sketching the Holy Land of 2,000 years ago

I keep developing my working methods as I go. The idea is to be creative and pragmatic: I want to find methods that work and use them.

One of my tools is a folder in Word called Sketchbook. This contains prose “sketches” of locations connected with my story. Lately I’ve been working on chapters that take place in Jericho. Part of my library of aids in realizing the ancient world is a set—or more than one set—of CD-ROMs of images of the Holy Land, prepared by a photographer and biblical-site enthusiast named Todd Bolen. One of the sets I’ve acquired from him is called “Historic Views of the Holy Land: The 1900s”, an archive of photographs taken in and around Palestine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The images are sorted by region. As Bolen notes, one of the strengths of these images is that the Holy Land in 1900 still looked in many ways similar to the way it did in the time of Jesus.

So I look through the photos and find some that I think might help me visualize and describe the location, in this case, Jericho. Here’s the prose sketch I made of the image labeled “Jericho, modern city from south”:

There are drystone walls, and parts of the rectangular houses are stone. Roofs are flat, sloping, undulating, lying like carpets on the long boxes of the buildings. They seem to be lath-and-mud. One or two are piled with dirt, thickened humps, maybe to keep them cooler. The nearby house has a built-up patio, concave and naturally shaped, shaded with a tangled lattice of bare branches held aloft on unstraight, forked poles. Across the lane in front is what might be a pen, also built of these bare branches enclosing a rectangular space. The houses lie aligned in rows with lanes between them; each has a black rectangular doorway, some double-wide like the nearby house; and here and there is a square black window. Bushes, or maybe straw, lie piled on the tops of the nearest rock walls, which fence in a yard. A woman in black, a man in white, and two little girls sitting on the ground facing each other.

And here is one I did earlier, from a different set, the “Pictorial Library of Bible Lands”, featuring color photos of the current-day Holy Land:

The sky is pale blue, and settles down to a dusty haze over the distant ground. There’s a blue-green stripe where the Jordan must be, and closer by, desiccated rocky-gravel hills, rough as the broken edges of porcelain. The color varies from a kind of rubbed olive to the whitish-tawny of teeth. The wide stretches of ground left unirrigated are desert the color of lion’s pelt. The watered parts are bars and patches of deep green. Closer by, where the air is clear, down below the summit of Cypros, are trees with black leaves, and cube stone buildings tinged with rose. But mainly this is parched ground, with the dry mountains of Transjordan barely suggested in the gray haze to the east.

To me it makes sense for a literary artist to make studies and sketches just as a visual artist does, to discover things and work things out before adding them to the large work.

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