At the time that the Prince of Wales embarked on his trip, Victorian Britain had a keen but often misguided concept of what travelling to the Middle East entailed. Concepts of the Holy Land were shaped primarily by the Bible, while ideas of Istanbul (Constantinople) came from elaborate imaginings of the recent events of the Crimean War. While people were certainly making the trip to the Middle East due to the introduction of steamships to Alexandria in 1840, this was primarily a privilege reserved for the wealthy. On the Prince’s travels however, photographs were sent back to London for publication during the trip, so that interested members of the public could follow the young royal’s journey, while engaging in one of their own. In some small way, it helped to close the gap—though not everyone could go to these places, they could now all see them.
The collection of photographs captures a broad range of spaces, significant for their beauty, architecture, spirituality, and history. Images of the pyramids, camels, and crusader castles, alongside churches, synagogues, and mosques. There are massively magnificent Egyptian temples portraying the glory of the ancient past, as well as poignant pictures of local people going about their daily lives. However, while photography, in many ways, offered a more truthful depiction than previous forms of art, there was still artistry involved. For example, images of local people are made to look natural, as if the royal party just happened upon them, giving the photos a sense of an authentic ambience. However, they would have had to have been posed, as capturing them required subjects to stand perfectly still for at least 12 seconds as the shutter went off.
These photographs, while they give an excellent sense of the past, are perhaps even more emotive for their contemporary relevance – eerie images of local villages ransacked by opposing religious groups in Syria, as well as ruins used by crusaders to convey power which were again fought over as symbol of dominance in wars between Israel and Lebanon, depict conflicts that are, unfortunately, not as far in the past as the pictures suggest. There is even an image of one of the remaining Elgin Marbles, currently an extremely contested issue, which had already been taken to Britain by the Earl of Elgin, whose son was one of the Prince’s traveling party. Though these are the earliest photographs of the Middle East, sadly, they could just as easily be the latest, as while the medium of photography has evolved, the subject matter, in many places, has not. However, just as there was conflict both then and now, there also exists a great deal of beauty and wonder both then and now.
Two of the only three images actually including the Prince (the other 188 are of temples, landscapes, and places of historic and sacred interest) show him alongside foreign leaders and local chiefs, highlighting the important diplomatic step that this journey represented. In addition to being an important and visionary step in media, this was also the first official royal tour of the Middle East. This expedition was largely designed to broaden the future king’s understanding of the area which was then controlled by the Ottoman Empire, as it was crumbling and Britain needed to secure the route to India. While in Constantinople, the Prince met with the Ottoman Emperor, Abdulaziz. To get a sense of the high degree of diplomatic importance placed on the experience, the exhibit also features some of the incredibly beautiful and historically significant artifacts that the Prince was allowed to take home with him. These include an ancient Egyptian papyrus, pottery vessels from Rhodes, ancient Egyptian jewels, and a statue of an Egyptian Queen, which is the oldest piece in the entire Royal Collection.
Included alongside these archaeological gems is the Prince’s personal journal, where he faithfully recorded his experiences throughout the entire journey. The photographs are stunning and touching to modern viewers. It is almost impossible to imagine the scale of wonder that would have been felt by those who had never before laid eyes on scenes of the Middle East.
By Jillian Levick