Early Photographs Of The Middle East Cairo To Constantinople

old photos of Cairo

In 1862, the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) was sent on an educational tour of the Middle East, accompanied by the British photographer Francis Bedford (1815-94). An exhibition at The Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse, documents this journey through the work of Bedford, the first photographer to join a royal tour. It explores the cultural and political significance Victorian Britain attached to the region, which was then as complex and contested as it remains today.

The expedition was designed to increase the heir to the throne’s understanding of the area at a time when the Ottoman Empire (nominally in control of the lands through which the Prince was travelling) was disintegrating and Britain needed to secure the route to India. Against this backdrop, leisure travel to the region was increasing, stimulated by recent major archaeological discoveries in the Middle East. The introduction of steamships to Alexandria in 1840 cut journey times and made the region more accessible for European pilgrims and tourists. By 1867, the British travel company Thomas Cook & Son was even running package tours to

Egypt and the Holy Land. The Prince’s four-month tour had been planned by his parents, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, to occupy him after he had finished university and before he was married. Despite Prince Albert’s sudden death in December 1861, Queen Victoria was determined that her son’s visit should go ahead. The tour included Egypt, Palestine and the Holy Land, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Greece. The Prince met rulers, politicians and other notable figures – and travelled in a manner unassociated with royalty, by horse and camping out in tents. He kept a journal of his tour, with daily accounts of his travels and some references to Bedford’s photography.

Photography had been introduced to the public in 1839, and the royal family took an early interest. In February 1842, Prince Albert was the first member of the family to be photographed, and both he and Queen Victoria were enthusiastic patrons of the new medium. In 1862, Francis Bedford, a successful commercial photographer, was commissioned by Queen Victoria to record her son’s tour. Through his business making lithographic reproductions of works of art, Bedford had taken up photography in the early 1850s to achieve a greater ‘truthfulness’ and accuracy in his prints. Bedford’s skill as a landscape photographer had already secured two royal commissions: in 1857 and 1858 he was asked by the Queen to photograph the places associated with Prince Albert’s early life in Coburg and Gotha as a gift for her husband. It is probably the success of these commissions and Bedford’s close association with the firm Day & Son, ‘lithographers to HM The Queen’, that led to his appointment on the royal tour.

The Prince of Wales and his small entourage set out from London on 6 February 1862 and made their way by train to Venice, where they boarded the Royal Yacht Osborne. The steamer took the party to Alexandria, where they began an ambitious itinerary planned in advance by scholars and politicians. Many of the places they visited were known for their spectacular archaeological sites, such as those at Philae, Karnak and Luxor along the Nile. After travelling through Egypt, the Prince continued to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nablous and Hebron, significant because of their associations with biblical events. Bedford was the first photographer allowed to take pictures at the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

The royal party headed north, visiting several castles built by the European Crusaders in the 12th and 13th centuries before reaching Damascus in late April. In Syria there were more modern events to learn about – only two years earlier, in 1860, there had been a violent conflict between the Christian Maronite population and the Druze (a community associated with Islam), which had resulted in the massacre of thousands of Christians. In Damascus Bedford took a number of photographs of the ruined Christian quarter. The Prince of Wales also met Abd al-Qadir, the exiled Algerian freedom fighter, who had protected a group of Christians in his own home and was consequently widely admired in Europe. One of Bedford’s portraits of Abd al-Qadir is included in the exhibition.

The tour was completed with visits to the classical Roman site of Baalbek in Lebanon and a week-long stay in Constantinople (Istanbul), where the Prince met Abdulaziz, the Ottoman Emperor. The weakening Ottoman Empire relied on European alliances to support its rule, as had been the case during the recent Crimean war of 1854-5.

After the tour, Francis Bedford published a set of 172 photographs through Day & Son. The images were exhibited in London in August 1862 and made available for sale. The tour was well-documented in the Press at the time, with the British Journal of Photography describing the exhibition as ‘perhaps the most important photographic exhibition that has hitherto been placed before the public, whether we regard it as an aid to history or as a collection in which unity of design has been a ruling principle in the artist’s mind’. Two of the photographs were later reproduced in the Illustrated London News as engravings. A further 20 photographs, which were not released to the public, are found in the sets presented to Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales.

The exhibition includes archaeological material brought back to Britain by the Prince of Wales from the excavations he had visited during his tour. Among the objects is an Egyptian papyrus inscribed with the Amduat, a funerary text whose name means ‘what is in the netherworld’.

Intended as a guide to the afterlife for the deceased, it describes the journey through the Underworld of Re, the Egyptian sun god. A painted wooden funerary stela of Nakhtmontu, a priest of the Egyptian god Amon-Re, is displayed in a striking frame commissioned by the Prince on his return to London. The Prince also had a number of ancient scarabs set into pieces of Egyptian-style gold jewellery, some of which he presented as gifts to his fiancée, Princess Alexandra of Denmark, to mark their marriage in March 1863.

The Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse 8 March – 21 July 2013


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