Egypt's history in photographs
A recent exhibition showcased Egypt's history through a rare collection of vintage photographs, raising questions of which history the exhibition was intended to display, writes Rania Khallaf
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Ships arriving with goods at Road Al-Farag, Cairo, 1904|
Hayy Al-Attareen, the district of traders of spices, Alexandria, 1945
From top: King Farouk, after divorcing Queen Farida, with his two daughters in a shooting safari in Dahshour, 1948; Shubra Street 1904; Pyramids in Floods' time, 1898
Clockwise from left: King Farouk on a Safari trip, 1939; the wedding photo of King Fouad and Shwekar, 1886; Fouad's funeral at Opera Square, 1936 Clockwise from left: Fathiya Ahmed and her takht band, 1927; Cairo railway station, 1905; Adli Pasha Yakan Street, 1911; women participating in the 1919 Revolution; traders in Downtown Cairo, 1896
Presenting Egypt's history through photography is a recurrent theme in today's art galleries. However, it can be hard to get a sense of Egypt's long history through a single exhibition, since the country's modern history can be divided into many periods and these cannot be done justice to in a single exhibition.
"One Hundred and Fifty Years of Egypt's Modern History" was the title of a photography exhibition recently held at the Music Library attached to the Cairo Opera House. But which part of Egypt's modern history does the title refer to?
Visiting the exhibition, which ended last week, I was surprised to find that only 130 black-and-white pictures were on show to cover this long period. Though the exhibition was organised by photographer Samir El-Ghazouli, not a single picture had his name on it. When I met El-Ghazouli, I found that the whole collection consisted of photographs taken by his father, pioneer photographer Mohamed El-Ghazouli (1900-1963).
El-Ghazouli Senior was the private photographer of King Fouad until the latter's death in 1936, and he was also one of the first photographers to work at the photography section of Al-Ahram in the 1930s. In addition to being a brilliant photographer, he also published a unique photography magazine called Kol Shee wal-Donia (Everything and the World), which lasted for almost a year, his son Samir recalls.
"My father used to get old pictures from his colleagues and collectors in order to publish them in his magazine, together with rather comic comments," Samir says.
"When my father died, I was only 12 years old. I only knew he was a photographer, and I had no idea about his passionate love of acquiring pictures. We had a big house in the governorate of Shebin Al-Kom. When he died, we discovered that he had used three floors of it for boxes of photographs and old magazines. However, we didn't know the real value of those old pictures, and so we destroyed a lot of them, using the space for renting out instead," Samir says sadly.
It was not for another 15 years, by which time Samir had developed his love for photography and himself become a professional photographer in 1967 like his father, that he became aware of the treasures that had been destroyed. Samir decided that one day he would go back to the house to see if anything could be salvaged from the collection.
"Surprisingly enough, I found thousands of rare pictures hidden in the ceiling cupboards, those that we call the sandara. It was amazing to find more than 23,000 photographs in good condition, all of them having survived for all that time. My father had kept them in six wooden boxes, like those used by gang members to store their weapons," laughs Samir, who turns 60 this year.
"At the time I ran an advertising agency and a number of photography shops, so I started to scan the pictures and the old magazines. Out of my love for black- and-white pictures, I then developed a mania for old pictures and started to roam Upper Egypt, especially Minya and Assiut, in search of other collectors," he adds.
In 2000, Samir organised a first photography exhibition to commemorate the centenary of his father's birth. The exhibition, held at the American University in Cairo and entitled "The Story of King Fouad's life", covered the former king's entire life, from birth to death.
All the pictures on show were either taken or owned by El-Ghazouli Senior. "The exhibition was very successful, and photographers and other individuals from Turkey, Yugoslavia and Syria expressed interest in buying pictures pertaining to the former Royal Family and various streets and architectural monuments in the Egypt of the last century. I was able to sell some pictures in order to fill gaps in my own collection."
"Now I have over a million old pictures covering different periods in Egypt's modern history, including historical events such as the digging of the Suez Canal in 1852, the Orabi Revolution, the 1952 Revolution and the 1967 defeat, as well as pictures showing the private lives of artists and Egypt's population and architecture over the past 150 years," Samir says.
A number of similar exhibitions followed. However, the present exhibition, held on the two floors of the Music Library, might be felt to lack a single focus. Covering 150 years of Egypt's history in 130 photographs might be felt to be too ambitious.
"I wanted to exhibit pictures dating back to 1836 and continuing through to 1968," Samir explains, without saying why he chose the latter year as his end point. However, the first photograph in the exhibition, a rare image featuring Ezbekiya Lake near Ezbekiya Gardens in Cairo in 1869, shows an area that has today completely vanished.
The first floor of the exhibition is dedicated to pictures dating back to the 19th century, and they show the excavation of the Suez Canal, as well as historical streets and areas that have long since disappeared. One rare photograph shows the Sphinx before the mountains of sand that once obscured it had been removed. Another image shows Shubra Street in 1904. Still others show the Qasr Al-Nil Palace in 1892 and the Ezbekiya Gardens, photographed in 1870 by Emile Bechard.
On the exhibition's upper floor, El-Ghazouli includes mostly photographs of King Farouk, of whom he has around 10,000 photos.
For me, and probably for many younger people, the exhibition was an excellent opportunity to get a different and closer look at the personal life of the former Royal Family.
Some pictures feature royal shooting safaris, while others show King Farouk sitting on a stool on safaris spent shooting ducks in Dahshour in 1939 and 1947. Another beautiful picture shows Farouk holding his two daughters, Ferial and Fawziya, both of whom are wearing typical clothes of white chemise, grey pullover and short black skirt. Another unique picture shows King Farouk celebrating New Year's Eve with friends, and here he is shown wearing a traditional cone hat and drinking a toast.
Most of the photographs in the exhibition ignore women, who are almost absent from the images on display. One rare picture that does show women, however, depicts them demonstrating in the streets of Cairo during the demonstrations of 1919 and wearing the niqab in order to do so.
Other rare images from the period covered by the exhibition include pictures of the Hayy Al-Atareen, the spice district of Alexandria, as seen by a photographer in 1945. These show the poor conditions of the shops and traders at the time, large sacks occupying the retail areas and attendant workers having sad and gloomy faces.
Samir, however, considers the 1930s to be one of the best periods in Egypt's modern history. "It was a time of romance," he says, "a time when theatres and cinemas started to flourish and when people started to get more civilised and got into the habit of going to casinos and cabarets. I have thousands of pictures covering this period, and I am planning to organise a special exhibition dealing with it."
"I also have some 20,000 pictures dealing with the history of the Egyptian cinema and with Egyptian writers and thinkers. This collection goes back further than the one owned by the Ministry of Culture. I have an original picture of the advertisement for the first-ever Egyptian film, Al-Khala Al-Amrikiya, or "The American Aunt", made by Ali El-Kassar in 1920."
In 2006, Samir produced a catalogue of 100 pictures published by Al-Ahram covering the life of Queen Nariman, the second wife of King Farouk. This showed her life from her marriage to her funeral, which Samir himself photographed in 2005.
"I am interested in publishing another collection dealing with the life of Princess Fawziya, the sister of King Farouk, who currently lives in Alexandria. She is almost 86 years old now, but she still has a beautiful face. She was once one of the most beautiful princesses in the Islamic and Arab world. I already have around 400,000 pictures of the former Royal Family, and the pictures of the princesses are among the pictures I like the most."
"I am fascinated by pictures of Egyptian rulers and kings. I also have original pictures of Mohamed Ali, the Khedive Abbas, and others. Sometimes I sit alone with these pictures, especially those of King Farouk, talking to them as if they were members of my own family."
Among the hundreds of visitors who came to the recent Cairo exhibition was the granddaughter of Talaat Harb, the pioneering Egyptian economist, who came to see images of the old days. The exhibition was a treasure trove for anyone who loves photography and yearns to discover life in Egypt during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
"It is hard for me to manage such a huge collection myself. My sons are not interested in photography, and I worry about the loss of this heritage," Samir says.
A way should be found for this valuable archive to be sponsored and exhibited, both within and outside Egypt, and collections of photographs from it should be published to make them available to members of the younger generation and to art lovers worldwide.