Magazine article Geographical

The Lure of the Ancients Geophoto: Egypt Has Attracted and Challenged Photographers for as Long as the Technology Has Existed

Magazine article Geographical

The Lure of the Ancients Geophoto: Egypt Has Attracted and Challenged Photographers for as Long as the Technology Has Existed

Article excerpt


Egypt is the only country in the world to lend its name to a branch of science. Egyptology is the study of the civilisation of the ancient Egyptians, and much of what we know today of their life and culture is drawn from archaeological digs in the shifting sands that cover much of this vast, arid land. No other country in the world is the subject of more archaeological attention than Egypt. And just as photography has played a vital role in uncovering what we know about its past, so has photography's own development evolved around these myriad ancient sites and digs.

The first photograph shot in Egypt shows the harem gate of Mehmet Ali in Alexandria. It was taken within a year of the first ever photograph being made, in 1839. When first exhibited in Paris, it created a huge demand for more images of Egypt's civilisation. And so photographic expeditions to the great ancient sites began in earnest.

Egypt's harsh climate and ever-changing desert landscape meant photography was fraught with problems and limitations (see Battling the elements), but such was the determination of the early pioneers that by the mid 19th century, an extensive body of photographs of Egypt's ancient sites were in the hands of the collectors, historians and, of course, archaeologists. Although the challenging conditions of searing heat and windblown sand continue to afflict the modern day photographer, the technology for making images has undergone several revolutionary changes.

Modern applications

Digital imaging, aerial photography, photogrammetry and satellite images are all used in surveying, mapping and excavation. The Ancient Egypt Research Associates uses such technologies and techniques for the Giza Plateau Mapping Project, which includes work to map the Sphinx.

Aerial photography was first used to analyse archaeological sites in the 1920s. But while useful for studying topographical features and patterns not clearly visible from the ground, aerial photographs can never replace the accuracy of a map because of the radial distortion caused by the reflection of a three-dimensional object onto the two-dimensional medium of an image sensor or strip of film.

Less well known is the fact that photographs made 150 years ago play a vital role for today's archaeologist. Some ancient sites photographed in Victorian times have since been destroyed: the birth house of Cleopatra VII at Armant was pulled down to make way for a factory during the 19th century, so what we know about this small temple is drawn from the albums of Victorian photographer Francis Frith.

More relevant still is the tact that the desert landscape of Egypt is never still, with shifting dunes having covered and uncovered tombs, temples and treasure for millennia. Even the pits, mounds and trenches of modern archaeological digs alter the actual terrain, so early pre-excavation photographs provide valuable insight into how the topography of ancient Thebes and other sites may have looked.

Desert light

On a more personal level, the straightforward task of shooting Egypt's magnificent ancient sites is made easier by the wonderfully clear light of the desert air. The heat can be oppressive and contrast levels high, but the cobalt blue skies and lack of air pollution once you're beyond the reach of Cairo, ensures sharp exposures and bright colours virtually every time. However, the wind courts danger if airborne sand should get into your camera or lens, so always keep your camera gear packed away when not in use.

The best time of day for photography is during the first hour after sunrise or the last hour before sunset. …

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