Colin Thubron: When the Ruins Were NewRoundup: Talking About History
tags: Middle East, NY Review of Books, antiquities, Colin Thubron, King Edward VII
Colin Thubron is the president of the Royal Society of Literature. Among his books are Mirror to Damascus, The Hills of Adonis: A Quest in Lebanon, Jerusalem, In Siberia, and, most recently, To a Mountain in Tibet. (January 2012)
In February 1862 the eldest son of Queen Victoria, the Prince of Wales and future King Edward VII, embarked on a four-and-a-half month journey through the Middle East. The royal party followed what was on the face of it a conventional itinerary, sailing from Venice down the Dalmatian coast on the royal yacht Osborne to Alexandria, cruising up the Nile to Aswan to view the sites of ancient Egypt, crossing to Jaffa for a tour of the Holy Land, then returning to England via the Ionian islands and Constantinople.
Among the party—included at the last moment—was the photographer Francis Bedford, who in over 190 prints produced one of the earliest photographic records of the region. These sepia studies, soft-lit yet rich in detail, were achieved with a cumbrous caravan of lenses, tripods, chemicals, plates, and a portable darkroom. His subjects were mostly but not all the sites of ancient or biblical significance that Western visitors already favored: the ruined survivors of a stupendous past that they could half claim for themselves.
A case can be made that such a project—whether embracing the Roman ruins of Baalbek or the village of Bethlehem—was the selective appropriation of a classical and Christian heritage: a tangential colonial enterprise. But Bedford’s subjects include too the massive and less ownable detritus of the Egyptian kingdoms, and the mosques of Mameluke Cairo and Ummayyad Damascus. The past, as often, was a slippery possession....