The Finest Photographs of Early 20th Century Palestine, Shuttered in Controversy

The family of Armenian refugee and photographer Elia Kahvedjian is fighting to preserve his legacy.

On the counter of the small photography shop Photo Elia in the Old City of Jerusalem lies an early 20th century picture of the Western Wall, which appears squeezed among the homes of the Mughrabi Quarter that no longer exists. To contemporary Israeli eyes, there is something striking about the scene of worshippers: Women and men are praying together in public.

Another photograph shows the flight of the German Zeppelin here in 1931. The gigantic airship hovers in black and white like a strange UFO above the Old City. In a third picture, large sailboats are seen in the Yarkon estuary; in a fourth, a European-style clock tower rises above the Jaffa gate and in a fifth the Kapulsky chain of cafes is seen in its humble beginnings: a small coffee wagon with a sign that reads "Kapulsky" at the edge of Jerusalem's Zion Square.

Tiberias - Kahvedjian Collection - February 2012
Tiberias in the thirties. Kahvedjian Collection

The pictures are part of a collection of about 3,000 photographs taken by Elia Kahvedjian, a refugee of the Armenian genocide and one of the greatest photographers in Jerusalem at the beginning of the 20th century. The pictures, which had been hidden away for 40 years, were rediscovered 25 years ago and serve to help researchers and aficionados of Jerusalem probe its past. Thus, for example, the architects who reconstructed the Hurva Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter (destroyed by the Jordanians in 1948 and rebuilt in 2010 ) were guided by Kahvedjian's pictures - as were the Antiquities Authority researchers who wanted to reconstruct elements of the city's walls and gates.

Death march

The only certain fact that family members know about Kahvedjian is that he was born in the region of Urfa in Eastern Turkey. They do not know his date of birth or even his original name. Eli Kahvedjian, who was named after his grandfather, tells that the elder Kahvedjian was separated from his mother when he was a young boy, and did not even know his surname. "At an orphanage they asked him what his surname was and he didn't' know, so they asked him: 'What does your father sell in his shop?' He said 'coffee' so they called him Kahvedjian," recalls the grandson, noting that "kahve" means coffee in Turkish.

"He went with his mother on the death march (the Turkish army marched masses of Armenian civilians to desert regions of southern Turkey). "His mother thought his life would be better if she gave him away. By chance, a Kurdish man passed by them and agreed to take the child, but sold him as a slave. In his new life Elia was called Abdu and he operated the bellows for a blacksmith. One day the blacksmith got married again and the new wife did not want Elia so he was thrown into the street where he lived from begging," continues Eli Kahvedjian.

Zeppelin Jerusalem - Kahvedjian - Feb 2012
A German Zeppelin hovering above the Old City of Jerusalem.Kahvedjian collection

"One day a man came up to him and offered him food, The man took him into a cave and by chance Elia lost his balance, fell on the floor and felt that the floor was full of human skulls. He realized he was in danger and started to run away. The kidnapper threw a sword at him and wounded him in the leg. Until the day he died he had a scar there. When I tell this today I get the shivers," says the grandson.

In the end, Kahvedjian was saved by an American aid organization that brought tens of thousands of orphans out of Turkey to the Middle East. Kahvedjian entered an orphanage in Nazareth when he was about 10 or 11 years old, the family estimates. There he was exposed to photography for the first time, when he served as a porter for one of the teachers at the orphanage who also worked as a photographer.

Eventually he moved to Jerusalem where he lived in a sort of housing project for orphans. He started working for the Hananya Brothers, a well-known Christian family that ran a photography shop adjacent to the place known today as Israel Defense Forces Square in the center of the city. When the brothers wanted to close up shop he took out a large loan and bought it. He very quickly won commercial success.

Western Wall - Kahvedjian - Feb 2012
Jews praying at the Western Wall. Kahvedjian collection

His grandson believes the explanation of this surprising success lies in a certain photograph he found a few months ago, in which the grandfather is seen in a group portrait of the Jerusalem Order of the Freemasons - a surprising discovery to the family. "Clearly someone high up helped him but it's strange that he kept this a secret. His relationship with us was pretty close," he says with a smile, hinting that his grandfather had connections with the British authorities by means of the Masons. The help from "above" was manifested in projects Kahvedjian photographed for the British.

He received further help two days before the outbreak of the War of Independence, relates the grandson. "A British officer came to him and told him: 'Get rid of your things and get out of here.' He took his negatives to a storeroom in the Armenian Quarter and closed the shop."

Kahvedjian fled to the Old City and by 1949 he had opened the small shop in the Christian Quarter that remains there to this day.

Gypsies - Kahvedjian - Feb 2012
Gypsy women dancing in Jerusalem. Kahvedjian collection

Hidden treasures from the storeroom

The thousands of negatives that were hidden in 1948 came to light again only in 1987, when the family put the storeroom in order. Eventually the family realized they had a treasure in their hands. The first exhibition of his works was held in 1990 at the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem. According to Eli Kahvedjian, "People went wild - they were hungry for this material. We knew it was a success, but we didn't understand just how much of a success."

Since then the shop has become a small museum of black and white photographs from the early 20th century in high quality prints. Most of the customers are tourists. Beyond their historical and anthropological value, the photos are stunning in their precise composition and capture of inspiring moments and perspectives. For the most part, the pictures deal with everyday life: vendors in the market, shoeshine boys (including a Jew polishing an Arab's shoes ) and caravans of camels.

Yarkon boats - Kahvedjian - Feb 2012
Boats on the Yarkon estuary. Kahvedjian collection

One of the photos became the focus of a political controversy last year. The picture, a portrait of a Palestinian family taken in a citrus grove at the end of the 1930s, served as the basis for artist Eliyahu Arik Bokobza's painting "The Citrus Grower." MK Aryeh Eldad (National Union ) protested the Knesset's purchase of the painting for its permanent exhibit, claiming that it was an attempt to depict the past from an Arab perspective, and suggest that "we robbed and expelled them."

In 1998 the family published a volume of several dozen photographs entitled "Jerusalem Through My Father's Eyes," sold only in a small shop in the Christian Quarter (for NIS 230 ), which became a collectors' item. The grandson relates that there are those who buy the book in order to sell it and make a profit. "They sell it for the same price on the Internet, only in dollars." And indeed, a look at the Amazon site confirms that it is possible to buy the book for $225.

The family is especially proud of the quality of the book - the paper was purchased especially in France and the printing was done under their supervision. In recent years, however, cheap imitations - using inexpensive paper and low-quality reproductions - have been appearing in souvenir shops and bookshops in Jerusalem. "I don't want to get rich from this - it's part of the family's history," says Eli Kahvedjian, "but it hurts me that people are disrespectful. With me there are no compromises in quality. I give the pictures the respect they deserve."

Eventually the family sued three shop owners who refused their demand to stop selling the pirated book. The defendants tried to argue that they had not been involved in the forging of the book, but only in its distribution, and did not know it was a forgery. They also argued that the photographs do not belong to the Kahvedjian family because the grandfather had inherited them together with the Hananya Brothers' studio and there was no proof that he had taken the photographs. Jerusalem District Court Judge Joseph Shapira rejected their arguments, prohibited the defendants from continuing to distribute the book and ordered them to pay the family NIS 63,000 in damages.

"The question of copyright was not with regard to each individual picture "but rather with regard to the book as a collection," explains Deuel Peli of the law firm of Agmon & Co., one of two attorneys who represented the family. "Somebody forged the whole book but at a very inferior quality. We hope the trial has created a deterrent effect and in the near future we will be seeing fewer pirated books. But we still don't know who printed the books."

Today, a photo of Elia Kahvedjian gazes down from the wall at the family's shop, hanging among antique cameras that still work. He died in 1999, at the age of 89, according to the family's estimate. "He was an incredibly strong man. He had to have been," says his grandson, "otherwise he would not have survived all that he did."

Read this article in Hebrew