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Posted: 08 Jul 2019 12:47 PM PDT
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 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.
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.
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.
The second picture, also found in the Library of Congress, recreates “Ruth the Moabitess” in the fields of Bethlehem.
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.
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.
The Biblical Prohibitions Too
The first is "Thou shall not plow with an ox and an ass together" (Deuteronomy 22:10). The second prohibition is “Thou shall not muzzle an ox in its threshing"(Deuteronomy 25:4).
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.