Bonfils family, from The Image of the East: Nineteenth-Century Near Eastern Photographs by Bonfils, Carney E. S. Gavin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982)

Ancient arches frame a cobbled street in Jerusalem’s Old City.

This photograph is from a collection discovered after an explosion blew the roof off the Harvard Semitic Museum during a 1970 peace demonstration. Workers sifting through the rubble discovered dusty crates shipped from Beirut in 1880 and forgotten in the attic for 90 years. The crates yielded 28,000 glass plate negatives in almost pristine condition—the largest collection of 19th-century photographs of the Middle East.

Taken by several members of the Bonfils family, émigrés from France to Beirut, the images recorded an encyclopedic range of subjects, from architecture, to landscape, to portraits both posed and candid—photographed from Egypt to Constantinople.

The process the photographers used was a complicated one. First, the image was recorded on glass plates coated with an emulsion that had to be exposed before it dried. These plates were used as negatives and were printed by exposing paper coated with albumen (egg whites) to sunlight that was filtered through the glass plates. The grainless quality of the resulting prints allows very clear magnification of the most minute details—a boon to present-day historians. For example, in the photograph of a Jerusalem street leading to the Old City’s Jaffa Gate (see photograph), details of architecture and of the pedestrians’ dress can be enlarged and studied. The photo also provides an invaluable record for historians and geographers because this site, like many others photographed by the Bonfils family, appears vastly different today.