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In the lands of the Sultan

by
06 February 2015

Nicholas Cranfield sees early photographs from the Middle East

Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014

Sheltering from the sun: the Prince of Wales and group at Capernaum, by the Sea of Galilee, April 1862

Sheltering from the sun: the Prince of Wales and group at Capernaum, by the Sea of Galilee, April 1862

NINETY years, to the day, before the death of the last King-Emperor on 6 February 1952, a 24-year-old Prince of Wales set off on a tour of the Ottoman Empire. The young prince and his entourage left Windsor Castle still in mourning after the sudden death of his father, Prince Albert, in December 1861.

The trip had been planned by Prince Albert, and was primarily intended to be educational rather than political, as part of the Consort's enthusiasm for scientific inquiry and exploration, which would lead to the creation of the museums of South Kensington and the establishment of Imperial College.

Although there were clear reasons for the future Supreme Governor of the Church of England to meet the reigning Sultan, from whom he received the Order of Osmanieh in Constantinople (25 May 1862), the journey was not without risk. The visit followed close upon the Crimean War (1853-56), and might have been seen as continued support for the Turks against Russia, while British interests in a secure route to India were no great secret.

In Damascus (28 -29 April), he was taken into the Christian Quarter, which had been razed to the ground only two years before, when Druze militiamen had slaughtered at least 3000 Christians in a three-day blood-bath. Prince Albert Edward picked up a chunk of broken marble from a destroyed basilica as a souvenir of his visit.

On the way out across Europe, the prince was able to stay with one German cousin, who became his brother-in-law that year, Grand Duke Louis IV of Hesse, and at his return he paid his respects to another in Athens, King Otto I of Greece (1815-67), who invested him in his hotel with the Order of the Redeemer, first class, on 29 May. Within five months, Otto himself was ousted, fleeing back to Bavaria.

The royal trip was accompanied by an artist-turned-photographer, Francis Bedford (1816-94), who had previously photographed Prince Albert's homelands in Coburg and Gotha. Bedford took more than 200 photos during the four-and-a-half-month royal trip, and later sold 172 of them commercially.

The prince bought two complete sets, and one is brought together here for the first time since 1862 to chart the royal progress and the eagerness with which both Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had embraced the new technology.

Not that this was a promotional press tour in the way in which the India Tour was covered for the present Prince of Wales and his late wife, revealing so much unhappiness at the Taj Mahal. Indeed, there are few photographs of this royal party; we first meet them at the outset in the Cairo palace given over for their use by Muhammad Sa'id Pasha, the ruler of Egypt, at the Pyramids at Gaza, and sitting amid the ruins at Karnak, and then sheltering from the sun at Capernaum on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee.

Equally restrained is the photo of 26 March when Gustave le Gray (1820-84), a French resident in Egypt, photographed them before they left Egypt for Palestine, looking uncomfortably out of place in heavy tweeds. At Karnak in March, Jemima Blackburn, née Wedderburn, completed a watercolour of the royal party two days after she had appeared in one of Bedford's group photos.

While on the Nile, the prince was allowed to keep anything that was excavated while he was present. At his return, he had a scarab of steatite made up into a particularly unattractive brooch as a marriage gift for Alexandra of Denmark, whom he married the following spring, in March 1863. She might have been happier with the sensitive black granite statuette of Queen Senet (XIIth Dynasty).

There is a carefully staged picture of a mummy being taken from its coffin case at Thebes (18 March) in front of the future king. It is shown alongside the painted stela of the coffin lid of a priest of Amon-Re. Pages from the Papyrus of Naskhem, a funerary text, the Amduat from 1500 BCE intended only ever for the kings of Egypt themselves, come from a later copy unusually made for a priest.

As the prince was still a minor, he travelled with his governor and tutor and his own chaplain. No doubt he was kept restrained under the beady eye of the Bishop of Norwich, Dr Edward Stanley. There is little mention of religion in the prince's own journal, which he kept assiduously until 14 June, a week after leaving a rapturous welcome in Malta on his way back on HMY Osborne.

We do not learn how Easter was observed, on 20 April, when the party was en route from Nazareth to the Lake of Tiberias, where the prince enjoyed swimming before breakfast the next day and then shooting "4 quail, 1 pigeon, 1 sandrail", and three other birds that reminded him of English blackbirds, as they rode along the waterside. Somewhat enviously, Bertie, as he was later notoriously to become known, noted that another courtier bagged several partridge.

Stanley's devotions for the royal charge seem to have been restricted to a few prayers under canvas, but the octogenarian bishop was certainly a man of some spirit. A week earlier, he had insisted that they stay up late to witness the Samaritan Passover on 12 April, and then headed off next morning to Nablus, where they viewed the Samaritan Pentateuch. This codex was traditionally ascribed to Abishua, the great grandson of Aaron, but later scholars reckon it to be from the 12th century CE. Here they also visited two former churches now turned into mosques.

What the prince gained from exploring the Near East, circling the Fertile Crescent from south to north, is not clear. He was less interested in photography than his parents, but made shooting something of a national pastime for the landed classes. His jejune observations in his journal suggest that he still had much to learn diplomatically; his comment on the newly completed Dolmabahçe palace (1856), where the Sultan entertained him, that it "was very pretty and beautifully done up" does not stand up to much scrutiny taken alongside some English royal houses.

At the door to the gallery is a bust of the prince, by then King and Emperor, dating from 1902, by Sydney March (1875-1968). The prince, who took the regnal name of Edward almost to defy his late mother's adoration of his father, appears solid and resolute beneath his Garter mantle. The years had taken their toll, but maybe he still dreamed of bachelor nights under canvas beside the Syrian sea.

"Cairo to Constantinople: Early Photographs of the Middle East" is at The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London SW1, until 22 February. Phone 020 7766 7300.
www.royalcollection.org.uk

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