London, Asharq Al-Awsat—In 1862, Queen Victoria sent her 20-year-old son and heir to the throne, Edward, the Prince of Wales—later to become King Edward VII—on a landmark tour of the Middle East, where he visited Egypt, the Holy Land, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, and Greece.
At the time, the region’s centuries-old great power, the Ottoman Empire, was now the “sick man of Europe,” in its agonizing, final death throes. Meanwhile, the largest empire since the heyday of the Ottomans, and at the time the world’s greatest superpower, the British Empire—“on which the sun never sets”—was waiting in the wings. Britain sought to secure the vital, timeworn trade routes between the Middle East and British colony of India—the “jewel in the crown” of Victoria’s vast empire—once the sick man finally succumbed to his malady.
Perhaps it was for this reason that Victoria insisted on sending Edward to the region despite the fact that his father, the Queen’s beloved Prince Albert, had died less than a year before the tour was due to begin. But what was striking about this trip—what truly gave it landmark status—was that this would be the very first time a royal tour would have a photographer on board, visually documenting every stage of the visit.
Today, when the British royal family are a regular feature on our screens and in our newspapers and magazines, it would be inconceivable for any royal tour to be unaccompanied by an official photographer. But in 1862, the nascent technology was yet to become as ubiquitous as it is today—photography was still a novelty, barely older than the young Prince Edward himself.
The photographer chosen to accompany the Prince of Wales on his tour was Francis Bedford, a lithographer-turned-photographer who had earlier endeared himself to the Queen through his efforts photographing the places associated with Prince Albert’s childhood in Germany—photographs commissioned as a birthday gift from Victoria to her husband. In fact, Albert was the very first member of the British royal family ever to be photographed, and the royal couple were early enthusiasts and patrons of this new art form.
From today, November 7, a new exhibition, Cairo to Constantinople: Early Photographs of the Middle East, staged by the Royal Collection Trust, is showing in London at Buckingham Palace, the home of Victoria’s great-great-granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth II, and will chart Prince Edward’s journey through the Middle East using Bedford’s stunning photographs.
Asharq Al-Awsat took a pre-opening tour of the exhibit at the Queen’s Gallery in the sumptuous Buckingham Palace. The rooms of the exhibit are arranged chronologically, with each room corresponding to a stop on Prince Edward’s tour. In the “Egypt room,” we see photographs of some of the country’s most prominent monuments: the Great Pyramid of Giza and the Sphinx; the iconic Ottoman Muhammad Ali Mosque atop the Citadel of Saladin; the medieval architectural masterpiece that is the Sultan Hasan Mosque, built in 14th century CE; as well as the breathtaking pharaonic temples in Upper Egypt, which the Prince and Bedford reached, like modern-day tourists, via a cruise on the Nile.
In fact, the Prince’s tour coincided with a growing number of visitors from Europe to the Middle East. This followed a number of archaeological discoveries that related to the early days of Christianity. In 1867, the British company Thomas Cook began to offer packaged tours of the region, as it continues to do today. Travel to the region was also made easier with the introduction of large steamships to Alexandria, the very first stop on the Prince’s tour, which Edward reached in this way from Venice.
On the next stay on the tour we see photographs of the Holy Land. The stunning, rolling hills of Jerusalem are captured by Bedford with the skill of a great landscape artist. The photographs are as much a testament to Bedford’s artistic aptitude and deftness with lighting and staging as they are a record of a unique historical moment. Historic sites were aplenty on the tour, including some of the holiest buildings in Jerusalem, such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Bedford became the first person to ever photograph the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
The exhibition’s curator, Sophie Gordon, told Asharq Al-Awsat that Bedford was keen to include local people in many of his photographs, whether of landscapes or historical sites, so as to give the photographs an authentic feel. However, in the early days of photography, taking a picture was an extremely cumbersome process, requiring the photographer to painstakingly prepare the camera and staging for the scene before them. So Bedford had to ask the locals to stand still as he was photographing them, a feat made all the more remarkable given not only the time needed to take these photographs, but also how spontaneous the subjects in them appear, something that Gordon believes is testament to Bedford’s extraordinary skill as one of the pioneers of the art form. This is particularly apparent in the photographs of the pharaonic temples along the Nile—such as the Philae Temple, and Karnak in Luxor—where Bedford uses the locals as subjects to draw viewers into the scenes and also to give an impression of just how large the structures themselves are.
The final room in the exhibition differs from the others. Here, we are shown many of the artefacts that the Prince bought on the tour. They include clay pots from the Greek island of Rhodes, a rare pharaonic papyrus inscribed with an ancient funerary text, and a set of Egyptian scarabs set into gold jewelry, which the Prince subsequently gave to his fiancée, Princess Alexandra of Denmark, when they married the following year.
The room also contains extracts from the Prince’s journal, which he kept regularly throughout his journey, and other souvenirs from his trip: We even see a paper receipt for food the entourage bought while on their Nile cruise—24 pigeons, 200 eggs, 150 oranges, 24 bundles of asparagus, and 30 kidneys.
It is interesting that Prince Edward himself appears in only three of the photographs in this vast collection. Two of these are in Egypt, where we find him standing in front of the Pyramids and at the Karnak Temple in Luxor; and the third in Palestine, where we see him sitting underneath a fig tree, enjoying a meal with his travel companions. Perhaps this is because Bedford himself realized the Prince was not the main subject of this tour: it was the places and the monuments themselves, in a region full to the brim with history.
Those who are fascinated by the history of the Middle East will find much to whet their appetite in this exhibit. An interesting—and certainly sobering—feature of the display is that visitors, especially those from the region or those familiar with it, find themselves pining for the past. The comparison between how these monuments and their environs look in the photographs and how you will find them today may have you running for the nearest time machine: history has not been kind to some of these attractions. In the aerial photographs taken in 1862 of the Sultan Hasan Mosque, we see the mosque standing almost on its own; the smog, traffic, high-rise buildings, and hordes of people of twenty-first-century Cairo are nowhere to be seen.
This is not the first time the collection has been shown to the public. Most recently it was displayed at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, Scotland in 2013. The very first exhibition of the photographs, upon the Prince’s return to Britain, was described as “the most important photographic exhibition that has hitherto been placed before the public.”
The exhibit in 2014–2015 may not garner those kinds of accolades, but it will certainly fascinate, delight, and captivate.
‘Cairo to Constantinople: Early Photographs of the Middle East’ runs from November 7, 2014 to February 22, 2015 at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London.