Some eras remain engraved in memories. But others are fortunate enough to be documented by the sagacious few. Elia Kahvedjian collected and took around 3,000 photographs of Jerusalem and surrounding areas in the early part of the 20th century. Kahvedjian documented Jerusalem in its final years under the British Mandate, preserving forever parts of the city that were soon to be destroyed or redeveloped.
Born in Urfa, in southern Turkey, Kahvedjian was a refugee of the Armenian genocide. Forced on a death march with his mother after his remaining extended family was murdered by Ottoman troops, the young Elia, estimated by his family to be around 10 or 11, was sent to an orphanage in Nazareth run by the American Near East Relief Foundation. When he told the orphanage he didn’t know his surname, they asked what his father sold in his shop. “Coffee”, he replied, so he became a ‘Kahvedjian’, from ‘kahve’, the Turkish word for coffee.
At the orphanage he was taught by Garro Boghosian, an amateur photographer who began paying Kahvedjian to accompany him on his excursions in order to carry his unwieldy equipment. The young orphan fell in love with photography, and from Nazareth he was sent to Jerusalem, to live in another orphanage. There he began working for a wealthy Christian family, the Hananya brothers, who ran a photography shop in the center of the city.
Working in the photography shop gave Kahvedjian the opportunity to further his knowledge in the trade. When the brothers grew older and wanted to retire, Elia bought the shop from them and continued to run it. His family have recently found a picture of Elia in a group portrait of the Jerusalem Order of the Freemasons. They believe his association with the Freemasons gave him access to contacts within the British army, which subsequently become pivotal to his survival.
According to his family, a British army officer warned Elia two days before the start of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War (referred to by Israelis as the War of Independence) that he should dispose of his belongings and leave the city. He hid his negatives and photos in a storeroom in the Armenian Quarter, closed the shop and fled the city.
When he returned, in 1949, he opened the shop in the Christian Quarter that remains the “Elia Photo Service” to this day. In 1987 Kahvedjian’s daughter-in-law rediscovered the forgotten glass-plate silver nitrate negatives when she tidied the storeroom. The family developed a number of the films, and organized the photos for Elia’s first exhibition, held in the American Colony Hotel. The exhibition was wildly received, and the family proceeded to turn the shop into a small photographic museum. Filled with the black and white photos that span Kahvendjian’s career, the shop serves tourists keen for images of a time gone by and residents reminiscing about their earlier lives.
In 1998 the family chose a selection of the photographs to create a book, “Jerusalem Through My Father's Eyes.” The book was printed under the family’s supervision with paper imported especially from France. The volume was the subject of a very public court case in the Jerusalem District Court after several shop owners in Jerusalem began selling unofficial copies it. The family won the case and were awarded damages. It is still unknown where the forgeries were produced.
Today, Elia’s portrait watches over all those who come to gaze at his pictures in his family’s small establishment. Antique cameras that remain in working order hang from the ceiling amongst the black and white memories of a lost time. According to his family’s estimate, Elia died at 89, in 1999. But his life, and the life of an older Jerusalem, live on.