Middle East Photograph Archive
Introduction to the Archive:
In the second half of the nineteenth century, the spread of the art of photography and the influx of Europeans into the lands of the Middle East conjoined in the creation of a large number of photographs produced by professional photographers. During these decades, the versatility of photography was enhanced through the development of a variety of chemical techniques, enabling photographers to produce images in relatively large numbers, intended chiefly to satisfy the tourism trade burgeoning in the Middle East and the European thirst for images of the Orient. Antique photographs, of course, stand now as important documents of the history of photography. However, the significance of these artifacts is enriched by their utility as historical documents of the architectural and social history of the Middle East. The photographers chose as subjects the monuments of the Middle East’s medieval and ancient past, as well as scenes of daily life. Since the nineteenth century, many of these monuments have been altered through architectural restoration, or their contexts have been radically transformed by the inevitable modernization witnessed in this century. In some cases, and particularly in those scenes depicting social life, the images are the only surviving records of the Middle East’s history.
Most of the photographs in the Middle East Department’s archive date to the second half of the nineteenth century. The vast majority of these are albumen-based photographs (the principal technique used during these years), supplemented by a few gelatin-based photographs (the precursor of the modern technique), and a few photochrome prints (early twentieth century dyed prints, producing a “color” photographic image). The archive is particularly strong in photographs of nineteenth century Cairo. To be sure, Europeans were attracted to Egypt by its Pharaonic monuments. Once there, however, visitors came to appreciate Cairo as the largest and best-preserved medieval metropolis in the world. The scores of Islamic monuments built between the ninth and fifteenth centuries in and around Cairo provided a huge number of subjects for photography. The collection includes photographs of the Mosque of ‘Amr ibn al-‘As, the Muslim general who conquered Egypt in the seventh century, and the Mosque of Ibn Tulun, who ruled Egypt in the ninth century, which show the condition of these landmark monuments in the 1880’s prior to their restoration in this century. Other invaluable photographs in the archive record the tombs of the Mamluk sultans in conditions approximating their original late medieval contexts. Built on the desert outskirts of medieval Cairo, these buildings are now tightly enclosed by the city’s modern urban sprawl, confining exterior view of these masterpieces of Islamic architecture. In addition, photographs of non-architectural subjects show the variety of traditional Middle Eastern and scenes of nineteenth century daily life in urban and rural situations.
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