Monday, July 8, 2019

In Honor of CUFI's Summit in Washington in Support of Israel

The Bible Came Alive 120 Years Ago in Early Photographs of the Holy Land

By Lenny Ben-David

The Bible is timeless. Transmitted thousands of years ago to the People of Israel, its message and prophecy come true in modern Israel today. Some people meet its commandments and narration with skepticism, but photographs of the Holy Land from the 19th-century bear witness to the Bible’s veracity. Here are examples, found in the Library of Congress and archives worldwide. 

The Old City of Jerusalem, photographed from the Mount of Olives, (Ottoman Archives, 1865)
The history of photography starts with the daguerreotype photographic process in 1839 by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre. Several photographs of Holy Land landscapes exist from that period, but a newer, cheaper process took over by the 1850s, and photographers flocked to the Holy Land sailing on the new invention, the steamboat. They were fascinated by biblical scenes, holy sites, and people of the land.  The photographic process often took several minutes, so some of the subjects had to stand perfectly still; they had to be posed or models used in their stead.

One of the first resident photographers was Mendel Diness. His 1859 photograph below is probably the first picture of Jews at the Western Wall. Consider the chronological context of the two men: the photo was taken before Abraham Lincoln became president of the United States. George Washington was probably president when the older rabbi was born. 

Two rabbinic figures at the Western Wall, photographed by Mendel Diness. (Harvard University Library, 1859)

Mendel Diness also took pictures of the first Jewish homes built outside of the Old City Walls at Mishkenot Sha'ananim and the Montefiore Windmill. 

The construction of Mishkenot Sha'ananim beneath the landmark windmill, circa 1859 (Harvard University Library

Diness converted to Christianity, moved to the United States, changed his name to John Mendenhall Dennis, and served as an itinerant preacher.

The American Colony

The members of the American Colony in Jerusalem arrived in the Holy Land in 1881. When hundreds of poor Yemenite Jews arrived on their pilgrimage in 1882, the American Colony founder saw them as “Gadites,” descendants of the tribe of Gad, fulfilling the biblical prophecy of the return to Zion. The Colony helped to shelter and feed them. Many of them had to live in the caves of Silwan outside of the Old City.

This picture of the village of Silwan was found in a Lebanese Bonfils collection by the British Library. A note on the right points to the Jewish colony in Silwan.
The American Colony established a photographic department, and it dedicated itself to photographing the Holy Land. They published a beautiful series recreating scenes from Psalms and the Book of Ruth. 

Photograph of shepherd life illustrating the Twenty-Third Psalm. "He restoreth my soul." 


The second picture, also found in the Library of Congress, recreates “Ruth the Moabitess” in the fields of Bethlehem.

Recreation of the story of Ruth (Library of Congress)

The American Colony photographers also sought out sites showing remnants of the Jewish Temples. After an earthquake destroyed much of the Al Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount in 1927, a photographer took photos beneath the rubble. It appears incontrovertible that the pictures were of Temple remains.

Under the al Aqsa Mosque after the 1927 earthquake. (Library of Congress)
One of the biggest mysteries of the American Colony photographs is a photo taken in 1898 and entitled “Ash heaps from Temple sacrifices.”

Ash heaps from Temple sacrifices photographed in Jerusalem (Library of Congress)

Research into ancient Jewish texts, including the Mishna, confirms that the ashes and remains of the sacrifices were transported to a site north of the city not far from today’s Damascus Gate. The area has been built over in the last 100 years, but the photograph confirms the Temple ritual.

Another fascinating photograph confirms another Biblical tradition involving the making of unleavened matza for Passover. The matza must be “guarded” so that it does not come into contact with water along its whole baking process, starting with the grains’ harvesting.  This picture appears to have been taken in 1898 at the Mikve Yisrael school for agriculture. The workers are young students harvesting the grain supervised by their teacher wearing the white hat. But why is there a rabbinic figure (shaded by the umbrella) standing by? There is little doubt he is the rabbinic mashgiach, the kosher supervisor making sure the grain stays dry.

Harvesting wheat in Mikve Yisrael's fields. Who is the rabbinic figure? (Library of Congress, 1898)

The Biblical Prohibitions Too

Virtually every 19th-century photographer in the Holy Land took pictures of Arab farmers plowing or threshing grain.  Frankly, the number of photographs seemed excessive – until one remembers that many of the photographers were very familiar with the Old Testament. They were interested in presenting pictures of two Biblical prohibitions from Deuteronomy.

The first is "Thou shall not plow with an ox and an ass together" (Deuteronomy 22:10). The second prohibition isThou shall not muzzle an ox in its threshing" (Deuteronomy 25:4).

Colorized photo of an ox and ass plowing (Library of Congress, circa 1890)

Plowing (University of Dundee, Scotland)
Variation of the plowing prohibition - cow and camel. (Library of Congress) 

Variation of the plowing prohibition.(Keystone-Mast Collection, University of California, Riverside)


Man threshing with muzzled oxen while a woman winnows in the Galilee (Keystone-Mast Collection, University of California, Riverside)

Muzzling an ox during threshing (Library of Congress) 

The first photographs in the Holy Land provide a glimpse into Biblical life in the Land of Israel.  There are thousands of photographs taken after 1840 that show native life in the land, including Jewish life that flourished well before the Zionist movement or the founding of Israel in 1948.

Lenny Ben-David is a former senior Israeli diplomat and author of American Interests in the Holy Land Revealed in Early Photographs. He has written extensively on American and Israeli foreign policy. An exhibit of his photographs was prominently displayed at the July 4th reception held for the first time by the American Embassy in Jerusalem.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Golden Gate -- Sha'ar Harachamim on the Temple Mount

The Golden Gate (Sha'ar Harachamim, Gate of Mercy) of Jerusalem's Old City wall has special significance on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.  If the gate were opened, it would lead directly onto the Temple Plaza.  The outside of the gate would open to the Kidron Valley and the Mount of Olives beyond.  In Talmudic literature the gate was also known as the Shushan Gate because of its eastern direction (toward the Persian city of Shushan) and perhaps because of the role played by the Persian leader Cyrus in the Jews' return to Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile.

The Golden Gate viewed from within the Temple Plaza (1860)
According to Jewish tradition, on Yom Kippur a messenger (usually a priest) took the sacrificial lamb from the Temple through the gate to the desert.  The Red Heifer purification ceremony also involved taking the sacrifice through the eastern gate to the Mount of Olives.
Interior chamber of the Golden Gate. Are the columns from the Temple structure? (1900)
Unlike most of Jerusalem's other gates, the Golden Gate was originally built at least a millennium before Suleiman the Magnificent rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem in 1540.  Indeed, some archeologists believe that the original gate, dating back to Herod's construction or even Nehemiah's period (440 BCE), still exists beneath the current gate.  Perhaps because of the great religious significance of the gate to Jews and Christians as the Messiah's route into Jerusalem, it is believed Suleiman sealed the gate and permitted the construction of a Muslim cemetery in front of the gate.
Hebrew writing - graffiti - on the internal walls of the gate's chamber is believed to have been left by Jewish pilgrims at least 1,000 years ago. (See study by Shulamit Gera, Catedra, in Hebrew.)
The graffiti scratched into the wall by "Avraham"

Diagram of the two levels of the Golden Gate (with permission of the
Biblical Archaeology Review)

The ancient subterranean arch and the pit  of bones. (James Fleming)
The theory of an ancient gate received support in 1969 when an archeological student named James Fleming was inspecting the current gate. Suddenly the rain-soaked ground beneath him opened and he found himself in a pit of bones looking at the top of another gate eight feet beneath the surface.  Fleming photographed his discovery. When he returned the next day, the tomb had been sealed with a cement slab by the Islamic custodians of the cemetery.
Perhaps the bones date back to 625 CE when a Jewish revolt supported the Persians vs the Byzantines. Led by Benjamin of Tiberias and his army, the Jews controlled the city for several years, possibly even restoring religious practices on the Temple ruins. The period was marked with slaughters committed by all sides.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

The Gates of Jerusalem Then and Now, Part II
The Damascus Gate

Updating first postings in Israel Daily Picture in preparation for Book 3, Jews and Holy Sites in the Holy Land, Revealed in Early Photographs.
Damascus Gate (circa 1860)
The Jerusalem Old City's Damascus Gate, also known as the Nablus Gate (Sha'ar Schem), faces north toward those two cities.  It is part of the wall of the Old City built in 1540 during the reign of the Ottoman ruler, Suleiman the Magnificent.

Archeologists found a Roman gate built by Hadrian in the second century, probably on the foundations of an even earlier gate. Heaps of ashes, believed to be remains of Jewish Temple sacrifices, were found a few hundred meters from the Gate and remained until the early 20th century when they were cleared for buildings.

This photo is labeled "Damascus Gate."
Actually, it is the city wall just to the
right of and above the Gate.
The earliest photo of Damascus Gate dates back to 1844, taken by a French photographer, Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey (1804 - 1898), believed to be a student of Louis Daguerre who is credited with inventing photography in 1839.
The daguerreotype photos were found in a storeroom in Girault de Prangey's estate in the 1920s. In recent years, the Biblioteque Nationale de France digitized them. 

This Damascus Gate photo dates back to circa 1859. It was
taken by the first Jewish photographer in Jerusalem, Mendel
Diness. After converting to Christianity, Diness moved to
the United States where he became a preacher named John
Mendenhall Dennis.

The photo below, from the Library of Congress collection, was colorized with an early process, "photochrome," by the Detroit Photographic Company. The photo is dated 1890-1900.

Damascus Gate, circa 1890.

Photographs over the last 180 years indicate that the Damascus Gate was the primary entrance to the Old City. The gate is adjacent to the Old City's Muslim and Christian Quarters. 


The buildings on the right and left of the gate were shops built by a Jewish Jerusalem banker, Chaim Aharon Volero, at the turn of the century, Picture shows the construction of the row of Valeros' shops outside Damascus Gate  (circa 1900). The domes of the Hurva and Tifferet Yisrael  synagogues are on the horizon in the center-left of the picture. The shops were demolished by British city planners in 1937
Photographs also show how Damascus Gate was a center for nationalist and military activity in the 20th century after World War I.  

Arab Anti-Zionist demonstration, March 8, 1920, less than three years after the Balfour
Declaration and the British capture of Jerusalem. Many demonstrators declared
that they were Syrians. 

Old City held by insurgents, 1938. Damascus Gate locked

In 1938 local Arab terrorist gangs  took control of the Old City.  In October 1938, the British recaptured the city, described in the British Mandate report below: 

During the month [October 1938], the arrival of strong military reinforcements brought about an improvement of the security position. The Old City of Jerusalem, which had become the rallying point of a large number of bandits and from which acts of violence, murder and intimidation were being organized and perpetrated freely and with impunity, was fully re-occupied by the troops on the 19th of the month. This was a successful, organized operation of considerable magnitude.

Search for arms en masse outside Damascus Gate, September 9, 1938

Damascus Gate. Troops retaking the Old City, October, 1938

Damascus Gate today
 Click on the photos to enlarge. Click on the captions to see the originals.

Monday, July 23, 2018

The Gates of Jerusalem Then and Now, Part I
Zion Gate

Updating first posting in Israel Daily Picture in preparation for Book 3, Jews and Holy Sites in the Holy Land, Revealed in Early Photographs.

The walls of Jerusalem's Old City that we see today were built in 1540 during the days of the Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent.  

The location and name "Zion Gate" appear on maps dating back to the 12th century.  It is one of eight gates in the Old City Wall.  

Zion Gate, picture by Bergheim, circa 1867.  Today, the walls are pock-marked from
bullets and artillery shells fired during the1948 war in the Jews' attempt to resupply and 
relieve the Jewish Quarter besieged by the Jordanian Legion.
Zion Gate (circa 1898)  The photo was captioned "Jerusalem" 
with no further detail. While the American Colony photographic
 department was established in 1898, its founder, Elijah
 Meyer, was an active photographer prior to that date.

Zion Gate circa 1900

Camels leaving "David's Portal" (circa 1910)

Expulsion of Jews from the Jewish Quarter in the 1948 War
through the Zion Gate (John Philips for Life Magazine)
Located between Mt. Zion and the Jewish and Armenian Quarters, the gate was the setting for fierce fighting during the 1948 war.  A small Palmach force, commanded by David "Dado" Elazar (later IDF chief of staff in 1973), attempted to break through the gate on May 1948 to relieve the besieged Jewish Quarter.  They were met with stiff resistance by the Jordanian Legion and were forced to withdraw.

On May 28, 1948 the Jewish Quarter surrendered.  Jews were expelled through Zion Gate and didn't return until the city of Jerusalem was reunited 19 years later in the June 1967 war.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Tisha B'Av, the Day of Jewish Mourning

Jewish men sitting on the ground at the "Wailing Wall" (circa  1935).
From the Library of Congress collection.

Tisha B'Av is commemorated today (on the 10th of Av), Sunday July 22, 2018.

The ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av -- Tisha B'Av -- is the day in the Hebrew calendar when great calamities befell the Jewish people, including the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem, the fall of the fortress Beitar in the Jewish rebellion against Rome in 136 CE, and the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492.  The day is commemorated with fasting, prayers and the reading of Lamentations.  In Jerusalem, thousands pray at the Kotel, the Western Wall.

"Devout Jewish women" at the Wall (circa
1900). View another photo of devout women here

The American Colony photographers frequently focused their cameras on the worshipers at the "Wailing Place of the Jews."  The Colony founders who came to Jerusalem in 1881 were devout Christians who saw the return of the Jews to the Holy Land as a sign of messianic times. 

Of the dozens of pictures at the Kotel there are several of elderly men and women sitting on the ground or on low stools, customs of mourning practiced on Tisha B'Av.

"A Jewish beggar reading at the Wailing Wall" (circa 1920).
Note others sitting on the ground. The day is almost
certainly Tisha B'Av and he is probably reading the
book of Lamentations.

Jews straining to see the Western Wall (circa 1929)

Other pictures presented here show the very narrow and confined area of the Kotel over the ages until Israel's army captured the Old City in 1967 and enlarged the Kotel plaza. 

The tragedies that occurred to the Jewish nation are also evident in the pictures of the deserted plaza after Arab pogroms in 1929.  The area was deserted, of course, during the 19 years of Jordanian rule of the Old City when Jews were forbidden to pray at the site.

A story is told of Napoleon passing a synagogue and hearing congregants inside mourning.  To his question who they are mourning, he was told they were weeping over the destruction of the Jewish Temple 1,800 years earlier.  Napoleon responded, according to the legend, "If the Jews are still crying after so many hundreds of years, then I am certain the Temple will one day be rebuilt."

Western Wall deserted in 1929. View looking south.

"Jews' wailing place without mourners.
Deserted during 1929 riots." View looking north.
A Jordanian soldier (and policeman in the background) at the Western Wall
one month after Jews were expelled from the Old City's Jewish Quarter
in May 1948.

Dedicated in memory of 
Chaim Menachem ben Levi

Monday, April 30, 2018

Lag B'Omer Festival 100 Years Ago -- April 30, 1918

The Enigmatic Photograph from the Library of Congress:
Lag B'Omer & Jewish Children’s Parade exactly 100 years Ago

Jewish children's procession -- where, why, when?

Among the thousands of very old and recently digitalized pictures from a Library of Congress collection of photos from Palestine, there is this captivating picture.
All the original Library of Congress caption explained was that the picture was taken between 1910 and 1930 and that it is  a “Group of children and adults in procession in street, some holding a banner with a Star of David.”

Today, the caption reads: Procession may have taken place on April 30, 1918, on Lag Ba'Omer, when visits were traditionally made to the tomb. British army tents in background, indicate year of 1918. (Source: L. Ben-David, Israel's History - A Picture a Day website, August 19, 2011) 
Title devised by Library staff. (Source: L. Ben-David, Israel's History - A Picture a Day website, August 19, 2011)

Who are the hundreds of children?  Why are the boys and girls separated?  Where are they marching to? Where is this picture taken? And why is there a tent compound on the left horizon?

Photo analysis and comparison to an aerial photograph from 1931 and contemporary pictures indicate that the children are walking south on the Nablus Road (Derech Shchem) in the direction of the Damascus Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem. Behind them is the road that veers to the right toward Mt. Scopus.  The road leads to a neighborhood built around the grave of a High Priest named Shimon the Righteous  (Hatzadik) who lived in the days of the Second Temple. 

The boys and girls come from ultra-Orthodox schools, evidenced by the boys’ hats and frocks. The girls are wearing ultra-Orthodox fashion: shapeless, modest smocks. But wait, the second batch of girls, those behind the Star of David banner (might they be from a “Zionist” school?) are wearing more stylish dresses and hats.
Enlargement of the army camp. Note the permanent
structure surrounded by tents.
The tents belong to a British army camp after they defeated the Turks in 1917 and were deployed along the northern ridges stretching from Nebi Samuel to the Mount of Olives. The compound appears similar to other British army compounds in Library of Congress photographs.  
The day started off cool, and the girls have shed their sweaters.  It’s a warm Spring day, and from the shadows it’s probably around 2 PM. 

Shimon Hatzadik's tomb today (Israel
In fact, the day was Tuesday, April 30, 1918.  The procession is almost certainly an organized outing of several Jerusalem schools taking place on Lag Ba’Omer, four weeks after Passover.  Traditionally, on Lag Ba’Omer Jews flock to the Galilee mountaintop of Meiron to the grave of Shimon Bar Yochai, one of the most famous scholars in the Talmud.  But some 100 years ago, travel to Meiron would have taken days.  Instead, the children took a hike to Shimon Hatzadik’s grave, a known custom 100 years ago in Jerusalem.

The picture was taken just four months after the British forces captured the city of Jerusalem. The city's Jewish residents received the soldiers as their saviors -- saving them from severe hunger and deadly diseases. The children had much to celebrate.
The parade route today (picture taken from the 8th floor
of the Olive Hotel) (IDP)
Veteran Jerusalemite Shmulik Huminer wrote in his memoirs:
“Anyone who could travel to Meiron on Lag Ba’Omer would go, and there take place miracles and wonders.  But the residents of Jerusalem who couldn’t afford to travel to Meiron have as compensation the cave of Shimo Hatzadik located at the edge of the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood north of the Old City.”
Today, Lag Ba’Omer is a day when Jewish children still go out to parks and forests to celebrate.  In Jerusalem, many traditional Jews still visit Shimon’s grave.

Comparison of buildings from 1918 and today. Second stories
were added to the buildings over the years. (IDP)
The houses around the tomb where Jews lived 100 years ago were abandoned under threat of Arab pogroms in the 1920s and 1930s.  The Hadassah convoy massacre in 1948, in which almost 80 Jews were killed, took place on the road beneath the building with the very prominent arches.
 In recent years, however, Jewish families have returned to the Shimon Hatzadik neighborhood.