The Holy Land in early modern images

The Holy Land in early modern images David Roberts, View of Jerusalem, 9 April 1839 (print 1842)

For centuries Jerusalem and the Holy Land was a place of great mystique, the hope of pious pilgrims as the object of a once in a lifetime visit. But over the course of the long nineteenth century this began to change: new techniques of image making and reproduction began to alter the ideas that people had of both biblical Palestine under the Ottomans and of the city of Jerusalem.

Along with the growth of archaeology, and of new standards of historical research, the very idea of the Holy Land changed radically. New images of the Holy Land lead, inevitably, to new ideas about early Christianity and about the other religions focused on the same region. Jerusalem then was a city divided among several cultures, cultures which occupied the same land, but did not share it.


In the early decades of the century the image many had of the Holy Land was derived from painters such as the Scotsman David Roberts (prints of his paintings are still popular – one of a distant view of Jerusalem, hangs framed on the wall of the room where I am writing this).

But to aid the reproduction of such paintings, engraving on wood and steel played an important role, in creating illustrations in the increasing number of books, academic and popular about the Holy Land. Some of these were finely made, but they lacked the essential ingredient of colour.


In the 1830s and 1840s, methods of producing colour picture for books were introduced (see image of Bethlehem on page 36).

But what proved the most important image-making development was the invention of photography, through the very different approaches of William Fox Talbot, NicéphoreNiépce and Louis Daguerre. As was said at the time, “from today painting is dead”.

By the 1850s, photographers were widely at work in the Middle East. But the early photographic methods demanded long exposure times. A scene in Jerusalem might well have had human being in it, but they would only register on the plate if they stood still for several minutes.

❛❛What proved the most important image-making development was the invention of photography”

This gave the impression that Jerusalem (when photographed) was ‘a ghost city’, a dead place empty of people. In reality it was a city thronging with all kinds of human types. But the images did not show this: to some it looked like an empty land.


However, this was changed by faster photography, by 1870 one could buy not merely large size photographs, which mimicked paintings, but smaller images called cabinets and cartes de visites.

Everyone visiting the Holy land would buy these, often from the atelier of the American Colony, a North American evangelical group who worked to support their activities. Their images appeared constantly as book and magazine illustrations. Their collections are now in the Library of Congress.

The major change came with the transfer of photographs to postcards after the 1870s, which by the 1890s had become not only a popular way of communicating, but a lively hobby to rival stamp collecting. Most families had postcard albums of some kind. And a destination such as the Holy Land gave rise to many.

The cost of travel came down as the century progressed. Ordinary middleclass families in Europe and North America could now afford to travel to the region.

Mark Twain, no less, was with the first tourist group to arrive in the Holy Land in 1867. In The Innocents Abroad (1869) he gave a typical report on his travels, which I find modern pilgrims are rarely aware of. They ought to be, for some of the schemes to exploit the pious in Jerusalem have hardly changed.

By now Holy Land settlement societies had come into existence, to support not just visits but the creation of actual colonies by German, British, French, and North American groups among others. Small Jewish groups arrived too, often with quite varied ambitions: but their history belongs more properly to the days of the British Mandate. Many visitors were concerned to help their native co-religionists in the Holy Land; the French charity L’Œuvred’Orient, to aid Middle Eastern Christians, was founded in 1856.

The Holy Land could now be conveniently reached by steamers from several countries. Also a railway was built (with German aid) from Damascus – then a more important city than Jerusalem – down to Medina and Mecca. This line eventually connected with a line up from the sea to Jerusalem. By the end of the 1890s, mere tourists were as numerous as pilgrims. Most of these would be equipped with Kodaks so that the images of Jerusalem and the holy places by now ran up into countless millions.

With the coming of moving pictures at the same date, people in Paris, London and New York could see for themselves the huge numbers that crowded the cities of Ottoman Palestine. Under the indifferent rule of the Sultan, the way the country had been transformed was clearly shown in images.


There is still a great deal to be learned from these images, historic, professional and amateur. All images of the nineteenth century Holy Land are to be cherished. And they are, for they turn up in the strangest of ways. The Library of Congress was one of the great libraries to which Abdul Humid (Sultan from 1876 to 1909) donated a set of images of his empire, even to its remote corners, he had had specially prepared.

In a collection of autochromes in the Albert Kahn foundation in France many scenes in true colour are also preserved (and can still be purchases today).

Soon after the fall of the Ottoman Empire a photographer of an American magazine photographed Damien I, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem in colour. In a symbolic way this image alone brings the Holy Land out of the long nineteenth century and into the more disruptive and ever-perilous days of the twentieth century.

But the mystique of the Holy Land and Jerusalem, given its role in history, remained very much alive to influence another era.


Books to read…

Journey to Jerusalem (1811), by François-René de Chateaubriand; by the Catholic Breton author of the Genius of Christianity, this book is a great classic of French literature. By all standards an important book of European culture.

Eothen; or, Traces of Travel brought home from the East (1844), by Alexander Kinglake, in which (according to a critic of the day) the East, meaning here largely the Ottoman Empire, is revealed “in all its vital actual reality.” But very British in outlook.

The Innocents Abroad; or, The New Pilgrim’s Progress (1869), by Mark Twain, a briskly humorous yet humane account of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1865, this book is one of the most widely-read American chronicles of travel in modern times.

Catholic travellers should have in hand on their tour the latest edition of the Franciscan guide book to the Holy Land, quite the best there is to the holy places. Also of great use for those interested in the history of the country itself is Fr Jerome Murphy-O’Connor’s The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeology Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (OUP, £22.99), to read before you go.