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Early photographs reveal British interests in a fading Ottoman Empire

November 27, 2014 at 5:44 pm

In the Queen’s Gallery, London, Sophie Gordon draws my attention to a collection of papyri on the wall. They have faded with age and some are ripped across the bottom, but where they remain intact it’s possible to see Ra, the ancient Egyptian solar deity, make his journey from the earth, through the underworld and back up again.

“This is an eight part papyrus,” explains Gordon who curated the exhibition on show: ‘From Cairo to Constantinople: early photographs of the Middle East’. “It should actually be 12 parts but the other four parts were never found.”

The scripts on display were discovered wrapped around and stuck to a mummy, which accounts for the damage. “Each section represents an hour and it’s a journey through the underworld by the sun god Ra,” says Gordon pointing to the hieroglyphics. “You can see him on the bark in each of the sections. It’s meant to represent night time when he goes down to the underworld so the earth is dark as he’s travelling underground. He passes through the night and then at the end he resurfaces and that’s the dawn as he comes back up.”

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One of the sections of the papyrus depicting Ra the Sun God, c.300-275 BC [Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014]

The papyri were acquired by the Prince of Wales during a four-month tour he undertook of the Middle East in 1862. As part of his expedition, the Prince – who would later become King Edward VII – travelled from Egypt to Palestine and through Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Greece.

The exhibition tells the story of the Prince’s journey – his encounters with rulers and politicians and the buildings he saw – through the photographs of Francis Bedford, a leading commercial photographer and the first to join a royal tour. Bedford’s photographs, along with artefacts recovered from excavations and the Prince’s personal diary, are on display at the Queen’s Gallery until February 22, 2015.

An image viewers will be familiar with depicts the head of the Sphinx to the left and a pyramid to the right. Others are of the walls of temples with hieroglyphics etched into their walls. Gordon says that Pharaonic Egypt was of particular interest to the Victorians since the Napoleonic wars opened the region up to scholarship and excavation.

“Photos were very valuable to scholars and academics back in Europe because they showed so much information. The process and the technique allow all the details of the reliefs in the carvings to show up. To copy hieroglyphics when no one understood what they meant was quite an exercise. You can just take a photograph of it and send it to someone in the British museum; it’s a much easier way of doing it,” she says.

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The Great Propylon of the Temple at Edfou [Pylon of the Temple of Horus, Edfu], March 14, 1862 [Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014]

From Egypt the Prince and his entourage travelled to Palestine. It was here that Bedford became one of the first photographers to capture the Dome of the Rock. Another picture of the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron may not depict the temporary metal fencing, checkpoints and metal detector which surround the place of worship today, but Gordon says the holy sites were still contentious, even back then.

“When the Prince was in Hebron, the photographer had to be left there with an armed guard because even then it was quite a contested site and they were quite nervous about going there. They had to be given special permission and I think in fact the Prince’s visit was recorded in The Times because it was such an unusual occurrence for a non-Muslim to visit.”

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West Front of the Mosque of Omar [Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem], April 1, 1862 [Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014]

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Hebron, the Town showing the Mosque [Mosque of al-Khalil, also known as the Tomb of the Patriarchs or the Cave of Machpelah], April 8, 1862 [Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014]

Most of Bedford’s photographs are of buildings, an interest presumably inherited from his father who was an architect. One portrait that stands out is of Abd Al-Qadir the Algerian freedom fighter, scholar and theologian. In the image he sits with his hands crossed on his lap, wearing a long robe and a turban.

Al-Qadir, who fought against the French in the 1840s, was captured and exiled to Damascus. During the 1860 conflict between the Maronites and the Druze, when the Christian Quarter of the city was destroyed, Al-Qadir saved many Christians by taking them into his home to protect them.

“This great act was seen as such a selfless, brave thing to do and he’s obviously a highly intelligent member of the community as well. What he did received a lot of coverage in the European press, he was actually given awards by the French government and I think the president of the United States sent him a gift, so the Prince made a point of visiting him,” says Gordon.

Portrait of 'Abd al-Qadir, Damascus, April 30, 1862 [Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014]Portrait of ‘Abd al-Qadir, Damascus, April 30, 1862 [Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014]

Thanks to Bedford’s architectural shots, this exhibition pays homage to the fact that the Middle East holds an artistic heritage, something that can be forgotten amidst all the unrest in the region. Still, it seems clear that there was a political intent behind the journey, a statement being made about British interests; even if at the time people would never have admitted it.

“It wasn’t overtly political but certainly following the Crimean War and following the 1860 conflict, European powers had started to realise that this was a part of the world in which the local power, the Ottoman rule, was fading and becoming less powerful and so there were opportunities for them to make their own influence felt. Of course once one European power starts to have a presence, the others all want to have a presence as well,” says Gordon.

“Whilst this tour is officially a private tour,” she continues, “for the Prince’s education it is actually also about being seen to be part of the region, going there to make alliances and to make connections to meet British diplomats in the region. It’s obviously a part of fading Ottoman power and Britain wanting to assert control in the region, definitely.”

As Gordon points out, the exhibition is also a reminder of the limits of power. “Governments have such arrogance in thinking that we can solve these problems but it shows that these conflicts are far bigger than a single human lifetime, they go on over generations.”

“It’s a bit like the Victorians when they looked at the photos of the Egyptian monuments and to them they were looking at a once great empire which is now reduced to rubble. Of course the Victorians were living in what they considered to be the greatest empire ever and I think it said to them: ‘It doesn’t last forever, nothing lasts forever’.”