Sepia tinted antiquity

The Acropolis and Temple of Jupiter Olympus, Athens | Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

If you like early photography and the ancient world I recommend the current exhibition at The Queen's Gallery at Holyroodhouse, a collection of images recording an 1862 tour of the Middle East undertaken by the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII).

The Prince visited Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Greece. On the touring party's return to England photographer Francis Bedford's pictures were displayed in what was described as 'the most important photographic exhibition that has hitherto been placed before the public'.

The Mount of Olives, Jerusalem | Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

And 'frightfully impressive' they are too. The images at the current exhibit, Cairo to Constantinople: Early Photographs of the Middle East, are vert interesting, I thought, for two reasons.

First, they are pretty much the first photographic images of ancient sites such as the Great Pyramids, the Dome on the Rock and the Mount of Olives, the Parthenon, the Thebes Colossi, Cairo and Istanbul. And second, they record the sites as they had looked for centuries prior to latter day development. A couple of years ago I was fortunate to visit Jerusalem for a few days, and I was struck by how much things must have changed in the past 150 years or so: today, for example, the upper part of the Mount of Olives is ringed with churches and encroaching urbanisation - as recently as 1862 it was quite literally just an olive-lined valley, as it must always have been till recent decades. I haven't yet been able to visit the Great Pyramids but those who have tell me that the suburbs of Cairo now box the Pyramids on three sides. In these photos it's just desert.

It's also interesting to see these ancient places before modern day conservation concerns. People are shown clambering over the monuments in casual fashion; in one photo locals are nodding off in crevices just under the head of the Sphinx.

If you can't get to the Gallery the exhibition website is well worth a look: most of the photos are available there, with plenty of commentary. The exhibition runs till 21 July.

The Sphinx and the Great Pyramids | Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
The Colossi on the Plain of Thebes | Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

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