Cairo to Constantinople: Early Photographs of the Middle East
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Photographs by Francis Bedford taken in 1862 during the Prince of Wales' four-month tour of the Middle East
In 1862, a year after Prince Albert’s death, the grieving Queen Victoria sent her heir, Edward, and eight gentlemen on a tour of what we now call the Middle East. For the first time on a royal junket, one of those eight was an official photographer. Francis Bedford’s resulting images are long on history and, bar a couple of stilted group shots, short on people. He assiduously set up his tiny, airless darkroom tent everywhere from the Pyramids at Giza (so bare of tourists!) to the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, but his stately images are often as dull as his royal employer’s thunderingly banal journal, which records visits to mosques and temples but is just as interested in lunch.
Caps are doffed at Scutari, Florence Nightingale’s hospital during the recently-ended Crimean War. Ancient Thebes’s 3,000-year-old Temple of the Ramesseum is admired, as it has been since Roman times. But there’s little context for this imposing stonework. It’s all nicely-framed ‘views’ and panoramic cityscapes, whether of Hebron, where the Prince was the first Christian to enter the mosque since the Crusades, or the temple remains at Baalbek, rising graciously from a dry plain. Smyrna is presented as a distant view of the castle. The blackened Parthenon, foregrounded by rubble, makes you understand why Lord Elgin (whose son led this expedition) felt the marbles needed rescuing.
Bedford was triply hampered: by the mores of the time, by his official position and by the unwieldy apparatuses of nineteenth-century photography. Still, the Victorian propensity for muffling feelings, like ankles, in yards of propriety makes for a pretty but prim and, in the end, fairly unenlightening tour.