Review: The Empire and the Kingdom

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Publications with numerous glossy photographs showing the wonders and beauty of the world in which we live are, these days, ten a penny. However, for those interested in something visually compelling, but with a difference, then this title is highly recommended.

The photographs reproduced in this book are, as the authors point out, entirely non-commercial in character, and taken by students and staff at the École biblique purely as a record of the country, historical monuments, and people of Transjordan in the years 1893-1935. Since this was also a time of momentous change in Transjordan, the images offer a unique record of a fascinating time and place.

The book is arranged by region, starting with the Jordan Valley and the North, and proceeding through Amman and the desert castles, before going back west to the Dead Sea. The trail continues to Madaba and Kerak on the plateau, and then on to the Hejaz railway, Petra, Aqaba, and Wadi Rum.Text is kept to a minimum, with a Preface by Jean-Michel Casa, the French Ambassador to Jordan, and introductory texts by Chatelard and de Tarragon that detail the historical context of the country, and the story of the photographers themselves. The captions accompanying the photographs are taken from the travel notes of the École biblique photographers, which adds a valuable quality of reportage to the photographs.
The photographs themselves are wonderful. Of a high technical and aesthetic standard, they show the towns, countryside, ancient monuments, and, most significantly, the people of this country as it emerges from its time as a somewhat neglected Ottoman province, into a modern nation state. The pictures are clearly taken with great enthusiasm and respect, and this last element in particular has resulted in images of significance and veracity.

Because the photographers were not commercially motivated, it is the unusual, rarely seen view that is prominent in these pictures. What mattered was the content, whether that was the state of an ancient monument, a view of a particular landscape, the growth of a burgeoning town, or the activities of its inhabitants. The pictures depict many different aspects of the country, from its holy sites and ancient monuments, and the seemingly unchanging way of life for some, such as the bedouin, to the growing towns, the police and army stations, and people relaxing on the sea front at Aqaba.

This volume from the École biblique, while still very attractive, brings so much more to the reader (or viewer) than just another collection of gorgeous photos. It sheds a light on a unique time and place, an insight into a bygone era, and providing an invaluable addition to our view of this fascinating country and its people.

l Review by Felicity Cobbing, executive and curator of the Palestine Exploration Fund.

This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 31. Click here to subscribe

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