Photographs of Early 20th-Century Egypt Brought to Life in Color

  • This photograph from the 1900s encapsulates just about everything most outsiders who lived at the time knew about Egypt: pyramids, camels, sphinxes and sand. To them, it was a mysterious place of ancient cultures and exotic people. Yet in fact, compared to preceding centuries, Egypt had actually opened up a lot to the West.

    The French and British were colonial powers in the region, and railroads made sites of interest more accessible to Egyptologists, artists and tourists alike. By the 1860s, travelers could sign up for package tours of the Middle East, including visiting the monuments of Egypt.

  • However, those who could not get to North Africa in the 19th century could still experience some of the wonders of Egypt through the then recent invention of photography and the magic lantern.

    Lanternslides made handy tools for educational lectures, like those given by museums. The slides in this particular collection belong to the Brooklyn Museum and have been collected since the late 19th century. We think you’ll agree that they offer a fascinating glimpse of Egypt as it was over 100 years ago.

  • We begin with a close-up portrait of an Egyptian woman. During the 19th century, Egyptian women played an important role, not only in family life, but also with respect to the economy. Upper-class women often directed the family’s finances and investments, while women among the middle and lower classes could take part in trading or other businesses.

    Although sometimes these women had to go to court to fight for their legal rights, in many cases they won. The Egyptian woman in this picture stands unveiled, and her necklace and earrings are particularly eye-catching. Gold paint was often used to highlight jewelry in hand-painted photographs from this era.

  • While the camels in this photograph seem quite happy to smile for the camera, their human riders don’t look so sure. The two men shown here are Arabs on their way to Sakkara, south of Cairo. Their mode of transport, the camel, has been used in Egypt for centuries. Yet these animals are not just practical beasts to the Egyptians (who also consider them sacred symbols of patience, perseverance, and survival); no, camels have also been handy sources of protein.

  • These Egyptian children from Ramleh look like they’re squinting into the sun while they pose for this photograph – which, in those days, could take quite a while to be captured.

    Most children in Egypt did not attend school in the 19th century (and, pretty much, the first half of the 20th century), and schools for girls did not open until 1873. That didn’t mean the kids were on a permanent vacation, though, as their education was usually taken care of by religious institutions such as mosques or Coptic churches. There they were taught Arabic, basic mathematics, and religious studies.

  • No self-respecting 19th-century tourist visiting Cairo could fail to pay a visit to the famous Tombs of the Caliphs. The surroundings were dry, dusty and isolated, but the monuments themselves were on the must-see list – and even Mark Twain dropped by.

    These buildings are thought to be among the best examples of medieval Muslim architecture. In real life, they are closer to the sandy brown of the desert than the blue of this photograph, although we can still appreciate the effect.

  • Here, a young boy wearing a yellow turban stands with his feet submerged in the Nile. In 1908, when this picture was taken, the modern Aswan Dam had not yet been constructed, and only the Old Aswan Dam, which proved inadequate on several occasions, controlled flooding.

  • During the 19th century, much as today, the pyramids at Giza were most people’s defining image of Egypt. Artists flocked to Cairo to paint or sketch the great monuments, including the Great Pyramid, which for 3,800 years was the tallest manmade building, until the Lincoln Cathedral topped it in 1300.

    Of course, in those days the area was quite different to what it is like now, with the pyramids standing solitarily in the desert instead of surrounded by a Cairo suburb. Pictured here is the Pyramid of Khafre, the second largest of the pyramids at Giza.

  • In this picture, the young Nubian man strikes a warrior’s pose with his weapons and shield. Nubia was considered part of Egypt during the 19th century, and it was ruled first by the Egyptians and then jointly by the Egyptians and the British. The British Army recruited Nubian soldiers into their ranks to fight in Africa, as they were reputed to be effective warriors.

  • In this photograph, an old-fashioned horse and buggy waits outside the gates at the Cairo Citadel. The main stronghold of the Citadel was built by Saladin in the 12th century, but in 1848, the Mosque of Mohamed Ali was added to its summit to commemorate the death of Mohamed Ali Pasha’s second son.

  • Here, girls carrying water rest on some steps, with their jugs still delicately balanced on their heads. These water bearers were held up as examples of deportment to young English ladies, who were told to imitate “the Egyptian water-carrier, with the jug of water poised so prettily on her head, and her figure so straight and beautiful.” Again, it looks like the subjects’ jewelry has been highlighted with gold paint.

  • This Egyptian street looks like a poorer part of town, with some of the buildings partially demolished or tumbling down. On the right, we can see projecting oriel windows, known as Mashrabiyas, which were made from latticed wood. These windows provided privacy for the occupants of the rooms behind them, while still allowing for a good view of the street. The lattice also keeps out the sun but allows air to circulate – two important functions in Cairo’s hot desert climate.

  • Dressed in traditional clothing, two Bedouin men – looking a little dejected, or perhaps just tired – wait outside a stone block building in Alexandria. Up until the 19th century, the Bedouin, a nomadic Arabian ethnic group, controlled the deserts of Egypt. Today, there are several different Bedouin tribes still living in Egypt.

  • In this image, a Western visitor stands outside the Temple of Esna on the west bank of the Nile. The incredible details of the decorations on the temple columns are clearly visible. The red sandstone building is famous for its stunning architecture, so it is perhaps a little surprising to learn that it was used as a cotton warehouse in the mid-19th century.

  • As the sun sets over the Nile in this vibrantly colored photograph, we conclude our travels through early 1900s Egypt. Magic lanterns, popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, were phased out in the 1950s, when the electric slide projector was developed. However, the old slides remain as valuable records of people and places of a different era.

    Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28

Yohani Kamarudin
Yohani Kamarudin
Scribol Staff
Anthropology and History