O Jerusalem, Michael R. ShurkinJerusalem in Original Photographs 1850–1920

Shimon Gibson

(Winona Lake, Indiana- Eisenbrauns, 2003) 204 pp., $44.50

This attractive new volume joins dozens of late-19th and early-20th century photographs of Jerusalem with a commentary drawn from contemporary travelogues and letters, many of them cited at length. The effect is to convey in considerable detail the sights and sounds of Ottoman Jerusalem. We find, for example, the following description of a visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque-

“The black fanatics who guard the holy place lounged among the trees, and a funeral procession was slowly marching, with subdued murmurs round the Chapel of the Rock, while, by a curious coincidence, a gorgeous wedding-party in bright coloured silks, was also approaching the same place. The great enclosure outside the platform is not paved; it is covered in grass and planted with olives and cypresses. Only the platform is fairly level, and its flagging in parts is covered with Crusading masons’ marks.”

The book is the result of six years of work by Shimon Gibson in the archives of the Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF) in London (two more volumes are planned). Arguably the most striking thing about Gibson’s portrait of Jerusalem is just how small, impoverished and rundown the city was a century ago, in comparison to today’s modern metropolis. The sepia tones emphasize the barrenness of the walled city, which appears to consist half of ruin and half of rubble. The pictures also suggest a timelessness, as if between Jerusalem’s antique past and today nothing happened at a pace faster than the crumbling of a stone face.

It should be noted, however, that the Jerusalem found in Gibson’s book is less historical reality than a representation of how the city was perceived by the Western Europeans who visited it and brought along with them the heavy baggage of colonialist and orientalist perspectives. Looking at these old pictures, one is reminded of the relationship between the modern meaning of the word “cliché” and its original meaning, a fixed printer’s plate. Indeed the images conveyed by the photographs and letters of the PEF agents and their contemporaries conform entirely to what they expected and wanted to find in the Orient long before they left their London parlors. Hence the feeling of timelessness and backwardness. Hence the predilection for ruins and archaeological curiosities that contrasts starkly with a nearly complete disinterest in the living city.

The photographs and texts in Jerusalem in Original Photographs clearly constitute an important historical record. Gibson’s commentary, moreover, is informative, interesting and well written. However, readers should be aware that they will learn less about 19th-century Jerusalem than about the Westerners who imagined it.