An Enthralling Journey: The Changing Land of Israel Over Three Centuries

See how a Scottish artist interpreted the landscape of the Land of Israel in his mid-19th century paintings. See how an Israeli artist retraced his footsteps and recreated his works over a century later.

Chen Malul
The white cliffs of Rosh Hanikra: Berger-Vilnay Lithograph No. 55 and the accompanying photograph by Yelena Grof, 2016

He could not have known at such an early age, but Zvi Berger’s first memory would contain the key to his future and a hint of who he would grow up to be. As Berger recalls the memory – he is wandering around the neighborhoods of Mandatory Haifa with a piece of chalk in his hand, drawing whatever sights catch his curious eye.

Twenty years after that first memory, we find the wandering child from Haifa living in Jerusalem. He is already an outstanding student at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design and married with a daughter on the way. The geographer and historian, Professor Zeev Vilnay, proposes an interesting project to him. The professor wants him to trace the journey of a nineteenth-century Scottish painter through the Land of Israel and to recreate some of the major landmarks of his journey in lithographs. Berger’s job will be to draw the various sites, and Vilnay will compile the lithographs, placing them in historical context.

Zvi Berger drawing in Akko, July 1957. From the collection of his daughter, Adi Berger-Ram
Artist Zvi Berger looks out from a vantage point in Israel. Year unknown. From the collection of his daughter, Adi Berger-Ram

The Promised Land through the eyes of David Roberts

124 years before Berger and Vilnay’s arrangement, a Scottish traveler arrived at the Port of Alexandria in Egypt. It was August, 1838 and the young Scot was David Roberts. Roberts, who had grown up painting landscapes, was well acquainted with Egypt’s magnificent Orientalist paintings. These were works created by European artists like Dominique Vivant Denon, who embarked on a similar artistic excursion with Napoleon’s army in the previous generation.

The evidence of a lost world, embodied by ancient temples and inscriptions, seems to have drawn Roberts more than the artistic styles on which he had been educated. By December, He had created a hundred paintings of the various temples scattered in and around Cairo. On February 7th, 1839, he set out for the Holy Land in a convoy of 21 camels and 15 Arab bodyguards. At the end of a month’s journey, which included a four-day trek through the Sinai desert, the convoy arrived in Hebron.

Portrait of David Roberts

Roberts spent a little over one month in the Holy Land, then a part of the Ottoman Empire, before sailing to Europe from the Port of Alexandria. The creative energy that consumed him in Egypt was also demonstrated in the Land of Israel. He was impressed by the “near-English cleanliness” he found in Hebron, the beauty of Gaza and the character of its residents. But, it was Jerusalem that had captured the imagination of the Christian painter from the beginning, and he anxiously awaited his arrival at the ancient city.

On the road to Jerusalem, he wrote, “I have not felt this perfect pleasure from the beauty of nature since the days of my childhood…The mountains of Judah frame the landscape and, beyond, lies the magnificent city.”

Although he changed his mind about Jerusalem after entering its gates, Roberts illustrated the city, its landscapes and the various sites he visited in dozens of drawings and paintings. Roberts returned to England with 272 illustrations, a Cairo panorama and three full notebooks of sketches. In the ten years following his trip, Roberts based his works on the sketches and illustrations he created during his time in Egypt and the Holy Land.

In Roberts’ Footsteps

Zvi Berger and Ze’ev Vilnay attempted to trace Roberts’ journey through the Land of Israel by using his own works. The map of Roberts’ voyage, most likely created in 1855, helped piece together a general picture. Roberts’ log that he kept throughout his journey (which has since been published in several editions) provided an intimate look at the artist’s feelings and impressions of the Holy Land. Above all, Berger and Vilnay utilized Roberts’ original illustrations and paintings as clues, tracing his footsteps through the artwork.  

A map of Roberts’ journey

Berger and Vilnay’s project, which began in 1962, took 3 years to complete. Israel Horizons, the book they published together, contained 56 original lithographs of landscapes of the State of Israel. The same year it was published, their collection won a silver medal at an art book festival in Milan.

View a scanned version of this wonderful book here

The pair encountered a number of modern obstacles tracking Roberts’ historical journey. Nasser’s Egypt, for example, was out of bounds. This fact, however, was of no consequence to the two, who wished to focus on Roberts’ travel in the Land of Israel at any rate. However, the political reality of Israel in the years preceding the Six-Day War thwarted Berger and Vilnay’s requests for access to many areas that Roberts’ had visited. Namely, East Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank were off limits to Berger and Vilnay. For this reason, many of the locales of Roberts’ paintings remained just outside the pair’s reach, including the painting below which depicts the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  

Roberts’ painting of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem

These obstacles aside, the Berger-Vilnay team did manage to recreate quite a few other illustrations. One of the lookout points that most attracted Roberts was the hill that is now known as “Giv’at Yonah.” According to the local folklore, this hill claims to be the spot where the Leviathan spat Jonah back onto land. During the Arab conquest of the Land of Israel in the seventh century CE, the town of Isdud was established in this area.

Berger and Vilnay were able to pinpoint the location of Roberts’ illustration in the early 1960s. Berger’s drawing, No. 15 in the album, depicts the pride of the Zionist enterprise at the time. This was the new port of Ashdod, complete with a breakwater, inaugurated in 1963. In Roberts’ painting, shepherds are seen in the foreground. In Berger’s drawing, the artist is pictured with his family. His three-year-old daughter, Adi (remember her name), is depicted on the far right.  

Roberts’ painting of the town of Isdud and the accompanying Berger-Vilnay drawing of the port of Ashdod, Lithograph No. 15

Another interesting comparison is Berger’s recreation of Roberts’ Mount Tabor lookout point. In Roberts’ painting, the valley at the foot of the mountain seems to be devoid of any actual dwellings (though we do see a caravan of people making their way through it). In Berger’s Drawing No. 39 we can spot the Church of the Transfiguration sitting atop the mountain. Construction on the church was completed in 1924 by architect Antonio Barluzzi. At the foot of the mountain lies a settlement that we have had difficulty identifying. It is most likely the Arab town of Daburiya.  

Mount Tabor. Roberts’ painting and the accompanying Berger-Vilnay drawing, Lithograph No. 39

The drawing that Berger called “A View of the Carmel from Haifa Bay” reconstructs the very exact angle of Roberts’ painting. Unlike the previous examples, we see very few deviations between the two artists’ depictions of the bay.  

Mount Carmel. Roberts’ painting and the accompanying Berger-Vilnay drawing, Lithograph No. 29

Berger and Vilnay did allow themselves to deviate from Roberts’ original structure when they felt it enhanced the modern representation and juxtaposition of the old versus the new. In the first lithograph which appears in their album, Berger recreated a painting that Roberts conceived on the road to Jerusalem (the painting is dated April 5, 1839). While Roberts depicts the city of Jerusalem by highlighting its towering mosques, Vilnay’s brief description emphasizes the pair’s difference in focus. Berger’s drawing has been named, “Jerusalem – Capital of Israel,” and Vilnay’s short description includes the explanation of an “old” custom- a practice in which Jews on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem would rip their clothes as soon as the ancient city came into view.  

Roberts’ painting of Jerusalem and the surrounding area
Berger’s sketch, Jerusalem – Capital of Israel, Lithograph No. 1

A similar deviation comes to light when comparing the two depictions of the port of Jaffa. Roberts arrived in the city on March 25, 1839. He painted it from the north, and in the center of the painting we see a group of Polish Jews returning to Europe from a trip to Jerusalem. The Berger-Vilnay team chose a similar angle for their drawing (No. 12), but they set the observation point at a further distance. This fact can be attributed to the message they wished to convey: the inclusion of Jaffa’s younger, sister city. The focal point of Berger’s drawing is the promenade of Tel Aviv, the first Hebrew city. “In the background, thrusting up from the sea, is the profile of Jaffa – one of the oldest cities in the world,” Vilnay wrote in the album’s commentary.  

Roberts, the city of Jaffa
Berger-Vilnay, Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Lithograph No. 12

The duo also added two other pictures of Tel Aviv. These pictures were not recreations of Roberts’ artwork, nor did they utilize any of his observation-points for reference. Vilnay provided the reasoning in his annotations to the album, “Tel Aviv was founded in 1909” – 70 years after Roberts’ departure from the Land of Israel.  

Berger-Vilnay, King George St. in Tel Aviv, Lithograph No. 13

Different viewpoints of the same place are also found in the representations of Ein Gedi. Roberts observed the Ein Gedi area from the vantage point of the Dead Sea. Berger and Vilnay’s version is a celebration of the re-establishment of Ein Gedi as a community, which began in 1953 with the placement of a Nahal (military-agricultural) outpost. Three years later, the outpost had become Kibbutz Ein Gedi.  

Roberts, the Dead Sea
Berger-Vilnay, Ein Gedi, Lithograph No. 20

Although Berger and Vilnay chose to use Roberts’ subject of the ancient ruins of Ashkelon (destroyed in 1270) and not the new city (established in 1948), the pair did decide to create their representation from an alternative angle. Roberts painted the Old City facing south, while Berger faced north.  

Roberts, Ashkelon
Berger-Vilnay, the ancient city of Ashkelon, Lithograph No. 16

Another notable choice by the Berger-Vilnay team that had no twin among Roberts’ paintings was No. 55, depicting Abraham Melinkov’s roaring lion statue. The statue commemorates the fall of Joseph Trumpeldor and his seven comrades at Tel Hai in the year 1920.  

Berger-Vilnay, The Roaring Lion of Tel-Hai, Lithograph No. 55

The Girl in the Picture and the Broken Shelf

In the summer of 2014, a shelf collapsed in the home of Adi Berger-Ram. In Adi’s book about her father, On His Own Path: The Pictures and Life of Painter Zvi Berger (Hebrew), she described the incident as a fateful anomaly. She characterized the drawings, which lay untouched on the shelf for nearly three decades before its collapse, as screaming out: “We want the world to see us!”

The tremendous creative energy generated by her father, Zvi Berger, yielded a veritable stockpile of works that had never reached publication. For Adi, it was an exciting journey into the world of her father’s work. She was thrilled by the power and quantity of the previously undiscovered works she found. In the four years following the collapse of the shelf, Adi Berger-Ram managed to publish two full books based on Zvi’s work, both of which she composed herself. Adi has dedicated her time to commemorating her father’s works and to instill his passions within each publication – his love of the land and her people. In the spirit of this sentiment, she organizes multi-generational get-togethers between children and adults and between new immigrants and veteran Israelis.  

Tel Aviv-Jaffa promenade: Berger-Vilnay, Lithograph No. 12 and the accompanying photograph by Yelena Grof, Tel Aviv-Jaffa promenade, 2017

The first of the two books, On His Own Path, is a collection of art that describes the life of Zvi Berger extensively, including paintings from various periods of his life. The book was published in 2016 on the third anniversary of the artist’s death. The second book, In the Cycle of Months (Hebrew), was published just one year later. The book was a collaboration between Benjamin Bilavsky, an experienced book designer and Hebrew language student, and his teacher, Adi Berger-Ram. The book tells the story of the Hebrew months. It is written a first-person perspective in basic Hebrew. It features original illustrations by Zvi Berger that inspired his daughter to write the book.

Berger and Vilnay’s excursion in the wake of Roberts’ initial journey convinced Adi to embark on her own small journey. She painstakingly sought out the points from which her father composed his drawings and sought to photograph them from the same angle. The result is an enthralling comparison between “then and now.”

Of the ten points captured on film by the team of Adi Berger-Ram, Yelena Grof and Arthur Grof, three of them were also painted by Roberts almost two centuries earlier. The three locations are: Ashkelon, Ashdod and Jaffa/Tel Aviv Promenade.

In the photograph of Ashkelon we can see the beach captured from the same angle that her father chose (as opposed to Roberts’ choice). “The Old City,” as Berger called it, has since developed. The beach now features a lifeguard stand and a number of buildings that have been erected in the distance.  

Ashkelon: Berger-Vilnay, Lithograph No. 16 and the accompanying photograph by Yelena Grof, 2016

In a photograph taken by Yelena Grof, we can see that the port of Ashdod has developed since the 1963 sketch made by Zvi Berger. Adi, who appeared on the far right in her father’s sketch, makes a cameo appearance as the grown woman standing to the right of her husband in the photograph.

In February 2017, equipped with the original lithograph of the city of Ashdod, Adi climbed with her husband and friends to the same lookout point. They were faithfully guided by a childhood memory, preserved by the perpetuation of its image in lithography.  

Port of Ashdod: Berger-Vilnay, Lithograph No. 15 and the accompanying photograph by Yelena Grof, 2017

As you have noticed by now, the passing of a relatively short amount of time (even in an ancient land) can yield enormous changes. A comparison between a current photograph of Be’er Sheva with Berger’s 50-year-old drawing illustrates this point wonderfully.  

Beer Sheva from the northwest: Berger-Vilnay, Lithograph No. 17 and the accompanying photograph by Yelena Grof, 2017

Elsewhere, it seems that not much has changed. Tel Hai’s lion is still roaring and the dramatic cliffs of Rosh Hanikra have not yet fallen into the sea.  

The Roaring Lion of Tel-Hai: Berger-Vilnay, Lithograph No. 55 and the accompanying photograph by Hadas Ram, 2016
The White Cliffs of Rosh Hanikra: Berger-Vilnay, Lithograph No. 55 and the accompanying photograph by Yelena Grof, 2016

Adi’s photographs, when combined with Berger’s drawings and (in some cases) Roberts’ paintings, allow us to look at each location through the perspectives of two (and sometimes three) different centuries.

And for the finale – here is our addition to the collection, accompanying Berger’s drawing of the National Library:     Many thanks to Adi Berger-Ram for her assistance in the research and composition of this article.   Further reading: Israel Horizons by Zvi Berger and Zeev Vilnay – scanned version You can find our more about the Zvi Berger Memorial Project by contacting his daughter Adi Berger-Ram at this email A Facebook group in memory of Zvi Beger and his work    

If you liked this article, try these: In Color: Amazing Photos of Jews and Muslims in the Holy Land From 1900 Historic Aerial Shots of Land of Israel Revealed Rare Album: The Machine Gun Squadron Soldier Documents the Conquest of the Land of Israel

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