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Religious order works to save Holy Land's photographic history

Khaldoon Eid / NBC News

Father Alberto Joan of the Custodia Terrae Sanctae looks at centuries old images from the Holy Land in the archive room of his order in the Jerusalem.

Khaldoon Eid / NBC News

Pilgrims seen in this photograph arrive to Bethlehem during Christmas to visit the Church of the Nativity during the 19th Century.

JERUSALEM – In the Custodia Terrae Sanctae - a Franciscan order in Jerusalem's Old City - Father Alberto Joan hunches over a large wooden table covered with hundreds of centuries-old black and white photos.  Wearing white gloves, so not to damage them, he holds each one proudly to show the daily life in the Holy Land depicted in the pictures.

“Here is a photograph dated at the end of the 19th century,” he said. “We can see pilgrims arriving to Bethlehem during Christmas on their way to visit the church of the Nativity.”

Father Alberto is part of an historic effort by the Catholic Church to collect and preserve rare and unseen photographs documenting the Holy Land.

Khaldoon Eid / NBC News

Father Alberto Joan of the Custodia Terrae Sanctae holds an image of the Church of the Nativity in the archive room.

 “With the use of these photos, we can see how pilgrims dressed back then, we can see exactly where to put the candles or how to prepare the alter for this coming Christmas,” he said.

Recently the Custodia Terrae Sanctae, which also means the “guardians of the Holy Land,” reached out to monasteries and convents throughout the region to submit photos from their own collections in order to create a more thorough record.

“The photos collected are a living proof of the daily life in the Holy Land and are a treasure with an historic importance that must be preserved,” said Custos Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Guardian of The Holy Places, who heads the order.

Right now the photographs exist in a temperature controlled archive room which is guarded by locked doors, security cameras and an alarm system.

Very few people have the opportunity to explore the treasures hidden in leather bound photo albums found here. A goal of the 800-year-old Franciscan order is to change this and digitize all these rare photos so the public can view and enjoy them online.

“It is so important and interesting to see how people lived so many years ago,” said Father Alberto.

Khaldoon Eid / NBC News

A view of Bethlehem from the 19th Century.