Photographing the Orient
Something of a minor Cairo landmark, the Lehnert and Landrock bookshop has been selling photographs of the Orient since the 1920s, writes Mohamed Mursi
Anyone walking down Sherif Street in downtown Cairo is likely to have had their eyes drawn to the Lehnert and Landrock bookshop, its window display signalling the many treasures inside. These consist of the hundreds of old photographs that the original owners have left us, a heritage of indescribable beauty that pictures an "Orient" that no longer exists.
One of the original owners, Rudolf Lehnert, was born in Bohemia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in July 1878. His partner Ernst Landrock was born in Germany a month later. Lehnert, a gifted photographer, was the more artistically inclined of the two, with Landrock being the one with the more business acumen. In today's terminology, Landrock would be the agent acting to promote Lehnert's work.
It was when Lehnert was touring Europe on foot in 1903 that he decided to venture across the Mediterranean to look at sites in Tunisia. He ended up staying there for a year, and it was during this time that his friendship with Landrock began.
While in Tunisia, Lehnert started taking photographs of "oriental" subjects using the glass plate technology of the time. The resulting black-and-white images of sand dunes and oases still capture the imagination, while Lehnert's photographs of Berber women brought him recognition and acclaim in Europe.
Soon, the work produced by Lehnert and Landrock in Tunisia was taking Europe by storm. French and German collectors vied for prints of the photographs, and it was only the outbreak of World War I in 1914 that interrupted the two men's work in Tunisia, from where they moved to Cairo in 1924.
Lehnert and Landrock's first shop in Cairo was located just a short distance from the current bookshop in Sherif Street, and they paid what was then the large sum of LE30 a month for an eight-room apartment in a building called Bannani on 21 Al-Maghrabi Street, now Adli Street in downtown Cairo.
Said Ali Mohamed, who has worked at the shop for 30 years and now runs it, says that the two men were interested from the start in documenting Egyptian antiquity. However, Lehnert also branched out as usual, photographing various aspects of life in Egypt during the 1920s and 1930s.
In 1930, Lehnert sold his half of the negatives to Landrock and left him in charge of the bookshop, then located on 44 Sherif Street as it still is today, and going to live in the Gafsa Oasis in Tunisia, where he died in 1958. Before leaving Egypt, he is said to have commented that, "I have left photographs behind me that will live for 200 years." Few today would dispute his assessment.
For his part, Landrock, now running the business alone, remained in Egypt and continued to promote Lehnert's photographs of Egyptian scenery and people. When he died in 1966, he left the bookshop to his son-in-law Kurt Lambelet and his wife, and when the latter died in 1996, his son Edouard took charge.
Edouard, a chemical engineer, rediscovered some of Lehnert's original glass plates and was able to produce previously unknown photographs from them. The work brought him much acclaim in France, where two books were published about his efforts, and the Elysée Museum in Lausanne in Switzerland has also organised an exhibition of the photographs.
Now in his 70s and living between Cairo and Switzerland, Edouard mentions in his memoirs that the British closed the bookshop during World War II, thinking that it was a German business.
In 1956, the Egyptian government began its policy of nationalising private companies having capital of more than LE100,000. However, Lehnert and Landrock escaped this fate because of the support of the then minister of culture Tharwat Okasha, who helped open a branch of the bookshop at the Egyptian Museum.
This later closed, to be replaced by a Lehnert and Landrock branch in the Nile Hilton Hotel. The latter was recently closed when the hotel's new owners started renovations.
Today, according to Mohamed, most of the shop's customers are tourists, but quite a few of them are Egyptian. It continues to sell its well-known black-and-white photographs of Egypt in the early decades of the last century, as well as a selection of history books, and the business is preparing to open a gallery for the fine arts.