Sunday,24 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1357, (17 - 23 August 2017)
Sunday,24 February, 2019
Issue 1357, (17 - 23 August 2017)

Ahram Weekly

From Normandy to Egypt

Two exhibitions in northern France this summer are exploring links between Egypt and the French provinces, writes David Tresilian in Paris

From Normandy to Egypt

The success of Hollywood director Christopher Nolan’s World War II film Dunkirk may well translate into increased visitor numbers to France’s northern coasts this summer, and it would be a pity if these did not explore the wider region. The Normandy city of Caen may be especially rewarding for visitors with an interest in Egypt and the Middle East because two of its main museums are hosting exhibitions on Egypt. 

The Musée de Normandie, built within the fortress that dominates this attractive city, has organised an exhibition, Voyages en Egypte, that looks at the possibly little-known connections between this part of northern France and Egypt. Meanwhile, the nearby Caen Musée des Beaux-Arts has given over much of its temporary exhibitions space to photographs by Maxime Du Camp, the French writer who accompanied the novelist Gustave Flaubert on his 1849 visit to Egypt.

Both these exhibitions, scrupulously curated as always in France, draw out perhaps unappreciated relationships between Normandy and Egypt. Unlike Flaubert, born in the nearby city of Rouen, du Camp was a Parisian through and through, though it turns out that an important collection of his photographs is now in Normandy. 

According to Voyages en Egypte, the “Egyptomania” that came to France in the wake of the 1798 Egyptian Expedition led by the then French general, later emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, leaving its mark not only on architecture but also on furniture and even kitchen implements, was by no means an exclusively Parisian phenomenon. Various writers from Normandy became enthusiastic Egyptophiles, and Nicolas-Jacques Conté, born in a nearby town, was one of the scientists who accompanied Bonaparte to Egypt.

The exhibition includes watercolours of Cairo done by Conté on his return from Egypt, presumably for private amusement. It also mentions one of Conté’s chief claims to fame, being his invention of the lead pencil, necessary because of a shortage of graphite in France during the revolutionary wars. However, it does not say much about Conté’s other activities while in Egypt, including his setting up of workshops in Cairo to make everything from windmills to movable type for the country’s new printing works.

Napoleon himself is on record as describing Conté as “good at everything”, a man who had “brought the arts of France to the deserts of Arabia”. It seems a pity that the exhibition does not say more about this man, born the son of poor farm labourers, who thanks to the meritocratic character of post-revolutionary France became in some ways the epitome of the new men the regime hoped to foster. 

Nor does it mention another of Conté’s claims to fame: his development of the hot air balloon for military purposes. Perhaps this is because his demonstration of such balloons in Cairo in August 1798 and then again in January 1799 failed to impress his Egyptian audiences. According to the Egyptian chronicler Abdel-Rahman Al-Jabarti, whose history of the expedition entitled aja’ib al-athar fi al-tarajim wal-akhbar, “a history of extraordinary events”, is a valuable eyewitness account, on neither occasion did Conté’s balloon manage to get far off the ground.

Though the second attempt to get the balloon aloft was witnessed by a large crowd in Cairo’s Ezbekaya district, Al-Jabarti wrote, it was not much more successful than the first when the balloon had come crashing to the ground. As a result, the French “claim that this apparatus is like a vessel in which people sit and travel to other countries in order to discover news did not appear to be true,” he wrote.


DU CAMP IN EGYPT: Half a century after Conté had made the trip to Egypt, another young man from the French provinces, a would-be novelist named Gustave Flaubert, decided to try his luck in the country, this time in the company of a worldly friend named Maxime Du Camp.

Ironically, Du Camp, described as a “young Rastignac” in the exhibition of his photographs at the Caen Musée des Beaux-Arts after the ambitious Eugène de Rastignac who appears in French writer Honoré de Balzac’s novel series the Comédie humaine, has more or less disappeared from the historical record, while his friend, the more fastidious Flaubert, now claims attention as one of the 19th century’s most important writers.

However, even if it is Flaubert, and not Du Camp, who is remembered today, it is the latter who must take the credit for dragging Flaubert from Normandy to Egypt. Had it not been for Du Camp’s ambition to see the world, contemporary audiences would not have had the chance to see his photographs of Egypt. They would not have had the chance to read Flaubert’s travel notes and letters from the country either, an irreplaceable record by one of the few first-rate European writers to visit Egypt. 

As the exhibition explains, Du Camp had already toured the region in 1844-45, using some of his father’s wealth to do so. In 1849, he managed to persuade the French Ministry of Education to sponsor a second visit during which he undertook to produce a photographic record of Egypt. While he had in fact no knowledge of photography or photographic equipment, he was swiftly able to make up for this by taking classes in Paris. He was also able to persuade Flaubert, at a loose end in his writing career, to accompany him on his mission.

Du Camp’s first efforts at photography are not impressive, and they were not helped by the bulky equipment needed to produce the calotypes he took during his seven or eight months in Egypt. The great advantage of the calotype over other photographic techniques available at the time was that while it still involved a lot of fiddling with chemicals and long exposure times, multiple prints could be made from a single negative. Du Camp’s first pictures of the Ezbekaya district of Cairo where he and Flaubert stayed on their arrival in late 1849 mostly come out as “dark, cloudy shapes”, the exhibition says, but fortunately he soon mastered the process.

Previous European visitors had more or less decided the iconography of 19th-century Egypt, and by the time the early cameras had become portable enough for general use the country had been sorted into a repertoire of standard images, some of them much like the obligatory selfie by the Eiffel Tower of today’s visitors to Paris. Du Camp and Flaubert spent two months in Cairo, during which du Camp photographed the city’s Mameluke tombs, followed by six weeks or so going down the Nile and three months coming back, explained by frequent stops to take photographs of ancient Egyptian monuments.

Du Camp took 28 pictures during his stay in Egypt, including photographs of the ancient Egyptian Temple of Isis at Philae near Aswan, the Karnak Temples at Luxor, and the so-called Colossi of Memnon (massive statues of the Pharaoh Amenhotep III) on the opposite bank of the Nile. Many of these are on show in the exhibition, and some of them are of genuine historical interest, recording how the monuments looked in 1850 before they had been cleared of sand let alone slated for restoration. 

However, as always with such 19th-century photographs there is little sign of the human presence that nevertheless was always there. Because of the long exposure times it was generally not possible to include human or animal subjects — it was impossible for them to stay still long enough, meaning they would come out as a blur — and so locations that must have been heavily populated appear strangely empty, as if hit by some unexplained catastrophe.

From Normandy to Egypt

EGYPT TO NORMANDY: Some of this missing human interest is restored in Voyages en Egypte, which includes material from later in the century when technology had caught up with the human scene.

It also draws upon a range of regional collections, turning up Egyptian elements in even the most unexpected corners of provincial Normandy. French visitors to Egypt took home souvenirs, in the early days often genuine antiquities dug up at archaeological sites. These have since mostly ended up in museums. They also sometimes recorded their visits by taking photographs, like du Camp, though in a less systematic way.

By the time mass tourism started to develop towards the end of the century — the English company Thomas Cook was offering cruises down the Nile in the 1870s — photographic studios had been set up in Cairo offering postcard images of the country, many of them in the same Cairo district of Ezbekaya, now transformed almost out of all recognition by building schemes and the European tourist market.

This was the same Ezbekaya in which Conté had demonstrated his military balloon to sceptical Egyptian audiences in 1798 and which Du Camp had tried to photograph in 1850 for the French Ministry of Education. Except that it now looked very different, since the Mameluke palaces that had studded the district when Napoleon arrived in 1798 had been cleared away by the 1860s to make way for Opera Square and the former Shepherd’s Hotel.

By the time the photographers Henri Béchard and Gabriel Lekegian, just two of the many remembered in the Caen exhibition, set up their Cairo studios in the 1870s, they were already presenting customers with a nostalgic version of Egypt. Or, as the exhibition prefers to put it, in their postcard images of an Egypt fast receding into the past, they offered “a meeting of western fantasies and eastern realities, as mediated by technology.”

Voyages en Egypte, Musée de Normandie, Caen, until 7 January 2018; L’Egypte photographiée, Caen Musée des Beaux-Arts, until 24 September.

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