Saturday, March 2, 2013


Rachel Hallote, Felicity Cobbing, Jeffrey B. Spurr, The Photographs of the American Palestine Exploration Society. Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research 66. Boston: American Schools of Oriental Research, 2012. Pp. xix, 352. ISBN 9780897570985. $89.95.

Reviewed by Simon Goldhill, King's College, Cambridge (

Version at BMCR home site

"Our reason for turning to Palestine is that Palestine is our country". With these words, delivered to applause, William Thompson, the archbishop of York, exhorted the Palestine Exploration Fund in 1875 in London to deeds of heroic science. He captures perfectly the bullish tone of British Imperialism, linked as ever to a Protestant supersessionism, that was instrumental in forming the modern map of the Middle East. Because the Bible found its geography in the Holy Land and the Bible was the founding document of Protestant Christianity, Palestine could be said to be "our country". Exploration and mapping, as several fine studies have shown, prepared the way eventually for military conquest and imperial governance. As Captain Warren, one of the leading surveyors of the Palestine Exploration Fund, wrote – it is the conclusion of his famous, best-selling archaeological study of underground Jerusalem: "Will those who love Palestine, love freedom, justice, the Bible, learn to look upon the country as one which may shortly be on the market? Will not they look about and make preparations and discuss the question?" This clarion call, shocking in its explicit recognition that a country could be "on the market", was made with the avowed intention of "gradually introducing the Jew, pure and simple, who is eventually to occupy and govern the country". The Palestine Exploration Fund linked the new technologies of scientific archaeology with a radical Protestant belief in what would come to be called Zionism and an economic and military politics of imperial right in a heady brew of ideology and pragmatism. It produced outstanding new archaeological discoveries, the first accurate maps of the region, and an extraordinary example of how Victorian archaeological science and historical investigation were fully informed by a set of religious, social, and political expectations.

American scholars had been in on biblical archaeology from the beginning. Edward Robinson, of the Union Theological Seminary in New York, has a claim to be the subject's founder. His Biblical Researches in Palestine and Adjacent Regions won the gold medal of the Royal Geographical Society of London in 1842, and represents the first serious attempt to survey the sites of the Holy Land mentioned in the Bible. He made stirring discoveries at the heart of Jerusalem – Robinson's Arch, for example, as it is now called, at the foot of the Temple Mount – and caused a controversy that lasted for more than seventy years when he questioned whether the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was the true site of the Crucifixion. His challenging statement that Jerusalem was the home of "credulous superstition, not unmingled with pious fraud" set critical history and religious belief at odds with each other. Later in the century Fredrick Bliss from the American University in Beirut made some remarkable archaeological finds (though to his great chagrin he missed the Madaba map, although he began to excavate the site where it was finally found), and as the remarkable new exhibition at the Yale Art Gallery, opened in January 2013, brilliantly displays, the discovery of Dura-Europus gave a new vision of third-century Roman multiculturalism and the fusions of religious art. As Michael Oren, the historian who is currently Israeli Ambassador to Washington, has catalogued in his book Power, Faith and Fantasy (New York, 2007), American involvement in the Middle East has been a long and complex cultural and political engagement, for which biblical archaeology has played a crucial mediating role.

Within this fascinating history of how archaeology, the bible, and world history interrelate, the American Palestine Exploration Society (APES) is something of a ridiculus mus, but an institution which is telling precisely because of its failures, misplaced ambitions, and sheer incompetence, as the very brief introduction to this volume narrates. APES was founded in New York in the early 1870s, inspired by and intimately connected with the British Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF), founded in 1865. Its head from 1871 to its demise in the 1880s was Roswell Hitchcock, who had written the biography of Edward Robinson, and shared his senior colleague's hopes for biblical archaeology and the science of exploration. APES organized survey expeditions in 1873 and 1875, with follow up trips in 1876 and 1877 in the West of the region, following an agreement with the British PEF to divide the territory between them (the eastern areas had most of the biblical sites). Dividing the map of the Middle East became a western habit. APES consequently made its headquarters in Beirut. This decision had long-term implications in its potential for interaction with the American University of Beirut (founded in 1866), and, most relevantly for the volume under review, in its connection with the most important centres of photography in the region, but it did not help the surveys. All the expeditions were delayed for months in Beirut, and made slow progress to and from the area to be surveyed, with detours to biblical sites on the way – a process which damaged their already precarious funding. But this was only the start of their errors and inadequacy.

None of the appointed surveyors was fully up to date with the new techniques of surveying or scientific archaeology which were developing apace at this time. They travelled without even a theodolite and measuring chain, basic and essential tools for the work. The first expedition of 1873, led by an engineer, Edgar Steever, and an archaeologist, John Paine, was underfunded and never had the staff to complete a proper survey. They were aware of their deficiencies, as were the British, and from the beginning, the collaboration was under strain. The 1875 expedition was led by the engineer James Lane, who had commanded troops in the Civil War but had no experience of archaeology or the Middle East, and the archaeologist Selah Merrill, a Congregational Minister who would become a notorious consul in Jerusalem for the USA. This expedition (and Merrill's own two follow up trips) were equally disastrous. Lane was well aware he could not survey properly with the equipment and staff provided. Merrill was more interested in archaeological discoveries. But Merrill only went to well-known and often well-published sites. The maps that were produced were so elementary and inadequate that the British PEF refused to publish them, even after representations from Hitchcock to Walter Besant in New York and George Grove in London. Shortly afterwards, APES was dissolved.

The Lane-Merrill expedition, however, had hired a photographer in Beirut, Tancrede Dumas, aptly named for a crusading foreign artist. The photographer added to the slowness of their travel, but produced an album of 100 photographs (available for purchase together or individually) of archaeological sites of interest. The Photographs of the American Palestine Exploration Society, a handsomely produced volume, collects these 100 photographs with 80 others from the survey expeditions. They are assembled from a range of sources, mainly institutional archives to which they were sent in the nineteenth century. The images are printed beautifully, with an introductory essay and a catalogue of fingernail sketches with details of provenance and brief comments. There is an appendix of relevant archival documents tracing the chequered history of the relationship between APES and the PEF.

Photography is an especially important tool of the new archaeology, not least because of its claim on the real. New printing technology also enabled the images of the Holy Land to circulate more widely than ever before. Photography changed the West's imaginary investment in the Holy Land. Contemporary understanding of the role of this imaging is important and far from fully researched or comprehended. This volume is a very useful addition to the materials available for such work, and the short history of APES is expertly put together. The work of Dumas, however, was never as popular or successful as the images produced by the Bonfils Studio, also in Beirut (APES could not afford or perhaps appreciate the higher quality craftsmen), and in their introduction here the authors offer some good contrast in the formal technique of the different camera-work of the two studios. Dumas certainly lacks the technical brilliance of the Bonfils' images, but – and this is not explored by the authors – he also does not engage with the landscape as a palimpsest of biblical history in the way which some of the Bonfils images do. Bonfils, for example, are happy to label a contemporary harvest scene "Ruth and Boas", enforcing a connection between biblical history and the here-and-now in an imagined continuity, a sort of figural reading. There is nothing like this in Dumas' work, which makes less dramatic envisionings of the world around him, and the contrast is a telling one for the development of the West's articulation of its visual sense of the Oriental other.

The Photographs of the American Palestine Exploration Society is primarily a source book. Had the introduction been more expansive, it could certainly have treated Selah Merrill in more detail. He is a fascinating character who emerges here in far less lurid colours than he deserves. As American consul in Jerusalem, he entered into violent conflict with the so-called American Colony, a religious group of American and Swedish Christians made famous by the writings of the Nobel Laureate Selma Lagerlöf and Anna Spafford Vester. The American Colony Hotel in modern Jerusalem is the site of their commune. Merrill accused the pious group of sexual shenanigans, and went so far as to sell their graveyard and dig up and discard the bones from the graves – an act that caused huge scandal back in America, and led to him losing his appointment. He also opposed Jewish agricultural settlements in Palestine, against his own State department's policies. He was a Hebrew scholar who had little time for Jews, argued with many Christians, and whose cantankerous, opinionated stance demonstrates vividly how much scholarship in these areas is tied up with personal formation.

Similarly, while the contrast between Dumas and the Bonfils studio is well taken, Dumas' work could have been more broadly located within the growing field of photographic representation of the Holy Land. Relevant here are not just the work of pioneers such as Frith, Salzman, or the American Colony itself, which sold many photographs to tourists in Jerusalem, but also the extensive work of Ottoman photographers, stimulated by the Sultan's patronage, who was well-aware of the West's Orientalist gaze and used photography self-consciously as a propaganda tool to construct a counter-image of the modern Ottoman empire. The battle for hearts and minds was fought through competing constructions of the real through photography.

The Photographs of the American Palestine Exploration Society is a solid and useful contribution to a growing field. There is much more intellectually ambitious work remaining to be done in this area, but this volume provides thoughtful and well-produced materials to enable the work to progress. It is an expensive volume at nearly $90, but, in a twist of economics, cheaper than in the nineteenth century, when Dumas' album was priced at $200.

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