In 1862, the then Prince of Wales and heir to the British throne, accompanied by the photographer Francis Bedford, undertook a four-months tour of the Middle East which comprised six legs, stopping in Egypt, the Holy Land, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Greece.
Royal tours were not uncommon. Planned by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, this was supposed to be an educational trip aiming to help their son broaden his horizons – geographically and metaphorically. The novelty lay in the fact that no photographer had previously been asked to join an expedition. A recently invented medium, photography was now able to deliver a more realistic vision of the world.
After the journey, 172 of the shots taken by Bedford were publicly exposed in a gallery in London to great acclaim as this was the first time that people in Britain were given an authentic report on places they probably would never have the chance to visit.
In 2015 this same exhibition can’t possibly have the same impact. In order to fully appreciate Cairo to Constantinople then, visitors should pretend that this really is their only occasion to see those faraway places. However it’s also a rare opportunity to get a visual account of the Prince of Wales and his party’s adventure and to understand why it was a success from many points of view.
The exhibition is admirably organised and showcases many antiquities too, items that the Prince was able to collect thanks to the generosity of the notable figures he met during the voyage. A free audio guide is available and every photo is supplied with a description revealing interesting bits on how it was conceived and created as well as its historic importance and influence.
An example of this can be found in “West Front of the Dome of the Rock”, which illustrates the sacred site in Jerusalem in an unusual way since – for religious sensitivity – it had been purposely cleared for the shot.
Another pivotal photo is “The Street called Straight”, taken in Damascus only two years after the Druze-Maronite massacre: it shows a city that is still ravaged by the conflict and could be regarded as an early example of photojournalism.
Often the photographs are simply nice works of art in themselves also due to Bedford’s skills in composition, like in “The Colossi of Memnon”, where he intentionally integrated local inhabitants to convey an awe-inspiring atmosphere by giving a sense of scale between the people and the statues.
Not all photos are peculiar or too well executed not to deserve further consideration, nonetheless they all hide significant stories and Cairo to Constantinople is a wonderful chance to discover them.
Cairo to Constantinople: Early Photographs of the Middle East is on until 22nd February 2015 at the Queen’s Gallery, for further information visit here.