Photographic Memories – Nubia around 1900

06.03.2020 to 10.01.2021
Neues Museum

Nubia – a lost cultural landscape, the Orient, and a scientific expedition at the turn of the century: In 1900 a delegation made up of Egyptologists, classicist scholars and archaeologists undertook an expedition into the region between the First and Second Cataracts of the Nile. One of their objectives was to visit the Middle Kingdom sites of the pharaoh’s border fortresses. Although the photographic documentation of this trip to Nubia had long been considered lost, the photographs of the expedition, which was so significant for archaeology and cultural history, are now being presented to the public for the first time in the Sudan Room at the Neues Museum.

In March and April of the year 1900, three Egyptologists, Georg Steindorff, Heinrich Schäfer and Ludwig Borchardt, set off together with architect Hermann Thiersch and diplomat Curt von Grünau on an over six-week trip through Nubia. The area extends over southern Egypt and northern Sudan. During this boat trip – on a Nile riverboat called a Dahabiya – they explored both sides of the Nile, the region to the south of Aswan and beyond the Second Cataract.

Outstandingly Well-Documented Expedition

Travelling upstream on the Nile was not without certain risks at that time: The boatmen were dependent on the north wind and had to overcome rapids as well as sandbanks. The travellers used donkeys and camels to explore the riverbanks and the wider surroundings. Their special interest was reserved for the pharaonic border fortresses of the Middle Kingdom (c. 2040–1650 BC). After documenting these historical monuments, which, years later, would be used to write a scientific treatise, the party of travellers returned to Aswan a little over six weeks later.

The enterprise, which took place more than a century ago, was quite unique and significant because the participants were able to document – in some cases for the first time – the rich and versatile legacies of a region with an eventful history. At the same time, it was one of the first exceptionally well-documented scientific expeditions of its kind in northern Nubia. This view through the participants’ eyes still comes alive through their diaries, sketches and photos. These documents attest to the beauty of the landscape but also to the difficulties of travelling in this region. They convey a lively picture of the experiences, people and places visited.

Never-Before-Seen Photos

During an ongoing revision of the photo archive holdings that are part of the Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, six unlabelled boxes were found in 2015. Their contents proved to be the photographic documentation of this Nubian journey, comprising some 300 paper prints. According to Georg Steindorff’s account, c. 500 photos of Nubia must have existed at one time. With the exception of a few prints in other archives, the Berlin inventory is the largest surviving set of photos from the trip. For the first time this precious trove of historical photographs is presented in the exhibition.

Impressions from a Lost Cultural Landscape

When they visited the region 120 years ago, the five travellers experienced it untouched by later changes. The main focus of the exhibition lies on the choice of photographs, which provide rare insight into a cultural space that no longer exists, since the area was completely flooded after the erection of a second dam in 1971. The photographs are accompanied by excerpts from Heinrich Schäfer’s diary and explanations on the ancient archaeological sites.

A publication accompanying the exhibition is published by Reichert Verlag, Wiesbaden: Reise durch Nubien – Fotos einer Expedition um 1900 (A Journey to Nubia in 1900), vol. 4 in the series Menschen – Reisen – Forschungen, German/English, ISBN 978-3-95490-367-2, price: 49 €.

The exhibition is supported by the Verein zur Förderung des Ägyptischen Museums Berlin e. V.

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