Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1243, (23 - 29 April 2015)
Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Issue 1243, (23 - 29 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

A royal progress

Buckingham Palace was the unusual venue for an exhibition of vintage photographs of Egypt and the Middle East, writes David Tresilian in London

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Al-Ahram Weekly

For those who think a royal education has to include a military component, encouraged perhaps by the high-profile military career of Prince William, heir bar one to the British throne, a current exhibition in London is showing that this has by no means always been the case. Prince Albert, eldest son of Queen Victoria and later King Edward VII, received a wide-ranging humanistic education designed for him by his father, Victoria’s German consort, which in 1862 included a tour of the Middle East that was supposed to help the young prince learn more about the outside world.

Photographs from this tour have now been put on display at the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace. They were taken by tour photographer Francis Bedford both in order to record the tour and for commercial purposes, Bedford later offering sets of photographs for sale to a British public eager for images of the still largely unknown Middle East. Viewed some 150 years after they were taken, the photographs shed intriguing light on the history of the region, then on the cusp of major political and social change, as well as on the places that make up their subject matter.

In 1861, Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert decided that their eldest son would benefit from a private tour of Egypt and the Middle East, it being thought that a lengthy educational tour would allow him to learn more about ancient cultures, history and religions. According to Sophie Gordon, curator at the royal collections and co-author of the exhibition catalogue, the idea was to help him understand both the ancient history of the region and the “complex web of shifting alliances and power struggles” that made up its modern history.

While on the tour, the young prince, 21 years old when it took place, would be introduced to local rulers including the Ottoman sultan Abdulaziz and the Egyptian viceroy Said Pasha. It was thought that this would help him make sense of a regional situation in which “the European countries of Britain, France and Russia vied for influence and control [in the Middle East], while the Ottoman Empire appeared to be weakening and the viceroy of Egypt became increasingly independent.”

The Crimean War of 1854-56, in which Britain and France fought on the Ottoman side against the Russians, had sharpened perceptions of the power struggle then under way in the Middle East. More prosaically, the recent introduction of steamships had also cut journey times across the Mediterranean at the same time, making mass tourism to the Middle East possible just a few years later. Prince Albert’s visit to Egypt came only five years before the British travel company Thomas Cook started to organise package tours to Egypt and Palestine in 1867, with the first mass-market guidebooks appearing in the 1850s.

The royal party set out for the Middle East in February 1862, crossing Europe by train before joining the royal yacht HMS Osborne at Trieste. From there, the party sailed down the Dalmatian coast towards Egypt, arriving in Alexandria on 1 March. It then left immediately for Cairo, travelling on the newly built railway network, where the prince met the viceroy Said Pasha. Having viewed the Citadel, the Pyramids and other landmarks, the party took a steam boat, lent by Said Pasha, down the Nile towards Upper Egypt, where a 28-day tour included visits to Aswan, Asyut, Edfu, Esna, Luxor and the Valley of the Kings, before returning to Cairo towards the end of March when the prince spent four days touring the city’s bazaars and monuments. On 25 March the party visited Suez by train in order to view work on the future Suez Canal, under construction since 1859 by the Frenchman Ferdinand de Lessep’s Suez Canal Company.

Said Pasha seems to have been a very courteous host, and he not only did his best to facilitate the visit but also allowed the then prince of Wales to indulge his interests in amateur archaeology. An early morning climb of the Great Pyramid at Giza was programmed, and the prince attended an archaeological dig in Upper Egypt during which a papyrus copy of the ancient Egyptian Book of Amduat, a New Kingdom funerary text, was unearthed and presented to him. This text, now kept in the library at the royal residence of Windsor Castle, has been dusted down and put on show in the exhibition, though doubts remain as to whether the original discovery was in fact staged for the prince’s benefit.

The prince kept a journal throughout his time in Egypt, and in it he describes visits to the Temples of Philae at Aswan, then only recently excavated and later relocated during the building of the Aswan High Dam, and the Temple of Edfu, excavated only some months earlier by the French Egyptologist and first director of the Egyptian Museum Auguste Mariette. He records a meeting with Said Pasha, describing him as “amiable and speaks French well.”

The exhibition includes a selection of the 150 or so photographs taken by Bedford of places visited on the trip. According to Gordon, the photographer, already known for his pioneering photographic work of buildings in England, was influenced by the drawings of the English artist David Roberts when deciding on the subjects and viewpoints for his photographs. The latter, arriving in Egypt in 1838 and travelling to Palestine in 1839, had drawn most of the most important Pharaonic sites in Egypt and many locations having biblical associations in Palestine, publishing these as lithographs as The Holy Land, Syria, Idumea, Arabia, Egypt and Nubia in London from 1842 to 1849. These had whetted the appetite of British audiences for more images of the Middle East, especially if these were associated with a royal tour.

They had also determined the ways in which the region was viewed, with Roberts’s work, in Gordon’s words, presenting the Middle East as “a large but discrete geographical region that romanticised the people and its ruins through colourful and exaggerated imagery, while being precise in architectural depiction.” There is something of that in Bedford’s photographs, which certainly focus on monuments, often recording a remarkable degree of architectural detail. But people were more difficult to photograph because of the ten-second exposure times of the photographic plates Bedford used, meaning that any attempt at crowd scenes would likely have come out as an uninformative blur.

Bedford also used the wet collodion photographic process, inconvenient because it required the preparation of each plate immediately prior to use and its development in a portable darkroom. “Chemicals, plates, tripods, lenses, a portable darkroom and, not least, the camera itself had to follow the party through the entire expedition,” Gordon writes, conjuring up images of an impressive train of bearers. As far as the photographs themselves were concerned, the need to prepare the plates and develop them within a total of around 15 minutes, together with the long exposure times, meant that landscapes worked far better than human scenes, giving Bedford’s images of the Middle East a curiously depopulated look.

Presumably he had to clear people out of the pictures to prevent blurring, with the result that when human figures do appear they look posed, or arranged to give a sense of scale to the surrounding architectural monuments. The only exceptions to this rule are the photographs of the prince himself and his party, in which Bedford sometimes achieves a more relaxed look. There are some striking pictures of Albanian bandits, encountered on the party’s journey down the Dalmatian coast, and one or two magnificent Cairo street scenes, presumably taken after the party’s return from Upper Egypt when Bedford was allowed to wander around the city during the prince’s visit to Port Said. These are wonderfully atmospheric, though the streets have seemingly had to be cleared of the people that must usually have milled around in them owing to the constraints of the technology available at the time.

The exhibition invites visitors to see the region as undergoing thorough-going social and economic change at the time of the prince’s visit, with Said Pasha beginning a process of urban transformation through the clearance of many of the older parts of Cairo and the city’s rebuilding on a modern European plan that was to continue under his successor Ismail. The development of the railways, the building of the Suez Canal, and the construction of new port facilities at Alexandria to handle modern shipping all began under Said’s rule and was then accelerated under that of Ismail. The traditional streets that Bedford photographed in Cairo were also fast disappearing along with the traditional lifestyles of their inhabitants as people adopted European ways of living.

Soon after the prince’s visit, Ismail Pasha, who succeeded Said in January 1863, initiated a period of breakneck industrialisation and economic expansion in Egypt that proved so costly that he was removed from power by the British, worried about their investments, in 1879. Three years later they invaded and occupied the country, again using economic mismanagement as a pretext, with British troops only finally being ejected from the country some 70 years later. This later history, coming just a few years after the prince’s visit, lends the static calm of Bedford’s images a kind of eerie fascination, giving them a kind of pre-lapsarian aspect rather like pictures of Europe in the summer of 1914.

While far-reaching political change was waiting in the wings in Egypt at the time of the prince’s visit, it was already underway in Palestine and Syria, the next stops on the royal tour. Leaving Alexandria at the end of March, the party arrived in Jaffa a few days later for a tour that lasted until 13 May and took in visits to the Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem and the Mosque of al-Khalil in Hebron, honours rarely if ever granted to Europeans. Living in tents and protected by Ottoman troops, the party visited Bethlehem, Mar Saba, the Dead Sea, the Jordan River, Beitin, Nablus, Mount Carmel, Acre, Nazareth, Mount Tabor, Tiberias, Safed, Banias, Beaufort Castle, Hasbaya, Rashaya, Deir al-Ashair, Damascus, Baalbek, Beirut, Nahr al-Kalb, Sidon, Tyre and the island of Arwad, with most of the sites being photographed by Bedford.

Some of these photographs are on show in the exhibition, including one of the aftermath of sectarian rioting in Syria in 1860, just two years before the prince’s visit, which had resulted in first French and then wider European intervention in the region in a pattern that was to continue until the First World War. While permission to visit the Haram al-Sharif and the Mosque of al-Khalil had had to be specially sought from Suraya Pasha, the Ottoman governor of Jerusalem, within a few years there was to be an ever-greater flow of European visitors along with greater European influence in the region.

In Damascus, the prince was greeted by the Ottoman governor of the city who arranged a visit to the Great Umayyad Mosque, looking rather the worse for wear in Bedford’s photographs, as well as to the exiled Algerian nationalist Abdel-Qadir, living in exile in the city after the French colonisation of his country. When the royal party arrived back in Istanbul in May 1862 the prince was received by the sultan Abdulaziz at the newly built Dolmabahçe Palace on the shores of the Bosphorus, also photographed by the indefatigable Bedford.

“A few years after the tour, on 22 June 1865, the Palestine Exploration Fund was established for the purposes of investigating the archaeology, geography, manners and customs, geology and natural history of the area,” writes author Badr El Hage in his contribution to the exhibition catalogue. “Aside from the scientific and academic interest that lay in discovering the Holy Land, the other significant factor in the life of the Palestine Exploration Fund was Britain’s strategic concerns in the eastern Mediterranean.”

These were always somewhere behind the scenes in the late Ottoman period, and they were of particular importance in the years running up to the First World War, the post-War dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, and the partition and occupation of the region by Britain and France.


Cairo to Constantinople, Early Photographs of the Middle East, Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London.

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