HOME About Barnaby Books        Reviews     Articles    Recommendations Links      Contact Info

The Prince and the Pyramids, CAIRO TO CONSTANTINOPLE:
an exhibition of Francis Bedfordís early Photographs of the Middle East, first at the Queens Gallery, Holyrood Palace, Edinburgh and later at Buckingham Palace, 2013.

(A version of this published in Country Life, April 17, 2013)

The photographs in this exhibition were taken to accompany the Prince of Wales (our future King Edward VII) on his four-month tour of the Middle East in 1862. I found them totally beguiling, a sliver of history caught in the microscope, a world that is on the one hand so intimately familiar and yet on another hand so utterly changed. It was a good time to be a British prince in the Middle East, for we had just defended the integrity of the Ottoman Empire against the Russians (in the Crimean War) and had not yet revealed our own imperial appetite with the annexation of Cyprus, then Egypt, followed by the Holy Land, Iraq and the creation of a veiled protectorate over the Persian Gulf. So the young prince was welcome everywhere, could camp with his little party of eight companions without fear, and the media-fuelled cult of celebrity kingship had not yet been invented. The infrastructure of trains, hotels, ports, and professional dragomen was in place. The prince could use the Murray Handbooks (in print since 1847) but the first package tours were a good five years off. And while a modern traveller has to make do with copies from the bazaar, the prince was fortunate to carry away scarab beads (later turned into a necklace for his wife), some ancient Greek pots freshly excavated from Rhodes and a papyrus scroll from the Book of the Dead.

What has not changed an iota in the last 150 years is the list of monuments that an educated young man on a tour of the Middle East might expect to see: the Parthenon in Athens, Aghia Sophia in Istanbul, the Great Mosque in Damascus, the temple of Baalbek in the Lebanon and the Holy Sepulchure and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, the temple of Baalbek in the Lebanon. In fact the changes are all in our favour. When the Prince of Wales saw Damascus the astonishing Ommayad-Byzantine mosaics in the courtyard of the great mosque were covered-up with whitewash, and in Istanbul the Topkapi Palace was out of bounds, still working as a reserve harem of the Ottoman court, its dazzling 17th-century honeycomb of rooms filled with the Sultanís aunts, ancient step-mothers, and retired concubines.

The Egypt leg of the Princeís trip is the most unchanged of all. I speak with very recent knowledge, having just returned from a slow cruise down the Nile with three Mrs Rogersonís in one boat. We followed exactly the same itinerary in 2013 as did the Prince of Wales in 1862: the island Temple of Isis at Philae, the Temple of Horus at Edfu rescued from the sand, sun-shattered Karnak and the vivid carvings of Medinet Habu. And just like the Prince we also made time to walk amongst the Nile palmeries, take donkey rides to hillside tombs while relaxing with some memorable picnics, the smoking of water pipes and swims in the Nile. We travelled at exactly the same pace, in the same sort of Nile barge, a dahbiyah pulled by a pair of tug-like steamers. The only real difference was that we did not get the chance to shoot crocodiles.. Another extraordinary constant is our shared aesthetic. We are still looking at these monuments of antiquity in exactly the same way, still framing our images in the same manner as Francis Bedford did - still scattering a few turbaned figures amongst the carvings, still balancing light against detail. And Bedford, skilled professional though he was, was following a landscape tradition that was dominated by the work two British masters: the opulent romanticism of David Robertsís watercolours and the gritty, sandy integrity of the photographer Francis Frithís work.

But there is also a more intimate, personal fascination in Bedfordís work. One of his most telling images is that of the royal party in the Temple of Amun, for not only can you almost taste the heat and the dust, but you see a handsome young prince (already fatherless and on his third overseaís fact-finding mission) surrounded by a controlling court of earnest grey beards. But most memorable for me is the series of photographs of the devastated Christian quarter of Damascus (taken just two years after the events of 1860). These not only reveal the scale and intensity of the massacre, but also bear witness to one of the great heroes of this tragedy, the exiled Algerian resistance leader, Abdel Kader, who alone had the charisma and bravery to defy the mob. One warmed to the prince that he should have sort out the company of Abdel Kader, as well as a Bedouin sheikh who had also saved many thousands of lives. How sad then that this mixture of bravery and carnage in Syria provides us with yet another instance of how little has changed since 1862.

Back to Articles page

Recent Books
by Barnaby Rogerson

The Heirs of the Prophet Muhammad: And the Roots of the Sunni-Shia Schism

Book of Numbers

The Prophet Muhammad: A Biography