Ancient and Modern Meet in These Photographs of the Holy Land
Roger Grasas has been traveling around the Middle East with his camera since 2005, documenting the region’s diverse peoples and landscapes. For his latest series, “Ha Aretz”—Aramaic for “The Promised Land”—the Spanish photographer decided to journey through the six countries that now constitute the world described in the Scriptures: Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, and Syria.
Grasas began the project in 2011, at the dawn of the democratic uprisings that came to be known as the Arab Spring. Over the subsequent years, the Arab Spring faded into an Arab Winter as Syria spiraled into civil war and Egypt faced an authoritarian backlash to its once-promising revolution. When Grasas first visited Damascus, the ancient city was a bustling, modern metropolis; today, some of the mosques he photographed have been destroyed in the fighting.
Despite the region’s chaos, Grasas persisted, photographing some of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. He focused on the way these cities have adapted to modernity, emphasizing startling juxtapositions of the ancient and the modern, like the Giza pyramids as seen through the window of a Pizza Hut, or a line of tourist buses snaking across the Mount of Olives.
“I wanted to take these Biblical stories that have been narrated for thousands of years and photograph the places where the stories take place,” Grasas explains. “I wanted to see how, after 20 or 30 centuries, the civilizations have evolved.” Earlier this month, the series was awarded the Descubrimientos PHE18 Prize at the Photo España photography festival in Madrid.
Grasas isn’t religious himself, but says he has a deep respect for spirituality—and was disturbed by the booming tourism industry that has turned many Middle Eastern cities into museums, with visitors coming to gawk while locals try to go about their daily lives. “The locals also have their spirituality, but in a more quotidian way, because they live there,” Grasas says.
Although he had to watch out for Al-Qaeda while photographing in the Sinai Peninsula, and was frequently hassled by border guards, Grasas largely avoided the chaotic violence that has engulfed the region in recent years. Referring to the Bible, Grasas points out that conflict is nothing new in the Middle East. “When there are layers and layers of history, and the cities are so old, it creates beauty but it also creates complexity,” he says. “And complexity sometimes leads to conflict.”