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Kevork Kahvedjian in his store in the Christian quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem.


Church in the Old City of Jerusalem near Kevork's photography studio.
Photo by Rhonda Spivak.


Clown outside a store in the Mamilla neighborhood today where Kevork Kahvedjian's father used to live, where his old photos were found. Today the Mamilla area has become a high end residential and shopping complex. The building in the photo has been restored exactly the way it was prior to 1948. The numbers on the bricks of each building were put there so builders could reconstruct it to exactly the way it was.

 
In His Father’s Eyes

The Discovery of Historic Photos of Jerusalem

By Rhonda Spivak, November 1, 2009

Jerusalem  -  The life of photographer Kevork Kahvedjian  totally changed one day in 1989, the when his wife Hasmig decided to clean out the attic of their house  in the Armenian quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City.

There, to his amazement, she discovered boxes upon boxes  of negatives of photographs that Kevork’s father  Eli had taken of Jerusalem in the 1920’s, 30’s, and 40’s before the the city’s landscape had forever been transformed by the 1948 War of Independence.

Kevork’s father Eli,, who was born in  Turkey in 1910  and orphaned at the age of five was eventually rescued and brought to live in Palestine in 1920.  He began taking his first photographs of his adopted homeland at the age of 14.  In 1947, fearing the coming war for Israel's independence, Kahvedjian hid his entire collection and fled the country.  There the historic photographs remained hidden until some 40 years later, when Kevork and his wife found them.

From the moment the discovery was made,  Kevork  Kahvedjian recognized the rarity of  of  his father’s photographs, and realized that his  own life’s work would be to catalogue and exhibit them.

Indeed, the photographs won critical acclaim after being  exhibited in Jerusalem, New York, San Francisco and elsewhere,  and on 1998  Kevork published an exquisite collection of  them in  a book entitled, Jerusalem Through My Father’s Eyes, which sells for  about $65  ( available through amazon.com)

During an interview at his studio at 14 Al-Khanqa Street in the Christian quarter of the Old City, the 63 year old Kevork proudly opens the book  and points to a photograph his father took of  the kotel  in 1929.  “Look , in the photo you can see that  Jewish men and Jewish women are praying together , intermingled.  There was no divider separating them like there is now.” 

Kevork  flips quickly to another photo showing the area of Damascus Gate,  “It shows that after 1948, there was actually a physical barrier dividing West and East Jerusalem.”   

“There is a lot of interest in my father’s photos,” says Kvork, whose two sons are also photographers.  Photography is a life-long passion that Kevork says seems to flow in the family genes.

The collection of  Eli  Kahvedjian's black and white  photographs capture the ebb and flow of daily life in Jerusalem, and  reflects the eye of an  outsider, an Armenian Christian, living in the heart of a conflict between  Jews and Arabs. The photographs have a sensitivity fostered by the hardships of Eli’s own childhood. 

 “ One hundred and sixty members of my father’s family were murdered in the Armenian Genocide.  After weeks in the dessert, my father was given to Kurd that was passing by. The Kurd sold him to a blacksmith, who eventually sent him away. He sought  refuge in a Syrian convent. When the war was over, [in 1918] the American Near East Relief Foundation  began to gather Armenian orphans and distribute them in its orphanages throughout the Middle East.  My father was  sent to  an orphanage in Lebanon, and then  Nazareth before arriving at  the age of 16 to an orphanage in the old City. It so happened that one of his teachers  in  the orphanage in Nazareth was a photographer and started to teach him,”  says Kvork.

After learning the trade, Elia Kahvedjian bought a studio in 1936 on Jaffa Road ( which today is the site of the Dan Pearl Hotel).   Elia had some business contacts with the British military, and as a result two British Intelligence colonels came to his studio in late 1947 to warn him of a pending Arab riot that destroyed  the new Commercial Center  after the United Nations vote on November 29, 1947, to partition Palestine. 

The two officers assisted Kahvedjian in loading his photographs and equipment on two trucks and transferring these treasures to the Armenien Convent  in the Old City.  A mere two days later, the studio together with all of Jerusalem’s Mamilla area was ransacked. Kahvedjian and his family also sought safety in the convent and fled to Syria for eight months.  He returned to Jerusalem to find it divided between Hashemite Jordan and the newly established State of Israel.

Kevork is currently completing a second volume of his father’s photos, and  has begun cataloguing over 2000 negatives his father shot in neighboring Middle East countries before 1948.  His two sons are working on a “Then and Now” volume contrasting the changes in Jerusalem that have occurred in the last seven decades.

“I have a lot of work ahead of me,”  Kevork says.

 
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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.


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