Waterfall on the Abana, near Damascus by Francis Frith

Francis Frith

Waterfall on the Abana, near Damascus, c.1865, Albumen silver print, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 84.XO.826.5.37, Image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program

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Foreign Waters

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In one of the most famous tantrums in the Bible, Naaman declares that he does not want to bathe in the waters of the Jordan. ‘Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?’ (2 Kings 5:12). Anger comes to him at Elisha’s cold reception, which he directs towards the river he is instructed to bathe in. The entire project nearly comes undone, but for the intervention of his servants who keep him on track.

Francis Frith was a Victorian photographer, who became famous for his pictures of the biblical lands. This image is one of forty in a folio of images published in 1865 as F. Frith’s Photo-Pictures from the Lands of the Bible. Illustrated by Scripture Words. Whereas the medieval practice illuminates Scripture with images, Frith’s collection provides one of the earliest and most popular examples of illuminating photographs with Scripture. He trades on the apparent literalism of the photograph. Frith describes his desire to allow the viewer to vicariously witness the lands of the Bible through his lens (Van Haaften 1980: vii).

Taken near Damascus, in this photograph we observe a portion of the Abana forming a waterfall above a stone arch aqueduct. The water’s smooth surface, softened by the slow exposure time required by Frith’s techniques, places the water in sharp contrast with the rest of the photograph. Photography compresses time into a single image. The photograph renders the river anew.

Naaman desires the comfort of the familiar, but the God of Israel gives to him the new. To remain with the familiar would be to remain with old rivers and old diseases. Instead, the strange waters of Israel restore and renew. They enable the recognition of God’s identity. Just as the photograph renders a familiar landscape in a strange way, through the healing waters the believer sees the world in new ways.



Van Haaften, Julia. 1980. Egypt and the Holy Land in Historic Photographs: 77 Views by Francis Frith (New York: Dover Publications)

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