History (in pictures) of the Holy Land

Lenkin Family Collection In the top image, Jews carry wheat in the Emek (Jezreel Valley) of British Mandate Palestine in 1936. The bottom photo shows the 1868 restoration of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

Photo credit: Lenkin Family Collection, University of Pennsylvania Libraries

Before 1849, most of the Christian world had never been to the Land of Israel, nor seen photographs of the Holy Land. There were imagined paintings, engravings and lithographs, but most Christians had never seen an authenticated image of the land where Jesus once walked. But once photography became more advanced and widespread, the Holy Land came clearly into focus.

Through a major gift from Penn alumnus Edward Lenkin, Penn Libraries has acquired a large anthology of historical photographs of the Holy Land collected over 35 years by Paola and Bertrand Lazard.

Arthur Kiron, the Schotteinstein-Jesselson Curator of Judaica Collections in the Jewish Studies Program, says the works, called the Lenkin Family Collection of Photography at Penn Libraries, include images from the earliest generation of photography up until the founding of the State of Israel. He says the photographs capture the transformation of the area “from Land of the Bible to Jewish nationhood.”

Most of the photos are of the Holy Land, but there also are shots of other segments of the Ottoman Empire, Athens, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and the Sinai Peninsula.

“These are the original photographs,” Kiron says. “These are the artifacts that actually authenticate history and document the history of scientific experimentation, so they have artifactual value in and of themselves, in addition to the information that they convey.”

Joe Zucca, director of planning & communication at Penn Libraries, says the collection expands and augments the University’s primary source collection and adds depth to its collection in the area of photography.

Kiron says the photos allow viewers to witness change over time and see how the land changed throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. There are images of pilgrimage, exploration and military reconnaissance. There are private photos, commercial images, and photos used to illustrate books and travel literature.

Early photography of the area, taken during Ottoman Empire rule, follows Christian religious imagination, Kiron says. The photos focus on the trajectory of where Jesus supposedly walked, such as the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee.

He says that the photos show a movement from the Land of Israel as a place of religious imagination “to a place where a new nation-state is growing and coming to light” after the British captured the territory and imposed its mandate following World War I.

One photograph from the 1930s shows young, muscular Zionists wearing tank tops and harvesting wheat in the Jezreel Valley in British Mandate Palestine. Kiron says photographers around this era highlighted the “muscular Jew” as opposed to the stereotypical Diaspora, studious Jew.
“They presented a new kind of Jew, the Zionist, the new kind of muscular, nation-building man,” he says. “A new kind of Jewish masculinity was being built and these images captured that transformation.”

Penn Libraries’ Holy Land collection consists not only of the Lenkin Family Collection, but also the book collection of the Lazard family, which Penn purchased through a gift from alumnus Jay Penske, a former Penn Libraries board member, and other Library supporters.

Kiron says the Lazard book collection includes photos, illustrated books and books that tell the story of how the West thought about, imagined, represented and distributed images and conceptions of the Middle East, the Muslim world and, specifically, the Holy Land.

The opportunity to acquire the Lenkin collection, Kiron says, allowed Penn Libraries to discover that photographs are a key source for understanding the visual revolution characterizing the modern world. He says the photos transformed “our understanding of what libraries can do for our communities and for the mission of the University.”

A number of departments around Penn, including the Annenberg School for Communication, the Penn Museum, the Middle East Center, Fine Arts and Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations, have expressed a keen interest in the material and a desire to incorporate it into classroom use, Kiron says.

Zucca says they plan to digitize the collection and make it available to broader audiences, enriching the world of scholarship.

Originally published on October 1, 2009