100-year-old Photos Depict the Life of Shepherds in Ancient Palestine


Recently discovered 100-year-old photos clearly portray shepherds and their sheep in a region of the land of Israel within a few miles of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The photos, with amazing clarity, depict the every-day life of the shepherd in the context of the land as it was in the early 1900’s, before the emergence of the modern nation.


The Ain Farah region, just northeast of Jerusalem, where the photos were originally taken, was the same area where King David, when he was a shepherd boy, likely tended his sheep. An article appearing on August 11, 1955 in the Jerusalem Post, speaking of this region, says the following: “The ‘still waters’ of the Twenty-third Psalm have proved ‘waters of comfort’ to more souls than those from any other spring in history….The spring from which they come is easily identified, for in the whole of the hill country of Judea there is but one valley that has ‘green pastures’ and ‘still waters’ – namely, Wadi Fara, a deep cleft nine miles north-east of Jerusalem, which becomes deeper and narrower as it runs through the almost perpetual twilight of the valley of the shadow of death down to the plain of Jericho....Until 1926, only hermits and shepherds frequented the valley, which was the haunt of coneys and porcupines.”


The life of a shepherd had not changed very much from the days of King David to the time these photos were taken. You can see the ordinary day-to-day routines of shepherds, sitting with their flocks, leading them along the “still waters,” guiding them with a rod and staff through rocky places, and even playing a flute.


In one of the photos a shepherd is pouring oil out of a ram’s horn onto the heads of his sheep. Phillip Keller, in his classic book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 explains how insects and various parasites in the summer can cause great irritability in the sheep especially around their eyes and nasal passages. He writes, “What an incredible transformation this would make among the sheep. Once the oil had been applied to the sheep’s head there was an immediate change in behaviour. Gone was the aggravation, gone the frenzy, gone the irritability and the restlessness. Instead, the sheep would start to feed quietly again, then soon lie down in peaceful contentment.”  Through this we gain a new depth of understanding of what David had in mind when he wrote, “He anoints my head with oil.”


The photos in this rare collection were originally published in a limited edition hand-bound book produced from a Palestinian tannery with genuine sheep skin leather. A copy of this publication was acquired by a couple visiting Jerusalem and the region in 1925 and was quietly kept as a family treasure in Canada. After taking a day trip on donkey from Jerusalem to the Wady Fara, the husband of this couple records in his personal journal in 1925, “the wildness of the upper part of the Wady above the spring, with its huge boulders and forbidding aspect, may have been in David’s mind as he wrote, ‘yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.’”

The rare book from which these photos were discovered has a most interesting Foreword written in beautiful picturesque language. Keep in mind this was written before 1925:

Pastoral life in Palestine flows on the same channels today as it did in the time of David, and in the open region to the northeast of Jerusalem, the flocks are still taken down the rough and winding paths, into the picturesque gorge, in the bed of which winds the silvery stream of Ain Farah. This is still the popular gathering place of the shepherds in the surrounding hill country of Judea, and is generally accepted as the scene of David’s boyhood experiences in shepherd life, which in his riper age he recalls and uses in this “Sweet Psalm of Trust,” to illustrate the Father’s protecting care over His people. To aid in portraying the scene, we will imagine ourselves going down to this valley.

As we walk down some early morning, when every blade of grass sparkles, and dewdrops glisten on the mountain-sides, we see the shepherds from the neighbouring villages leading their flocks out in search of pasture. Near noon, we see the flocks on the hillsides making their way down the slopes, toward the watering places in the valley. Here the flocks assemble, and after “restoring their souls” at the mint-bordered stream, they rest for a few hours “in the shadow of the great rock,” while the shepherds gather in groups for their lively chats.

After resting during the heat of the noon hours, the many flocks which have congregated, separate as if by magic, when each shepherd goes off in a different direction calling his flock. Shepherds often call each of their sheep by a special name, which the sheep learn to know, and to which they respond. The large congregation of flocks has now broken up into several smaller groups, moving slowly up the hill. The twinkling of the bells carried by one or more of the sheep in the flocks, blends with the wild cadence of the shepherds’ flutes, as they wind their way toward their respective sheepfolds.

Shepherds are always equipped with a rod or staff, or both, which are usually carried for protection against the attack of wild animals. If night overtakes the shepherd before he reaches the fold (which he usually does by sunset) he uses his staff as a sounding rod, striking the ground with it as he goes along, producing a ringing sound for which the tired sheep listen; for by it, they can follow in the path picked out for them by their shepherd.

In spring this whole valley of Ain Farah is ablaze with the rich yellow of the wild Chrysanthemums, splashed over with scarlet patches of the Anemone or the “Lily of the Field,” as well as numerous other flowers, and the rocky sides of the high, precipitous walls of the valley are decked with rosy bunches of Cyclamens. A little later in the year, the stream itself is bordered with a fragrant hedge of green and purple Mint. To this beautiful and restful valley, one may well imagine that the “sweet Psalmist of Israel” resorted with his flock. The shepherd life seen there today, moves along, as does the stream that flows through it, in the same channels as it did in his day.

To order copies of these photos as quality 8 X 10 prints provided in elegant display folders  click here.

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