FEATURE- Peering Through A Lens Into Jerusalem’s Past

By Luke Baker

15 Sep 2006 01:01:41 GMT

JERUSALEM, Sept 15 (Reuters) – Behind the door of 36 al-Khanka Street,
a steep, stone alleyway squeezed between the Christian and Muslim
quarters of Jerusalem’s Old City, lies a treasure trove of history
in black and white.

Varouj Ishkhanian’s photographic studio is lined with emotive images
from the last 130 years, tracing Jerusalem’s past from Ottoman times,
through British and Jordanian rule, to the founding of the state of
Israel and the wars in between.

>>From wizened Ashkenazi Jews studying the Torah in the early 1900s,
to camel trains leaving Damascus Gate on their way to Bethlehem, and
British General Edmund Allenby standing at the entrance to the Holy
City in 1917, the grainy photographs capture centuries of religion,
politics and conflict.

"Every picture contains more than one thousand words," the 73-year-old
Ishkhanian says with a chuckle, flicking through a stack of thick,
time-worn albums of original photographs piled on his desk, each
image indexed and dated.

"This one was taken by my grandfather, one of the first that he took,"
he says, pointing to a faded brown-and-white picture of Jewish women
praying at the Western Wall in the late 1800s.

There are portraits too of bare-breasted gypsy women during Ottoman
rule, of the execution of a crook by the Ottoman authorities in 1905,
and of Arab fishermen on the Sea of Galilee at sunset in 1885, one
of Ishkhanian’s favourites.

An Armenian who was born and grew up in the Old City, Ishkhanian is
himself a small part of the history that he and his grandfather — and
now his son — have photographed, having served as the semi-official
photographer of King Hussein of Jordan in the late 1950s and early 60s.


He started taking pictures in his teens, in the mid-1940s, when he
would help out his grandfather Kirkor at his photographic shop on
Jaffa Street, in what was then called New Jerusalem — the part that
lay outside the Old City’s walls.

During the 1948 war that followed Israel’s founding, he remained in
the Old City, taking refuge in the Armenian Convent, but still going
out onto the streets each day to hone his craft.

Having developed a knack for both news and more lucrative wedding
photography — his collection contains several portraits of Arab
girls preparing for marriage — he cajoled the Jordanian authorities
who then administered Jerusalem into giving him the only pass to take
photos at the Hashemite palace in Jordan.

"I was working for several newspapers at the time and I just kept
pushing and pushing and eventually they said okay," he recalls. "Very
soon I was going to Amman almost every day and became quite friendly
with the king."

He used to have a signed portrait of Hussein, who died in 1999,
in pride of place in the window of his studio, but took it down in
1967 after the Israelis captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem
from Jordan in the Middle East War.

Now a signed portrait of Hussein’s son, King Abdullah, hangs inside
the small shop instead, overlooking Ishkhanian’s desk. A portrait of
Ishkhanian himself, looking dapper in his late 20s, hangs from the
same wall, just above that of Abdullah.

Other images include pictures of his father, Sarkis, who was never
bitten by the photography bug, instead working for the British
authorities during their mandate of Palestine, supplying fuel to
light the oil lamps of the Old City.


As well as capturing many moments in Jerusalem’s more recent history,
the photos in Ishkhanian’s studio also reveal how society, traditions
and geography have changed over time in perhaps the most fought-over
patch of land in the world.

A picture from the early 1900s shows Jewish men and women praying
together at the Western Wall, the most sacred site in Judaism,
whereas now they pray in separate sections.

Another from the same period shows houses very close to the Wall that
Ishkhanian said once belonged to Moroccan Arabs, whereas now the area
in front of the Wall is an open square.

However, he refuses to be drawn into any political discussion that
his photos might throw up, leaving them to speak for themselves. "The
pictures show everything," he says firmly.

With his sight gone in one eye after so many years in a dark room,
Ishkhanian now spends his days in his studio selling prints of the
collection for 50 shekels (about $11) a piece. His son Sarko helps
out and still takes pictures.

He also helps prod Ishkhanian’s sometimes patchy memory, reminding him
of what year he got married and when his three children were born. But
the father remembers clearly when he opened his studio — it was 1964.

"It was after I worked for the king, when I had some money. Then, we
weren’t thinking about the future, it was all dancing and parties,"
he says with a smile.

"It was before I got married, before the problems of 1967. It was a
good time."

Showing off his favourite photograph — a view he took in 1952 through
the window of the Dominus Flevit church, looking towards the Dome of
the Rock and the Western Wall — he laments how business has declined
over the past six years, since a Palestinian uprising erupted.

But he remains buoyant and enthusiastic. "Every day is good," he
says. "I still look at everything, and I still take pictures, even
if not as well as before."

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress

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Emil Lazarian

“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia . See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.” - WS