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(photo credit: Courtesy)
With all the contemporary regional trouble and strife, it is somewhat sobering - and possibly encouraging - to recall that things were once a little calmer in this neck of the woods.
Earlier this month, the Echoes of Egypt exhibition opened at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem to mark the 30th anniversary of the Israel-Egypt Peace Agreement. It is a remarkable array of photographs and prints by any account. The exhibition includes items from a painstakingly and lovingly built photography collection belonging to Dan Kyram, who started scouring the world for pictorial historic documents of Palestine and Egypt over 30 years ago. There are also works by leading painters and cartographers, featuring their impressions of great monuments and daily life from the mid-16th century to the late 19th century.
Kyram, whose private collection includes photographs from the 1850s up to the 1930s, feels it is perfectly natural for a museum in Israel to display historic images from Egypt. "The photographers who came here back then also took pictures in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East. There were British, French and Egyptian photographers working here."
The earliest photograph in the Echoes of Egypt exhibition was taken by English photographer Francis Frith and shows the Sphinx in 1857. "That was only 18 years after the camera was invented, so you can see how quickly it made it over to this part of the world," Kyram continues, adding that there were serious logistics to be taken into consideration in those days. "We're not just talking about really heavy cameras - Frith brought three with him. There were also the glass plates which had to be newly prepared each time, and developed on the spot."
Kyram also points out the significance of evolving technologies. "The mid-19th century was a meeting point of paintings and photography, and later paintings developed into the abstract form. The [Echoes of Egypt] includes a painting from 1692, and much later photographs, but the thing they all have in common is the fact that they documented life in this region. Many of the archeological remains that people see in Egypt today are no longer on their original site, or the sites have changed a lot to make them more accessible and attractive to tourists. These images capture the sites as they were back then. That is fascinating."
There are also photographs of everyday life in marketplaces, and studio pictures, which provides a glimpse of Egyptian life as it was over a century ago.
Amanda Weiss, managing director of the Bible Lands Museum, feels there is added educational and sociopolitical value to an arts exhibition, beyond its pure visual properties. "I think culture is the thing we often forget about as being something important," she says. "We talk about politics and disagreements. I believe culture is the key to building everything, whether it is peace agreements or educating our children to a better society. Without culture, we don't have a future. I see this exhibition not as a political statement, but as a cultural statement. The whole purpose of this museum is to increase awareness of the cultures around us, and to help people understand what our history is. If we don't understand our history, we can't build a better future."
Shalom Cohen, the Israeli ambassador to Egypt who arrived from Cairo shortly before the opening, was also suitably impressed both by the items on display and the very fact that the public here could get an idea of the spirit of the 19th century in the region. "I think it is wonderful to have a collection like this on display - from Egypt - in Jerusalem. A lot of people have come here today, and that shows how interested Israelis in general are in the cultures around them."
However, despite his enthusiasm over the Echoes of Egypt event, Cohen says there's still some way to go before the Egyptians reciprocate. "I can't see an Israeli exhibition taking place in Egypt yet. We have close ties in the fields of politics and security, but there's no normalization between us. That will take time."
The Echoes of Egypt exhibition will run at least until the summer.