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More than half a century ago, LIFE dispatched photographer Dmitri Kessel to Jerusalem to observe the rituals that took place there as Christians of all stripes gathered to celebrate Easter and Christmas in the places most holy to their tradition. The resulting story, published in 1955 under the headline “Holy Days in the Holy Land,” focused heavily on the Christmas-in-Bethlehem side of things, as befitted its Dec. 26 issue date. But it was an image of Protestants from England and the U.S. at a tomb outside Jerusalem, the first image in the slideshow above, that won pride of place as the last photograph in the issue.
Although the rest of Kessel’s Easter photographs were not published at the time, notes filed in the LIFE archives make it possible to learn a good deal about his trip to Jerusalem. It was common practice at the time for a reporter, correspondent or researcher — who would go uncredited in the final story — to accompany a photographer on his or her trip. That person would file notes to someone at the magazine, who would use them to craft the language that went with the photographs. Those notes would then be filed away, most likely not to be consulted again, but archived for future research. These particular notes were bound for reporter Jane Wilson, who presumably wrote the photo captions that ran in the magazine, via George Caturani of the magazine’s foreign news service, from Mathilde Camacho of the Paris bureau.
“There were so many celebrations and so many ceremonies going on almost simultaneously during the Easter celebrations in Jerusalem, and so many communities involved that it is difficult to know which is the best way to set them down for you,” Camacho began.
She described the goings-on at the Latin Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Armenian church, the Coptic Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Abyssinian Church and the Protestant Churches, witnessed during a long weekend of rites and celebration. Though her detailed captions are difficult to pair with the images after so many decades, they provide insight into the meaning of that time in that place for those people.
“Most of the pilgrims were really old,” she notes in the caption for a photograph of three elderly women from Cyprus who had come with a group of about 1,500 Greek Orthodox pilgrims, “and had been saving for years in order to get enough money for the sea fare from Cyprus to Beiruth and then either the air or the bus fare to Jerusalem.”
Those women, like so many others whom Camacho and Kessel met in Jerusalem, saw their voyage to the Holy Land as a crowning experience in a lifetime full of faith. The pomp and ritual seen in these images is, then, an appropriate reflection of both the joy and solemnity of the Easter season.