The 102-year-old offices of one of the key players in the modern history of Israel and its surroundings sit at the end of an innocuous alleyway in central London, next to a shoe store, a dumpster and three parked mopeds, a modest sign marking an entrance that is barely noticeable from the street.

The Palestine Exploration Fund, which once uniquely embodied Britain’s religious, scholarly and imperial interest to the Near East, is now known to few outside the world of academia. But it remains active nearly 150 years after its founding, and a visit to the building where it has been housed since before WWI recalls a time when explorers like Lawrence of Arabia and Kitchener of Khartoum crisscrossed the Holy Land with Bibles, compasses and spades, helping to create the Middle East as we now know it.

The PEF consists of a small library, an important archive of photographs and documents, and a basement full of fascinating relics: stuffed century-old birds, ceramic fragments, a few fanciful (and forged) Moabite artifacts from the 19th century, an old cast of the famed Mesha Stele inscription, which became the focus of imperial power politics among France, Prussia and Britain after its discovery in 1868, a framed photograph of a bearded Victorian benefactor. A visitor cannot help but wonder what other treasures lie in the cabinets, drawers and cardboard boxes.

Taped to a cupboard, a red poster emblazoned with the crown of the British monarchy suggests that one “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

Beginning with its founding in 1865, the PEF dispatched surveyors, engineers, photographers and researchers to Ottoman Palestine and its environs, producing a body of scientific work that is still serving scholars today. More than any other single body, the PEF took a land that had been known in Europe chiefly from the Bible, brought it into the real world and gave it the central place it still has, for better or worse, in the mental landscape of the West.

“Beyond the PEF’s own accomplishments, we set a template for undertaking scientific exploration that allowed everyone else to do something similar,” said Felicity Cobbing, an archaeologist and the PEF’s current curator.

Charles Warren, one of the PEF's best-known explorers, sometimes found himself mobbed by locals who took him for the envoy of a powerful nation called 'Palestine Exploration Fund' (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain)

Charles Warren, one of the PEF’s best-known explorers, sometimes found himself mobbed by locals who took him for the envoy of a powerful nation called ‘Palestine Exploration Fund’ (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

A three-dimensional relief map of the Holy Land that was made in 1883 and still hangs in the office demonstrates how little was known even at the end of the 19th century: The southern deserts of the Negev appear only in vague detail — the area had not yet been mapped — and east of Amman the land is empty and marked “Unexplored.”

The Palestine Exploration Fund was founded with great fanfare on May 12, 1865, dedicated to studying “the Archaeology, Geography, Geology, and Natural History of Palestine.”

The Victorian desire to explore the globe’s unknown quarters was part of the early members’ motivation. An added motivation would grow in the following decades along with British imperial interests in Palestine, which constituted a potential bridge linking Egypt and Mesopotamia. But the organization also embodied a strange sentiment, prevalent at the time, that Palestine, with its biblical past, was somehow an extension of Christian Britain.

“It is the land to which we turn as the fountain of all our hopes; it is the land to which we look with as true a patriotism as we do to this dear old England,” William Thompson, archbishop of York, said of Palestine at the PEF’s founding. At a subsequent meeting, the archbishop referred to Palestine as “ours.” Queen Victoria herself was the official patron, contributing a sum of 150 pounds. At the same time, the group defined itself from the start as an independent academic society without religious or political allegiances.

Through years of fluctuating finances — one of the PEF’s greatest explorers, Charles Warren of the Royal Engineers, once found himself stuck in Jerusalem without wooden tunnel supports because of a funding drought — and despite disease, brigands, suspicious locals and often venal Ottoman officials, PEF men eventually mapped the entire country and produced detailed descriptions of holy sites like the Temple Mount. In his book Digging for God and Country, the archaeologist Neil Asher Silberman called it a kind of “new crusade.”

In Jerusalem, Silberman wrote, “Warren often found himself besieged by people who wished him to intervene in some official matter, thinking him to be the powerful consul of a distant land called ‘Palestine Exploration Fund.’ ”

In late 1913, with war appearing imminent, the PEF dispatched a team to map the last part of Palestine that remained mysterious — the Negev desert. Ostensibly an archaeological survey, the project was also cover for a clandestine attempt to provide the British military with accurate maps in the event of a conflict with Ottoman Turkey.

One of the expedition’s two leaders was a young archaeologist who had recently spent time digging in Syria — T.E. Lawrence, soon to find fame as Lawrence of Arabia.

This was the last piece of the great mapping project. In June 1914, the PEF and the War Office in London received word that the survey was complete and that “all roads have been marked on a new map.” The Great War began a month later.

The July 1900 issue of the PEF's journal, documenting the exploration of the Holy Land and its environs (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain)

The July 1900 issue of the PEF’s journal, documenting the exploration of the Holy Land and its environs (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The powerful secretary of state for war, Horatio Hebert Kitchener — a famed general known as Kitchener of Khartoum for his fighting prowess in the Sudan — happened to have been a PEF surveyor in the 1870s and ’80s, and would play a central role in planning the conquest of Palestine as a way of securing the Suez Canal.

When General Edmund Allenby commanded the British invasion of Palestine in 1917, he used PEF maps. Lawrence himself captured the Red Sea port of Aqaba with a band of Arab irregulars, his knowledge of the area dating to a visit during his survey work before the war.

Today, the organization counts about 350 members, each of whom pays a £36 annual fee. It publishes a respected quarterly journal, and supports projects like a recent survey of crusader sites in Jordan and an investigation of the medieval walls of Ashkelon.

In its archive are records of nearly a century and a half of work, including 10,000 photographs of the Holy Land in the 19th century. (Some are available on Flickr.)

In one basement display case are artifacts from Tell el-Hesy, a famous 1890 dig at which the renowned and eccentric excavator Flinders Petrie implemented many innovations that became the foundations of modern archaeology, including the removal of debris layer by layer and the careful analysis of pottery. (Petrie died and was buried in Jerusalem in 1942 but willed his head to the Royal College of Surgeons in London, where it was duly shipped and where it remains in a jar.)

Nearby is a wooden model of the Holy Sepulcher from the 17th century. A few paces away are three artifacts inscribed with ancient characters once thought to have been ancient Moabite, all three of them forged during the Shapira affair of the 1870s.

In that episode, Moses Wilhelm Shapira, a Jew who had converted to Anglicanism and who ran an antiquities shop in Jerusalem, received international acclaim for finding Moabite artifacts in present-day Jordan, and was then disgraced when the pieces were found to be fake. The three pieces now in the basement were purchased by Kitchener himself in 1874.

In a tantalizing coda to the story, Shapira showed up at the PEF offices in 1883 with a new find: an ancient copy of the Book of Deuteronomy he said had been found by Bedouin near the Dead Sea. The book was far older than any biblical text discovered before, and it differed from the known text of Deuteronomy. The scorned dealer was eager to redeem himself in the eyes of scholars and to make a fortune from a potential sale.

But that manuscript, too, was eventually denounced as a forgery. Shapira shot himself in a Rotterdam hotel room the following year.

By the time the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls suggested that Shapira’s scroll was actually authentic, he had been dead for six decades and the manuscript had disappeared. It has never resurfaced.

In the basement (from left), a portrait of a Victorian benefactor, a collection of birds, and artifacts from Fliinders Petrie's 1890 dig at Tell el-Hesy (Matti Friedman/Times of Israel)

In the basement (from left), a portrait of a Victorian benefactor, a collection of birds, and artifacts from Flinders Petrie’s 1890 dig at Tell el-Hesy (Matti Friedman/Times of Israel)

Shimon Gibson, a Jerusalem archaeologist and a former PEF curator, credits the organization’s archive for numerous scholarly treasures he has found over the years, including diagrams of subterranean spaces under the Temple Mount. The archive recently yielded two unpublished sketches made by Charles Warren in the 1860s, which helped Gibson better understand the history of Ein Rogel, an ancient spring outside Jerusalem’s Old City. (The extravagantly whiskered and decorated Warren went on to an illustrious military career and a stint as chief of the London police during the Jack the Ripper murders.)

The scholars of the PEF can take credit for a dramatic shift in the way people in the West saw the Holy Land, said Gibson.

“Because of their work, this land went from being a distant, obscure, romantic country in the far-off Orient to being a country that was clearly understood in terms of its geography, the location of biblical sites, its physical conditions, and its historical and archaeological dimensions,” he said. Over the decades, they produced a “staggering” amount of careful, detailed material that is crucial in understanding changes in the landscape of the Holy Land.

“Every time I visit a site today with their original data and descriptions, my admiration for these scholar-explorers only grows,” he said.

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