Exhibition Presents First-ever Photos Taken of the Land of Israel

The photos, taken by Italian engineer Ermete Pierotti between 1854-1861, portray a colorful, realistic and Orientalistic Land of Israel.

A photo taken from a Jerusalem exhibition displaying ancient photos of the Land of Israel
A photo taken from a Jerusalem exhibition displaying ancient photos of the Land of Israel Emil Salman

A new photo exhibition present colorful, realistic and "Orientalist" images of the Land of Israel, which appeared in a book by Jerusalem's city engineer in the mid-19th century. The photos in the book, however, are more than historical treasures; they were also evidence in the first-ever case of copyright infringement in the Holy Land, when the engineer, Ermete Pierotti, published them in a book and apparently falsely claimed ownership of them.

Pierotti's manuscript will be on display as part of the "Jerusalem Days" conference being conducted at Yad Yitzhak Ben Zvi in Jerusalem this week.

Pierotti, considered one of the first Western scholars of the Holy Land, lived in Ottoman Palestine between 1854 and 1861. He was invited by the Ottoman governor in Jerusalem, Suraya Pasha, to help plan and build the city. Later he wrote a book based on his experience titled "Customs and Traditions in the Land of Israel" - an anthropological and zoological overview of the land in the 19th century. The book includes detailed descriptions of animals and people, their customs, dress, legends and internal conflicts.

Ermete Pierotti
Emil Salman

The book also contains photographs, including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Monastery of St. John in the Wilderness located south of Jerusalem, taken almost 160 years ago.

However, Dr. Nirit Shalev-Khalifa, a researcher at Yad Ben Tzvi who is studying the manuscript, does not believe Pierotti took the photographs.

Rather, she believes they were the work of Mendel Diness, who is known as the first professional photographer in Israel to pictures in natural daylight, outside of a studio.

Diness, a Jewish watchmaker of Russian origin who settled in Jerusalem, was converted to Christianity by the British consul in Jerusalem, James Finn. Finn's wife, Elizabeth, was one of the pioneers of photography in the Holy Land, and she was apparently the one who introduced Diness to photography. Elizabeth Finn had photography equipment delivered from London, and was assisted by the Scottish photographer James Graham. Diness was Graham's assistant, and according to one theory he was the first to learn photography in the Holy Land, thus earning him the title of the country's first professional photographer.

If Shalev-Khalifa's theory is correct, the photographs are not only the first ever taken in the Holy Land, but also evidence in the first lawsuit filed over copyright infringement, after Graham sued Pierotti in London for stealing the rights to the photos. And although Pierotti claimed the pictures had been taken by Diness, from whom he had legally purchased them, Graham won.

In his book and his pictures, Pierotti waxed enthusiastic over what he saw as the preservation of the biblical Jewish culture by the native Arab population. However his prediction for the future of the land was dim: "Based on the facts I brought above, I believe that it becomes clear to the reader that the Land of Israel was given for spoil, dispute and quarrel, which bring it closer every year to total destruction," he wrote. In 1985, Rehavam Ze'evi, then the director of the Eretz Israel Museum, published the first Hebrew edition of Pierotti's book. But the book, which was translated from a late English edition, did not include the dozens of drawings Pierotti included in his original work, as well as dried flowers which were preserved between the pages.