I found this photo of the early morning sun over the Mediterranean coast of Egypt, probably Port Said which faces east. It was taken during the war, in 1941 or 1942.
I selected it because of the sunrays bursting out below darkish clouds. I love the silhouette of the lamppost and the large tent, but what I love even more is what appears on an image like this, one that I’ve looked at for the past fifty years as a Kodak 4″ x 3″ photo in an album, when I brighten it with an image editor and all the detail of the tents, the lamppost, the fence and the man in white becomes evident. The scene was captured by a Brownie box camera, but no one back in Australia knew what was below that morning sky, until now. It’s an exquisite pleasure to draw details from a black and white photo which have hidden there all these years. See a photo I submitted during the February photo challenge, where some words I had ignored, because barely visible on a tiny photo, became plain as day with a bit of image tweaking: http://soundslikewish.wordpress.com/2012/02/01/february-photo-a-day-2nd-feb
Here’s the photo for the Sun challenge, as it looks in the album:
And below is the photo with adjusted curves. For me, someone with bad night vision, this is what I imagine it’s like to see in the dark.
The subject of this photo is clearly the architecture. But then, I can’t stop looking at its left edge. The photo is one of many in my father’s World War II album, from the months when he was in the Middle East, mostly Egypt. He entitled it “Temple”, though I’m pretty sure the photo was taken in a mosque.
I have a carpet on my floor closely resembling those on the “temple” floor, which makes me feel the 70 years which have passed since the war are nothing in the history of Oriental carpet designs, and nothing in the history of geometrical forms covered in stylised vines and wreaths, all of it hinting at the perfection of God. The written messages fascinate me, all the more because I can’t read them.
This photo from my father’s war-time album has the caption Brass Worker. The artisan has arranged his ewer, vases and bowls to appeal to buyers. The photographer must have noticed the verticals in the scene: the vertical fluting in the brass work, the long table legs, the artisan’s striped galabeya, the height of his fez, the line of his straight back.
I use this photo as my computer’s wallpaper. Each time I turn it on, I see a man who is in control, organised, a man who likes to arrange things; he’s creating something beautiful, requiring a unique skill. Someone I emulate.
I’ve looked at a lot of photos of mosques in the Western Desert – the expansive desert in Libya, just over Egypt’s western border – where I suspect this photo was taken, but couldn’t see one that matched this mosque. The wall seems to have had its window blown out, and as sometimes happens in photography, something damaged and ugly can be used to make a beautiful image. A photo of the mosque on its own would not tell as good a story as it does framed by this arched gap.
Death is something I hate thinking about, let alone writing about. But when choosing photos from Egypt in 1942, there are so many whose subject is death that I will inevitably have to consider them. I selected this image which, since my childhood, has always turned me cold but curious, simply because of the caption my father wrote beneath it: Dead City, Cairo. Until last week when I was researching the cemetery near the pyramids (see my entry for the ‘Contrast’ challenge), I never knew that Dead City was a cemetery.
Today there are about half a million people living in the City of the Dead due to Cairo’s exploding population. They live in the tomb buildings as slum-dwellers and have no electricity or sanitation. However, some good people are growing micro-gardens in the Dead City complex which give the residents a way to produce some food for themselves and sell the surplus at the markets. Tomatoes and strawberries, mint, aubergines and peppers are popular and grow well because of their shallow roots, not in soil but in a layer of minerals laid on top of the sand. Read more about the project here: http://www.abitare.it/en/liveinslums/the-microjardins-in-the-city-of-the-dead/
The building in the foreground is in the Mamluk cemetery. It’s the mausoleum of Sultan Al-Ashraf Barsbay, built in 1432 AD.
So through blogging I’ve learnt of three unusual things: Dead City is actually a city built for the dead; half a million people are living amongst the dead; a few others care enough to start vegetable gardens here and improve the lives of poor cemetery dwellers.
‘Egyptian graves’ is the caption below this photo in the album my father brought back from Cairo in 1942. There is a contrast between grave styles: some like theirs pyramidal and reaching up to the sky from the open desert, others prefer to stay close to the ground, in the shade of a tree.
P.S. After submitting this photo for the ‘contrast’ challenge, I did some research about the graves in the foreground and responded to Laura’s comment below. I learned that they are in a modern Muslim cemetery built over the site of the quarry where some of the pyramid blocks came from. Since the time of this photo, 70 years ago, a wall has been built around the cemetery, hiding it from pyramid tourists.
I also discovered that the structure on the left of the photo is the pyramid tomb of Queen Khentkawes (c 4th Dynasty) built on top of a cube of rock which remained after blocks had been cut for the larger pyramids.
Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo was apparently the first hotel of the kind that become fashionable and famous for their opulence, like Raffles of Singapore. It was built and owned by Samuel Shepheard, an Englishman, and was the place to stay for European travellers to Egypt or to India and the east. It was built in the 1840s, replaced at the turn of the century with the structure you see in the photo, and destroyed by fire and riots against the British in 1952. During the war, British Officers on leave (including Australians) could relax in the wicker chairs on the terrace, though I’ve read that ordinary troops would not have been welcome. In the film The English Patient, the hotel was the setting in some scenes, but since it no longer existed, another hotel (in Venice) and a set were used. While some early 20th-century travellers boasted of staying there, a few writers complained of mosquitoes, lice, and other unpleasantness. Edward Lear said it was like a ‘horribly noisy railway station’.
In 1957, a new Shepheard’s Hotel was built a short distance from this one.
In this photo, the car amuses me, the driver out in the weather while the passengers are covered, imitating a horse and carriage arrangement.
The wedding of an Australian General Hospital sister, approx. 1941. The church is the Basilique Notre Dame d’Héliopolis, Cairo. I’ve written a little about the church here, and included a photo of the whole structure.
The nurse probably worked at the hospital in Kantara (also El Qantarah and several other spellings), Egypt, close to the Suez Canal. My father may have known her since he was a patient in this hospital, but he didn’t record her name.
A wedding in the middle of a war zone. A triumph of hope over reality.
This week, it really was a challenge to find a photo in the war album that suited a peaceful theme… I like this one of the sun rising behind the pyramids, though even this photo has a disturbing darkness.