Israeli history photo of the week: Early Russian pilgrims

JPost special feature: A Library of Congress collection of photographs that document Israel before the creation of the state.

December 1, 2011 12:35
1 minute read.

Russian Pilgrams on Jordan River 311. (photo credit: American Colony-Jerusalem-Photo Dept)


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The Library of Congress has recently digitalized a collection of over 10,000 photographs, taken by the "American Colony" in Jerusalem, a group of Christian utopians who lived in Jerusalem between 1881 and the 1940s. The photographers returned to the US, and bequeathed their massive collection to the Library of Congress in 1978. The collection includes Winston Churchill's visit to Jerusalem, Jewish expulsions from the Old City during Arab riots, and the building of Tel Aviv.

It’s a fact that one of the causes of the Crimean War was a dispute over who controlled the Christian holy sites in the Holy Land. The primary combatants were the Russian Empire versus an alliance of the French, Ottoman and British Empires.

In 1851 Napoleon III sent an ambassador to the Ottoman court to convince the Turks to recognize France as the sovereign authority over the holy sites in Palestine, effectively meaning Roman Catholic control over the sites. After Russia protested, the Ottomans reversed the agreement with the French and proclaimed that Russia was the protector of Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire (not too much to the liking of the Greek Orthodox).

France responded with “gunboat diplomacy.” The Turkish Sultan reversed his ruling again, giving authority over Christian sites to France and the Roman Catholic Church.

The dispute over the holy sites was part of the general balagan as the Ottoman Empire disintegrated, leading to widespread warfare, predominately in the Crimean Peninsula along the northern coast of the Black Sea.

After the war, Russian Czar Alexander II sent agents to purchase properties in Jerusalem and Nazareth. The Russian Palestine Society was established in 1860 to encourage and subsidize pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Russian churches, hostels and even hospitals were built to accommodate thousands of pilgrims. The large “Russian Compound” was established in Jerusalem. 

More photos can be viewed at

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