Photography in Egypt

How to take great photographs in Egypt


My love affair with ancient Egypt started in Primary 3 at Banchory sitting next to a poster of a Pharaoh in discussions with his architect with a half constructed pyramid in the background – it was my company for the whole year. I vaguely remember a visiting speaker giving a projected 16mm moving film about ancient Egypt and one of the first books I ever read was Leonard Cottrell’s The Lost Pharaoh. After two missed opportunities I eventually visited Egypt some 40 years later, a special holiday paid by my Aunt when she sold her house and had to go into a Nursing Home at Torphins.

My first visit happily turned out to offer more than I could have dreamed of, a standard Kuoni package that due to circumstances, meant I had an extra day visiting the Fayoum area including Meydum Pyramid and Karanis and in the hands of an elderly and very experienced Eastmar guide Soliman Salauma, now sadly long since deceased. It was he I think that gave me my most emotional experience in over 10 visits to Egypt, sitting our small group on our visit to Saqqara, next to the columned gate in the late autumn afternoon just before the site closed and there we experienced the open empty courtyard in front of the Step Pyramid, free of people, in total peace, and bathed in the golden warm light of a lowering sun.

More than anything during that first visit, the normal three day package in Cairo and then a Nile cruise on the RA 11 and the flying visit to Abu Simbel, was the sense of chaos with a remarkable sense of purpose, the friendliness of the Egyptians and the beauty of the sites, built with an obvious care, craftsmanship and attention to detail that was never overwhelmed by the huge scale of these ancient monuments. For a photographer it was a paradise of shapes, light and detail set in a landscape so alien to my home countryside of Scotland and I have never ceased on every visit since to loose that enjoyment.

On subsequent visits I have tried to expand the places I visited which I hope is reflected in my collection on Crooktree.com but also I have found increasing restrictions, especially on photography, so know much of my earlier work can never be replicated with the advantage of the latest digital cameras. It is also changing and many sites have had to adapt to the increasing numbers of visitors such as Edfu so the arrival I first experienced through the rear of the site is now through a modern ticket office shopping arcade with arrival at its imposing pylon – in some sense more awesome and natural, in others ways more commercialised and managed.

Places I have visited and photographed over my ten trips since 1994:

Abu Simbel; Abu Rawash Pyramid; Abu Ghurab Sun Temple; Amarna; Aswan; Alexandria; Abusir (Saqqara); Abydos; Beni Hasan Rock Tombs; Cairo City & Egyptian Museum with interiors and selected Tutankhamun Exhibits ; Colossi of Memnon – who hasn’t; Cruising on the River Nile and Lake Nasser; Dashur; Dendara; Deir el Medina & Ptolemaic Temple; Dime Elsebaa; El Ashmunein; El Lisht; El Sagha; Esna & Edfu Temples; Giza - Pyramids and the Sphinx, inside Great Pyramid and Tombs of Royalty; Hatshepsut Temple; Hawara Pyramid; Heliopolis; Lake Nasser sites; Karnak & Luxor Temples; Karanis or Kom Ushim; Kom Ombo Temple; Luxor City & Nile Views; Medinet Habu Temple; Merneptah Temple and Museum; Meydum Pyramid; Minya; Nubian Museum in Aswan; Nubian Village on Seheil; Philae (Temple of Isis) Island; Ramasseum; Ramses Small Temple at Abydos; Saqqara & Memphis; Seheil Island Rock Carvings; Seti 1 Temple; Tanis; Tell Basta; Tuna el-Gabal; Various Temple & Tomb Interiors; Valleys of Kings & Queens and Tombs of the Nobles; Zawiyet e-Aryan Pyramid.

One project that I found especially fascinating was gathering a collection of old Victorian Albumen prints of Egypt, nearly 70 in total by photographers such as Frith, Beato and Sebah and then trying to match their viewpoints with the modern views. The old photos are on Crooktree and most of the modern equivalents are available in their respective galleries; eventually I will cross reference them but what is fascinating is how little the site and viewpoints have changed over the space of 150 years or so apart from being cleaned up and partially restored, especially at Karnak. That says a lot for the Egyptian authorities care in preserving their sites and maintaining them often with limited funds and having to deal with the management of thousands of visitors each week in some cases.

My Preferred Method of Seeing Egypt

I have used Kuoni over the years mainly because I have been pleased with the packages, the prices have been reasonable, the hotels and Egyptian agents [used to be Eastmar, now Traveline] reliable with generally excellent guides. Another reason I have used them is they can be flexible, so I can add on extra days or trips in addition to the basic package and they do offer a few free afternoons or mornings which allow you add extra visits in, not included in the package. The hotels used and the cruise boats have also been of good standard and even if they change them, I can still request to use my old favourites, the Jolie Ville Movenpick in Cairo, Mercure Coralia in Luxor, the Old ETAP whose location and general style I like and the Nile Romance for my Nile cruises. These are personal things I like and I am sure other visitors will have different preferences.

On the whole I have found all the guides very accommodating about letting me ‘do my own thing’ with regard to going off and photographing away from the guided group but I am always back at the bus at the agreed time. For those on a first visit them it is probably better to stick with the guides but be firm that you want sufficient time to wander around and just take in the scale and majesty of many of these awesome monuments – sufficient time does not mean maybe ten minutes before you have to be back at the bus; you are the customer??

The package trip is probably the best way and safest for most new visitors to Egypt to see the most they can in say two weeks – all the transfers to hotels, airports and cruiseboats are arranged, the guides get the tickets required for all the sites visited but always ask them if you need an extra ticket for photography; if you do, then you need to get it at the ticket office, often miles away from the site itself. Never assume the guides will get what you want – one lesson I have learned.

The guides can also arrange shopping trips, protect you from annoying tradesman or custodians trying to get some extra baksheesh off you for doing something that they should be doing anyway and are generally not allowed to ask money for in the first place. One tip: especially in the bazaars or streets, give a firm no and walk on – you can be pleasant but ignore the pressure to come in shops if you are not wishing to shop. However treat the bargaining as a game and do not be offended as you are expected to ‘beat’ them down. Have an idea in your mine about the value of what you want, does it appear to be well made, good quality, well finished especially the galabeas or other clothes and then stick to that price; walk away if they will not play – there will always be a shop or stall elsewhere with the same thing and probably a lot cheaper. Also remember do not get carried away buying large heavy things – you still have to get them home.

Getting Around Without the Tour Guide

I use taxis quite a lot, especially if I want to go to a site not part of the package tour, such as the Ramasseum or Temple of Seti 1. Agree your price with the taxi driver first, often with the hotel doorman or the cruiseboat manager present and your guide will often assist as well advising how much you should pay and be clear how many are going, is the price for the whole trip, waiting for you and bringing you back and is it Egyptian pounds – not Sterling or US Dollars. Expect to give some more over and above but that is for you to decide after the trip is over and how well you have been looked after – generally the taxi drivers are very good at keeping you right about getting tickets and maybe suggesting a resthouse for amid way break especially if you are exploring areas beyond Saqqara or in one case an Open Air Museum of granite sculpture on the outskirts of Aswan; the local Tourist Information Office had told me about it and gave instructions to the taxi driver – I think he thought I was taking him to the other side of the Moon and soon we were asking local farmers and even the military but we found it with everyone in tow!!

In Cairo I have used Mohamed Rozza for years and I think I have introduced him to sites and parts of his own ancient Egyptian history that he did not know. I have trusted his driving and advice even twice taking him northwards to Tel Basta and Tanis but so far not had the time to take up his offer of visiting an Oasis – not in his battered old taxi. I know his persistence and willingness to explore has got me to sites such as Abu Roash and Ghurab which the ordinary City taxi driver would not have attempted. So far I have not got him stuck in the desert as I did with an Eastmar driver when visiting El Lisht and along with him and several villagers who appeared as from nowhere had the fun in the scorching hot Egyptian sun packing broken stones under the wheels to get us free – that makes a holiday memorable!

Lessons Learned by Experience

Another thing I have found is that flying to Abu Simbel for the Lake Nasser cruise now seems to entail a later flight from Cairo, waiting in Aswan most of the morning and then arriving on the cruiseboat after lunch [a lunch box being provided by the Cairo hotel] and then the tour of Abu Simbel temple in the afternoon. Try to avoid this – suffer a little but insist on the early morning flight although it means a 3.00am departure from the hotel and arrive on the boat at 8 am. OK perhaps no room until 11 but you can visit the temple yourself when it is best lit by the morning sun and often you will find lulls between the outgoing and incoming flights groups for a quiet time especially photographing the temples. The Lake Nasser cruise also offers the chance to see the Abu Simbel Light and Sound Show – definitely the best of the shows for me although perhaps Philae is the most relaxing one.

If you are using a camera which produces large files and most digital cameras, even compacts do these days, then do not work on the basis of filling large camera cards up e.g. 30 MB unless you are very careful not to lose them and the commonest the SDHC card is not very big. Better to have a system for downloading them at the end of each day and for those taking their laptop this is the ideal platform and then burn the photos onto a DVD, which is then safely packed in the suitcase away from camera or laptop and probably the best cost effective way of at least having your photographs at the end of the trip and for the future. I work with 4 GB cards and one card fits nicely onto a DVD and it is management work flow that suits me and guarantees a workable back up to the files also on the laptop which can be played with to your hearts contact. For those using a DSLR it also means a regular check can be made for the state of the dust on the CCD – a headache in a country like Egypt which is mainly desert.

The beauty of good digital cameras these days is that the sensitivity versus noise is improving with every new model and where interior photography is still allowed but I can guarantee flash isn’t, then being able to push the ISO up to 6400 or beyond is heaven; on my last trip the best I had was 1600 ISO and was no better than in the days of slide film pushed to 1600ASA but any advance was negated by the use if Blue Wratten filters to compensate for tungsten light as tripods where generally not allowed. The best session I ever had as a tourist was in the Tomb of Ramses 1V when I could pay to use a tripod and make use of my Tungsten Balanced Slide film with a 64ASA rating and so do time exposures to get an f8 aperture. The tomb custodian was genuinely impressed and could not have been more helpful, suggesting viewpoints, holding other visitors back so I take my time exposures and not being aggressive about a reward. I have found the same enthusiasm and interest at many sites, with sheets of cardboard appearing if I needed to lie down to get the Edfu ceilings, brushing me down if I got dusty, holding and guarding my camera bag and many times I have had different and interesting viewpoints indicated – useful if you only an hour on a package tour. Yes a reward is expected but if the help is sincerely given then I have no problem thanking them in this way.

Not my field but I note there are even more restrictions for those with camcorders and often charges are made as against still cameras.

Restrictions on Photography

In general you will find that the opportunities in tombs and temples for photography even if you do not need to use flash are few and far between e.g. assume total ban in all museums except perhaps the Nubian in Aswan and in 2007 the new Museum at Saqqara but I have heard it is now banned – ask if in doubt. Curious is it not that you can photograph the Egyptian Collection in the British Museum and even use flash? Total ban in the interiors of most pyramids even if just solid granite, especially the Great Pyramid at Giza and certainly the tombs in the Valley of the Kings and Queens at Luxor and Abu Simbel. I found I was allowed to take photographs inside the rock cut tombs at Amarna but absolutely refused permission in Bani Hasan, was allowed inside Abydos, Dendara, and Edfu and some of the Tombs of the Nobles but refused in the new small museum at Merneptah. Best I have found is to ask first especially at the ticket office so if you can take photographs make sure you get a ticket for that as well if required.

I will not go into the question of use of flash or not but for those wishing to know more then I recommend a site which gives a good overview of the subject and leave you to draw your own conclusions. http://people.pwf.cam.ac.uk/mhe1000/musphoto/flashphoto.htm

The two most unusual photographs I managed to get were high views of Edfu Pylon from the mudbrick enclosure walls before the recent new layout was created and a similar viewpoint above Kom Ombo looking over the temple with the River Nile as a backdrop. In both cases it was the support and persistence of my guides that eventually got the permission of the local police chief for me to go, under escort, to the point I wanted and under a strict time line of five minutes. It does add some extra flavour though to the achievement when you get the photograph you want – in both cases to match my early Victorian ones.

Be willing to go off on your own, I had a wonderful morning at Aswan thanks to my guide on the trip arranging a motorboat to take me to Seheil Island and to photograph its many rock carvings. The local elderly custodian and the site staff could not have been more helpful and not just because of possible baksheesh but because I was interested and had made the effort o come. A tour round the Nubian village, tea with the guide’s relative disturbed doing her daily washing and OK she had jewellery to sell but it was good quality and was not forced at me all added to the experience plus a leisurely trip back through the cataracts and along the Aswan waterfront all added to the overall experience. Extra private trips to the Luxor West bank for sites like Deir el Medina and its small spiritual Ptolemaic Temple, the Medinet Habu with its wonderful coloured wall reliefs that can be photographed, the atmospheric Ramasseum, the intimacy of the daily life captured in the Tombs of the Nobles or the peace and solitude of Temple of Seti 1 should be attempted if you have the free time in a hectic tour schedule. It is these visits you will cherish; free of the pressure of the guided tour, where you can wander at your leisure armed with your guidebook or the guidance of the local custodian and usually free of the huge crowds – this is when ancient Egypt comes alive.

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