BiblePlaces Newsletter
Vol 8, #5 - November 9, 2009

You know that the year is drawing to a close when you see calendars for 2010 on store racks.  I just received this morning the 2010 Holy Land Calendar produced by Lamb and Lion Ministries, which exclusively features photographs from  The calendar notes all the major American holidays, and its inclusion of the Jewish holy days makes it a great way to keep track of important events not on many American calendars. You can purchase this beautiful calendar online, and if you order 10 (for Christmas gifts), they will give you two for free.

The new photo CD available this month is Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, volume 4 of the The American Colony and Eric Matson Collection, and the featured photos are of the impressive ruins of Palmyra in Syria, which are included in this volume.  Below I describe some of the work that went into creating The American Colony and Eric Matson Collection.  Since that's on the long side, I'll keep this introduction short.

Todd Bolen


New Release:
Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan
Volume 4 of The American Colony and Eric Matson Collection

The fourth volume in this collection goes into territory that I have not.  One day I hope to travel through Lebanon and Syria, but creating this collection has taught me a lot about these countries which are rich in ancient history and well-preserved ruins.  Since they are not covered in the Pictorial Library of Bible Lands, this CD fills in a rather large hole for those needing images from the entire biblical world.

The Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan CD contains more than 700 selected photographs of sites and scenes in the modern countries of Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. The photographs include Ajlun, Aleppo, Amman, Baalbek, Beirut, Byblos, Cedars of Lebanon, Damascus, Dead Sea (eastern side), Gerasa, Palmyra, Petra, Sidon, Tripoli, Tyre, and more.  The CD is now on sale for $20, with free shipping in the U.S.


Creating the
American Colony Collection

Shortly after producing a collection of modern-day photographs in the Pictorial Library of Bible Lands (initially released in January 2000), I began work on a supplementary collection that would peel back the recent layers of time to reveal the sites of the Holy Land before the changes brought by modernization.  The initial fruit of this work was the release of 8 volumes of Historic Views of the Holy Land in November 2004.

About that same time, I learned that the Library of Congress was digitizing the G. Eric and Edith Matson Negatives.  Between 1966 and 1981, Eric Matson and his beneficiary donated this collection to the Library of Congress. But public access was limited and costly until 2004, when the first negatives were scanned and made available online, a huge job in itself!  In browsing through these photographs, I quickly realized two things.  First, these photos would be extremely useful to teachers and researchers of Palestine and the surrounding areas.  Second, the collection could be greatly improved in a number of ways.

The Kazneh (Treasury) at Petra, damaged stereographic image

The first step in the process that culminated in this published collection was downloading all of the online images, which were made available in three sizes. The medium size was 1024 pixels wide.  This is too small if 1) the photo is damaged; 2) the photo is a stereographic image; 3) one wanted to enlarge a particular portion; or 4) one desired to print the image.  The large size was a much higher resolution (e.g., 5200 x 3600 pixels), but these were in tif format, which meant the file sizes were so large that they were impractical for regular use.  At 25-70 MB each in size, these images would take a long time to download and quickly fill up hard drives.  To make this the best collection possible, I downloaded all of the tif files and converted them to jpg format, thus retaining the highest resolution, but at a more manageable file size.

The next step was to identify each image as accurately as possible.  Some of the images would be immediately recognizable to a recent visitor to Israel, but many are difficult to identify even for long-time residents.  To expedite the process, Tony Garland, with helpful advice from staff at the Library of Congress, created a script so that all of the descriptive information for the photos on the Library of Congress website could be accessed in a personal database.  Seth Rodriquez, now finishing his PhD dissertation, went through all of the images and wrote a short, descriptive filename for each one.  Andrei Tsvirinko then copied the names from the database to the jpg image itself.  All of the steps described here are simple enough in themselves, but repeating them 14,000 times requires great perseverance!

The next step in the process was cropping the photos.  Many images are stereographs, that is, nearly identical side-by-side images which, when viewed through a stereoscope, appear as a single, three-dimensional image.  Other photographs had tape marks, water damage, or other blemishes which were best removed by cropping.  At a later stage, some photos were cropped to alter the orientation from vertical to horizontal, thus creating a more compact view for computer use and eliminating extensive stretches of sky or earth (see example below). Other adjustments were required for photos that had been scanned in mirror-image or were uploaded upside-down.


Sidon castle, stereographic image, before cropping


Sidon castle, after cropping and adjustments

At this point, I began sorting the images into categories.  It was necessary to accomplish this step early in the process because of the numerous duplicates and near-duplicates in the collection.  An important contribution, therefore, of this edition over the online collection is its selection of the best images and its logical arrangement of them (either geographically or topically).


City of David, 1900-1920, before and after cropping

Along the way, numerous corrections and refinements were made to the descriptions provided by the photographers of the American Colony and Eric Matson photo services.  Some images were misidentified in the photographers' notes, some were labeled only generally, and some bore names no longer in use today.  In other cases, we were able to correct or improve upon the supplied dates and identify images that were presented in mirror image.

One of the most time-consuming tasks of this project was the removal of blemishes from the images.  Some of the negatives are over 100 years old, and time, transport, and storage have taken their toll on the material.  Since the goal of this project was to provide "teaching quality" images, larger specks and markings were removed, though smaller blemishes may still be visible when magnified. In some cases, the damage was so great that it was impossible to restore the image.  Other adjustments were made to photos for brightness, contrast, and color.


Old City of Jerusalem, before and after restoration (enlarge for detail)

The creation of PowerPoint presentations with the images serves several purposes.  First, unlike jpg files, slides in a PowerPoint file can be arranged in sequential order, and usually I have organized these following a natural tour route.  As many will use these photographs in presentations, having the images already properly sized and placed in PowerPoint makes it quick and easy to copy slides from one presentation to another.

Second, explanatory notes or relevant quotations can be "attached" to the photograph by means of the "speaker's notes" section in PowerPoint (see screenshot).  Many of the photographs in these volumes are now accompanied by quotations from 19th century explorers, travelers, and writers.  (The Jerusalem volume is annotated with original notes by Tom Powers.) Yuliya Molitvenik spent hundreds of hours reading old books and rare journals in search of choice descriptive statements.  These were usually written before the photos were taken (in the early 20th century), but they provide additional insight into the sites and scenes depicted in the photographs.  Sometimes the quotations describe details that precisely match what is in the photo, and other times they may provide a different "picture."  The quotations come from the best available sources of the day, and are valuable in their own right.  

Ultimately, we believe this collection has been improved through editing, organization, corrections, and the addition of supplemental quotations. Its superior resolution, format, and presentation will make it easy to use. 


News from the BiblePlaces Blog...

Rare Coin Exhibit in Jerusalem - Two-thousand-year-old coins go on display this week at the Davidson Center south of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem...

New Discoveries Related to Temple Mount - A 45-minute interview with Zachi Zweig suggests that new evidence from the time of Solomon's Temple may be forthcoming...

Rachel's Tomb, Then and Now - The traditional tomb of Jacob's favorite wife doesn't look the same today.  Other recent subjects in the "Then and Now" series include the Herodium and Pottery Baskets.

New Blog for Tel Burna Excavation - A promising new blog has been started for a site in the Shephelah that may be identified with biblical Libnah...

Double-Decker Plaza at Western Wall Planned - If this plan comes to fruition, you may be able to pray on one level and then walk on the 1st century street directly below...

Jerusalem vs. Pompeii (in Google Earth) - Pompeii clearly wins if the contest is over high-resolution imagery available in Google Earth...

Kh. Qeiyafa: Survey vs. Excavation - Does the evidence suggest that survey data is worse than worthless?...

And more...

Featured BiblePlaces Photos:
Palmyra, Syria

The featured photos of the month are of Palmyra as it looked in the early 1900s.  Palmyra was an oasis in the Syrian desert that attracted traders and caravans for millennia.  Known as Tadmor in the earliest records, the city reached its height under the Romans who built most of the standing remains.  Some of the buildings date to the 1st century AD, including the famous Temple of Bel (Baal).  Located in central Syria today, the site continues to attract and amaze tourists. These photos are included in the new American Colony and Eric Matson volume, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan.

Each photo below is linked to a higher-resolution version, but we recommend that you download the Palmyra PowerPoint presentation (7 MB), which includes an additional 25 photos (31 total) along with fascinating quotations from early explorers.  You are welcome to use these images for personal study and teaching. Commercial use requires separate permission.  For more high-quality, high-resolution photographs and illustrations of biblical sites, purchase the Pictorial Library of Bible Lands or the Historic Views of the Holy Land collections.


Palmyra view from western castle hill

Click picture for higher-resolution version.

Charles Addison in 1838: "The astonishment that takes hold of the mind, at the strange position of this magnificent city, at one time the capital of the East, on the edge of the great desert, and surrounded for several daysí journey on all sides by naked solitary wilds, is removed by marking well the peculiarity of its geographical position.  The great caravans coming to Europe, laden with the rich merchandize of India, would naturally come along the Persian gulph, through the south of Persia, to the Euphrates, the direct line; their object then would be, to strike across the great Syrian desert as early as possible, to reach the large markets and ports of Syria.  With more than 600 miles of desert without water between the mouth of the Euphrates and Syria, they would naturally be obliged to keep along the banks of that river, until the extent of desert country became diminished.  They would then find the copious springs of Tadmor [Palmyra] the nearest and most convenient to make for; and in their direct route from the north of India, along the Euphrates."


Monumental Arch

Click picture for higher-resolution version.

Charles Addison in 1838: "A little beyond this is the grand gateway, having a lofty arch in the centre, and a smaller one on either side leading into the grand avenue of columns.  The scroll work and rich carvings with which it was once adorned are much mutilated and disfigured on this side, but on the opposite one looking into the colonnade, the rich ornaments and decorations are tolerably perfect.  It is a noble and elegant gateway about sixty feet in height.  Passing through, we entered the grand avenue formerly bordered on either hand with an elegant colonnade, each column having a projection upon which stood a statue.  In its whole length it is almost a mile, and it was originally bordered by columns the whole way."


Temple of Bel, general view

Click picture for higher-resolution version.

George Post in 1891: "The morning was bright, and our first thought was naturally the survey of the ruins.  Although less massive than those of Baalbek, the general effect is more striking and impressive.  No street of columns like this exists elsewhere, not even in Gerash, and the effect when the row was unbroken, and the monumental building at the western end was perfect, must have been extremely imposing, from whatever point seen.  Not less so was the grand Temple of the Sun, which for general impression well rivals that of Baalbek."


Temple of Bel with peristyle

Click picture for higher-resolution version.

J. L. Porter in 1882: "This is the finest building in Palmyra, and for extent and beauty it is scarcely surpassed in the world.  A court, two hundred and fifty yards square, was encompassed by a wall seventy feet high, richly ornamented externally with pilasters, frieze, and cornice.  The entrance was through a portico of ten columns.  Round the whole interior ran a double colonnade, forming 'porches' or cloisters like those of the temple at Jerusalem.  Each pillar in the cloisters had a pedestal, or bracket, for a statue."


Temple of Bel, holy of holies

Click picture for higher-resolution version.

George Post in 1891: "The greatest misfortune of Palmyrene architecture and art was the want of a suitable stone, in which to express the ideas of their time.  The building stone is a limestone, full of veins and cleavages, so that it was almost impossible to carve a perfect Corinthian capital out of it, and the influence of the wind and sun and rain is seen in the defacement and almost destruction of a large number of elaborate details, which were undertaken in spite of the discouraging material.  The statuary is chiselled out of a soft argillaceous limestone, easily cut, but as easily defaced, and incapable, like marble, of taking the finer expression which Greek and Italian marbles are so well adapted to receive and retain."


Tomb interior

Click picture for higher-resolution version.

J. L. Porter in 1882: "In addition to the tower-tombs there are in the plain to the north and south of the city immense numbers of subterranean sepulchres.  They are not hewn in the rock, but appear to have been built in natural or artificial cavities, and then covered over with soil.  Those which have been opened were found to contain loculi, busts, statues, and inscriptions like the other sepulchres.  Numbers of them still remain unexplored, and may one day afford rich treasures to the antiquary."



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All contents (c) 2009 Todd Bolen.  Text and photographs may be used for personal and educational use.  Commercial use requires written permission.