The Jaffa Gate, towards the end of the 19th-century, photo: Félix Bonfils
What did Jerusalem look like 150 years ago? It seems we are the first generation to be able to answer this question with any degree of certainty, thanks to prints that have been preserved in the National Library, from the early days of photography in the Land of Israel.
The last few decades of the 19th century saw large surges of visiting tourists, researchers and pilgrims who explored the Holy Land as part of a predetermined route of tourist sites in the Near East. Most did not have cameras, which were heavy and cumbersome devices in those days. The Orient and the spirit of the Bible which they wished to absorb are clearly visible in the pictures produced by the few professional photographers who worked here. The most famous of these was Félix Bonfils.
The landscapes are vast and empty, perhaps because of the difficulties involved in photographing passers-by. Cameras of the period used special glass plates, which were coated with light-sensitive chemicals, a technique that required long exposure. In certain cases, when the composition demanded it, 19th-century citizens of Jerusalem can indeed be spotted in the pictures, resembling extras on an elaborate and majestic movie set.