Books: A moment when history stopped

Photos from the Palestine Exploration Fund in the 19th and 20th centuries reveal a veritable wasteland.

View of the Samaritan Place of Sacrifice on Mount Gerizim shortly before Passover 1866 – with Samaritan high priest Amran (right) and Yakub esh- Shellaby, head of the Samaritan community (photo credit: H. PHILLIPS)
View of the Samaritan Place of Sacrifice on Mount Gerizim shortly before Passover 1866 – with Samaritan high priest Amran (right) and Yakub esh- Shellaby, head of the Samaritan community
(photo credit: H. PHILLIPS)
The Palestine Exploration Fund is the world’s oldest society for the study of the Holy Land. Its archives in London give rare and rich insights into the Land of Israel in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and into the collision of historical forces from which the State of Israel arose. For Distant Views of the Holy Land, Felicity Cobbing and David M. Jacobson selected more than 350 photographs, maps and watercolors from the PEF’s collections – from Solomon’s Pools, J.M.W. Turner’s romantic drawing of 1836, to crisp photographs of the excavation of the ancient city of Samaria (Sebastia) by Crowfoot, Kenyon and Sukenik in 1942.
The PEF was founded in 1865 by prominent figures in imperial Britain. Its founders included Dean Arthur Stanley, Queen Victoria’s personal chaplain; George Grove, the engineer and Hebraist who founded Grove’s Musical Dictionary; and Richard Owen, the evolutionary theorist who founded London’s Natural History Museum.
A horde of churchmen signed up, and so did prominent Anglo-Jewish subscribers, such as Sir Moses Montefiore and Baron Lionel de Rothschild.
It was in the 1860s that Victorian certainties suddenly became uncertain. The controversies over Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) and Ernest Renan’s Life of Jesus (1863) rumbled onwards, rattling Christian confidence in the Bible. French engineers and Egyptian peasants were digging the Suez Canal, and forcing British strategists to consider the security of the sea route to India. As the backward vilayets of Palestine gained in strategic significance, their proprietor, the Ottoman Empire, weakened.
And modern Zionism was beginning to stir: almost unnoticed, Moses Hess’s Rome and Jerusalem appeared in 1862.
“We are not to be a religious society; we are not about to launch into any controversy,” the PEF’s chairman announced at the inaugural meeting. “We are about to apply the rules of science... to an investigation of the Holy Land.” But religion and controversy were unavoidable. The chairman was the Archbishop of York, and Palestine was the Holy Land. And the political value of the PEF’s work soon became apparent.
The first objective was to map the territory and photograph its biblical traces. When George Grove suggested a friend from the Royal Engineers, Captain Charles Wilson, the PEF began a long relationship with the British government. By hiring officers from the Engineers, the PEF obtained top-quality maps, photographs, and, from Lieutenant Claude Conder in the 1870s, and skillfully executed watercolors, too. Loaned to the PEF, the engineers received field training in a politically sensitive region in a foreign empire, and Britain’s army obtained copies of military-quality maps. Some of the most famous, and eccentric, heroes of the British Empire worked for the PEF: Gordon of Khartoum, Lord Kitchener, Lawrence of Arabia, and Sir Charles Warren, the pioneering explorer of the tunnels beneath the Temple Mount and, less successfully, the leader of the Jack the Ripper investigation.
The PEF’s early surveys culminated in the “Great Map” of 1880, the Survey of Western Palestine, which became invaluable to the British Mandate and the early Israeli state; the survey’s northern boundary became the Israel-Lebanon border.
The PEF’s photographs confirm the reportage of Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad (1869): a “desolate country... a silent mournful expanse,” with “hardly a tree or shrub.” The hills are bald, the towns small and somnolent, the countryside empty of life. Bethlehem is no more than a muddy village. Nazareth almost disappears amid the folds of its hillside; above it, there is no Upper Nazareth. Tiberias, in the lurid early color of the Photochrom process, is half-ruined, and still girdled by medieval walls. Jaffa is fortified on its lonely promontory; the beach is bare of matkot players. Jerusalem has only just overrun its walls. The Russian Colony sits in a wasteland like a stranded ark, and a sea of sabra plants washes in the opposite direction, up to the western edge of the Jewish Quarter. Three men and a donkey loiter on the barren summit of Mount Scopus.
The effort required to take such a photograph testifies to the commitment of the surveyors. Mules carried bulky, delicate cameras, jars of volatile chemicals and glass plates for developing; the darkroom was a tent. Yet the landscape, scoured by neglect, suited the PEF’s biblical tastes, even if it was not the eternal landscape of the Bible; late Ottoman Palestine, the authors note, was “less cultivated than it was a millennium and a half earlier.” As Protestants, the PEF had little interest in shrines of dubious veracity.
Nor did its photographers indulge in the fashion for posing Arab shepherds in “biblical” tableaux. The PEF took its Christianity like its landscape, unwatered.
The photographs capture a moment when history seems to have stopped, but the presence of the photographers shows that history was already on the move. In the 1890s, the PEF turned from mapping to archeology. There are no photographs here of early Zionist settlements: Rishon Lezion was not, to the PEF’s knowledge, a site of biblical interest. But we do see the Kaiser, meddling at the Sick Man of Europe’s bedside as he opens the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem.
Photographers from the American Colony accompany Russian pilgrims to the banks of the River Jordan; in a reversal of the usual pattern, the banks, now bare, are thickly forested. The stations and signals of the Ottoman railways appear. Bethlehem mushrooms as a pilgrimage site. The Church of the Nativity, photographed by Kitchener in 1875 as bare and somewhat decrepit, is smartened up.
History has returned. The great powers and grand ambitions are back, and the PEF’s operations broaden. By 1912, there is a British School of Archeology at Jerusalem.
Duncan Mackenzie, a veteran of Arthur Evans’ digs at Knossos, is commanding dozens of Arab laborers at the excavation of Beit Shemesh. The British School’s director, John Garstang, will conduct massive digs at Ashkelon, Hazor, Jericho and Samaria. But this is all in the future.
Beautifully produced, with scholarly essays and potted biographies, Distant Views preserves the modern prologue, the fleeting encounter of old and new worlds. At Elisha’s Spring, near Jericho, Claude Condor reclines on the rocks in a pith helmet and mustache. Horatio Herbert Kitchener, a young lieutenant who will become the conqueror of Khartoum and rebuild the British Army for the First World War, takes the picture. In a cistern under Robinson’s Arch, William Simpson, famed for his war art from the Crimea, sketches Charles Warren, clambering onto the rocks by the light of a magnesium flare. On a tel near Beersheba, the famed Egyptologist Sir William Flinders Petrie loiters in a black cape while his wife, Lady Hilda, poses in galoshes and a sleeveless raincoat.
On Mount Gerizim in April 1867, Charles Warren sits outside his tent with the Samaritan leader Yakub esh-Shellaby.
Puffing on a hookah, esh-Shellaby gives Warren a book of Samaritan prayers, for the Archbishop of York. As Warren, gravely sporting a fez and a long pipe, leans forward to accept the gift, Sergeant Phillips of the Royal Engineers takes a photograph, for the PEF and for posterity.
Dominic Green is the author of Three Empires on the Nile, and teaches political science at Boston College.