Since the late 1700s, the Middle East and the Ottoman empire have loomed large in the Western imagination. What the Grand Tour was to the eighteenth century, the voyage au Levant became for the Romantic generation, a mystical itinerary through Egypt and the Holy Land to the sources of civilization. While painters and writers of the so-called Orientalist School fed the European need for exoticism, scholars, archaeologists, and scientists explored Egypt’s past. Napoleon’s team of savants published the Déscription de l’Égypte, a lavishly illustrated multivolume publication (1809–29) that carefully documented the sites and monuments along the Nile. Jean-François Champollion deciphered the hieroglyphs in 1822, and Auguste Mariette established the first museum of Egyptian antiquities in Cairo in 1856. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the land of pyramids had become both a terrain to be studied and an idealized landscape to inspire dreams.
Archaeology and photography were fledgling disciplines—the latter just ten years old—when Maxime Du Camp and Gustave Flaubert embarked on their voyage to the Middle East in 1849. Establishing the model for many travelers to follow, the two friends sailed up the Nile from Cairo to Nubia (Upper Egypt/northern Sudan), then let the currents take them back downstream; they visited Palestine and Syria before heading home via Athens and Rome. Du Camp and the other photographers who followed him in the 1850s were not primarily interested in depicting the picturesque of everyday life. For one thing, they could not compete with painters in reproducing the riot of colors with which the Orient dazzles all visitors. For another, as journalists, engineers, architects, archaeologists, would-be geographers, or ethnographers, these photographers were principally interested in facts. Within the stricture of the photographic format, and its restrained palette of browns and grays, they sought to assemble the most accurate possible inventory of their subjects, and to fashion an unsentimental document. To modern eyes, however, these austere records are poetic, impressionistic, and eccentric accounts of a foreign land.
With the exception of the Englishman Francis Frith, the earliest photographers chose the paper negative over the glass plate for its ease of handling during perilous voyages and in extreme climates. The process was naturally attuned to the unique qualities of the Egyptian landscape; the paper fibers beautifully enhanced the textures of sand and stone and exaggerated the strong contrasts of sunlight and shadow.
For many of the early artists in Egypt (Du Camp, Félix Teynard, Louis de Clercq, among others), the work produced during their journeys would be the only known photographs of their careers. Often presented in elegant portfolios, their photographs were meant for a select, cultivated audience in Paris or London. With the expansion of travel in the 1860s, photographers like Wilhelm Hammerschmidt and Félix Bonfils chose to open studios in the Middle East. Proximity to the sites allowed these artists to use glass-plate negatives, which they preferred for their crystalline clarity. With the arrival of organized tourism (Thomas Cook offered his first Nile tour in 1869), the pilgrimage of the soul which was the voyage au Levant turned into an exotic vacation perpetuated by commercial photographic souvenirs.
Collectively, the earliest photographs of Egypt, whether daguerreotypes or prints made from paper and glass negatives, are the accomplished expressions of a young medium flexing its muscles. They define a magical moment when the ancient civilization, still half-buried like the Sphinx, began to release its age-old secrets.