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Israel’s History – a Picture a Day (Beta)

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 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 is “Thou 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.

Steve Martin

STEVE & LAURIE MARTIN - LOVE FOR HIS PEOPLE FOUNDERS My good wife Laurie and I (45 years in October 2022!), through the ministry of Love For His People we founded in 2010, give love and support for our friends in Israel and in other nations with friendship, humanitarian aid, and social media support, along with Steve's messages, and our Ahava Adventures trips to Israel. Steve has also authored and published 34 books. We live in the Charlotte, NC area. We have four adult children, spouses, and eight grandkids.

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