Zev Radovan has been taking photos since 1965, in Israel and around the world. He and his camera were given the kind of access that few people receive. As a result, Radovan was able to document some incredible locations and moments in history. His archive of photographs can now be found at the National Library of Israel…
A temple in the desert.
Strange standing stones, arranged in a peculiar fashion, and covered in intricate, beautiful markings – human figures, animals and symbols decipherable only to a select few. The stones stand at the summit of a remote hilltop in the inhospitable wilderness of Sinai. The markings are ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, identifying the site as a temple dedicated to Hathor, goddess of the sky, fertility, women and love.
This is Serabit al-Khadem, a location that has been studied by archaeologists for well over a century. This was where the ancient Egyptians mined turquoise, a semi-precious stone that was in great demand at the time.
Serabit al-Khadem was where a link was first established between ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and early Proto-Sinaitic script. It was from this script that Hebrew, Arabic and Greek would eventually develop. Proto-Sinaitic characters were found scribbled on rocks not far from the temple. It is believed they were made by Canaanite prisoners who labored in the mines. These people lived, worked and worshipped here. In their writings they referred to the goddess as “the lady of the turquoise”.
These photographs were taken in the late 1960s by Zev Radovan, a veteran Israeli photographer who throughout his career often focused on documenting archaeological and heritage sites around the world. Radovan has now deposited his vast archive in the National Library of Israel.
Radovan came to Sinai shortly after it was captured by Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967. He would frequently work in collaboration with university professors, accompanying their digs and research trips. “They were all incredible professionals,” he says of the Hebrew University archaeologists who travelled with him to Serabit al-Khadem and Sinai, as well as the rest of Egypt later on. “They were reading those hieroglyphs like I read the newspaper.”
A New Frontier
The new territories that became accessible to Israeli photographers following the war were the focus of much interest in those years. “The war was over, it was – ‘Let’s go to Jericho! Yalla!’ – and you’d get in the car and drive to Jericho,” says Radovan. “On the way you’d still see burnt-out vehicles here and there on the side of the road. Then it was ‘Let’s go to Hebron’ – and we’d drive to Hebron. It was all very innocent and nothing bad happened.” He adds that Israelis were often greeted warmly by Arabs in these storied locations, places that held a near-mystical allure and that had for years been so near, and yet so far.
These areas could also now be reached by Israeli archaeologists, scholars and experts. Radovan worked particularly closely with geographer Zev Vilnay, archaeologist Yigal Yadin, and art historian Bezalel Narkiss. These professors opened doors for him, took him on research trips and excavations, and taught him much about their respective fields.
Digging in the Gaza Strip
Radovan recalls that one of his most interesting shoots took place in Deir al-Balah, located in the central Gaza Strip, another area conquered by Israel in 1967.
Moshe Dayan, who as Defense Minister had been one of the masterminds behind Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, also had a deep passion for archaeology. According to Radovan, Dayan became acquainted with a Bedouin who owned a plot of land near Deir al-Balah on which he had found the remains of an ancient cemetery.
Hidden beneath the large sand dunes which covered the area were a series of anthropoid sarcophagi – ancient clay coffins carved to resemble human features.
Zev Radovan accompanied the archaeological team that was sent to excavate the site, under the guidance of Professor Trude Dotan, but they would have been helpless if not for the Bedouin land owner, the only person who knew where the coffins were.
“He would say: ‘Dig here’, and there would indeed by a coffin there. How he knew I have no idea,” Radovan recalls. “You remove layer after layer of sand. Suddenly you reach the ground, you see some markings, you’re digging, and all of sudden a face appears. It was amazing”.
But the team of archaeologists only excavated four or five of these sarcophagi. Interestingly, around fifteen additional coffins had already been found and removed beforehand by Dayan, the amateur archaeologist/Defense Minister, and his Bedouin acquaintance.
Radovan explains that when a sarcophagus was uncovered and opened, “There would be a skeleton or sometimes two skeletons inside, as well as all sorts of personal belongings of the deceased, including jewelry.”
For years these anthropoid sarcophagi were kept in Dayan’s backyard, which was something of a museum in its own right. The politician told Radovan: “When I’m here among the anthropoids, I feel like I’m in the Knesset. I see them and I see the faces of the Knesset members.” Dayan left the sarcophagi to the Israel Museum after his passing. They can be seen there today.
The Many Faces of The Holy City
Though born in Croatia in 1938, Zev Radovan has been living in Jerusalem since 1950, when he arrived in Israel as a child. Naturally the city is featured prominently in his photographs.
Jerusalem was itself a photographic frontier following 1967, with the city’s eastern neighborhoods now open to Israelis and easily accessible to tourists.
The Old City’s Jewish quarter, which had been under Jordanian control since 1948, still lay in ruins. “For the older people, it was wonderful to return to all these places,” Radovan explains, “[For the newer arrivals like myself] it was fascinating, to see the gates of the Old City… Today it seems completely banal, back then it was extremely interesting and completely new”.
Radovan’s camera also captured the beginning of archaeological excavations at the Western Wall and in the Jewish Quarter. “These were the days of the flower children, with lots of volunteers… Everywhere there was a spirit of volunteering and happiness.”
The Other Side
But there were other sides to the post-1967 reality, and Radovan documented those aspects as well. “I travelled to all sorts of refugee camps, ‘like an idiot’ you could say, I took their picture, they smiled at me, and I smiled back. These were places that you couldn’t dream of entering today.”
Radovan’s archive includes photographs showing Palestinians refugees crossing the Allenby Bridge into Jordan, shortly after the war’s conclusion. “It was all done calmly, though for them it was a terrible disaster,” he says.
A Photographer at War
In 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, Radovan found himself in the Golan Heights, as the IDF struggled desperately to halt the advance of hundreds of Syrian tanks. He had been called up as a reservist and sent to the front lines by the army newspaper, BaMahaneh, to photograph the battles as they unfolded.
“I was attached to an armored corps unit…If I saw they weren’t advancing enough and another unit was, I could join the others. I wasn’t under anyone’s command… That gives you options, including the ability to escape. I was a bit naïve. The battles I was in…it’s foolish [to put yourself in such a situation] for the sake of a picture… I was in some difficult situations. But there were those who were much worse off. People right by me were hit.”
In the 1980s, Radovan began a partnership with Professor Bezalel Narkiss, founder of the Center for Jewish Art. During his work with the Center over the next few decades, he made 35 separate trips to locations across the globe, with Narkiss and other researchers. They travelled to dozens of Jewish communities in remote corners of the world – “From Morocco, to India, Tunisia to Poland… documenting Jewish heritage, synagogues, Judaica, Torah scrolls, whatever was left in these places”
These trips targeted locations where there was real concern for the preservation of Jewish relics. The goal was to ensure that this heritage would at the very least be documented for future generations.
Zev Radovan’s vast archive has now been deposited at the National Library of Israel. It is currently in the midst of a process of digitization, and will soon be fully accessible on the Library website.
The deposit of the Zev Radovan Archive at the National Library of Israel was made possible thanks to the generosity of Steve Delamater of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.