Written by Will H. Rockett
Photographed by Felix, Adrien and Lydie Bonfils
Photographs courtesy Harvard Semitic Museum
he Arabic phrase musawwir shamsi -
one who makes pictures by the sun
is probably the earliest Arabic term
for photographer, and tradition has it that
scholars, in considering Islamic prohibitions
against graven images, decided
photographs merely recorded the shadows
cast by God's sunlight.
There was, nevertheless, opposition to photography among most religious groups in the Middle East, and, as a result, visual records of peoples, monuments and scenes of the region have been usually made and preserved throughout history by foreigners.
Among the best examples of this are the famous Roberts Prints, by 19th-century British artist David Roberts (See Aramco World, March-April 1970). Another earlier example is the encydopedic record made by some 2,000 European artists, draftsmen and skilled engravers who accompanied Napoleon Bonaparte's army on its 1798 Egyptian campaign and helped to produce the 20-volume Description de l'Egypte (See Aramco World, March-April 1976). A monumental work, Description incorporated generally excellent drawings of the ruins and monuments of Egypt.
Such illustrations, unfortunately, were not always as accurate as they might have been, since they were subject to dlange as they went from the artists on the spot to engravers and publishers; engravers of that period tended to "translate" illustrations as they made plates for publication. Until rotogravure printing came along, this was a process that would affect all sudh illustrations - as Dr. Carney Gavin, curator of the Harvard Semitic Museum (HSM), made dear in this example of 19th-century illustrations: "An Irish nobleman made a sketch of Beirut harbor in 1836. He then gave it to an artist at the Royal Academy, who prettied it up. It was then passed on to a German engraver, who in turn gave it to John Murray of Albemarle Street, a publisher. In the end, what the public saw wasn't at all bad; but it was really a drawing-by-committee."
Then, in 1839, Louis-Jacques Mande Daguerre ushered in the age of photography with a public announcement of the first practical photographic process - the daguerreotype - and within weeks, reportedly, so-called "Excursions Daguerriennes" began recording the sights of the Eastfor an avid European audience.
For years before that, Western interest in the Middle East had been whetted by the then - widespread knowledge of the Bible, and by such travel literature as Alexander William Kinglake's Eothen, and William Makepeace Thackeray's Notes of a lourney from Cornhill to Grand Cairo, published under the pseudonym "Titmarsh" As a result, hardy - and wealthy - souls had begun to add Egypt and the Holy Land to their "Grand Tour" itineraries, and they in turn began to publish reminiscences and sketches that stimulated still more interest.