Vol 1 No 10 Spring/Summer 2004

Dom Photographs in the Collection
of Elia Kahvedjian

by Allen Williams

The photographs taken by Elia Kahvedjian, as well as the pictures of other photographers that he collected, capture numerous landscapes and individuals from the ethnic montage of Jerusalem and the surrounding area dating from 1845 to 1967. Kevork Kahvedjian inherited this collection from his father and has made its contents available to the public through Elia Photo Service located in the Old City of Jerusalem. Included in his collection of over 1,400 photographs are a few representations of the Dom people. With Kevork’s permission, these photographs and a basic description of them are presented here.

A brief biographical sketch of Elia’s life was provided by his son.

Elia was born in 1910 in Ourfa, Turkey and passed away April 1999. During the Armenian Genocide, perpetrated in 1915, Elia (age five) lost everything he held dear. His family of both parents, five brothers, three sisters, uncles and aunts were massacred along with 1.5 million other Armenians. After being homeless, sold as a slave, and even chased by cannibals, the American Near East Relief Foundation (A.N.E.R.F.) rescued tens of thousands of Armenian orphans, including Elia, taking them first to Lebanon and then to Nazareth. Since his childhood, Elia had dreamed of becoming a photographer. Krilorian and Toumaian, photographers in Jerusalem, made his dream a reality. When Elia came to Jerusalem, he was fascinated by Jerusalem’s historical places, landscapes and characters and began taking pictures in 1924. From there Elia devoted himself to photography, catching the scenes and lives of Jerusalem’s streets.

The earliest picture of a Gypsy in this extensive collection predates the work of Elia Kahvedjian. In fact, an unknown photographer took the picture the year of Elia’s birth (in 1910). Gypsy animal trainers traveled widely throughout the Middle East and into Europe during the Ottoman period. The location of this man’s home is uncertain, but the growing population of Jerusalem in 1910 would have attracted the far-ranging entertainers.
Elia’s first photograph of Dom subjects was this 1927 picture of Dom women dancing. The image was reportedly taken in the vicinity of Jericho. This picture, taken three years into his career, captures several cultural features of the Dom people, some of which are still held to: the family orientation of the Dom, the dance as a cultural expression, and the facial tattooing of the women.
Elia’s second, and possibly his last, photograph of Dom subjects is this delightful 1935 picture of a young Dom girl dancing to the beat of a drum.
Kahvedjian was somewhat uncertain about identifying this 1936 fortuneteller as a Gypsy. While his father attached no specific ethnic designation to this subject, Kahvedjian based his speculation about the fortuneteller’s Dom heritage on his understanding of the occupations of the Dom during the British mandate (1992-48). Upon closer inspection of the picture, the man has none of the expected paraphernalia of a fortuneteller—at least not a modern practitioner of this craft. Instead, he appears to be writing—an unusual skill and task for a fortuneteller of that period. Additionally, the small bottles displayed on a wooden box next to him could lead one to think he was a merchant selling perfumes as opposed to being a fortuneteller selling potions.

Kahvedjian’s photographs beautifully captured the public faces of his Gypsy subjects. One could only wish that they were not so few in number and so limited in context. Nevertheless, his presentations give us an enticing glimpse of the Dom during the early years of the 20th century.

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