By Sarah Irving
This summer, a travel grant from the Palestine Exploration Fund allowed me to spend some time in London, rifling through the PEF’s archives for traces of Yusif ‘Abu Selim’ Khazin and Yusif Khattar Kanaan, two Lebanese Christian overseers who, between 1890 and World War One, worked on the Fund’s excavations.
My primary interest, and the focus of this piece of research, is the role of Arabs working on archaeological digs in Palestine in the Late Ottoman period. The standard view of the archaeology of this period tends to focus on a single (white, educated, male) leader who makes pioneering discoveries and to whom all credit for a dig accrues. As future publications emerging from this research will show, this image often does not hold up under scrutiny of the daily records and personal writings of excavators and their staff and visitors. I think that the two Yusifs – as well as many other non-Westerners who contributed to British, American, German and French archaeological digs in the Holy Land pre-WWI – were actually important figures, not only in the practical, day-to-day running of the excavations, but also at times in how finds were understood and interpreted.
One part of my approach to this issue has been to look at the networks of contact and knowledge exchange which happened, not only in formal, academic settings but also in informal environments. Much of my focus has been on the writings and activities of Frederick J. Bliss and R.A.S. Macalister, as the two longest-serving PEF excavation leaders at the time. In this blog, though, I want to show a couple of small, rather peripheral, but also quite fascinating and indicative objects which emerged from the archives.
The first is a pair of calling-cards found in a wallet belonging to Duncan Mackenzie. Mackenzie was a Scottish archaeologist, best-known for his work with Sir Arthur Evans at Knossos in Crete. After Macalister’s resignation from the PEF to take up his chair at University College Dublin in 1909. Although Mackenzie had a reputation as a brilliant field archaeologist, he was also a difficult character; in a 1996 article for Palestine Exploration Quarterly, Nicoletta Momigliano described his time at the Fund’s Ain Shams dig as one of “conflicting interests and expectations, of misunderstandings and self-delusions, of wounded pride and dysentery. It is not a ‘success’ story”.
The calling-cards reflect, however, a different aspect of Mackenzie’s time in Palestine, his interactions with the intellectual and social milieu of Late Ottoman Jerusalem. Jerusalem is often painted a somewhat of a backwater, especially in contrast with Cairo and Beirut, the thriving centres of the Arabic Nahda, or renaissance. But the city saw much coming-and-going of Western scholars, missionaries, diplomats and businessmen, as well as a more stable population of local Arabs and Jews engaged in thinking, writing, studying and publishing. Mackenzie met many people from each of these overlapping social worlds, as these cards demonstrate.
The first was given to him by Boulus Said. Boulus owned the Palestine Educational Bookshop (the precursor to the Educational Bookshop on Salah Eddin Street, beloved of many visitors to present-day Jerusalem). In his study of Palestinian books and literacy Reading Palestine, Ami Ayalon estimates that Boulus Said founded the bookshop around 1910 – so when he handed Duncan Mackenzie this card he had only recently set up his store. Later, on his return from the USA, Boulus’ cousin Wadie (later William) joined the business and established a branch in Cairo; Wadie is probably best-known as father of the great Palestinian scholar Edward Said.
The Palestine Educational Bookshop was not only one of the first bookstores and stationers in the country. It was also a publisher, and the company name appears on many works from the Mandate era, in both Arabic and English. A rival Jerusalem bookshop, the Andalus, advertised the fact that it could source books from Cairo within 24 hours, ordering via telegraph and receiving them through the railway which passed through Gaza and Jaffa to arrive in Jerusalem; there seems little reason why the Educational, with its Cairo branch, could not have performed similar feats. Certainly newspaper adverts highlight its range of international titles.
The presence of a calling-card from Boulus Said in Mackenzie’s wallet, therefore, represents a beginning – an early moment in the development of a significant cultural and intellectual phenomenon in pre-1948 Jerusalem, and the linkage of that moment to some of the most important figures in twentieth-century Palestinian history. The second calling-card, though, represents something more like an ending. It came from Gustaf Dalman, a German Orientalist, theologian and ethnographer.
In the 1890s and 1910s Dalman had lived and worked in Palestine (he also, early in his career, applied to become a Free Church of Scotland missionary there), and published major works on, in particular, the Aramaic language, Hebrew theology, and Christianity. At this point in time, German researchers were producing some of the most important scholarship on both contemporary and historic Palestine, and Dalman was foremost amongst them. But soon after Mackenzie left Palestine in 1913, WWI saw German influence in the Middle East (via its ally, the Ottoman Empire), collapse.
The American archaeologist WF Albright recorded just after the war that Dalman had returned to Jerusalem, but that his rivals amongst the British and French scholars in the city were trying to have his passport revoked. The portrait Albright’s letters paint of Dalman is of a rather sad and isolated figure. Mackenzie’s collection of cards, therefore, bears witness not only to the rise of a distinctive Palestinian literary and social milieu with Boulus Said, but also to the decline of Germany’s heyday in the Ottoman-ruled Holy Land.
The final small item also represents an ending, although on lesser scale. A little envelope, addressed to Mackenzie (care of the Thomas Cook travel agency), it is liberally covered with the stamps of postal offices stretching from Alexandria, via Cairo and Wadi Halfa, to Khartoum, and finally stamped ‘Unclaimed’. All date from 1913, and show it to be a remnant of the PEF’s attempts to contact Mackenzie during his employment on a dig in Sudan that year.
By this time he was embroiled in an acrimonious dispute with the Fund over the terms under which his employment had been terminated and his failure to deliver excavation reports from Ain Shams. The envelope – which presumably did reach Mackenzie, since it appears in the archive, or else was returned to its sender – highlights the efficiency of the Egyptian postal service in this era, and the reach of the British imperial administration. But with its array of postmarks and fruitless journey across North Africa, it also seems to echo the missed opportunities and miscommunications that marked the PEF’s relationship with this brilliant, troubled, unconventional man.
Ayalon, A. 2004. Reading Palestine. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Momigliano, N. 1996. Duncan Mackenzie and the Palestine Exploration Fund. Palestine Exploration Quarterly 128 (1): 139-170
Said, E. 2000. Out of Place: A Memoir. London: Granta.