The beauty of Ottoman Palestine, lovingly explored and documented
100 years ago, a German polymath theologian with a passion for the Holy Land snapped an enchanting collection of photos. We publish them here for the first time, along with his ultimately sad story
In the basement of a house on the Mount of Olives is a collection of 100-year-old photographs of Ottoman Palestine — published here for the first time — that document the people, sites and lifestyle of Palestine in the twilight years of Turkish rule.
The photos were taken by the first director of the German Protestant Institute of Archaeology (DEIAHL), Gustaf Dalman, an eclectic early-20th century polymath who fell in love with the Holy Land and set out to catalog its inhabitants, plants, animals, sounds and way of life. The DEIAHL was founded in 1900 by the German Protestant church at the behest of Kaiser Wilhelm II following his historic visit to Jerusalem two years earlier, with the stated aim of promoting “the exploration of the Holy Land and its diverse past, cultures and religions.”
Today the institute’s headquarters is located in a bucolic stone house sitting in the shadow of the Augusta Victoria Hospital on the Mount of Olives. The DEIAHL building houses a massive library with thousands of books on archaeology of ancient Israel, and serves as the nerve center for the organization’s various projects. Its basement is a small museum storing an assortment of ancient pottery and metalwares dating as far back as the Late Bronze Age, tomes belonging to directors past, an official document in elaborate Turkish calligraphy from the sultan’s court, and antique surveying equipment.
The collection also includes a trove of Dalman’s correspondences, publications, pressed flowers and plants, and miniature models of Roman and Ottoman-era houses, painstakingly molded out of gypsum.
The crown jewel of the museum, however, is Dalman’s collection of hundreds of photos printed on glass slides — some taken by him, others collected from purveyors of Holy Land photographs at the time. Most are in black and white, but many were artificially colorized.
“The set is a superb example of the ways in which visual representation of this part of the world made its way into the Western imagination and also became part of a knowledge base,” said Dr. Kathleen Howe, a photography expert at the Pomona College Museum of Art in California. She said the photos tried to capture a “timeless rural or agrarian Palestine” for a European or American audience, devoid of the modernization that was underway at the time.
“It is untouched, seeming a remnant from the time of the prophets, and that is exactly what tourists came to find, and those who couldn’t travel wanted to see in the photographs they ordered,” Howe said. “These images and others like them are important for our understanding because they serve in some way as a reminder of the blinkers that still restrict many people’s image of this region.”
Dalman became director of DEIAHL in 1902 and remained in Ottoman Palestine in that capacity until 1914. At the time the institute was based in what was then the Swedish Consulate, a two-story house on Ethiopia Street in modern downtown Jerusalem.
Curiously, the board of trustees forbade Dalman — a theologian who was educated and taught at the Institutum Judaicum in Leipzig — from conducting archaeological excavations in the Holy Land because, though he was head of an archaeological institute, he was not an archaeologist. Instead he purchased antiquities and documented the ethnography of Palestinians in minute detail (in the mistaken belief that they preserved the same traditions as the residents of Judea during Jesus’s time). One of his seven books, “Arbeit und Sitte in Palaestina,” or Work and Custom in Palestine, describes the Arab economy of late Ottoman Palestine in astounding detail, down to the method of manufacturing olive oil and cloth, lighting a fire, and farming practices in each season, all peppered with references to the Bible and Talmud.
His primary occupation, however, was heading months-long teaching courses of historic Palestine for German professors.
“He wanted German professors not only to speak about Palestine, but also know what it is,” explained Dieter Vieweger, the current head of DEIAHL. “It was a very important step for our institute because this is one of our main tasks every year to have this teaching course.”
Dalman would tour the country on horseback for months at a time with German theologians and historians, visiting archaeological and biblical sites and delivering lectures. His photographs reflect his extensive travels around the Holy Land and familiarity with Biblical geography. The DEIAHL continues in this tradition, and still brings German academics to historic sites for a several-week-long trek around the country.
“Now we do it by VW bus,” Vieweger said with a chuckle, and it doesn’t take several months.
Aside from the historical lectures, today the institute focuses on two major projects, one in Jordan and the other in Jerusalem. Its major project is the excavations at Tell Zira’a, the remains of an ancient city in Jordan just south of the Sea of Galilee. Vieweger said the site, found in 1998, is slightly larger than Megiddo, a major archaeological site in northern Israel, “but is really unknown.”
“We have more than 5,000 years of continuity” at Tell Zira’a, he explained, in large part because of an artesian well located at the center of the site. “This is our really large excavation. It takes a lot of money and a lot of our time.”
“Until now we have excavated about three percent of the tell,” he said. Once the previous seasons’ excavations have been published, Vieweger said he intends to commence digging around the spring at the heart of Tell Zira’a. “I think the temples should be here, around the artesian spring, and there must be some installations to get the water and so on. I hope to find real good things.”
DEIAHL’s other project is the archaeological excavations beneath the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in the Old City’s Christian Quarter. Located on the Muristan, the remains of the Knight’s Hospitaller’s first hospital and a series of Crusader churches, the Church of the Redeemer was built on land given to the German Protestant Church by the Ottoman sultan in 1869. Constructed atop the remains of a Crusader church known as St. Maria Latina, it was finished in 1898 in time for Kaiser Wilhelm’s arrival.
Marcel Serr, assistant director of the DEIAHL, said the Church of the Redeemer was built during an international rush to explore the Holy Land that he likened to the 1950s space race. During construction of the church, workers came upon a wall that archaeologists assumed was a remnant of the Second Temple-era city wall referred to by Jewish historian Josephus Flavius. More extensive excavations beneath the church in the 1970s showed that the wall was likely only a retaining wall for the platform on which the original, significantly larger Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built. A trench cut 14 meters (45 feet) deep alongside the wall hit bedrock at a quarry which was in use until the first century BCE, which suggested the Church of the Redeemer would have been outside Jerusalem’s city walls during the Roman Era.
A low arch in the church’s museum dedicated to the archaeological finds provided DEIAHL an opportunity to conduct additional digs beneath the Church of the Redeemer’s adjoining cloisters. It intends to break ground in June and expects to find medieval structures relating to the Benedictine monastery which once stood alongside the Church of St. Maria Latina.
“We’ll have to see how far we can get,” Serr said. The dig may hit bedrock just below the current floor of the museum, and the archaeologists will need be careful of the structural integrity of the current building.
At the outbreak of the First World War, almost exactly 100 years ago, Dalman was in Germany for vacation. He would never return to Jerusalem
Dalman was passionate about Jerusalem, as evidenced by his staggering array of photos of the city and its many sites, but, tragically, he was doomed to never return to the city he loved after 1914. At the outbreak of the First World War, almost exactly 100 years ago, Dalman was in Germany for vacation. Proud of his German heritage, Dalman, who also served as editor of an archaeological journal, wrote a damning foreword to the 1914 edition of the Palästinajahrbuch, tendering his resignation from the international Palestine Exploration Fund.
“Deeply saddened by the British government intention, in alliance with barbarians and idolaters, to destroy German cultural work in the world or bring it down, and its campaign of false testimony against our national character, all scientific or religious cooperation between the British and the Germans is made impossible for an incalculable amount of time, and therefore my personal efforts for 25 years for mutual understanding is ruined, and I withdraw my name from the list of the members of the general committee of the Palestine Exploration Fund,” he wrote.
Vieweger called Dalman’s introduction “the mistake of his life.” The British, outraged by his lambasting of England’s alleged crusade against German culture, banned Dalman from continuing his work in British-occupied Palestine after 1917 and forbade him from returning to work. He was permitted to reclaim a small portion of his collection and was not allowed to come back.
Returning to Germany, he taught at the Institute of Palestinology in Greifswald for the remainder of his life until his death in 1941. That institution was named after him after he died.
Long term, DEIAHL’s director Vieweger said he’d like to conduct more excavations in Jerusalem in addition to the one at the Church of the Redeemer. He said he hopes to work to help restore a 4th or 5th century mosaic, the oldest of its kind, in an Armenian church just outside the Old City Walls.
But the passion for Jerusalem that propelled Dalman isn’t the only consideration. German pragmatism is also part of Vieweger’s equation. “Because we are in Jerusalem,” Vieweger said. “If you work in Megiddo or in Tel Dan, it’s a long journey and you need a house to base camp. It’s much better to work in Jerusalem.”
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