The contribution of photographers to French Egyptology during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century

Translated by Liz Carey Libbrecht.

Several photographers who were pioneers in the development of Near Eastern photography worked with the great Egyptologists of the late nineteenth century.

The Egyptology Library at the Collège de France is a conservatory for many of their photographic prints. It is also home to prints of photographs by Émile (1844-1880) and Hippolyte Béchard; of Luigi Fiorillo, active from 1870 to 1890; Rudolf Lehnert (1878-1948) and Ernst Landrock (1878-1966), who were both in Egypt between 1924 and 1930; Péridis, who established himself in Port Said around 1870; and Georges Seif, who was in the country from 1910 to 1930 with Abdallah Attyé Gaddis. Some of these prints are available online. Starting in 2015, they have systematically been processed to identify them, classify them for the purpose of creating a general inventory, and restoring them with neutral materials suitable for photographic prints. In particular, these operations have highlighted the fact that among these hundreds of documents, several dozen contain a signature on their reverse side. They are photographs qualified as “commercial”, taken by famous photographers from the second half of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, such as Antonio Beato, Theodor Kofler, Gabriel Lékégian, Pascal or Jean Sébah, the Zangaki brothers, and at times fully-fledged family empires, such as the Maison Bonfils.

Some documents show, for example, that Antonio Beato (1825-1905) took shots at the express request of scholars. Émile Béchard (1844-1880) collaborated with Auguste Mariette (1821-1881), who throughout his career called on the services of other famous photographers, some of whom were also Egyptologists. In particular, this is the case of Théodule Devéria (1831-1871), curator at the Louvre Museum, whose first photographs date back to the end of the 1850s, or of Émile Brugsch (1842-1930), whose shots partially served to illustrate the catalogue of the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities at Boulaq1. Brugsch subsequently lent his talents as a photographer to the excavations and work of Gaston Maspero (1846-1916), among others.

The aerial photographs of Theodor Kofler (1877-1957) were used by many researchers, including Georges Daressy (1864-1938), and the photographer also collaborated with Theodore Monroe Davis (1837-1915). We know moreover that Alexandre Varille (1909-1951) purchased an album of images of Egyptian monuments taken between 1930 and 19352, several of which were reproduced in his publications on the Thebes region. Likewise, Jean Capart (1877-1947) used five of these aerial photographs for his book on Thebes3, as did Paul Barguet (1915-2012) for his reference study on Karnak4.

For photographers from abroad, Egypt appeared to be the perfect destination to improve their technique in ideal light conditions. Their first preference was mainly archaeological remains and landscapes. Amateurs and professionals alike benefited from getting the scoop on the archaeological discoveries made during the clearing and rebuilding of sites. They were well placed in the emergence of modern archaeology, where their photographs were increasingly more representative of the wealth of the Egyptian heritage that had so fascinated Europe – and France in particular – since Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition (1798-1801). It is not insignificant that the signed prints, at least of the photographs of sites, portray the most visited tourist areas, such as Giza, Luxor, Karnak and the west bank of Thebes.

It appears that Egyptologists initially collected these photographs for the greater objectivity and the illusion of accuracy that they seemed to offer them, compared to classic watercolours and other drawings or engravings. The perfectly framed and contrasted prints allowed them not only to spread their discoveries but also and most importantly to establish valuable photo libraries for both their research and their classes.

To locate the sites mentioned, a map is included at the end of this article, which can be accessed by clicking here.


Photography as a tool for Egyptologists, archaeological excavations as an opportunity for photographers

The prints in the Egyptology Library, isolated in paper format or with a cardboard backing to facilitate handling and classification, are thus representative of the fruitful collaboration between photographers – whether amateurs or professionals – and the scholars present at archaeological sites. They also reveal the new photographic techniques that were being experimented with at the time, and which provided the levels of detail and contrast that would significantly benefit French Egyptology. The examples below further enlighten us on the ties between these two fields.

Antonio Beato (1825-1905)

Signature of Antonio Beato

An initial batch of photographs is signed “A. Beato”. Antonio Beato was an Italian photographer active in Egypt from 1857, and more specifically in Cairo from 1859/60 to 1862, in Port Said from 1861 to 1862, then in Luxor from 1862 to 1905. He was one of the most prolific Egypt photographers. His photographs, which covered every aspect of the country, were often published in travel albums from the late nineteenth century on. Moreover, he was one of the few professionals to move to Upper Egypt starting in 1862, far from his colleagues, who preferred the cities of Cairo, Alexandria, or Port Said, and was also the only person to practice his art for as long as he did in the same place.

As regards technique, he was one of the first photographers to use a new surface for revealing photos: collodion. His laboratory was frequented by the great names of Egyptology: Auguste Mariette, Gaston Maspero, Ludwig Borchardt (1863-1938), Georges Daressy, Georges Legrain (1865-1917), Émile Chassinat (1868-1948), Howard Carter (1874-1939), and many others. In fact, it even appears that in the 1880s, at the request of scholars, Beato was taking photos that were then sent to Europe in albums5. In Paris, Varroquier, Pougnet, and Ziegler published the work of photographers living in the Orient6. From 1895, his ties to the archaeological world became even stronger, in particular through his relations with Georges Legrain when the latter was appointed director of excavations at Karnak in 18957. Beato likewise took a series of photos of Kom Ombo during the excavation of the temple by Jacques De Morgan (1857-1924)8.

At the time of Beato’s death in 1905, at the instigation of Georges Legrain and on behalf of the Antiquities Service, Gaston Maspero, conscious of the photographer’s immense contribution to Egyptian archaeology, took the steps to purchase and conserve a significant portion of his collection, containing approximately three hundred images in the form of collodion negatives on glass plates9, at the Museum of Cairo.

The Beato prints housed at the Egyptology Library offer a good example of these archaeological images. They are printed in sepia colour on paper, with or without cardboard backing, and have variable dimensions (27.5 x 21.5 cm; 26 x 20 cm; 24 x 29.5 cm). The main sites portrayed are the Temple of Seti I in Abydos, the temple in Medinet Habu on the west bank of Thebes, and the island of Philae.

Fig. 1. Medinet Habu in Western Thebes: Mortuary Temple of Ramesses III, 2nd courtyard.

On the reverse side of some of these prints we find handwritten notes, in particular those on Abydos and Medinet Habu. These annotations suggest that the prints belonged to Georges Daressy, a prominent figure in French Egyptology at the turn of the century10. When Daressy died in 1938, his widow donated his library to the Collège de France, along with his archives consisting of multiple work files. Over the course of the thirty-six years that he spent in Egypt, Daressy moreover supervised a significant volume of excavation and consolidation work at the temples in Luxor (1891-1893) and especially in Medinet Habu (from 1894/95 to 1900) and Abydos (1898), for which he appears to have established a veritable photo library with images by Beato.

Maison Bonfils

Signature of maison Bonfils

Among the iconographic archives, a few prints, with or without cardboard backing, bear the signature “Bonfils”. It refers to the Maison Bonfils and in particular Félix Bonfils (1831-1885), a French photographer originally from Alès who opened up a photo studio in Beirut11 and took photos in Egypt over the course of intermittent trips that he made between 1867 and 188112. This family enterprise was the first to implement a business strategy.

Among the images conserved are those of the temples in Karnak and Medinet Habu, with the second courtyard of the Mortuary Temple of Ramesses III. On the latter we find annotations by Daressy, who was responsible for overseeing the work to excavate and consolidate the site. The same is true of the images of it taken by Beato.

Fig. 2. Eastern Thebes, Karnak: Temple of Amon, obelisks of Thutmose I and Hatshepsut, Hypostyle Hall in the background

Theodor Kofler (1877-1957)

Signature of Theodor Kofler

Several of the images in the archives of the Egyptology Library bear the name “Kofler”. They exist in the form both of glass plates and of 13 x 18 cm paper prints. The latter, which are in black and white with a white frame and cardboard backing, present exceptional aerial views of the Thebes region, explicitly dated to 1914.

Theodor Kofler, of Austro-Hungarian origin, was present in Egypt from 1903/1904 until the 1940s. In January 1907, he collaborated with Egyptologist Theodore M. Davis to photograph tomb KV 5513, and that same year, opened a studio in Cairo called the Kofler Cairo Studio. He is known among Egyptologists mainly for having obtained incredible photos of Egyptian monuments, taken, at least in the case of the 1914 images14, from a Farman Gnome plane.

Fig. 3. Western Thebes, Medinet Habu: aerial view of the temple

One of the gelatine-silver prints conserved at the Egyptology Library presents an aerial view of the temples in Medinet Habu, another the Temple of Seti I in Qurna, and the last the Ramesseum, the mortuary temple of Pharaoh Ramses II, with the Colossi of Memnon in the background. The former two also contain Daressy’s mark.

Gabriel Lékégian & Co (act.1887-1925)

Signature of Lékégian & Co

A few prints in the Egyptology Library are signed “G. Lekegian & Co.”, a reference to Gabriel Lékégian and his associates, who were active in Egypt from 1887 to 1925. Lékégian, of Armenian origin, was among the photographers like Beato, Béchard or the Zangaki brothers who ultimately ended up settling in Egypt. It appears that he moved to Cairo in 1887. One of his particularities was his use of large-format chamber view cameras using gelatine-silver bromide dry plates15.

Among the prints in the library, multiple sepia paper prints with similar dimensions (approximately 21 x 27.5 cm) show, in addition to views of Giza Plateau with the Sphinx and the pyramids or the Saqqara with the Pyramid of Djoser, a close-up view of a relief in the Temple of Seti I in Abydos. Another print once again offers a view of the second courtyard of the Mortuary Temple of Ramesses III in Medinet Habu. This image even allows the excavation work by Daressy to be dated to the period between 1891 and 1894.

Fig. 4. Giza : Giza: the Sphinx and the Great Pyramid in the background

Pascal Sébah (1823-1886) or Jean Sébah (1872-1947)

Signature of the Sébahs

On the prints in the archives, one signature which appears either as “P. Sébah” or “J.P. Sébah” results in confusion. From 1873, Pascal Sébah was active in Cairo, where he established a studio that was taken over by his son Jean in 1888. The latter adopted the habit of appending his first initial to that of his father, even for his own images16. Therefore, in principle, only the prints signed “P. Sébah” are unequivocally attributable to Sébah Senior, whereas those presenting events or the state of monuments subsequent to 1886 can only be the work of Sébah Junior.

This print, which presents a bird’s eye view of the two Hypostyle Halls of the Mortuary Temple of Ramesses III in Medinet Habu, bears the signature “J.P. Sébah”, which corroborates the dates of Daressy’s work at the site.

Fig. 5. Western Thebes, Medinet Habu, Mortuary Temple of Ramesses III, Hypostyle Halls

The Zangaki Brothers (active from 1870 to 1915)

Signature of the Zangaki Brothers

To date, most of the commercial photographs identified in the library’s collection are signed “Zangaki”.

Constantin and Georges Zangaki, two brothers of Greek origins, were active in the Orient from 1870 to 1915. While operating a studio in Port Said from 1870 to 1890, they also proposed the original service of carrying out a portion of their production on the move, in a mobile laboratory. One of the brothers took the photos while the other one developed them and printed negatives.

The fifteen or so paper prints signed “Zangaki” currently found in the Egyptology archives are sepia-coloured, with or without cardboard backing, and have dimensions of approximately 21 x 28 cm. They portray the favourite sites of the time, namely Giza Plateau, the pyramids and tombs of Saqqara, the Temple of Seti I in Abydos with detailed views of certain scenes, the Precinct of Amun-Re in Karnak, and the Mortuary Temple of Ramesses III in Medinet Habu, with an image of the two Hypostyle Halls reminiscent of that of J.P. Sébah.

Fig. 6. Giza: flooded plain and pyramids


These prints, moving testimonies to the evolution of photographic techniques during the nineteenth century, are a reminder that Egypt and its light offered perfect experimental ground to photographers who wanted to improve their techniques, from the initial daguerreotypes put to the test of the Egyptian climate used by painter Horace Vernet and his nephew Frédéric Goupil-Fesquet, to experiments with paper and darkrooms designed for the chemical manipulations of travellers. Egypt’s exceptional and regular sunshine allowed photographers to decrease exposure time and to increase contrast on the negative.

The humid paper procedure was however long and meticulous, not to mention the considerable difficulties encountered in transporting the necessary tools, which were often very fragile and sensitive to heat. Moreover, many of these photographers combined their vocation as an artist with that of chemistry, with each of them making their own mixtures to improve the quality of their images.

In the 1880s, some photographers, notably Beato and Lékégian, demonstrated great dexterity by manipulating large-format chambers with gelatine-silver bromide dry plates. This enabled them to create the large prints that were sold at a relatively high price to travellers and tourists. Photographers and Egyptologists worked together and applied themselves to using these techniques. This was the case of German archaeologist Karl Richard Lepsius, who learnt to use the daguerreotype, and of Egyptologist Auguste Mariette, as well as Théodule Devéria.

These landscapes, monuments, and details of scenes and hieroglyphics considerably enriched the field of scholarly studies, and extensive collaboration took place to this end.

Thanks to these types of photographs, researchers today can access not only a view of Egypt with more primitive landscapes, but also information on scenes or inscriptions that have not successfully withstood the test of time, or images of archaeological sites that have been transformed by large-scale reconstruction work. These photographs remind us that many of the famous figures of Egyptology participated in re-infusing these sites with meaning and splendour, offering an image that must at times be put into perspective17.

Fig. 7 : Sites mentioned in the text (marked with a star). For a full-size view: right click, open in new tab, then zoom.

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Selective bibliography

  • Aubenas S., « Un fonds de photographies unique sur l’Égypte » dans S. Aubenas, E. Delange [et al.], Visions d’Égypte. Émile Prisse d’Avennes (1807-1879). Catalogue d’exposition présentée par la Bibliothèque nationale de France du 1er mars au 5 juin 2011, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, 2011, p. 119-139.
  • Cazentre Th., « Photographes du Caire dans le dernier tiers du XIXe siècle : les ateliers commerciaux » dans M. Volait (éd.), Le Caire dessiné et photographié au XIXe siècle, Paris, A. et J. Picard, 2013, p. 227-244.
  • Chemali Y., Perrot A.-H., « Le regard des photographes commerciaux. Quelques clichés du fonds égyptien de la Collection Fouad Debbas à l’étude », Les Cahiers de l’École du Louvre 5, 2014, p. 47-57.
  • D’Hooghe A., Les trois grandes égyptiennes. Les pyramides de Gizeh à travers l’histoire de la photographie. Exposition au musée de la photographie à Charleroi (Belgique) du 12 mai au 1er septembre 1996 ; Mission du Patrimoine photographique, de la Direction du patrimoine au Ministère de la Culture du 24 septembre 1996 au 5 janvier 1997 (Hôtel de Sully à Paris, dans le cadre du mois de la Photo), Paris, Marval, 1996.
  • Fiorelli Malesci Fr., Voyage en Orient : l’Égypte du photographe Émile Béchard vers 1870-1880. Catalogue d’exposition, Musée national et domaine du château de Pau, Maison Baylaucq du 7 novembre 2014 au 30 janvier 2015, Pau, Musée national du Château de Pau, Florence, Museo di Casa Martelli, 2014.
  • Hüttner M. (éd.), « Ägypten in Frühen Fotografien 1849-1875 » dans Von Alexandria nach Abu Simbel. Catalogue d’exposition présentée à Vienne, Kunst Historisches Museum, 7 juin-25 septembre 2016, Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Vienne, 2016.
  • Perdu O., Daressy : un savant, des archives. Trente-six années en Égypte au tournant du XXe siècle. Catalogue de l’exposition qui s’est déroulée du 6 au 22 mars 2017 (Collège de France, 11, place Marcelin Berthelot, Paris 5e), Collège de France, Paris, 2017.
  • Piacentini P., (éd.) Egitto dal cielo 1914 : la riscoperta del fotografo pioniere, prigioniero, professionista Theodor Kofler. Catalogue d’exposition (Milan, Università degli Studi, 11 février-13 mars 2015 ; Rome, Accademia d’Egitto, 16 avril-16 juillet 2015), Phasar Edizioni, Florence, 2015.
  • Piacentini P., « Theodor Kofler et les premières photographies aériennes de monuments égyptiens », BSFE 190, 2014, p. 33-36.
  • Khemir M., « Le miroir et le temps. Des photographes en Égypte », catalogue de l’exposition intitulée « Voyages en Égypte de l’Antiquité au début du XXe siècle » présentée au Musée d’art et d’histoire de Genève du 16 avril au 31 août 2003, Musées d’art et d’histoire La Baconnière/Arts, Genève, p. 259-278.
  • Khemir M., L’Orientalisme : l’Orient des photographes au XIXe siècle, Centre National de la Photographie & Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris, 1994.
  • Le Guern N., L’Égypte et ses premiers photographes. Étude des différentes techniques et du matériel utilisés de 1839 à 1869, mémoire de DEA en Histoire des techniques, EHESS, Paris, 2001.
  • Réveillac G., Trésors photographiques d’Égypte : Antonio Beato, photographe de la Haute-Égypte de 1859 à 1905, Actes sud, Arles, 2017.
  • Réveillac G., « Les collections photographiques Beato Gaddis-Seif, Adly-Leichter », Cahiers de Karnak 11, 2003, p. 515-524.
  • Simoën J.-Cl., Égypte éternelle. Les voyageurs photographes au siècle dernier, J.-C. Lattès, Paris, 1993.
  • Volait M., Le Caire dessiné et photographié au XIXe siècle, Picard CNRS Institut national d’histoire de l’art, Paris, 2013.

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Cécile Bernal (2020, 26 février). The contribution of photographers to French Egyptology during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Colligere. Consulté le 24 avril 2024, à l’adresse

  1. See G. Réveillac, 2017, p. 155 []
  2. Album of twenty-two aerial views, currently in the Egyptology archives of the University of Milan. See P. Piacentini, 2014, p. 23-26 []
  3. Thèbes. La Gloire d’un Grand Passé, 1925. See P. Piacentini, 2014, p. 27 []
  4. P. Barguet, Le temple d’Amon-Re à Karnak, [1962] revised edition 2007. Ibid., p. 28 []
  5. A number of Egyptologists frequently used Beato’s services. This was the case of Charles Edwin Wilbour, see G. Réveillac, 2017, p. 32-33 []
  6. Ibid., p. 33, note 55 []
  7. Ibid., p. 34-35 []
  8. Ibid., p. 36 []
  9. Ibid., p. 30-31 []
  10. See O. Perdu, 2017, p. 23 []
  11. See Fr. Fiorelli Malesci, 2014, p. 24; Th. Cazentre, 2013, notes 16 to 19 []
  12. The Bonfils family recently bequeathed hundreds of photographs and archive documents to the Egyptology Library. This collection is currently being processed. []
  13. See P. Piacentini, 2015; ead., 2014, p. 35 []
  14. According to P. Piacentini, op. cit., p. 31, this series of images dates back either to the end of the month of January or the beginning of the month of April 1914 []
  15. See N. Le Guern, 2001, p. 57; Y. Chemali, A.-H. Perrot, 2014, p. 48. []
  16. See the notice on “Jean-Pascal Sébah” sebah, retrieved on January 8, 2018; M. Khemir, 2003, p. 261; Y. Chemali, A.-H. Perrot, 2014, p. 48 []
  17. I would like to thank Mrs. Elsa Rickal and Mr. Alain Arnaudiès as well as Mrs. Sepideh Qaheri for their review and advice. []

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