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July 25, 2012


Figure 1: Francis Frith (1822 – 1898).

Francis Frith (1822-1898) was an English Quaker and photographer. His photographed are visual documentary of English towns and villages. But he was also fascinated by the Middle East, particularly Egypt, Palestine and Syria. He undertook three trips to Egypt between 1856 and 1859, and there he took many photographs on Egyptian subjects.  He used very large cameras (16″ x 20″), and is said to have used a special technique called collodion process, which was suitable for hot and dusty conditions.

I looked for any photographs made by Francis Frith with Coptic themes, and could find but one: The Ezbekeeyeh, Cairo. This photograph was taken c. 1857, and has been published by William Mackenzie in Sinai, Palestine, The Nile in 1863. The print is albumen silver print and is 16.7 x 21.7 cm. in size.

I reproduce the photograph below:

Figure 2: Francis Firth’s beautiful photograph “The Ezbekeeyeh, Cairo” (c. 1857), which really is “The Coptic quarter in the 19th century”.

Ezbekeyeh, or more accurately, Azbakiyya, lies close to Ramses Square in Cairo, which in 1857 was not built yet. It was mainly Coptic. Here the Coptic patriarchal residence was located since 1800 (and until 1970, when it was moved to Abbasiya, Cairo); here Coptic notables (archons or ara’kheina) lived, including such luminaries as Jirjis al-Jawhari and General Ya’qub; and here is where the Copts fought to defend themselves when they were attacked in the Cairo Revolt II, 1800. The Coptic Cathedral of St. Mark was built in Azbakiyya, and there John Lewis Frederick drew in the 1840s sketches for his masterpiece oil painting, “The HoshCourtyard of the Coptic Patriarch, Cairo”; and there was where many European travellers, writers, artists, archaeologists and Coptologists resided, or at least visited, during their stay in Cairo.

The best book on Azbakiyya is that written by Doris Behrens-Abouseif, Azbakiyya and its Environs from Azbak to Isma’il, 1476 – 1879 (1985). Although Francis Frith gives the general title of “The Ezbekeeyeh, Cairo” to his photograph, Behrens-Abouseif published the photograph under the title “The Coptic quarter in the 19th century”. There can be no doubt that Francis Firth photographed the Coptic Quarter in Azbakiyya.

The photo was taken when Said Pasha (1854 -1863) was ruling Egypt, and shortly after the European Powers had forced the Ottoman Empire to issue the Hamayouni Decree in 1856, which declared the new policy of treating Christians and Jews in an equal way to Muslims. The Golden Age of Cairo’s roads and construction under Isma’il Pasha (1863 – 1879) has not started yet, and Cairo still retained much of its old character. The Coptic Patriarch was Cyril IV (1854 – 1861), who continued the reforms of his predecessor Peter VII (1810 – 1852) with increasing zeal. Copts in 1857 were still emerging from the discrimination imposed by Islam to a new reality imposed by modernity on Egypt, and the rest of the Ottoman Empire. In the picture the reader will see a sakka (or water-carrier) at the front carrying water in a goat’s skin on the back, and two gentlemen, who could be Copts – they wear black turbans and belts, which were required by Islamic law as part of ghi’yar to distinguish Copts from Muslims, and single them out for discrimination.[1]

[1] The other possibility is that they were employees at a hotel, but this is unlikely, in my opinion.


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