1.

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