THE immense Sphinx is only partially uncovered from the sand that buried it. The desert has reclaimed all but the top halves of the mighty pyramids. The tombs of the kings of Egypt have yet to be discovered and excavated.
This is a sepia-toned Egypt just on the brink of discovering its past, an Egypt which has yet to recover its antiquities from the desert sands, not yet on the tourist map or a World Heritage site, and a century and a half away from being torn apart by political change.
It is Egypt in the mid-19th century, and the photographs taken by Francis Bedford, while on a tour of the Middle East with the then Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, capture a time when even tales of the mummy’s curse or the ransacking of tombs were still a long way off.
The fascinating images Bedford captured at the behest of Queen Victoria, who sent her 20-year-old son off on a four-month tour which took him from Cairo to Constantinople, the Greek islands and Malta – via the Holy Lands – have rarely been seen in public since they were first put on show in 1862.
But from Friday they will be on display to the Edinburgh public for two months at the Queen’s Gallery.
While in one sense they are a set of tinted royal holiday snaps, they not only catch the style of the time – in the baking heat the all-male party are still wearing long leather boots and tweed suits – they also manage to subtly tell of the tensions between religions in the regions of Palestine and Syria and the Lebanon, giving the images a modern resonance.
For the Prince’s visit, which took in many Biblical sites including Jerusalem and Bethlehem, was only two years after a massacre of Christians at Damascus.
Bedford was able to show the world the ruins of the Christian quarter in that city for the first time – as well as the man Abd al-Qadir, a leading Muslim, who managed to save the lives of some by protecting them in his own home.
Other images such as those of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem are testament to the respect the Prince was given as one of the first Christian men to set foot in the Islamic holy site.
“It was a time of upheaval in Egypt and the Holy Lands as the Ottoman Empire was weak and crumbling and other local power bases were beginning to flex their muscles,” says Sophie Gordon, curator of the exhibition, pictured right. “It was probably also one of the reasons Queen Victoria sent Edward there. She was in mourning for Albert, but she wanted her son to start to take on a bigger diplomatic role. Going to the Middle East to represent British Empire interests was very important.”
Sophie believes that the hiring of photographer Bedford to go with the Prince’s entourage was very forward-thinking of the Queen.
“Photography had only really become introduced to the public in 1839, and Prince Albert was photographed in 1842 and both he and Victoria were enthusiastic about photography.
“Bedford’s skill as a landscape photographer had already won him two royal commissions.
“The exhibition also shows a book of his photographs of Coburg, where Prince Albert had grown up, and which Queen Victoria gave to him as a birthday present. So he was an obvious candidate to go and document the Prince’s tour.”
The tour began in Venice where the group boarded the Royal Yacht Osborne, which took them to Alexandria. From there they set off on horse or camel back down the Nile and back again before heading to the Holy Lands, then to Turkey, the Greek islands, Malta and back home again.
“It was a long tour, but we also have documents which show what they ate and how much,” says Sophie. “Indeed, one bill of sale includes 36 quails, 24 pigeons and sundry other fowls.
“What’s great, though, is being able to show all of Bedford’s images all together again. It’s not been done since the exhibition which was put on when they returned from the tour.
“It was very successful then and I hope it is again, especially as some images have never been seen before and because Bedford has been overlooked somewhat.
“But I do think that now is the perfect time for them to be shown because not only does it show places like Egypt in a way we can’t imagine them now, for instance the Temple of Horus was only just excavated, but also because of what’s going on in the Middle East now it’s all very relevant.”
“It’s interesting to see what people here thought of it in the 19th century, and it is much the same, that the Middle East was a place of conflict, of religious argument . . . somewhere dangerous.”
Alongside the photographs are “souvenirs” collected by the Prince of Wales along the way, including sheets of hieroglyphic-covered papyrus, a dignified statue of Queen Senet, and golden necklaces and bracelets inlaid with scarabs.
Then there’s a collection of pottery jugs and bowls from the island of Rhodes – also photographed by Bedford but never brought together again until the exhibition.
• Cairo to Constantinople: Early Photographs of the Middle East is at the Queen’s Gallery, Holyrood Palace, from Friday until July 21. For ticket information call 0131-556 5100 or visit www.royalcollection.org.uk.
‘The quality of the images is stunning’
ONE of the stops on the Prince of Wales’ tour – when he needed an armed guard – was the classical Roman site of Baalbek in Lebanon.
It’s a stone’s throw from where journalist John McCarthy, left, was kept hostage, and he will be at the official opening of the exhibition. He is also presenting a programme, In the Prince’s Footsteps, on BBC Radio 4 which will feature the exhibition.
He says: “The first thing that strikes me about Bedford’s images is how good they are. Just 20 or 30 years after the invention of the medium and yet the quality of the images is stunning.
“And 150 years on and the Middle East continues to hold our attention for the wonderful sites, but also the political landscape they’re set in.”