Photograph of Jordan Valley, 1911
This is a photograph of the Jordan Valley in 1911 from the Album of Israel and Damascus, part of the photographer Jacob Warman’s collection. In the photo you can see the arid and dry Jordan Valley with the English handwritten inscription: “Jordan Valley, near the Dead Sea, the Holy Land.”
The photo also appears in the published diary of Herman Melville, the American writer who visited the country in 1856-1857, which is also held in the National Library. Melville’s diary of his journey to Europe and the Levant was published by Princeton University Press in 1955.
In his diary, Melville wrote that:
The idea of making farmers of the Jews is in vain. In the first place Judea is a desert with few exceptions. In the second place, the Jews hate farming. All who cultivate the soil in Palestine are Arabs. The Jews dare not live outside walled towns of villages for fear of the malicious persecution of Arabs and Turks. Besides, the number of Jews in Palestine is comparatively small. And how are the hosts of them scattered in other lands to be brought here? Only by a miracle.
When Melville visited Israel in the 1850s, there were, as he wrote, very few Jews living outside the main population centres. The few farmers who did live there focused their attentions on far more fertile land. The reality of the Jews who did farm the land was hard and most of them did not possess the requisite skills to make a success of farming.
Whilst Melville was certainly correct in respect of the land featured in this photo, his miracle has indeed occurred, and land which had laid fallow for hundreds of years has seen a considerable rejuvenation in the past 100 years.
Connection to Parashat Vayeira
In Parashat Vayeira, the destruction of Sodom takes place. Sodom, along with Gomorrah and the other “cities of the plain,” were destroyed as a result of their wickedness. The Torah does not describe the sins of the wicked cities in detail. The commentators give various explanations, including their lack of hospitality towards guests. The entire plain was destroyed, and to this day, very little grows in the area. It is also the site of the lowest place on earth, the Dead Sea.
This photograph can be used in Geography lessons to show Israel’s varied geographical landscapes from snowy mountains to deserts and to discuss deserts and desert conditions.
Jewish History or Israel Studies teachers can use the extract from Melville’s diary to learn about early twentieth-century Palestine and discuss the changes that have taken place in the ensuing 100 years.
Bible teachers teaching the book of Genesis or parashat hashavua, can use this photograph when teaching about Sodom and Gommorah.
Where was this photograph taken?
Who took this photograph?
When was this photograph taken?
What biblical story took place in this area?
Reading Between the Lines
Why would a photographer take a picture of this place?
Why was this photograph chosen to be in the published version of Melville’s diary?
Why was Jewish farming not prevalent at the time of Melville’s visit to the Land of Israel?
Read Genesis 13:10-11. How is this area described? Compare the biblical description to the photograph.
What does this area look like nowadays?
What other sites of Jewish interest are found in this general area?
Find other old images of Israel and compare them with modern images of Israel. How has the use of land changed over the past 150 years?