A reception room at the Jordanian Embassy in Washington, DC was transformed into a hushed and darkened theater March 8, as a packed house journeyed through time and space to solve the mysteries of early photographs of the Holy Land. Father Carney Gavin, president and curator of the Archives for Historical Documentation at the Harvard Semitic Museum (HSM), advised the audience of about 150 to "go back and look at Aunt Mathilda's pictures and documents," before offering to lead them on an adventure.
Gavin began his story on Oct. 1, 1970 at Harvard. That day, it was the scene of a crime. The building housing the HSM had just been bombed by two young women-not because it housed HSM, but because it housed future Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's offices, and they were protesting his role in the Vietnam war.
Serendipitously, the explosion revealed some boxes of photographs-old pictures, long unseen-of Petra and Jerash; of Circassians surveying the territory for a possible new home; and of Felix Bonfils-an early photographer based in Beirut-his son Adrian, and their dagger-wearing butler; and of Amman, Karak and the ancient city of Salt-the first capital of the Emirate of Trans-Jordan. Interestingly, the photographic archaeology project represented by these old pictures was aided by Jordanian Ambassador Kawar's father.
In another serendipitous turn of events, more early photographs were found for the museum at a "tag sale" in Minnesota, where two men split the $300 cost of some old photographic equipment and plates. One of the men thought he recognized Jerusalem from pictures and contacted HSM. He told the museum that the plates carried the initials "MJD." Israeli historians earlier had learned that the first photographer in the Holy Land was M.J. Diness, but his work and all traces of him had disappeared.
Excited about the possible find, the museum inquired about the other half of the tag sale buy, only to be told that the person holding those plates was a creative artist who might well break them up for use in other pieces. Immediately, calls were placed and the plates acquired.
However, calls to the tag sale yielded no information about the seller. "Poland" was where the pictures came from, the museum was told, and New Jersey-and neither made sense. Again, amazing luck came into play. Through yet another twist, a story about the photographic plates was aired on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered." A man draining the oil out of his motorcycle was listening to the broadcast. …