First Photos of the Holy Land


The first British Governor, Herbert Samuel writing in the Interim Report on the Civil Administration of Palestine to the League of Nations, June 1921, entitled "On the Condition of Palestine after the War" relates that "There are now in the whole of Palestine [what is today the State of Israel and the State of Jordan] hardly 700,000 people".

Today there are 6 million Jews and 4.5 million Arabs in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza alone, not counting Jordan.

These pictures illustrate without a doubt that there was massive Jewish and Arab immigration into Israel: The Jewish refugees fleeing religious and ethnic persecution from European and Arab States, and Arabs immigrants from Syria, Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq. These were not native "Palestinians" as they are called today, rather Arab migrant workers looking for a better standard of living. This story is brought to life in the following pages in over 460 photographs and lithographs of the period.

The Holy Land in the 19th Century

Arab Settlement Near Tel-Aviv, 1911
Arab Settlement Near Tel-Aviv, 1911
The Holy Land was a poor, largely deserted country during the 19th century. Its inhabitants were backward, its services meagre, its roads of poor quality and unsafe, and its economic activity was very limited. Robbery and assault were everyday occurrences. There were no medical services of any kind and plagues frequently took a heavy toll of life. The population dwindled gradually: entire villages were abandoned and cities became small towns with few inhabitants. Aside from Gaza and Jerusalem, each town in the Holy Land (up to the 1840's) had a populace of less than ten thousand. The deterioration of the country was a result of the negative development in the Ottoman Empire which underwent intensified internal decline from the XVIIth century and on. This fact left its impact on Palestine: the local governors became more corrupt, and neglected their obligations, the troops were beyong control and the Bedouin tribes from the desert broke into cultivated areas, turning vast sections into wilderness. As a result, disorder and insecurity spread, government construction and public works were neglected, agriculture and trade were severely damaged and the farmers were oppressed and impoverished.
Weaving Reed Mats near Tiberias, 1894
Weaving Reed Mats near Tiberias, 1894
The majority of the population was rural but even the urban residents earned their livelihood from agriculture. Some 600 of the country's 700 villages were located in the mountains, while the plains and valleys were largely abandoned, being swampy and infested with malaria. The only settlements in the valleys were situated at the foot of the mountains where they were less exposed to malaria and Bedouin attacks.

In 1831 Ottoman rule was interrupted by Muhammad 'Ali, who occupied Palestine and Syria until 1840. A new era began which was characterized by political and social reform aimed at centralizing control of the country, modernizing the administration and granting equal rights to non-Muslim minorities. The country was opened for the first time to widespread political, cultural and economic activity by the European powers. These new developments continued after the Ottoman rule was resumed in 1840-41. During the second half of the nineteenth century direct Ottoman control was gradually consolidated in all parts of the country, Bedouin attacks were checked, general security increased, the oppression of the urban population was eased to a considerable extent, and the involvement of the European powers expanded greatly. These developments brought about certain improvements in the country's economy and in the conditions of the inhabitants.

Jews of the Holy Land in the 19th Century

The Jews were concentrated mainly in the four "Holy Cities": Jerusalem, Safed, Tiberias and Hebron. By and large, the Jews were regarded as second-class citizens of the Ottoman Empire. They encountered legal discrimination at every turn, and evidence given by them was not recognized by the courts. Jews were debarred from attaining high government office. They were subject to daily mockery and scorn, were forbidden to ride camels or horses within the city limits, and were obliged to make way for Moslems. Their persons and possessions were unprotected by law and prone to constant abuse (without any possibility of appealing to the courts of justice). M. Reisher, who lived in Jerusalem, writes in 1866: Although their principal source of income was the "Haluka" (financial support from abroad), heavy taxes were imposed on them by the Turkish authorities. Subsequent to the Crimean War (1853-1854), there was a gradual improvement in the predicament of the Jews, mainly as the result of the protection granted them by the consuls in certain cases. In any event, they continued to be second-class citizens reliant on the clemency of the ruling authorities and the Moslem population. From the 1840's the Jewish community grew considerably through new waves of immigrants, mainly from Russia. In the 1880's the Jewish population was further augmented by refugees and agricultural settlements which were founded in many parts of the country. Jewish urban centers (particularly in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Haifa), developed as well.

The Landscape of the Holy Land in the 19th Century

On The Main Road From Shechem To Jerusalem, 1913
On The Main Road From Shechem To Jerusalem, 1913
The views unfolding before the eyes of visitors to the Holy Land in former times differed from those seen today. To a large extent the landscape was one of desolation and ruin, swamps and uncultivated wilderness, with a sparse and backward population living mainly in small settlements. The most prominent changes have occurred in the coastal plain and the valleys of the interior, the greater parts of which were formerly covered by swamps and sparsely settled by Bedouins and poor Arab peasants. Today, these are the most highly populated and prosperous regions of Israel. The Sharon and certain areas of Samaria and Judea were partly afforested in those days[1]. On the other hand, visitors to the Holy Land found its scenery far more reminiscent of the Biblical world than is the case at present. This also applied to the day-to-day life of its inhabitants and their various occupations, the latter having undergone but minor changes from ancient times to the 19th century. Animals were still being used for ploughing and threshing, flour was ground by millstones as in days of yore, water was brought from the wells in jugs, camel caravans made their way along the roads, women bore bundles of kindling on their heads. All these scenes created the impression of a remote and enchanted world whose association with the Biblical world was inevitable. They were often captured for posterity by the lens of the camera. Today these photographs frequently serve as the sole evidence of a way-of-life and culture which within a single generation will belong wholly to the past.

[1] The map of the Palestine Exploration Fund (1880) demarcates two large oak forests in the Sharon. One of these forests began west of Karkur, while the other extended southward from the Crocodile River almost to the Yarkon River. Some old trees of the former forest still stand west of Benyamina and near Pardess Hanna. No tall trees of the second forest have survived but a considerable area of old stump growth may still be seen.

Towns of the Holy Land in the 19th Century

Jerusalem from Mount Scopus, by David Roberts, 1842
Jerusalem from what is now "East Jerusalem", by David Roberts, 1842
Few of the urban areas of the Holy Land during the 19th century would measure up to present-day criteria. They were merely large villages or small towns. Even in the "large" cities, such as Acre and Jerusalem, the population did not exceed 10,000. For reasons of defense, some of the towns were surrounded by walls, but towards the middle of the 19th century the latter ceased to be functional (the walls of Safed and Tiberias were destroyed by the earthquake of 1837). Only Jerusalem and Acre were considered to be fortified cities.

The towns were very densely built up and were unable to expand beyond their walls until the mid-19th century because of the Turkish security regulation, prohibiting construction within 850 metres of the city limits. A more liberal approach became manifest only in the latter half of that century when the security situation improved and the influence of the new era began to be felt.
Arab Settlement in Esdraelon Valley, 1910
Arab Settlement in Jezreel Valley, 1910
Most of the towns were characterized by an absence of planning, dark, narrow, winding, unpaved alleys, open sewage canals, and small gloomy shops. The majority of the houses, with the exception of those in Jerusalem, Hebron and Nablus, were built of mud[2].

Cultural life and entertainment were totally lacking in the towns, and the latter boasted no avenues, squares, broad streets or public buildings. At sunset the gates of walled cities such as Jerusalem were shut and all late-comers were obliged to spend the night outside.

The markets (bazaars) played a key role. They were very picturesque and aroused the wonderment of pilgrims who flocked to photograph them, in particular the markets of Jaffa, Jerusalem and Bethlehem, as mementos of their visit to the Holy Land. These markets served not only for the sale of goods but were also the place where most of the artisans practised their crafts. There were special markets for the various craftsmen and merchants: metalworkers, tanners, oil vendors, butchers, etc. In certain markets (mainly those in the principal towns), fellaheen offered their produce for direct sale. Thus, there were special livestock markets in Jerusalem (in the Sultan's Pool) and Jaffa, while Safed had a market for grain and charcoal.

During the 19th century the economy of the towns of the Holy Land was largely based on agriculture. Their inhabitants owned fields and orchards in the vicinity and the more affluent among them gained their livelihood by exploiting the labour of the fellaheen.

 [2] This was the situation up to the mid-19th century. Towards the end of that century gradual improvements were introduced.

The land of Galilee & the North, Tiberias

The Milkman in Tiberias, 1858 The Milkman in Tiberias, 1858 
This rare photograph was taken by the well-known Jerusalem
explorer E. Pierotti and is published here for the first time.
Tiberias before the earthquake of 1837 Tiberias before the earthquake of 1837 
Tiberias after the earthquake of 1837 Tiberias after the earthquake of 1837 

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Source: "First Photographs of the Holy Land" by Eli Shiller
Copyright © 1979, Eli Shiller. All Rights Reserverd.

Low grade pictures, published with permission.
Not to be stored in any retrieval or storage system.

 This page prepared by David Hershkowitz