Bible Places (Todd Bolen)

#1 Place for Exquisite Bible Lands Pictures!


Todd Bolen is a master photographer… and with his photos
he includes historical notes and up-to-date archaeological information.

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BiblePlaces.com developed from a passion for good digital photographs for studying and teaching the Bible. Todd Bolen was living and teaching college students in Israel when he began applying his skills in photography towards developing a large, systematic collection of images for the entire Bible.

The Pictorial Library of Bible Lands now fills 18 volumes of computer discs and reaches from Egypt to Italy with new volumes recently added for biblical flora and cultural images. These are the same photographs published in hundreds of books and magazines, including the NIV Study Bible and Biblical Archaeology Review.

The collection is a unique resource, for it offers teachers and pastors a wealth of high-quality images that are easy to access and free to use. The Pictorial Library of Bible Lands is loaded with aerial photographs and packed with extensive notes from Bolen’s years of teaching geography, history, and archaeology. The new edition features PowerPoint presentations that include maps and teaching labels. (There’s a free one at the bottom of this page.)

BiblePlaces.com has a number of other resources useful to the traveler to the Middle East, including the BiblePlaces Newsletter and the BiblePlaces Blog . These regular publications provide readers with news, analysis, and valuable free resources.

Those interested in seeing the Holy Land as it was in the 19th and early 20th centuries will enjoy the sister website, Life in the Holy Land . And a new Satellite Bible Atlas  available exclusively through BiblePlaces.com is now the best travel resource of its kind for Bible students.


Todd Bolen’s Story

I first went to Israel at the age of 18 with a Canon SLR and 24 rolls of film. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get college credit for traveling overseas. These turned out to be some of the best months of my life and, when I returned, I showed my slides to anyone who would watch.

I still remember the bus driver on that first trip advertising a set of 100 slides of “Holy Land photos” for $25. Our teacher suggested that these slides would give us sites and perspectives we couldn’t get on our own. That was true, in a way—the set included lots of Catholic chapels and Orthodox shrines and landscapes with dreary colors you can find only in slides that have been duplicated too many times.

I married the girl who was on my volleyball team that semester and soon Kelli and I were headed back to Israel for graduate studies, this time with more film and dreams of teaching. A few weeks after I turned 21 I was leading college students around Jerusalem and imagining a future in this job of opening my Bible and pointing to a hole in the ground.

I used slides for teaching in the classroom, but it was digital technology that really changed everything. First, it was a slide scanner that enabled me to get my photos onto the computer. Then it was a digital projector in the classroom. Then when Nikon unveiled the Coolpix 950 (a 2-megapixel camera for $1,000), the path was cleared for free photographs without limit.

They weren’t entirely free, however. I quickly learned that if I didn’t label the photos, I might not be able to distinguish one pile of rocks apart from another. So I spent long hours on evenings and weekends labeling, sorting, and cropping photos.

Students and professors started asking for copies of my photo collection. But I knew another photographer who had decades-worth of outstanding images. I suggested to him that he create an affordable digital collection that could be used by teachers. When he refused, I knew what I had to do. (I later learned that he charged $1,000 per photo for use in a book—it’s no wonder that he was not interested in selling his photos for pennies.)

I released the first edition of the Pictorial Library of Bible Lands in January 2000. As the new millennium began (and the world didn’t end), I was teaching a group from Talbot School of Theology and putting the finishing touches on the collection. I was so excited about it that I think I convinced nearly every student to purchase the 4-volume set which included 1,600 pictures of Israel, Jordan, and Egypt. I did not realize how much work there was yet to come.

My boys were then under 2 and my wife was ever patient with me. As much as I could, I traveled during the day and processed the photos at night. That summer I led a 120-mile hike on the Israel Trail with my camera in a waist pack, and a year and a half later, the Pictorial Library had expanded to 8 volumes. By 2003, I had replaced many of the earlier photos, reached a total of 6,000 photos, and signed a contract for Kregel to publish the 10-volume set. Through the encouragement and help of others, I also added my extensive teaching and research notes to the collection. But I still was not done.

It was about this time that my family began experieicing difficulties with the Israeli visa renewal process. Knowing from the experience of others that time could be short, I focused on traveling and taking photographs. Whenever there was a break from class, I would go on a hike, take a group camping, or jump on a plane for a nearby country with biblical sites. In my thinking, I had to take every photo I could before the sands in the visa hourglass ran out. I set aside all sorting, thinning, and color correction and made sure only that all the new photos were correctly identified.

With lots of travels come lots of stories. One time some Bedouin tricked a friend and me, and I lost my camera along with that day’s photos. Another time my flight home left three hours early without notice and I had to purchase a new ticket. I rarely traveled alone, and my solo time in Malta reaffirmed the wisdom of my normal practice—it’s difficult to navigate in a new country while sitting in the “passenger” seat and driving stick-shift on the wrong side of the road.

In 2007 the visa appeal ended unsuccessfully and we headed to the U.S. so I could begin work on a doctoral program in Biblical Studies. My plan was to work part-time preparing all of the new photos ready for an expanded edition of the Pictorial Library. Four years later, however, I had to temporarily set aside the studies so I could devote myself full-time to the photo project. I wasn’t happy that they had been trapped on my hard drive for so long.

I thought I could finish the new edition in four months but it took more than a year. I not only underestimated the scope, but I kept thinking of new ways to make it better. I sought help from everyone I could—students from years back, other PhD students, family members, and even my four oldest children chipped in. It takes a lot of work to do each step 17,600 times.

Since I have been taking pictures in the Middle East for about 20 years, I realized that certain places were always going to remain inaccessible to me. Kadesh Barnea is in a hot zone in Egypt’s Sinai. Lebanon requires a new passport without Israeli markings. So I talked with friends and contacted some distinguished scholars about filling out the collection with some of their prized photos. Ultimately the collection benefited from more than 2,000 photos from 40 other photographers.

The massive revision of the Pictorial Library of Bible Lands was finally completed in 2012.

Now I’m trying to get the word out. I want everyone to know that the new collection is packed with fabulous photos and valuable notes. For a volume of up to 1,500 photos, $39 is not at all expensive when I recall the bus company’s lousy 100-slide set for $25. With select photos from others, extensive descriptions, and abundant labeling, each volume of the Pictorial Library is a valuable resource that will serve its users for a long time.

I’d love for you to pick up a volume or two if not the whole collection. See the section below for new discounts. Perhaps you can recommend this to your school, or church, or library. Perhaps you can purchase a gift or two for those you know would benefit. Perhaps you can pray that this resource would serve many so that God’s Word would be better understood, loved, and obeyed.

Thanks for reading “my story.” I have left out some important parts and many wonderful people, but I appreciate the opportunity to share a little bit of my journey with you.