Cairo to Constantinople: Early Photographs of the Middle East

Francis Bedford’s photographs of a Victorian royal tour captivated the nation – and remain fascinating today
Sam-Taylor-NEW-176It is well documented that Prince Harry undertook months of training, including a night in a giant freezer, to prepare himself for last year’s gruelling race across the Antarctic Plateau in the company of injured soldiers. History doesn’t relate what, if any, preparations were undertaken 151 years earlier when the young Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII ) headed a team of nine gentlemen on an expedition from Cairo to Constantinople. But as Francis Bedford’s unique photographic account of their four-month journey reveals, the Prince spent quite a bit of time on a camel. He also slept outside in a tent at the base of the Great Pyramid so he could climb to its peak before sunrise the next day.

Bedford’s softly lit sepia image of the party in front of the Pyramids at Giza shows a bygone age; the ancient monuments rising from the empty desert, not yet swallowed up by the sprawling city of Cairo. Given that the medium had only been invited 20 years earlier, the very existence of this photograph, along with the other 190 stills that survived, seems utterly remarkable.

Bedford had been championed early in his career by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, both of whom were early, enthusiastic photography patrons, and it was Queen Victoria who commissioned him to record her son’s 1862 tour. Despite the sudden death of Prince Albert two months earlier, she was insistent that the expedition go ahead. Bedford’s main ‘brief’ was to capture historical and sacred landscapes and monuments to aid the Victorian public’s understanding of the Middle East and the Holy Land. This new exhibition at The Queen’s Gallery reveals visual gems and treasures discovered during the Egyptian excavations.

For instance, there’s the glorious portrait of the bashibazouks (mercenary soldiers) hired as protection for the crossing of Palestine and Syria. And the images of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Mosque at Hebron; a first for photography and royalty alike. The 20-year-old Prince kept a detailed journal, also on display here for the first time, and accrued some lovely mementos – including the ancient Egyptian scarabs that he had set into a gold necklace and given to Princess Alexandra for their wedding the following year. For those with a taste for this precious metal, the price of entry also gives access to Gold, a small, sparkly exhibition that includes the exquisite Rillaton gold cup, made in the Early Bronze Age and discovered on Bodmin Moor in 1837. A must for any Christmas wish list.

Until 22 February 2015, The Queen’s Gallery, SW1: 020-7766 7301,