Travelogues and other reports written in the second half of the 19th century, most famously Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad, establish the presence of thriving Jewish communities throughout Eretz Yisrael, particularly in Jerusalem. See, for example, my Jewish Press article “Mark Twain, Eretz Yisrael, and the Jews (June 18, 2015) for a full discussion on this subject.
Charles Wilson, the leader of the 1865 Ordnance Survey of Jerusalem, reported that some 9,000 Jews lived in the city and, according to William Seward, who served as secretary of state under President Abraham Lincoln and visited Eretz Yisrael in 1871, Jews made up half of Jerusalem’s population of 16,000.
Starting in the mid-1800s, steamship travel opened up the Middle East to explorers, missionaries, travelers, and – most significantly for our purposes here –photographers.
If a picture is indeed worth a thousand words, these path-breaking photographers produced images that exhibited the breadth of Jewish life in Eretz Yisrael perhaps better than any travelogue or written or oral account could. The photographic subjects included not only ancient Jewish populations in Jerusalem and other biblical cities, but also Jewish pioneers who were, even then, developing the land and building new Jewish settlements in the Galilee and along the Mediterranean coast. They also included photographs of important Jewish religious and historical sites, such as the Kotel Hamaaravi (the Western Wall), Kever Rachel (Rachel’s Tomb), and Migdal David (David’s Tower).
Felix Bonfils (1831-1885) was essentially unknown to the world until October 1971, when a group of students opposed to the war in Vietnam blew up a military research institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which resulted in the exposure of a long-forgotten attic in the adjacent Semitic Museum. Staff found boxes filled with 28,000 photos from the Levant, including more than 800 photos with the signature of “Bonfils.”
Bonfils’s photographs, which constitute important historical records of people, places, and buildings in the Middle East, are considered comparable in beauty and documentary value to the work of archaeologists. He took photographs in Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Greece, and Turkey, but it is his prints of Eretz Yisrael that provide particularly valuable information to us about the land and people there toward the end of the nineteenth century. As he reported to the French Photographic Society in 1871, after his arrival in Beirut (1867), he had produced “15,000 prints and 9,000 stereoscopic views, principally pictures of Jerusalem and various panoramas.”
Bonfils deliberately selected his subjects in order to preserve a vast range of information for geographical, ethnographic, biblical, archeological, architectural, and historical studies. His work was particularly important in that it spanned many decades and encompassed the period when momentous changes were underway that would forever alter Middle Eastern landscapes and ways of life. As a result, he was able to record scenes that had remained unchanged for millennia and provide an important contrast reflecting advances in technology and changes in social values and traditions, and his work formed the most comprehensive visual anthologies of Near Eastern material and culture at the time.
I believe it is essential to point out that notwithstanding the phenomenal scope of this remarkable material, not a single one of Bonfils’s photographs depicted a “Palestinian” from whom Zionists and other Jews are supposed to have taken land pursuant to “occupation.” But I will leave a fuller discussion of that issue for another day.
Exhibited with this column are three of Bonfils’s most famous photographs. All are original vintage albumen prints on a thin sheet of paper with sepia color and slightly glossy surface, signed in the negative by Bonfils. The composition, mood, and lighting all suggest very ancient, historic, and holy landscapes.
This is a print of Kever Rachel in which Bonfils has captured the main road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem (the man and donkey are on this road); the domed building that was built over Rachel’s tomb; the old tree that has been at the site for hundreds of years; and, in the background, the village of Beit Jalla.
This print of Migdal David, which Bonfils titled Forteresse près de la porte de Jaffa à Jérusalem (see inscription at lower right), shows wooden shacks, animals, carts, and general trade outside the Jaffa Gate and the stone wall around Jerusalem.
This is among the most famous and well-recognized photographs of the Kotel. Like virtually all the photographs taken by Bonfils and others at the time, they were shot from ground level and therefore do not show the very tiny area within which Jews were permitted to pray at this sole surviving remnant of the Beit HaMikdash.
Bonfils, among the first European photographers to settle in the Middle East, established a studio in Lebanon in 1867. It became one of the most prolific commercial photographic studios of its time. While there were some 200 photographers in the Middle East during this period who shot and marketed photos, some quite good, few could match the breadth and quality of Bonfils’s work. As Gratien Charvet, founder of the Societe Saentifique et Litteraire, wrote in the introduction to Souvenirs d’Orient, Bonfils’ 1878 collection:
“The collection of photographs of the Orient’s principal sites, initiated, executed and completed by Monsieur F. Bonfils with unequaled perseverance, should be regarded as one of the most considerable achievements – picturesque, artistic and scientific – of our epoch.”
Bonfils made his negatives on glass plates, coated with a silver nitrate solution that had to be prepared on the spot – usually in a tent out of the Middle Eastern sun – and they were immediately exposed and developed; the actual prints were usually made later. Only 18 glass negatives are known to have survived; the rest were washed clean to make fresh negatives, or lost in troubled Beirut, or purposely smashed to provide lens makers with fresh “ground glass” during a shortage.
Saul Jay Singer