Postcards Reveal a Holy Land of the Imagination


Sepia prints of camels, palm trees, Bedouins and chasidic Jews. An overflowing Dead Sea. Jewish pioneers tilling the soil of what is now the city of Rehovot. British soldiers dressing their comrades’ wounds.

These are just a handful of the 130,000-strong images found in a collection of postcards dating back to 1883 and amassed by British collector David Pearlman, which offer an invaluable insight into Israel’s history over the past two centuries.

For more than 60 years, Pearlman – an accountant from north London by day and collector by night – scoured auction houses, private collections and estate sales to piece together his Postcards of Palestine collection.

Now he has donated them all to the Folklore Research Center at Hebrew University’s Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies, where researchers are busily examining how Israel has captured the imagination of visitors through the decades.

Thought to be the largest collection of its kind in the world, the postcards document everything from the Ottoman period and General Allenby’s visit to Jerusalem in 1919, to the beginnings of the British Mandate and creation of the state of Israel, the early pioneers, the Six-Day War and the emergence of modern cities, such as Tel Aviv.

The postcards include artwork by leading 20th century artists from Jerusalem’s Bezalel school, such as Meir Ben Gur Aryeh, Ephraim Lilien, Ze’ev Raban, as well as pictures taken by Karimeh Abbud – who was known as the Lady Photographer – one of the first female photographers in the Arab world.

A sizeable portion catered to Christian pilgrims, who made their way from Egypt to Jerusalem and on to Damascus, visiting holy sites along the way.

For Pearlman, collecting postcards was as much about the pictures on the front as it was the carefully inscribed notes on the back.

“It gave me a great thrill to feel I was touching a little piece of history,” he says. “I began collecting stamps as a young boy and graduated to postcards when I realised that, instead of collecting dull postage stamps, I could collect these beautiful cards.

David Pearlman amassed an incredible collection of old postcards from the Holy Land spanning two centuries – and has now donated them all to the Jerusalem-based Hebrew University. (Hebrew University)

“I kept them in shoeboxes in my garage all these years. At a certain point, the collection grew so large that I began to park my car on the street to make room for more shoeboxes.”

Having been admired and looked after by Pearlman for so many years, these postcards – once sent thousands of miles by land, sea and, later, air – have now made their way back to their origin.

“He wanted these postcards to return to Zion,” said  Dani Schrire, director of HU’s Folklore Research Center.

“This collection is immense and now we are in a good position to begin research into understanding the imagination of the Holy Land.”