A search for Mideast treasures: a king's ransom for old photos

A Middle Eastern treasure is missing, and the King of Saudi Arabia has given Harvard scholars $600,000 to find it.

The treasure is the cultural history captured on film by visitors to the Middle East. The treasure hunt is centered in old shoe boxes, attics, libraries, military records - wherever old photographs are tossed and forgotten.

Officials of the Harvard Semitic Museum announced Friday that they received the $600,000 gift from Saudi King Fahd. The money is to fund a three-year project to uncover, save, and copy fragile, old photographs of the Middle East that have survived.

Museum officials point out the irony of the contribution, which comes from a culture that for ages has been reluctant to allow photos to be taken or displayed. This practice stemmed from the Islamic commandment regarding the worship of ''graven images.'' This was interpreted to forbid image-making (various art forms). According to Islamic belief, this was considered creating life from nothingness - an act only God could perform.

But, explains Dr. Gavin, King Fahd's father, King Abdul Aziz, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, had held that photography, unlike other art, makes an image of shadows of God's creation and is therefore not an act of creation itself. King Fahd embraces the same notion, and as a former Minister of Education, says Dr. Gavin, is even more sensitive to the need to preserve culture.

''Most historians of the Middle East are not aware these photographs exist,'' explained Dr. Gavin, who has already put together a collection of 28,000 Mideast photographs dating as far back as the 1860s. These have come from as diverse spots as a tower in the Lichtenstein royal family's home and a Lebanese family album. These photos, says Dr. Gavin, are the historic equivalent of ''your Aunt Matilda's'' curling, yellowed photos in the attic. So, why are they worth a $600 ,000 search?

''There's more to be dug out of pictures than taking a shovel to Earth,'' says Dr. Gavin. He points to the museum's current exhibit of handsome photos by the Bonfils, a 19th-century French family based in Beirut. He whips out a magnifying glass from his breast pocket, offering visitors a closer look at the photographic detail that reveals individual windows and bricks on a cityscape (circa 1860).

This kind of detail, more than an artist's imagination, he says, is a chance for historians to ''dig into moments'' - a kind of ''photo-archaeology.'' Its historic applications, he says, are innumerable.

Photographic history is necessarily short because photography was only invented in 1839. But the details of ancient buildings that survived the ages but did not survive the increased destruction of recent wars have been captured on film.

For example, says Dr. Gavin, contemporary historians often argued about the existence of a moat around the ancient fortress at Damascus, Syria. A recently discovered photo shows the ancient citadel indeed had a moat. Another 100 -year-old photo shows where a theater once stood. The stones had been taken and used to construct other buildings and the location of the theater had been forgotten.

Beyond historic significance, says Dr. Gavin, is the ''dignity'' of Middle Eastern culture portrayed in the old photographs - a dignity that he says was trodden over when Western imperialism began to exert influence in that area. The Bonfils exhibit clearly illustrates - in the dark beauty of the proud merchants, guides, princes, mothers, and laborers - why the Saudi king would pay a handsome price to preserve the heritage of the Middle East.

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