Between its establishment in 1867 as the first photographic studio in Beirut and the start of the First World War, the Maison Bonfils photography studio produced thousands of images of Palestine, Syria and Lebanon.
Many of those images — in the forms of negatives, albums full of prints, stereoscopic views, visiting cards and portfolios — were collected by Fouad Debbas, a Lebanese engineer who was, according to project organizers, “passionate about gathering images of his past and his region.”
Now, the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme (EAP) has helped to digitize a large part of Debbas’ collection, in collaboration with the Jafet Memorial Library at the American University of Beirut and Yasmine Chemali, a Lebanese researcher. After Debbas’ death in 2001, say project workers, his brothers have taken no action to find a safe home for the images, despite their rarity as a major accumulation of late Ottoman-era portraits of the region.
Saving the collection — described by researchers as “the most extensive, varied and richest photographic collection produced in the Levant at the end of the Ottoman period … in fact one of the very few photographic collections produced in Beirut from the late Ottoman period which are still preserved” — was taken up by the EAP as a major priority.
Images of Palestine
Amongst approximately 3,000 images are hundreds showing late nineteenth and early twentieth century Palestine, taken by Monsieur Bonfils and his wife Lydie, said by researchers to be the region’s first female photographer.
Many show famous and holy sites from Islam, Christianity and Judaism such as the Dome of the Rock, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Western Wall. They were probably taken, say project researchers, with the Western market in mind, offering romanticized depictions of sacred and historic buildings.
Others, however, depict ordinary people in Palestine going about their business, such as shepherds, cowherders, boatmen and laborers building roads. As such, they reveal long-lost details of daily life, such as the clothes and appearance of people who didn’t belong to the kind of elite families who might have had private portraits taken.
The images also, say researchers, show the region — known at the time as “Greater Syria” and with Palestine, Lebanon and Syria administered together as part of the Ottoman Empire — at a time of “rapid socio-economic change … a crucial moment of the region’s history. The Bonfils Debbas collection is clearly an invaluable document registering the history of a region at a crucial crossroads in the wake of great historical upheaval [The First World War and fall of the Ottoman Empire] which was about to sweep the region and bring about the Modern Middle East as we know it.”