Facing up to the past

"Faces of the Middle East" at the Ecole biblique et archéologique française de Jérusalem features previously unseen 20th-century portraits.

Faces of the ME 521 (photo credit: Courtesy EBAF)
Faces of the ME 521
(photo credit: Courtesy EBAF)
Many Jewish Jerusalemites don’t venture very far eastwards past the municipality building in Safra Square, and if they do, it is generally en route to areas such as Mount Scopus or possibly out of the city towards the Dead Sea. That is a shame for several reasons, one being that tucked away down Nablus Road is a haven of serenity that dates back to 1890 in the form of St. Stephen’s Convent and the grandly named Ecole biblique et archéologique française de Jérusalem (French Biblical and Archeological School), a.k.a. EBAF.
Part of the EBAF’s purview is to engage in archeological excavations and research. This domain is overseen by Père Jean-Baptiste Humbert, a 60-something archeologist who has been running various digs in Gaza, researching the finds and passing on some of his knowledge to students at the EBAF for 43 years.
But Humbert has another love – photography – and he is only too happy to talk about the items in the exhibition of monochrome portrait photography now on display in the “Faces of the Middle East” show at the Romain Gary French Cultural Centre near Safra Square.
The images were taken in the early 20th century, and most were captured by Raphael Savignac. “He came here [to the EBAF] right at the beginning, in 1890, and he loved photography and was very good at it,” says Humbert. “He was always looking for something interesting or exciting to shoot. He was an artist.”
Savignac’s official area of photographic enterprise was strictly defined, although it was of great importance.
“He took pictures of all sorts of archeological finds, such as capitals and columns and the like,” Humbert explains. “He and [fellow EBAF member] Antonin Jaussen went all over the Middle East taking pictures of archeological finds but also landscapes.
Jaussen was not a good photographer, but Savignac was.”
The latter also developed a great interest in documenting people from the various ethnic groups who lived in the region at the time. As “Faces of the Middle East” demonstrates, he accumulated some delightful portraits.
“He got bored with just taking pictures of archeology and landscapes,” says Humbert, “so from time to time he would take pictures of people he saw along the way.”
The exhibition includes images of Christians, Beduin and Muslims – men and women who exude a sense of unaffected grandeur, alongside others who appear not to be photography savvy. Hardly surprising, considering that most had probably never look into a camera lens before.
Humbert says he had fun helping to prepare the exhibition. “There are pictures of people in a landscape setting, but we decided to extract the human being from the collage,” he explains. “It was a fascinating project for me to try to gather all the faces and try to create something like a human landscape.”
The pictures in the exhibition have never been shown to the general public before and represent a tiny morsel of the slides and photographs stored in the EBAF’s photographic archives. The idea for the exhibition was spawned in 2003, when EBAF teacher Frère Jean-Michel de Tarragon decided it was time the contents of the archives were digitized. Over the previous century the archives had accumulated an enormous pictorial treasure that today encompasses more than 20,000 glass negatives, in addition to prints. The works at the French Cultural Centre are the result of a delicate – and costly – scanning and printing process carried out in Paris, with the support of Crédit Agricole.
In fact, Humbert was eager to show off the portraits to the French public, but there were logistical and mind-set problems that proved to be insurmountable.
It seems that Humbert’s cropping job was a cut too far. “I approached some galleries in Paris, but they all said that they never exhibit photographs that have been cut,” he says.
Still, Paris’s loss is Jerusalem’s gain.
A keen photographer himself, Humbert says he had great fun trawling the thousands of glass sides in the EBAF archives. He also followed in Savignac’s and Jaussen’s footsteps and came across some fascinating discoveries en route.
“When the Ecole biblique opened in Cairo, they went there and took a lot of photographs there and all over the Middle East,” continues Humbert, adding that not everyone was keen to embrace the past.
“I was in Cairo, at the Ecole, and I found in an envelope some photographs of a pilgrimage to Mecca from 1908. We scanned the photographs, and I decided to offer them to Saudi Arabia. I thought it would be a good idea to suggest an exhibition there in 2008, exactly 100 years after the photographs were taken. They delayed and delayed and finally showed the photographs last year, after the centenary. I later realized that if you look at Saudi Arabia today, with all its gold and big cars and riches, maybe they are not so proud of how things were back then, when they were poor.”
Mind you, there were others who were just as enthused as Humbert to have their past put on monochrome display. “I found a lot of pictures from that time in Turkey, and the Turks were very happy to have them,” he says.
As an archeologist, Humbert is aware of the documentary value of the portraits. He and his colleagues can learn a lot about a particular period in history, for instance, from coins unearthed in digs. Numismatic finds provide valuable data about such common trends such as hairstyles, the jewelry in vogue at the time and the clothing. The same elements come across in many of the “Faces of the Middle East” exhibits. “It is fascinating because so much has changed here since the photographs were taken; but, in a way, there are many things that are unchanged,” Humbert observes.
One of the more attractive images in the exhibition is a photo of a woman with impressive, almost aristocratic, bearing. “Jaussen was also an anthropologist, and in the mid-1920s he and Savignac went to Nablus so that Jaussen could take a look at the people there,” explains Humbert. “The photo of the woman was taken there. It is interesting to see her dress and her jewelry. I am not sure most Israelis are interested in such photographs. Maybe they are more interested in the Jewish history, but I am fascinated by them.” •
The “Faces of the Middle East” exhibition at the Romain Gary French Cultural Centre closes on October 19. For more information: 624-3156, ext. 2 or www.ccfgary- jerusalem.org