May 2016

This is an index and summary of the things I've talked about over the last month. Links for multi-post subjects go to the first post (even if it's before this month), you can follow the internal navigation links from there.


The Empire of Mali - In Our Time episode about this African empire which flourish in the mid-2nd Millennium CE.

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"Historical Egypt in Photographs" Marcel Maessen - talk at the May EEG meeting.

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The Empire of Mali flourished between 1200 & 1600 CE, in sub-Saharan West Africa. At one point the Empire was so wealthy that when its ruler, Mansa Musa, travelled through Egypt on his Hajj he reduced the value of gold in Egypt with the amount he gave away. Discussing the empire on In Our Time were Amira Bennison (University of Cambridge), Marie Rodet (SOAS) and Kevin MacDonald (University College, London).

The beginnings of the Empire of Mali (c.1200 CE) are only known from an epic which survives in the oral tradition of the region. There was a prophecy that Sundiata Keita's mother would bear a son who would become a powerful king, and so the ruling king married her (I think despite her ugliness in some versions). Sundiata was crippled at birth, which cast the prophecy into doubt, but he later was miraculously cured. When his father died, his older half-brother took the throne and sent Sundiata and his mother into exile. Sundiata grew up in a neighbouring kingdom and became a renowned warrior. He eventually returned to Mali to liberate the people and take his rightful place as king - founding the empire that would last the next 400 or so years.

The experts discussed how this is more an origin myth than factual. It's part of the oral tradition, and is intended for performance and each performance is tailored to a greater or lesser extent to it's audience. For instance places that are referenced tend to be locally relevant. And there are things that can be picked out as definitely having changed since the original composition. In many versions Sundiata is Muslim, but we know that Islam didn't make significant inroads into Mali culture until later in its history. In some versions he's even supposed to be descended from a companion of the Prophet Mohammed's who was a freed black slave, and other versions don't give him that sort of genealogy at all.

Another part of the oral tradition surrounding the foundation of the Empire is that Sundiata Keita laid out a constitution for how the Empire should be run. Amongst other things it set down how the justice system should work, and the details of the caste system. In the late 20th Century CE this was written down, it is now categorised as a piece of World Heritage and sometimes referred to as Mali's Magna Carta. The experts were keen to point out that because it's an oral tradition you have to exercise care in how you interpret it. As an analogy (which I don't think they used on the programme) the English Magna Carta survives in a couple of original written documents, and when you compare that to what it's become in our national mythology you can see that the latter is based on the former but they are definitely not identical.

The Mali Empire covered a large east-west expanse of West Africa, running from the Atlantic coast to Gao. Like most empires it consisted of a core territory that was ruled directly by the Emperor and this was surrounded by client states ruled by client kings. The primary source of Mali's wealth was gold - they had the largest gold mines in the world at this time. They also traded with the Islamic world across the Sahara Desert - the nomadic Berbers of North Africa traded with Mali for both gold and grain.

Over time the Mali Empire gradually became Islamic. This doesn't seem to've happened as the result of direct efforts to convert them, instead the religion arrived with Berber traders some of whom settled in Mali and practised their religion. Once the emperors became Muslim it spread more quickly through the Empire, mixing as it went with their traditional animist beliefs. As I said in the introduction to this post one of those Emperors, Mansa Musa, went on Hajj. He travelled in state over land via Egypt accompanied by a large number of his court, and took with him plenty of gold for gifts to the places he passed through. He wasn't just fulfilling his religious obligations, he was also searching for Muslim scholars who would be willing to take employment in his court and travel back to Mali with him. One of these scholars who came back is credited with having founded hundreds of mosques all across Mali - which seems unlikely to've actually happened. Some perhaps were state foundations, although they are still unlikely to've been founded by this one outsider. And they generally have local architectural styles, rather than Arabic or Spanish designs. It seems much more likely that these are instances of towns trying to gain prestige by claiming a famous origin story for their mosque.

The majority of evidence for the Mali Empire, and its inner workings, is second hand. Much of the written evidence for the empire comes from these Muslim scholars discussed above and others who travelled to Mali. Other evidence comes from the Songhai Empire which replaced the Mali. The Muslim scholars seemed to've regarded Mali as somewhere different, but nonetheless civilised. For instance when writing about their justice system it is described as effective, even if it wasn't what the observer was expecting.

The Mali Empire began to disintegrate in the 17th Century CE. The experts said that this was down to it becoming overstretched "like all empires". Control of the periphery began to decline, and territories started to break off and become independent. One of these was Songhai, and this ex-vassal would go on to conquer the territory of the Mali piece by piece from the West. Another factor in the decline of the Mali Empire were the destabilising interactions with Europeans on the Atlantic coast of the empire. They noted on the programme that one of the commodities that the Mali traded in was slaves, and the selling of slaves to Europeans began the transatlantic slave trade.

Until relatively recently historians were dismissive of the Mali Empire - for instance it was assumed it was ruled by Muslim Berbers, rather than the people who actually lived in the country. This unthinking rejection of sub-Saharan African civilisation was bolstered by a lack of archaeological evidence to contradict it. However more recently there has been a resurgence of interest in African history in general and the Mali Empire has become something worth researching. This has lead to new information, including archaeological discoveries, particularly in the region where the capital city of the Empire was.

For the May meeting of the Essex Egyptology Group Marcel Maessen, one of the founders of the t3.wy Foundation, came to talk to us about the history of photography as it relates to Egypt & Egyptology. The t3.wy Foundation is an organisation that is researching the history of Egyptology. They are particularly keen to open up the various Egyptological archives and make the contents available to a wider audience of both academic researchers and other interested people. These archives include things like original documents from excavations, correspondence between Egyptologists, and photographs. Maessen said they meet with quite a lot of resistance to this idea from both Egypt and from academia in general - in part because the members of the t3.wy Foundation are mostly not professional Egyptologists so are seen as "outsiders". Maessen's talk fell into two parts (with a convenient break for coffee and cake!). Firstly he talked to us about the history of photography in general (briefly) and in Egypt in particular, and why old photographs are more than mere curiosities. Then after the break he showed us a lot of examples of old photos of Egypt.

Photography was developed during the late 18th and early 19th Centuries CE. By the late 1700s the idea existed, and in 1802 the word "photography" was first used in relation to this idea. In the 1830s Daguerre invented a method of exposing a treated glass plate to light in order to record an image - the daguerreotype was the first type of photographic process. It was publicly announced in 1839, and almost immediately photographers began to record the ancient Egyptian monuments. As photographic techniques evolved over time, they have always been used in Egypt right down to the modern day where both tourists & researchers photograph whatever ancient Egyptian sites they visit.

So why are old photographs so important? Obviously if they're your own personal photos, or your family's photos, then they are important for the memories they carry. But old photographs are also important for the Egyptological researcher, and for the researcher of Egyptological history. If you compare present day photographs with older ones you can see what's changed: what has been restored? what has been demolished? when did damage occur? and so on. One example he talked about was using photographs to investigate when damage to a temple relief occured - a line drawing from the mid-19th Century of a particular relief showing Ramesses II's sons depicts them all with intact faces. But if you look at the relief today all the faces have been chiselled off. So were they damaged after the original drawing was made? Maessen has found a photograph from as close to contemporary with the line drawing as possible which shows the same damaged faces that we see on the relief today: clearly the artist used his imagination to fill in the missing details.

Another example was of a photo of a dig house, taken in 1914. The t3.wy Foundation started off researching dig houses, and this is why Maessen originally wanted this particular image in a high resolution. The photo was taken from a distance, so Maessen looked to see what else he could find in the landscape around the dig house. He showed us that the photo also shows another half a dozen or so interesting buildings (including one place that Howard Carter lived). As well as this there was an interesting wall - built to stop tombs from flooding if there were flash floods - and the information in this photo showing exactly where this wall was & what state it was in in 1914 helps to interpret the conditions the tombs were in when excavated.

Between 1839 and around 1910 there were about 150 photographers who worked in Egypt. Most of their photos still exist, but they are often in inaccessible archives. Maessen listed several names, the vast majority of which I didn't recognise - the list did include Francis Frith, and Harry Burton (of course). Burton's work is one of the collections that hasn't survived in bulk, due to a house fire that destroyed most of it. The early photographers in Egypt weren't interested in ancient Egypt per se, they were interested in selling photographs to people (mostly tourists, or would-be tourists). This is why so many photographs survive from this time, although often the glass negatives were destroyed when the photo was no longer commercially relevant. The biggest archives of old photos of Egypt are still in Egypt, but they're neither catalogued nor accessible to anybody and Maessen was pretty scathing about the conditions that the negatives & prints are stored in. For instance in the archive in the Cairo Museum no-one opens any of the boxes, because if anything is found to be missing or broken then the opener of the box will be held responsible and no-one wants to be that person.

What did the early photographers in Egypt photograph? There are several broad categories of photographic subjects. Some photos were to document the monuments and the landscape of the country, and some photographed similar subjects but with a more romantic intent to capture picturesque scenes. Photographers also illustrated the "bizarre" "oriental" people, via staged photographs of daily life in Egypt. There was also photography of excavations. Nowadays each excavation has its own photographer, and is thoroughly documented, but in the past this was not the case. The Egypt Exploration Society was the first to take along their own photographers to digs, so they have a large archive of this sort of photograph. Before that excavation photography was a matter of chance, almost - was there a photographer available in the area who could be hired for the purpose? In a similar vein is photography of the results of excavations - the Cairo Museum has photographs in its archives of every object that has come into the museum.

Then as now photography was also an essential part of tourism. Of course in the early days of photography tourists didn't have their own cameras, so they bought photographs from the tour photographer or from other photographers based in Egypt. To continue his theme from earlier of things you can discover from old photographs that the photographer didn't realise they were telling you Maessen pointed out that most of the early tourist photos are of the Sphinx & the Pyramids. So the early tourists seem to've stayed near Cairo and not many ventured further south into Middle Egypt or Upper Egypt. As well as photographs of people at tourist sites all the early photographers in Egypt also took studio photos of the tourists. And this was so popular that studio photographers from other parts of the world opened branches in Cairo to get a share of the market. He showed us several examples of these, most of which were the sort of formal photo that one expects from the era. But there were also some more fun & quirky ones - for instance with the subject's head superimposed on the top of a coffin!

Maessen finished up the first half of his talk by discussing saving these (and subsequent) photographs for the future. This is one of the goals of the t3.wy Foundation, but Maessen admits that the first question is are we going to be able to save them? He'd like to think so - but it's such a large project that it's difficult to know where to begin. One angle of attack that he's pursuing is to bring together a company who still have the skills to develop the old glass negatives in the traditional way with the Egyptian government to begin working on the archives in Egypt. But this hasn't been proceeding particularly smoothly, sadly. However there are places where the archive owners are starting to do a good job with cataloguing, preserving and even sharing their archives on the internet - he name checked the EES here, amongst several other institutions. He also talked about the photos that modern visitors to Egypt take - one day those will be the "old photos", and might be just as interesting and important to future researchers as the 19th Century ones are to us. And he discussed how we all delete so much, or trust in a single copy uploaded to "the cloud" somewhere, and so all this potentially valuable information is just as fragile as the old glass negatives & paper prints.

After our coffee break the second half of Maessen's talk was devoted to showing us lots of these old photographs. I'm not going to write this half up in depth because it's pretty impossible without the visual aids! He has somewhere around 7000 unique photos and so he had to pick a selection of them to show us. Many scenes were photographed by every photographer who worked in Egypt, in the same way that every modern tourist who visits the Giza Pyramids goes to the panorama viewpoint and takes a photo of the three pyramids. So Maessen said he tried to pick either rarely seen photos from well known photographers, or photos from less well known photographers. The photos were fascinating, he pointed out things like being able to track the clearing & refilling of the area of sand around the Sphinx. Or how many people's houses have been removed from inside monuments. And of course the amount of sand that had to be cleared in excavating many of the monuments. He grouped the photos by photographer, and I think also chronological order. The set that most caught my eye were those of the Von Hallwyl family, who were rich tourists who visited Egypt in 1901. The photos felt very much like one's own holiday snaps ... only in 1901 styles, and that somehow made them a great showcase for what's changed over the years.

This was a really interesting talk - I'm not sure how well that comes across in this writeup, because given the subject matter so much of it was visual which is hard to convey in text. Maessen is clearly very passionate about his dream of preserving and sharing the thousands of photographs of Egypt that are archived around the world.