Holy Land preserved in photos

The Middle East has long pulled at the hearts and minds of the Western world. And yet, despite centuries of study, for most Westerners, the region and its complex history remain somewhat shrouded in mystery.

Perhaps nowhere is the intricate relationship between painstaking observation and an ultimate failure to fully penetrate the surface more clearly traced than in a fascinating exhibit of 19th-century photos of what was anciently known as Palestine. (The region today is divided between areas controlled by Palestinians, Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, and parts of Syria.)

The Dahesh Museum in New York has assembled 92 vintage prints and two photo albums displaying the work of mid-19th-century European photographers in a show called "Revealing the Holy Land: The Photographic Exploration of Palestine."

The motives of the photographers involved were diverse.

Some sought to prove the veracity of the Bible by photographing the terrain on which the narrated events are believed to have taken place. Others were more interested in serving political or commercial ends.

And then there were those who were simply curious.

Whatever their motives, the body of work they produced offers a captivating and historic look at a land many still struggle to understand. The show leaves unanswered many of the questions it raises.

The efforts to prove the truth of biblical narratives, for instance, are found in century-old photos of the Garden of Gethsemane, the spot where Jesus was condemned by an angry crowd and the path he walked toward his crucifixion. All three photos are haunting in their clarity, and yet touchingly naive in their claims to offer scientific documentation.

This odd mixture of precision and elusiveness is particularly striking in the work of the Alsatian photographer Auguste Salzmann, who took tightly framed close-ups of the architectural details of what was believed to have been the ancient kingdom of Solomon. Salzmann's work offers proof that something magnificent existed, but it is unable to document exactly what that something was.

Other photographers, like Frank Mason Good, included indigenous people and their costumes in their photos. And yet in these images, too, the viewer experiences the sensation of marveling over the exacting nature of the detail provided without ever being fully able to grasp the truth of what lies beneath the surface.

At the core of the exhibition are 35 never-before-displayed photographs by Sgt. James McDonald of Britain's Royal Engineers.

These photos were taken during the 1864 and 1868 British surveys of Jerusalem and the Sinai and were intended to serve as topographic records.

For the British, Palestine was a dual source of fascination: It not only served the colonial power as a route to India, but also lay at the center of the Christian faith.

Sergeant McDonald's photos are an assertion of Western colonial power, what the exhibition's co-curator, Kathleen Stewart Howe, calls a "literal possession of the spiritual geography of Jerusalem."

*'Revealing the Holy Land' runs through Aug. 28. The Dahesh Museum, at 601 Fifth Avenue in New York City, is open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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