A Free Online Photo Archive Explores the Middle East’s Pluralistic History

Jordan. al-Salt, plumber, Rami Khouri Collection, RK_J_2_S_71_179

A Free Online Photo Archive Explores the Middle East’s Pluralistic History

This article was originally posted on Muftah and has been reprinted here with permission. The original may be found here, originally posted December 2017.

By Jessica Holland. Published: 10 January 2019

In September 2017, the American Center of Oriental Research (ACOR) in Amman, Jordan published an online archive of historical images from across the Middle East. The project is being supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Whilst working as an archivist, I helped start this ambitious project to digitize and publish 30,000 photos over four years.

In the process, I quickly discovered preserving relics of the past is far from the fusty hobby of be-spectacled, basement-dwelling librarians. Rather, it is a stubborn act of resistance; a refusal to let a rich cultural resource become irrelevant by giving it new life as an accessible digital collection.

Antiquities in the Attic

Digitization offers a fundamentally new and different way of interacting with archives. According to the traditional process of accessing archival images, one must first gain institutional permission to access a photo archive. One must then locate the right slide or photo print boxes, which are commonly cloistered away in dusty corners of basements or attics, and then obtain a working light box or slide projector to properly view the details of film slides. Even getting to this stage depends on the author of the photographs having been conscientious enough to label their work clearly. On top of all this, the photographs themselves must still exist, decades after production.

With the launch of the ACOR Photo Archive, this time-consuming analogue process has been whittled down to that of a Google-search-like experience. Content can be accessed across the globe, on a single platform. The images are searchable by the name of the cultural heritage site (designed to adapt to the varying transliterations of Arabic), the objects found in the photo, the names of the people represented, and many other types of information embedded in the photo’s metadata. New tags are added every day, so that going forward, the site can act like a visual bibliography. For example, if you search for Qasr Amra, the most famous of Jordan’s desert castles, the results will not only return images of the castle itself, but also photos of all the country’s other desert castles.

An Important and Growing Movement

ACOR Photo Archive’s material is a unique collection due to the diversity of subjects it includes. It currently provides a representative record of Jordan’s archeological and social history spanning from 1955 to the early 2000s. Photos soon-to-be-digitized will feature subjects from the 1970s onwards in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Palestine, and Iran. Its historic photos of important sites are free to use and could be mobilized to support research proposals and grant applications.

The archive is currently made up of two main photography collections. One was donated by Jane Taylor, a British long-term resident of Jordan, a published author famous for her photographs of Petra. The second was donated by Jordanian-American, Rami G. Khouri, a published author on Jordan’s archaeology and respected political analyst who writes an internationally syndicated column for Agence Global. These large collections of around 15,000-20,000 images are accompanied by the photography collections of other travelers and archaeologists, which together offer a visual and textual record stretching back to the 1950s.

What all the authors of ACOR archive’s photos have in common is the desire to share knowledge of archaeology & the history of the region. Writing after the death of renowned archaeologist Jim Sauer, Khouri summed up this sentiment best: [Jim Sauer] made the complex easy to understand, distant history relevant to life in Jordan today, and intricate technicalities of archaeology and pottery a source of endless wonder and joy for lay people like myself.”[1]

The ACOR’s archival images are valuable as records of change for both archaeological-cultural heritage sites (more than two-hundred are represented in Jordan alone), as well as daily life in the Middle East over the past seventy years. Indeed, this record of change means that the archive has the potential to impact future heritage preservation projects across the region. They allow visual comparison with the past, thereby illustrating recent damage and helping experts and local communities decide how sites should be managed in the future.

ACOR’s Photo Archive is part of a growing trend of digital archives across the region. NYU Abu Dhabi’s archive has an extensive collection of historic photos featured on its Instagram page (widening its popular appeal through more tongue-in-cheek posts). Darat al-Funun, an art gallery housed in Amman’s fashionable Jabal al-Webdeih district, also hosts an exhaustive online archive of video and images relating to the gallery’s exhibitions. It also features artist talks and musical performances over its almost thirty-year history. On a smaller scale, there are commendable efforts at documenting the modern visual heritage of the region, such as the Sultan-al-Qassemi-managed Instagram dedicated to highlighting the architectural heritage of the Emirate of Sharjah in the UAE. (You can check out ACOR’s instagram here.)

Threats to Cultural Heritage

One of the motivating factors for digitizing and uploading the archive is the imperative to document and preserve the heritage of the Middle East, as it goes through another decade of dramatic aesthetic and political change. The stakes involved in these transformations are highlighted by the saddening example of Khaled Assad, director of antiquities at Palmyra Museum in Syria. Assad went to his grave in 2015 protecting the location of priceless artifacts under his care from ISIS.

Armed conflict is not the only threat needing to be faced. Far less dramatic, but potentially as destructive, is the ordinary process of ageing photographs, which, if lost, would erase vast amounts of cultural history. Digitizing as fast as possible is essential to ensuring that old images can survive as a reliable historical record.  By making digital copies of past images accessible, present and future knowledge production is positively impacted, and the active or accidental suppression of knowledge is avoided. 

ACOR Photo Archive’s digitization project has already born fruit in this respect. It is possible to access a digitized image of the Umayyad mosque in Aleppo, Syria, photographed in 1982, by archaeologist and author Linda Jacobs. The photograph offers a stark contrast with the current mosque; severely damaged by heavy fighting with its minaret reduced to rubble in 2013. In the future, collating such images could be of significant help to restorers and conservationists seeking to faithfully repair this and other monuments.

Umayyad mosque in Aleppo, Syria, 1981. Photo by Linda Jacobs, courtesy of ACOR Photo Archive.

The ACOR Photo Archive also depicts the very forces threatening cultural heritage in the region. For example, it includes photographs of the archaeological digs of 1982 and 1983, in which the Ayn Ghazal statues – among the earliest large-scale depictions of human forms in the world (from the mid-7th millennia) – were unearthed in Jordan. As the photographs illustrate, the excavation site lay mere feet from the highway, highlighting the threats to physical cultural heritage posed by routine urbanization. Archeologist Gary Rollefson, a key member of the team that discovered the Ayn Ghazal statues, has participated in the digitization project, providing extensive background information on the digs cataloged in the archive.

Ayn Ghazal excavation site near major road, 1982-83. Photo by Rami G. Khouri, courtesy of ACOR Photo Archive.
The upper layer of the cache of plaster human statues and busts found at Ayn Ghazal, 1982-82. Photo by Rami G. Khouri, courtesy of ACOR Photo Archive.

Contributions to the ever-growing archive

The ACOR archive is not just designed to reach a large audience. It is also meant to inspire widespread participation. The project’s online platform, created by Digital Relab, is designed so that researchers, experts, and knowledgeable members of the public can contribute greater detail to specific photos in the form of tags.

In particular, the project seeks contributions from Jordanians who could provide details to accompany the images of daily life in Jordan in the 1970s and 1980s. The addition of more personal histories, such as the life story of Amman’s steam train driver, Mr. Fathalla (as photographed by Jane Taylor below), or identification of the men drinking coffee in the Ottoman-era capital of Jordan, As-Salt, would foster a sense of local ownership and participation in the writing of the country’s history.

Mr. Fathalla, Hejaz Railway steam train driver. Photo by Jane Taylor, courtesy of ACOR Photo Archive.
Two men in As-Salt, 1982. Photo from Rami Khouri collection at ACOR.

By encouraging people to see their old family photographs as intimately connected to the public history of Jordan, Palestine, and the rest of the region, the archive aims to encourage citizens to take steps to preserve and digitize their own personal collections.

Un-told stories exposed

Access to information determines who can take part in the construction of history. By digitizing ACOR’s photographic film archive, unique content is being made available worldwide, for free. My hope is that the archive can provide a platform for local people in the region to take an active role in writing their own history. It will also provide a resource for people worldwide to access more nuanced portrayals of a part of the globe often misrepresented by over-simplified headlines. This will lead to the broader appreciation of under- or un-told stories of the wider Middle East.

The ACOR archive project is about more than just making images digital. Rather, it is about providing the raw materials for new interpretations of the present and the past in the Middle East, both amongst researchers and the general public.

Views are my own and do not necessarily represent those of American Center of Oriental Research, Amman (ACOR).

[1] Khouri, Rami G., ‘James A. Sauer,(1945-1999), An Appreciation and Remembrance’, ACOR Newsletter, Winter, 1999, Amman, Jordan.

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Thirty years of stories retold: Celebrating the digitization of the Jane Taylor collection at ACOR

Thirty Years of Stories Retold: Celebrating the Digitization of the Jane Taylor photo collection at ACOR

By Jessica Holland. Published: 19th December 2018

Major changes have occurred in the archaeological, natural and social landscapes of the Arab region from mid-1970s to the present day. Jane Taylor’s collection has captured pivotal moments during these changes, and their recent re-presentation online, in an accessible, public format, allows for these stories to be retold using visual primary resources. The Jane Taylor collection housed at ACOR features 7,000 photos of cultural heritage sites, landscapes, events, architecture and people in countries throughout the region and Asia, spanning more than 30 years. Taylor lived in Amman from 1989 to 2015, and wrote and photographed Jordan prolifically. Taylor’s collection also includes photography from across the region, including images from Yemen, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, Turkey, and Pakistan.

Taylor’s collection, donated to ACOR in 2017, has been digitized over the past year thanks to the ACOR Photo Archive project supported by a Title VI grant from the US Department of Education (2016). The project focuses on the potential of the photographs as objects themselves, as pieces of cultural and community heritage, as well as the sites they depict, to serve as records in an era where the changing borders of states and cities have threatened – and in some cases obliterated – heritage. I refer to cultural heritage or community heritage here informed by Shatha Abu-Khafajah, (2014) who advocates for the use of ‘community heritage’ rather than ‘community archaeology’ within the post-colonial context of Jordan. Abu-Khafajah brings to light the connotations of foreign interventions and the British mandate that the Arabic translation of ‘archaeology’ (athar) holds, in contrast to the connotations of ‘heritage’ (turath), used to refer to things that shape individual and collective identities. The ACOR Photo archive aspires to represent a multitude of sites, subjects and time periods from across the region together on a level playing field. This may encourage research into alternative narratives about Jordan and the region, contributing to a more diverse production of knowledge from a wider variety of actors. The ACOR Photo Archive project is making Jane Taylor’s images accessible to the public online, searchable in English and Arabic, making it possible to link images of history back to the communities that they came from.

Taylor’s varied collection provides an excellent starting point for such plurality of interpretations. In her writing, Taylor choses subjects that are aesthetically stunning which also have compelling narratives, preferring to tell the ‘fascinating’ story of a place, avoiding the rather dry-sounding ‘history’ of it. (Hear more on this podcast).

Whilst Taylor’s photographs by no means provide a complete record of 30 years of history across the region, they do offer a plurality of (hi)stories latent with possibilities for re-telling. Taylor’s photographs offer rare – and sometimes bird’s-eye – views of previous decades. These sometimes focus on areas of national pride offering stunning portrayals of known tourist attractions. Sometimes the images end up ensuring a place for traces of working peoples’ histories within the archive, validating their place in history. In this way Taylor’s collection represents community heritage.

This photo essay will showcase but a fraction of the archaeological, art historical, and anthropological knowledge distilled in Taylor’s visual bibliography. The rest can be found by searching the archive here.

Dramatic conservation

Taylor spent more than a quarter century working in Jordan, and as her specialty, its cultural heritage plays a large role in ACOR’s collection of her work. For example, Taylor’s photos of the mid-8th century frescoes at Qusayr ‘Amrah, in Jordan’s Eastern desert, provide stark contrast with the bright frescoes today, after the intervention of a  lengthy conservation process initiated by the World Monuments Fund in 2008.

Qusayr ‘Amrah, mid-8th century Umayyad desert complex, 2004, Jane Taylor, courtesy of the ACOR Photo Archive.

Taylor (2005) tells the ‘story’ of Qusayr ‘Amrah, as a meeting place used by the Umayyad caliphs for sustaining connections with the bedouin tribes of the desert, on whose support they depended (p.80). Qusayr ‘Amrah’s main features are an audience hall of three barrel-vaults, a bathhouse with under-floor hypocaust heating, and a well-house complete with a mechanism for raising water. Taylor highlights Qusayr ‘Amrah’s extraordinary frescoes depicting, in ‘joyous naturalism’, diverse subjects including: hunting scenes, musicians, dancers, women and children bathing; ‘the earliest known representation of the night sky in the round’ and the Byzantine and Sassanian Emperors, the Visigoth King of Spain, and the Emperor of China apparently paying homage to an Umayyad Caliph (Taylor: 2005).

Qusayr ‘Amrah mid-8th century Umayyad palace, domed calidarium with fresco of constellations, 2004, Jane Taylor, courtesy of the ACOR Photo Archive.

When Taylor was writing this work, and taking the associated photographs, the identity of the Umayyad caliph was unknown. An inscription found in the spring of 2012, ‘revealed that the building was commissioned by Walid Ibn Yazid sometime between A.D. 723 and 743 before his short reign as caliph (A.D. 743-44)’ (WMF).

Qusayr ‘Amrah, mid-8th century fresco of a gazelle in vault of Apodyterium, 2004, Jane Taylor, courtesy of the ACOR Photo Archive.

Vault of the Apodyterium after conservation, June 10, 2014. Photographer: Gaetano Palumbo/World Monuments Fund.

Further afield, Taylor’s photographs capture stunning Islamic art in Iran and Pakistan, as well as the people who have painstakingly conserved it.

14th century portal tilework within Masjed-e-jameh, Yazd, Iran, 2006. Jane Taylor courtesy of the ACOR Photo Archive.

Lahore old city, Wazir Khan mosque, 17th century, Pakistan, 2006. Jane Taylor courtesy of the ACOR Photo Archive.

A man restoring marble in Jahangir tomb, Lahore, Pakistan, 2006, Jane Taylor collection, courtesy of ACOR Photo Archive.

Stonemason in Petra, 1999. Jane Taylor collection, courtesy of ACOR Photo Archive.

Taylor’s photographs of Petra, and her works on the subject, Petra and Petra and the Lost Kingdom of the Nabataeans earnt much well-deserved recognition of a great achievement. The ACOR Photo Archive has more than 1000 photographs of Petra and the surrounding region featuring not just the monumental Nabataean city, but the traditions of the people that still live in the area, including an important collection on the social and traditional craft history of the Bdoul (or Bedoul) Bedouin.

Tor Imdai, Bdoul Bedouin Sheikh Saad and his daughter. Photo from the Jane Taylor collection, courtesy of ACOR Photo Archive.

Taylor’s photographs often show the juxtaposition of modern and ancient architectural elements, as can be seen in Lebanon, where the Temple of Venus stands next to the modern buildings of Baalbek. Taylor’s photographs do not idealize ancient monuments and ruins, but show them authentically brushing shoulders with modern development. Taylor’s photos show community heritage as part of the modern living and working spaces of local communities.

Temple of Venus, Baalbek, Lebanon, 2005, Jane Taylor collection, courtesy of the ACOR Photo Archive.

In Turkey, a unique composition can be found where the colonnaded street of ancient Pompeiopolis joins the vista of the modern day city of Viranşehir, Turkey.

Photo from Jane Taylor collection, courtesy of ACOR Photo Archive, 2006.


Goddesses and exorcist-priests

Taylor’s essay with Christopher Tuttle, in Humberto da Silveira’s Hegra, about the area of Mada’in Saleh [the cities of Saleh] ancient northwest Saudi Arabia paints a picture of the social lives of those who lived there and built its distinctive funerary monuments.

Qasr al Bint, Tomb on west side, Mada’in Saleh, Saudi Arabia, 1994. Jane Taylor, collection, courtesy of ACOR Photo Archive.

The trade route known as the Incense Road, the focus of a travelling exhibition currently on show at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, ran through the Nabataean Arabian settlement of Hegra (Al-Hijr), which flourished due to a profitable trade in myrrh and frankincense. Trade enabled the Nabateans of Hegra to build the impressive monuments pictured here 2000 years ago, allowing its civilians and soldiers to be buried in as lavish style as they could afford (Taylor and Tuttle, 2013). One of the earliest tombs, dated 1 B.C.E., was commissioned by “Kamkan daughter of Wa’ilat daughter of Haramu, and Kulaybat her daughter”, who traced their descent through the matrilineal line, and threatened those who dared to disrespect the ‘eternal rest of the tomb’s occupants with curses from the goddesses and fines to the exorcist-priest’ (Taylor and Tuttle, 2013).

With aesthetics strikingly similar to the Nabatean city of Petra in modern day Jordan, Taylor highlights features such as the ‘bold Assyrian crowstep design’, seen above and in Tomb 100 below (Taylor and Tuttle, 2013).

Tomb 100, Jabal al-Khraymat, Mada’in Saleh, Saudi Arabia, 1994, Jane Taylor collection, courtesy of ACOR Photo Archive.

Taylor and Tuttle share so much information about the owner and commissioner of this tomb (100) because of the inscriptions that are prolific in Hegra including even the master-mason’s names, carved into the designs. Protection would also appear to be implied by the representation of sphinxes: ‘fearsome creatures particularly suited to guarding the marginal realm between the living and the dead’ (Taylor and Tuttle, 2013).


Monumental Landscape Photography

Taylor’s collection also includes stunning landscape photography from across the region, often including aerial shots putting cities in context.

View from north spring, from Mount Sinai/Jabal Mousa, Sinai, Egypt, 1999. Photo from the Jane Taylor collection, courtesy of ACOR Photo Archive.

Jabal Harraz, Hajjarrah, Yemen, 1995. Photo from the Jane Taylor collection, courtesy of ACOR Photo Archive.

Taylor’s photos show the stunning beauty of Yemen in the 1990s, a sharp contrast to the international conflict of the present. Taylor’s photographs provide an informative record of the condition of heritage sites before the recent devastation and loss of human life. The city of Sana’a was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage City in 1986, and the Old Walled city of Shibam, Hadhramaut, in 1982; both were added to the World Heritage in Danger list in 2015 (Marchand, 2017).

Shibam, near Sana’a, as seen from above in Kawkaban, Yemen, 1995. Photo from the Jane Taylor collection, courtesy of ACOR Photo Archive.

Shibam, Wadi Hadhramaut, Yemen, 1995. Photo from the Jane Taylor collection, courtesy of ACOR Photo Archive.


Documentary photography

Alongside her cultural and community heritage, and landscape photography, Taylor also practiced documentary photography for UNICEF and other relief agencies, in April-May 1991 and January-February 1992, in Iraq, to record the effects of the war on the Iraqi people, and on particular the children. Taylor photographed similar scenes at the St. John Ophthalmic Hospital in Jerusalem in 1989. Due to the graphic nature of some of these images, they are available only upon request by researchers interested in relevant topics.

In reflecting on Jane Taylor’s photo collection, I have tried to emphasize the broadness of the scope of the collection, and the importance of making such an excellent source of visual knowledge accessible to the public. By conserving physical photographic collections, whilst digitizing and identifying each image and then publishing these online, ACOR Photo Archive is creating a resource which is essential for the research community, but more than that, stands a chance at resonating with the communities to whom the heritage is a landmark and focal point of their everyday lives. In a period when heritage and human life are often in danger of disruption, conserving heritage in an accessible way, makes it possible to save a memory of the cornerstones upon which identities are formed. The work that has gone into digitizing and uploading the Jane Taylor collection now shifts to another kind of knowledge production – that of a multitude of stories to be retold.

N.B. ACOR Photo Archive’s collection does not hold the entirety of Jane Taylor’s photograph collections. Some are held with Jane Taylor, and with her photography agent.

[1] al-Makaleh, Nabil and al-Quraishi, Fahd, in (Ed.) Marchand, Trevor H., Architectural Heritage of Yemen: Buildings that fill my eye,

[2] Marchand, Trevor H., (ed.) Architectural Heritage of Yemen: Buildings that fill my eye,

[3] Taylor, Jane and Tuttle, Christopher, ‘A Brief History of Hegra’, Humberto da Silveira, Hegra, (Rio de Janeiro: 2013).

[4] Taylor, Jane Jordan: Images from the Air (Al Uzza Books, Amman: 2005).

[5] Taylor, Jane High Above Jordan, Jordan (1989).

[6] Taylor, Jane, Website. [Accessed 3rd December 2018].

[7] The National, ‘Roads of Arabia’ exhibition. [Accessed Nov 23rd 2013]:

[8] Shatha Abu-Khafajah, ‘They are hiding it…Why do they hide it? From whom, and for whom?’ Community Heritage at Work in the Post-Colonial Context of Jordan’ in Suzie Thomas and Joanne Lea, (Eds.) Public Participation in Archaeology (The Boydell Press: 2014).

[9] World Monuments Fund, ‘Qusayr Amra’. [Accessed 23rd November 2018]

Jessica Holland is ACOR’s Project Archivist from August 2018 – December 2018.

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