Recommended: Historic Views of the Holy Land – The American Colony and Eric Matson Collection

I felt like a kid in a candy store when I viewed the “American Colony and Eric Matson Collection” of more than 4,000 photographs of sites and scenes from Palestine (as Israel was called then), Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt.

This collection is part of the “Historic Views of the Holy Land” series produced by Todd Bolen of

Founded in 1881 by Horatio Spafford (author of the famous hymn, It is Well With My Soul), the American Colony in Jerusalem operated a thriving photographic enterprise for almost four decades. Their images document the land and its people, with a special emphasis on biblical and archaeological sites, inspirational scenes, and historic events. One of the photographers, G. Eric Matson, inherited the archive, adding to it his own later work through the “Matson Photo Service.” He eventually donated all the negatives to the U.S. Library of Congress, which has made them available to the public.

My attention was immediately drawn to Volume 2: The Temple Mount and it was exciting to see pictures of views that cannot be seen anymore or of places that are now inaccessible. I have been in most of the underground places on the Temple Mount, such as the Golden Gate, the Double and Triple Gate passages and Solomon’s Stables, but was never able to enter the interior of Barclay’s Gate. It was therefore fascinating to see pictures taken in the 1940’s of the interior and see the views which I only knew from the survey drawings of Charles Warren. Each photograph is described by Tom Powers and his comments are very helpful.

The Temple Mount - The American Colony and Eric Matson Collection

While working on the Temple Mount excavations in the 1970’s, we were excited to discover what was below ground, not giving much thought to what the site looked liked before the first pick was raised to break the ground. Seeing the “Southern Side of the Temple Mount” in a photograph taken sometime between 1989 and 1946, reminded me of how much has been discovered in the excavations, led by the late Prof. Benjamin Mazar between 1968 and 1978.

South Side of the Temple Mount - American Colony and Eric Matson Collection

In the photographs of the Hebrew University, there are pictures of people whose names we are familiar with, but we do not always know their faces. Here you can meet Lord Balfour, Sir Herbert Samuel, Chancellor Judah Leon Magnes and Eliezer Sukenik, the father of the late Yigael Yadin. In another album you can meet General Edmund Allenby, who entered the city on foot through Jaffa Gate, ascended the steps of the Citadel and read a proclamation to the inhabitants of Jerusalem.

Prof. Eliezer Sukenik (center), the father of the late Yigael Yadin at the Hebrew University - The American Colony and Eric Matson Collection

Having lived many years in Jerusalem, I know the city very well, but it is amazing to see views of Jerusalem, taken 100 years ago. It is like a time machine, going back a century. Anybody interested in the history of Jerusalem would enjoy seeing these views. Although I would naturally focus on Jerusalem, the two CDs contain many interesting photographs of other parts of the Land and the surrounding countries. The album “Traditional Life and Customs” documents agriculture, home life and religious life of the different communities living in the Land.

There are photographs of the devastating earthquake of 1927 that ruined many buildings from Jericho to Jerusalem, of World War I, the Arab riots of 1929 and British personalities who were involved in the Mandate. It is possible to study the turbulent history that led up to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 by viewing this fascinating collection.

Building in Jerusalem damaged by the earthquake of 1927 - The American Colony and Eric Matson Collection

Every photograph has been labeled and there is an extensive bibliography on the DVD, but most interesting is the file called “Jerusalem’s American Colony and its Photographic Legacy” by Tom Powers. It has profiles of people who lived in the American Colony, specially the Spafford and Vester families and the photographers that built up this irreplaceble collection.

Many of the photographs were taken by Eric Matson, who came to Jerusalem in 1896 and moved to America in 1946. As mentioned above, in his later years he donated the whole of the photo archive of the American Colony to the U.S. Library of Congress. The pictures can be downloaded from the website, but, having done it myself several times, I know that it is a laborious process. We can be thankful to Todd Bolen for having made the most interesting of these photographs available in an easily accessible format.

4 thoughts on “Recommended: Historic Views of the Holy Land – The American Colony and Eric Matson Collection”

  1. Dr. Ritmeyer: Many thanks for acknowledging my contributions to Todd Bolen’s publication of the American Colony/Matson images, particularly the Jerusalem volume annotations and the historical overview. Todd’s Matson project was a huge undertaking, one which well deserves all the attention (and commercial support) it gets. For me, the research involved was an education itself. Needless to say, I find the archive and the whole American Colony phenomenon endlessly fascinating. (By the way, thanks, too, for pointing folks to my posting on the Ecole Biblique catalog several days ago.) All the best.

    TOM POWERS / Jerusalem

  2. my name is william bridges. my great aunts husband mr myers visited the american colony store in 1903. i know that because my father gave me an album& a bound folderfull of colony photos the album is olive wood covered. the folder contains single photos. of the holy land the photos are not perfect but are very historic. i have read about the spaffords, & the sad story of the children. and the work they did. how can i share the images. with others. as they are bound in album form or bordered photos to big to scan. it would be nice to bless gods chosen people. as 1903 was before the terrible suffering they went through. i am open to suggestions. william bridges.

  3. Tom: The Matson project must indeed have been a mammoth undertaking, but how rewarding! We had some links with the American Colony while living in Jerusalem and often lend out Bertha Spafford Vester’s memoir “Our Jerusalem” to friends, but your research on the Colony was an eye-opener. BTW, could you please pass on our warm regards to an old Ecole friend, Jerry Murphy O’Connor.

  4. William: The photograph collection you have inherited sounds fascinating and it would be great to make it available to the wider public. If you pass on your email address, I will notify Todd Bolen and Tom Powers of your willingness to share the photos in your possession.

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