The Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace presents an exhibition entitled Cairo to Constantinople: Early Photographs of the Middle East. The display charts Albert Edward, Prince of Wales’s (later King Edward VII) four-month journey, in 1862, to Egypt and the Middle East.
Official photographer Francis Bedford captured the ambitious itinerary both formally and informally. Not only was this the first royal tour to the region, but it was also the first time the very new medium of photography recorded such a tour.
The display, which brings together Bedford’s photographs and the Prince of Wales’s journal for the first time, also includes archaeological and other rare items collected by Edward, Prince of Wales.
Cairo to Constantinople records a time when leisure travel to the region was on the rise mainly because of recent archaeological discoveries at Philae, Karnak and Luxor along the Nile.
With the introduction of steamships in 1840, shorter journey times helped open up the region to European tourists. Just a few years after the Prince’s tour, package tours to Egypt and the Holy Land, organised by British travel company Thomas Cook & Son, were a popular way to explore the area.
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No Luxuries for the Royal Party
In the 21st century, Egypt, Greece, Turkey and the Middle East are popular tourist destinations. Like our Victorian ancestors, we are keen to explore our world, enjoying all the advantages of speedy aeroplanes, air-conditioned coaches and luxury hotels.
But, when the Prince of Wales made his Grand Tour to Egypt and the Middle East in 1862 there were no such luxuries. The royal party travelled in a most unroyal way – on horseback, camping out in tents!
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert Planned the Tour
The Prince of Wales’s parents, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, planned this tour very carefully with very precise goals. As heir to the throne it was essential for Edward to have a thorough understanding of the region, with all its troubles and complexities.
From the moment Albert and Victoria learned about photography in 1839, they were keen patrons of the new art form. In early 1842, Albert was the first royal sitter, and so by the 1860s it comes as no surprise that Victoria commissioned Francis Bedford to record the royal tour in all its fascinating detail.
Born in London, Francis Bedford (1815-1894) originally worked as a draughtsman and lithographer. He took up photography in 1853 and soon established himself as a professional photographer of landscape and agricultural scenes.
Cairo to Constantinople – Layout of the Exhibition
Probably the most important item in the exhibition is the Prince of Wales’s personal hand-written journal, open at his entry for 21st April 1862. Edward recorded his daily activities in great detail creating a very personal insight into what the group saw and did on the journey. He linked his daily accounts to Francis Bedford’s photography.
The display charts the route through Egypt and the Middle East. Bedford recorded the historic scenery ranging from castles built by European Crusaders in the 12th and 13th centuries to the recently ruined Christian quarter of Damascus.
In 1860, just two years before the Prince’s visit, thousands of Christians lost their lives in a conflict between the Christian Maronite population and the Druze (an Abrahamic religion linked to Islam).
In Lebanon, the travellers saw the classical Roman site of Baalbek and the Circular Temple, known today as the Temple of Venus. The Roman Emperor Septimus Severus (r. AD 193-211) was responsible for this small pentagonal temple. The tour ended with a week-long stay in Constantinople (Istanbul) where Edward met the Ottoman Emperor, Abdulaziz.
The Prince of Wales, although only twenty years old at the time, was already an astute collector, acquiring many rare books and objects on the tour including several pieces of very beautiful ancient pottery from the island of Rhodes.
Curator Sophie Gordon Speaks Exclusively to Decoded Past
On his return to London, Bedford’s images went on display. The photographs were also for sale, proving very popular with the public.
Sophie Gordon is Senior Curator of Photographs at the Royal Collection Trust, and author of several publications about nineteenth- and twentieth-century photography.
She tells us: The reason these images went on display was because it was felt that these photos served a very important purpose in educating the British public about the Middle East, about the culture, the history, and about the religion of the region.
They are extremely rich and valuable documents telling us what was interesting to the royal party, but also telling us about the landscape, about its history, and about the centuries of history that preceded the royal tour.
Decoded Past: It’s very sad to see that the conflicts, between religions and cultures, are still going on.
Sophie Gordon: Yes… it was a region in conflict, a region where there were disputes between different cultures, between different religions, and that for me, makes these photographs quite emotional documents. We see that the problems, the issues, the culture, and the history, has a far broader sweep than any of the human lives involved in the royal tour. So looking at these photographs we see the extra richness of the history of the region.
Decoded Past: What value do these images have for us today?
Sophie Gordon: They are really important as historical documents, as archival documents. It’s probably the nearest thing that we get to time travel today. We can look at them and almost step back to the time of the Prince’s visit.
Cairo to Constantinople – An Outstanding Visual and Historical Record
Through Prince Edward’s personal journal and Francis Bedford’s photographs, we become time travellers – seeing the Middle East as it was in the 1860s. Together these items make a lasting legacy giving us a valuable insight into not only the royal tour, but also the complex history and cultures of the region.
Cairo to Constantinople: Early Photographs of the Middle East is on display at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, until 22nd February 2015.