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Volume 40, Number 4July/August 1989

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Rephotographing Egypt

Written by Nihal Tamraz and Barry Iverson
Additional photographs by Barry Iverson and Modern Photographs

Egypt enjoys a special place in the history of photography. Its rich heritage of antiquities, pharaonic, Islamic and Coptic, have drawn travelers for millennia, and once the daguerreotype process - the first photographic method - was made public in Paris in 1839, photographers appeared in Egypt even before the year was out, recording with a new precision the great monuments of the Nile Valley. In fact, the first documented daguerreotype taken anywhere in the Middle East was made in Alexandria on November 7,1839, by the Frenchman Frédéric Goupil-Fesquet.

Egypt remained without question the most photographed country in the Middle East for the rest of the 19th century. Soldiers, missionaries, archeologists, diplomats, orientalists and tourists, many with cameras, traveled along the Egyptian portion of the "overland route" to India and points east, and their numbers swelled with the completion of the Suez Canal in 1869. This was the era when tourism - travel for pleasure - became a widespread pastime among the wealthy; it took the form of the "grand tour," typically including Egypt, the Holy Land, Syria, Turkey and Greece.

Although Egypt can make no claim to great indigenous photographers or photographic inventors during this period, the country was host to foreign photographers of many nationalities. Some of the greatest practitioners worked there, among them Frith, Le Gray, Du Camp, Teynard, Greene, and Bonfils (See Aramco World, November-December 1983). Many photographers, like the orientalist painters of the day, sought out or arranged "exotic" scenes that corresponded to their expectations (See Aramco World , November-December 1984). Others documented the monuments, and less often the people, for the sake of information itself.

Several enterprising photographers set up studios in the major urban and transit centers of Egypt to serve the tourist market and the resident foreign communities. Each of these communities - Greek, Italian, French, British, Austrian, Armenian and others - naturally favored resident photographers from among its own members; a few of the more celebrated ones were Helios Zoulis (Greek), Alexandre Brignoli (Italian), E. Desire (French), Otto Schoefft (Austrian), Strommeyer & Heymann (German), L. James (British), and G. Lekegian (Armenian).

There were several reasons for the foreign domination of the medium, in Egypt and throughout the countries that were under Ottoman rule during the 19th century. Under the Capitulations granted by the Ottomans, a resident foreign photographer had immunity from taxation, and paid lower import duties on photographic equipment and supplies than the natives of the country. The capital needed to establish a photographic studio was far beyond the means of most Egyptian tradesmen. The photographic medium, the equipment and the training needed to use it all came from Europe. Finally, there were doubts among Muslims about the religious permissibility of photography in its early years.

Even without much indigenous participation, however, Egypt was thoroughly photographed in the 19th century, and some of those historical photographs are being duplicated, as exactly as possible, in the 20th. The essence of the Rephotographic Survey of Egypt (RSE) is to return to precisely the same sites to rephotograph the same scenes found in images made between 1839 and 1900.

After three seasons of fieldwork, the RSE has successfully replicated images of more than 120 sites taken by 19th-century photographers. Most are Islamic sites in Cairo; others include pharaonic sites as far south as the Meidoum Pyramid, various 19th-century buildings and street scenes in Cairo and Alexandria, and scenes in the Sinai. As we continue our work, we expect to rephotograph sites in Upper Egypt, edifices along the Nile, and scenes in the oases.

The Pyramids of Dahshour

In the pristine, three-square-kilometer site of Dahshour (740 acres) rest the pyramid complexes of the Fourth and Twelfth Dynasties. The earliest structures are the two stone pyramids of Sneferu, the founder of the Fourth Dynasty. One of these is the Southern Pyramid, commonly called the Bent Pyramid because of its unorthodox outline. Three other pyramid complexes in the site are those of Senusert III, Amenemhat II, and Amenemhat III.

Although the area has been visited regularly by travelers since the 17th century, it was Perring's 1839 investigation that first gave a proper account of the Sneferu pyramids. Dahshour was further examined by De Morgan toward the end of the 19th century, but not until 1945 were extensive works undertaken by the Egyptian Antiquities Organization's Department of Pyramid Studies, under the direction of Abdel Salam Hussein. After a halt in the project caused by Hussein's death, the work was resumed in 1951 under Ahmad Fakhry. He was able to clear the interior of the Bent Pyramid and, in addition, discovered its valley temple - a remarkable find, since the area had been extensively robbed of its stone and other materials for the construction of medieval buildings in Cairo.

The Bent Pyramid in the background is likely where King Sneferu was buried. Best preserved of all the pyramids on the site, the structure stands just over 100 meters (330 feet) high. Its sides slope at 54.5 degrees up to a height of 49.07 meters (161 feet) and then bend to a gentler 43.3 degrees - a change of slope which gives the pyramid its popular name. It is constructed of local limestone and encased with white limestone laid in sloping courses, with an entrance on the north face 11.80 meters (38 feet 9 inches) up. To the east of the pyramid is a small mortuary temple consisting of a little shrine flanked by two large stelae.

The mid-19th-century photograph shows the brick pyramid of Amenemhat III in the foreground and the Bent Pyramid in the background. Even during the 1850's the pyramid of Amenemhat III was in a ruinous condition: The fragile mud-brick structure had suffered greatly from the passage of time, and to a lesser extent from the attentions of tourists. St. John Bayle was one of them.

The ascent is comparatively easy, [he wrote in 1853,] and we had a fine view from the summit.... Before descending, we pelted the horizon with stones, endeavoring to clear the base of the pyramid; but our projectiles, after describing a vast curve, seemed to return and alight half-way down, after which they took two or three hops to the bottom.

Though its mud-brick core is all that can be seen of it today, the Amenemhat III pyramid appears much larger in the photograph than it really is. It was originally covered by limestone casing blocks with an angle of 57.3 degrees, only one of which has been found. Not only the stone blocks were "quarried": Even the mud bricks were taken by the nearby villagers as building material.

The 1987 photograph is almost identical to the old one, mainly because the area is reserved for military purposes and neither tourists nor Egyptians can enter without special permission.

Consequently, there were no donkeys in the area to duplicate Frith's earlier view, but our escort and two watchmen gladly positioned themselves for a fine deja vu. The inaccessibility of the area has kept even the pebbles atop the desert sand untouched for centuries, and the landscape - without telephone lines, roads or souvenir shops - offers a magnificent view.

Francis Frith, English, 1822-1898 .

A prosperous Liverpool greengrocer by his early 30's, Frith began photography in 1850. Between 1856 and 1859, he made three trips to the Middle East, making hundreds of negatives in several formats, ranging front the stereograph to 16-by-20-inch glass plates. He produced thousands of excellent albumen prints at his publishing firm in Reigate, Surrey, to fill his three sets of stereographs and his 11 books. His work is outstanding in all respects, and he ranks as a master.

The Northern Minaret of the Mosque of Al-Hakm

The mosque was founded in 990 by the fifth Fatimid caliph, al-'Aziz Nizar, son of al-Mu'izz li Din Allah, and was completed by his son al-Hakim in 1013. It was more commonly known as al-Jami al-Anwar, the brilliant mosque, but today is is referred to as the mosque of al-Hakim.

Originally built outside the first enclosure wall of Cairo, the mosque was included within the new northern wall enlarging Cairo built by Badr al-Jamali in 1085. By that time, a major alteration had been made to the minarets: The slender towers were enlarged and buttresses were added to the corners, giving them the appearance of the salients of a fortification. Access to the original minaret is still possible, and entry to the salient is from the southwest face.

The mosque was restored in the early 14th century following a severe earthquake in 1304 that shattered the upper part of both minarets. Consequently, the upper sections are in Mamluk style, attributable to the restoration carried out by Amir al-Muzaffar Rukn-al-Din Baybars II, called al-Jashankir, who succeeded to the throne in 1309. The function of the mosque, too, has been changed from time to time through the centuries. It was used as a stable by Salah al-Din, as a warehouse by Napoleon, by the Syrians for the manufacture of glass vessels, and by silk spinners. Stanley Lane-Pool tells the story.

When the Crusaders occupied Cairo in A.D. 1167 they turned part of the mosque of el-Hakim into a church. Under the Ayyubid restoration... [it] became the official place of worship. Afterwards it seems to have been used for stables, and in the summer of A.D. 1303 it was terribly shattered by a great earthquake, and restored in the following year by Beybars the Taster. By the time that the Topographer wrote his account of it

About A.D. 1420, the mosque was again in ruins, by fire and neglect neglect, and its roof was crumbling piece by piece. Since then it has fallen on still more evil days. Its court has served in turn as a rope-walk, a drying ground, a common throughfare, a playground,.. .or a bead factory.

The old photograph shows the northern minaret, which was incorporated into the northern wall. It is a circular shaft resting on a square base. The upper part of the northern salient is adorned by a Qur'anic inscription in Naskhi script, which starts on the eastern side. The top of the northern minaret differs from the southern by having three stories of muqarnas. The top of the stone base, which has arrow slits, probably dates back only to Napoleon's fortifications, since the identical view illustrated in the Description de I'Egypte shows no arrow slits but does show a damaged top. Above that, at the transition from the square to the octagon, the French illustration shows a wooden gallery, which had already been lost by the time of the 19th-century photograph. Again, the latter shows a more drastic state of deterioration in the mosque proper than that seen in the French expedition illustration, where the arches appear intact.

The new photograph shows the minaret amidst the mosque in its reconstructed marble finishing. The minaret was not touched in the 1980's restoration, and it has lost almost all of the arrow slits. Except for the missing wooden gallery, this brings the look of the minaret back to that shown in the Napoleonic-era illustration.

Maxime Du Camp, French, 1822-1894.

Du Camp's use of the calotype process to take photographs in the eastern Mediterranean region from 1849 to 1850 - in the company of writer Gustave Flaubert - set three precedents. He was the first to mass-produce photographs of Egypt and the Holy Land from paper negatives, the first to mount a major photograph expedition to Egypt to systematically photograph all of the major sites along the Nik from Cairo to Wadi Haifa, and the first to use photographs to fully illustrate a book on the scale of his Egypte, Nubie, Palestine et Syrie, published in 1852. His straightforward views of the monuments reveal the 19th-century photographers' concern for documentation for its own sake.

Pompey's Pillar

South and west of Alexandria, near the site of the Ptolemaic city of Rhakotis, stands Pompey's Pillar. Called 'amud al-sawari in Arabic, or the column of the horsemen, it was reportedly raised around 297 in honor of the Emperor Diocletian, who saved the city from famine.

E.M. Forster, in Alexandria: A History and a Guide, admonishes that "a visitor must remember, firstly, that the pillar has nothing to do with Pompey and, secondly, that it is a subordinate monument that the accident of time has preserved: it is a part, and a small one, of the splendours of the temple of Serapis." The pillar had likely received its popular nomenclature by the end of the 13th century, for the Crusaders believed that an urn containing the ashes of Pompey's head was near the site, and some believed that the head had been placed atop the pillar. The earliest firm evidence that the pillar had acquired this Roman hero's name, however, is the map of the French traveler Pierre Belon du Mans, dated 1554. He described the pillar as "Colonne de Pon Pee."

The height of the column, including the base and the Corinthian capital, is 26.85 meters (88 feet). The shaft itself is 20.75 meters (68 feet) tall, with a diameter of 2.70 meters at the base and 2.30 meters at the top (eight feet ten inches and seven feet six inches respectively). It is a single piece of red granite cut from a quarry in Aswan. On the eastern face is a block of green granite with an inscription in Greek in honor of Arsinoe, the sister and wife of Ptolemy Philadelphus. On the opposite face, upside down in a recess, is the figure and hieroglyph of Seti I, whose reign ended in 1350 BC - an indication of the great age of settlement at Rhakotis. Forty meters west of the pillar (130 feet) lie the remains of the Temple of Serapis.

The pillar has always excited the admiration and imagination of travelers. Cyriacus of Ancona in 1412 and, a century later, Leo Africanus - the Andalusian traveler whose Arabic name was Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Zaiyati - both wrote of its height and size; Pellegrino Brocardi (1557) declared that he had never seen anything like it in Rome or anywhere else.

Other strangers not only admired it but also wanted to take it home. In 1737 a report sent to Louis XV of France proposed to remove Pompey's Pillar,".. .as it threatens to fall into ruins, and to transport it to France to raise a statue of the king on its summit. It is one of the largest and most ancient monuments of the past ages, and it would be to the praise of our king to preserve it."

The surrounding cemetery already existed as early as 1841, when David Millard wrote in his Journal of Travels in Egypt, Arabia Petraea and the Holy Land that Pompey's Pillar is said to have once occupied the centre of Alexandria, when that city was in its glory. Now it not only stands without the gates, but at a considerable walk even from the suburbs of the city Pompey's Pillar now stands towering in loneliness, on a slight eminence, between the present city and the lake Mareotis.

The new photograph reveals the extent of the landscaping changes. Except for the side facing the cemetary, concrete apartment buildings now completely encompass the enclosure walls. Pompey's Pillar, though still towering, no longer stands "in loneliness.

Entrance Portal of Al-Azhar Mosque

The first mosque to be built by the Fatimids was founded by the general Jawhar al-Siqilli in 970, the year after he conquered Egypt and founded Cairo. Since then, the mosque has remained the premier institution of Islamic theology in the Muslim world (See Aramco World, September-October 1973).

Al-Azhar has witnessed several additions and restorations through the centuries, carried out either as a sign of respect and honor or to repair damage or partial destruction. Thus Amir Salar repaired damage done by the earthquake of 1302, and other repairs were made after troops of the French expedition desecrated the mosque with their horses in 1798. The qibla wall of the mosque is being restored today.

The 19th-century photograph shows the greatest of the eight gates of the mosque, Bab al-Muzayyineen or the Gate of the Barbers, so called after the barbers who used to cut the students' hair near the entrance. The mosque is at the end of the passage between the Aqbaghawiyya Madrasa and the Taybarsiyya Madrasa, both religious colleges of Mamluk foundation. The gate itself was built by the Mamluk Sultan al-Ashraf Sayf al-Din Qa'it Bay in 1469, according to the inscription, and as with the rest of Qa'it Bay's buildings, the trilobe arch of the gate is filled with mugarnas, or stalactite carving, and the spandrels flanking each side are decorated with arabesques typical of his period.

The photograph shows scholars and students of al-Azhar standing by the door. Above the reciprocal-patterned lintel is a relieving arch bearing the inscription Inna mal 'amal binniyat wa inna ma likullimrin ma nawa - "Works are judged according to intentions and each person will be rewarded according to his intentions."

In the more than 100 years' span between the old and the new photographs, several small changes are apparent. The wrought-iron lamp on the left side wall has been removed, and the bare stone floor replaced by a marble one covered with carpets. A glass case showing the ground plan of the building at different periods has been added by the Department of Antiquities. The relieving arch no longer bears its inscription, and to the right above the case is the modern-day substitute for the minaret: a loudspeaker by which the call to prayer can be amplified.

The salt stain on the stone at the base of the portal in the modern photograph bears witness to the effects of the rising water table in the area, probably due to the ever-increasing population density around al-Azhar and the concomitant increase in water use and sewage flow. Seepage from the old khalig, or canal, not far from the mosque may also be implicated, though it was filled in by the end of the 19th century.

The threat to the preservation of al-Azhar is of long standing, though. In 1882, Arthur Rhone wrote that "the grand mosque of al-Azhar, the most renown, the most populous university or Islamic Sorbonne, rests alone intact like an inviolable island in this milieu of torment and destruction which rages all around her..." May it continue to do so.

Felix Bonfils, French, 1831-1885.

Bonfils became acquainted with Lebanon in the late 1850's when he was dispatched with a French military expedition to settle a dispute between Christians and Druze. In 1867, he returned to Beirut with his family and established a successful photographic studio that his son and wife continued after his death, finally selling it to A. Guiragossian. By 1871, he had produced 15,000 prints and 9,000 stereoscopic views of Egypt, Syria, Greece and the Holy Land. His photographic eye was sensitive and although much of his studio work was posed orientalist genre scenes, the quality of his vision from the urban views of Cairo to the landscapes of Palestine is undisputed.

Monastery of St. Catherine

Though there were God-seeking hermits in the Sinai Peninsula as early as the third century, it was St. Anthony's retreat into absolute solitude in the desert in the last days of that century that prompted other Christian ascetics to settle at the foot of Mount Sinai and Mount Serbal to lead a life of strict spiritual and corporal discipline.

In 330, the Byzantine Empress Helena, mother of Constantine, ordered a small church and a tower to be built within a fortified enclosure there to protect the monks from attacks by pagan nomadic tribes. The site was traditionally that of the burning bush. Today's monastery dates back to the time of the Emperor Justinian (527-565), who ordered the building of a great walled edifice, and the construction of the Basilica of the Transfiguration. In addition, he provided soldiers to defend the monks and what were by then precious collections of books and artifacts.

During the Fatimid period, a small mosque was built inside the walls of the monastery; during the French occupation of Egypt from 1798 to 1801, Napoleon ordered his engineers to repair the walls and the general fabric of the monastery. The Egyptian ruler Muhammad Ali undertook further works, and provided revenues from the customs levies of Cairo for this purpose.

The lavishly decorated church is a museum in itself. Silver lamps and ostrich eggs hang from the ceiling, and mosaic panels dating back as early as the seventh or eighth century are embedded above the central apse. The rich library is considered second only to the Vatican's, and is known particularly for its huge manuscript collection. It is said to include a letter to the monks from the Prophet Muhammad.

The 19th-century photograph shows how travelers and visitors were drawn up, through a wooden penthouse cantilevered out from the wall, into the monastery, as their Bedouin guides waited below. This bizarre method of entry had already been instituted fordefensive reasons by the early 16th century, when, Jean Thenaud explained, "a rope is let down from the top of the wall, into the loop of which you put your feet and keep them there, and with one turn you are pulled up." The famous British artist David Roberts had the experience in 1839.

We were drawn up one by one, our elbows and knees receiving sundry thumps and bumps in the course of the ascent. We were ushered through a labyrinth of passages and staircases to the dormitories we were to occupy. .. .The Superior received us in person with the greatest attention and kindness. A supper was soon provided of rice and dried dates, and never did poor pilgrim sleep more soundly than I under the hospitable roof of the monks of St. Catharine.

The recent construction of an airport and a luxury hotel near the monastery, and the improvement of roads throughout the Sinai, provide today's traveler easy access to the site. But little else has changed. As they could 150 years ago, visitors today can still stay within the walls of St. Catherine's, in basic accommodations but at little cost. The new photograph shows a reconstructed wooden penthouse - no longer the only means of entrance - and new landscaping done outside the wall with its stone and concrete foundations.

G. Eric Matson, Swedish-American, 1888-1977.

Matson moved to Jerusalem from Sweden in 18%, and worked in the photography department of the American Colony, a small Christian community there. Together with his wife, he photographed extensively throughout the Middle East until 1946, documenting the ever-changing landscape of the Levant. His 20,000 negatives are preserved in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress.

Nihal Tamraz has a degree in Islamic art and architecture from the American University in Cairo. She is researching 19th-century Cairo in Egypt's National Archives.

Barry Iverson won a Fulbright grant in 1985 to research the history of photography in 19th-century Egypt. He now covers the Middle East for Time as a photojournalism Tamraz and Iverson expect to publish Comparative Views of Egypt this year.

This article appeared on pages 6-15 of the July/August 1989 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1989 images.