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.