The rekindling of my passion for Egypt some seven years ago went hand-in-hand with my discovery of the artist David Roberts, whose alluring images seemed to reflect my own imaginative landscape.
David Roberts was born on 24th October 1796 in the village of Stockbridge on the outskirts of Edinburgh where his father worked as a shoe repairer. As a boy his natural artistic ability was encouraged by his mother but the family’s relative poverty meant that he received little formal schooling. At the age of ten his father apprenticed him to a local house painter and decorator and by his early teens he had begun studying art at night school. In 1816 he was employed as a scenery painter to an Edinburgh touring drama company. It was his involvement in a production of Aladdin that apparently first awoke his interest in the Orient. In 1819 he took up a post as official scenery painter at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow and three years later moved to London to join the famous Drury Lane Theatre.
It was while in London that Roberts developed his skills as a landscape painter and his growing popularity in this field led to his election as president of the Society of British Artists, of which he had been a founder member, in 1831. Following a number of successful painting trips to Europe and Morocco he set out in August 1838 on the voyage to Egypt that was to ensure his lasting fame.
From Cairo he hired a boat that took him up the Nile all the way to the recently-discovered temple of Abu Simbel in deepest Nubia. Having made pictures at most of the main ancient sites of the Nile Valley, Roberts arrived back in Cairo on 21st December and stayed for six weeks. During this time he became the first European to be allowed to enter a mosque and depict its interior.
In October 2011 I made my own second trip to Cairo, and first visit to its old “Islamic Quarter”. This is the part of the city constructed by the Fatimids who ruled Egypt from 969 to 1171 and who called their new foundation al-Qahira (The Conqueror) from which the modern capital takes its name. But as I contemplated the trip, one thought predominated. Would the area live up to the romantic images of my mind’s eye, pictures largely imprinted from my knowledge of the work of David Roberts? There was only one way to find out: stand in some of the places where Roberts stood over 150 years ago and compare the past, and my fantasy, with the modern reality.
The Zuweilah Gate
Drawn by Roberts: 28th December 1838
My photo: 28th October 2011
“Today I made two drawings of the Bab Zuweileh gate and its minarets. I am still bewildered by the extraordinarily picturesque appearance of the streets and buildings of this most wonderful of cities.” [Extract from Roberts’ Journal]
Roberts spent much of 28th December drawing Bab Zuweilah one of three monumental gates still remaining in the walls of Fatimid Cairo, completed around 1091. The gate is named after a brave North African tribe whose men fought in the Fatimid army. The striped effect in the stonework was evidently more noticeable in Roberts’ time.
One of the only noticeable differences between the two depictions is that at the time of Roberts’ visit the loggia above the main arch was blocked up to form a dwelling. As part of recent restoration work it has been reopened; in the past it would have been used as a space for musicians to play ceremonial music on the arrival of the royal court. Note the iron balls (probably weights used as part of the door-opening mechanism) shown in Roberts’ drawing in the blind arch to the left of the main gateway, still in situ. At the time of my photograph some scaffolding was in place as part of ongoing restoration work, on which had been attached some election posters in the wake of the revolution that had taken place in January of that year.
The Maristan of Sultan Qalawun
Drawn by Roberts: 29th December 1838
My photo: 28th October 2011
“The subjects are splendid, but very hard to draw in these narrow, crowded streets, although the passers-by usually behave very well towards me.” [Extract from Roberts’ Journal]
This complex, built around 1285 by Sultan al-Mansur Qalawun and consisting of a madrasa (religious school), the sultan’s mausoleum and a hospital, is one of the most magnificent monuments in Cairo. This was one of my favourite parts of our walk through the medieval city. The area has undergone conservation work in recent years and a number of the overhanging wooden balconies with their lattice-work mashrabiyas (which allowed women to view the street but not be viewed themselves) have been lovingly restored, rendering the scene quite recognizable from Roberts’ drawing. All that was missing was the crowds: when we were there at about 9.30 in the morning, apart from shopkeepers outside their premises (the shop fronts little changed since the artist’s time) there were just a few people ambling quietly on their way to work. None of us were expecting to find a Cairo as atmospheric yet as peaceful as this.
The Silk Vendors’ Bazaar and the Religious Complex of Sultan al-Ghuri
Drawn by Roberts: 6th January 1839
My photo: 28th October 2011
During his visit to the commercial quarter of the old city Roberts was struck by the picturesque quality of a particular section of the street that passed between the madrasa and mausoleum built by Sultan al-Ghuri in about 1504 and which was roofed over with timber, apparently to provide shade for the precious wares of the silk merchants who plied their trade below. This is one of my favourite of Roberts’ Cairo drawings and I was delighted when we came upon the site by chance and found that after many years without a covering, the street had recently been re-roofed, instantly evoking the scene as it was at the time of the artist’s visit. The area now teems with people, and after the tourist hoards of the Khan el-khalili bazaar to the immediate north, it is something of a relief to find real Cairenes shopping for real provisions. Gone, however, is the luxury silk of Roberts’ time as the crowded stalls are now crammed with children’s clothes and ladies’ underwear in every lurid shade of cheap nylon. That, perhaps, is the true measure of change between his time and our own.