The Holy Land: `1860s' `1980s' Jerusalem has beckoned photographers for nearly a century and a half. Their pictures record both the changing, and changeless, nature of this sacred city.

THE Holy Land, laden with memory and meaning for adherents of three of the world's great religions, is a place that unites change and changelessness. Waves of conquest perpetually remolded its cities and monuments. Today, starkly modern buildings may sprout near structures that have defied the centuries. Yet a pastoral scene, a domed temple, or the remnants of an ancient wall can instantly evoke ages and individuals that shaped, and are still shaping, our world.

With its powerful mix of image and imagery, the Holy Land -- and particularly the city of Jerusalem -- has long proved irresistible to photographers. Nineteenth-century pioneers of the art lugged their bulky cameras to various prominences and rooftops affording good views of the Temple Mount, David's Citadel, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and other landmarks of the city.

Men like Felix Bonfils, Francis Frith, and Zangaki Freres -- examples of whose work appear on this page -- built careers on amassing a pictorial record of the Holy Land.

It was their work, and a suggestion from Carney Gavin, curator of the Harvard Semitic Museum, that nudged Daniel Tassel to undertake a ``re-photography'' project. Mr. Tassel, a physician and avid photographer from Lexington, Mass., worked closely with Nitza Rosovsky, assistant curator for exhibits at the Semitic Museum and a native of Jerusalem. They sifted through hundreds of old photos in the museum's archives and in private collections.

The museum staff felt, essentially, that modern pictures of the same places photographed in the last century would simply be ``a good record to have,'' Mrs. Rosovsky explains.

The project would capture the extent of change in an ever-changing region, and it might prove as interesting to a future generation of scholars as the Semitic Museum's huge array of 19th-century photos are proving to the current one.

The results of the re-photography were ``fascinating,'' says Rosovsky, who has written widely on her home city, including a guidebook, ``Jerusalemwalks.'' While change is evident, ``Jerusalem has, in a sense, done remarkably well in preservation,'' she observes. And often, modern archaeological efforts -- evidence of which appears in many of Tassel's shots -- have brought more of the past into view.

She points to the pictures of the Damascus Gate, for instance, which show relatively little change between Bonfils's 1867 shot and Tassel's, taken some 115 years later. But the newer photo reveals a second, recently excavated gate, lower and just to the left of the main one, that dates to the time of Hadrian, the Roman emperor, around AD 135.

In a preface to a catalog of photos from the project, Tassel writes that when he began retracing the footsteps of earlier photographers, ``I had not realized the excitement of searching out and finding the sites and encountering the variations on the `then and now' theme. Some of these places had changed dramatically, the location identifiable only by a unique structure or the topography of the surrounding land. Others had changed so little that I caught myself almost confusing the `now' with the `th en,' feeling at times as if I were transferred back to the 19th century.''

There were memorable moments of other kinds as well. The people he met -- Jews, Muslims, and Christians -- were without exception eager to help with the project. ``Hospitality of the warmest kind was extended to the photographers who shared a love of their land. Time and again, I was offered assistance in locating the proper vantage point (at times wrong) and invited into a cool room to share refreshments and family biographies.''

Tassel comments, too, that he was continually impressed by the skill of the pioneering photographer who had preceded him to a particular location. Frequently, he writes, ``I realized that he had not only selected the most aesthetically pleasing viewpoint, he had also chosen the most obvious place to rest with his cumbersome equipment.''

Blown-up copies of Tassel's photos and those of a century ago are now on exhibit in Israel. They'll move to the Harvard Semitic Museum's building in Cambridge, Mass., next April, then on to Atlanta and Canada.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.