Egypt Through the Eyes of David Roberts


David Roberts was a self-taught Scottish painter, born in October 1796 in Stockbridge, Edinburgh. After a successful career as a scenery painter, he started focusing on his own specialty – architectural painting. The cultural interaction between Europe and the East brought about by the Napoleonic conquests in the late 1700s attracted a great number of European explorers to Egypt, but among them, there was no artist of Roberts’ stature. 

⦁ General view of Cairo from the West
This view is taken from the high mounds beyond the Ayyubid walls of Cairo. At the extreme left of this view lies the Citadel, Roumela Square and the Pyramids of Giza.
At the front, there are the Khyer Bek mosque with the stone curved dome and Aq Sonkor mosque (the Blue mosque) next to it
Citadel of Cairo, the Residence of the Pasha
The citadel of Cairo, built by Salah Eldin in the twelfth century and later fortified by the French. The citadel was the place for the palace and mosque of Mehmet Ali, while his domestic residence was in Shoubra. The structure of the citadel is very strong and is erected upon a spur of the Mokattam hills, offering a pristine view of the city. Within the Citadel are many public offices such as the Hall of Justice and the Arsenal.
The entrance to the Citadel (Bab el Azab)
Bab El Azab, with its massive round towers, was the principal entrance to the citadel overlooking the mosque of Sultan Hassan.
⦁ Bab En Nasr(Gate of Victory), and the mosque of El Hakim, Cairo
This gate is on the north-east side of Cairo, and leads to the public cemetery of Cairo. It was built towards the end of the 11th. Century, by the Fatimid Vizier Badr El Gamali. In a distance, the minaret of the mosque of El Hakim appears.

On August 31st, 1838, he left for Alexandria, initiating his artistic expedition through Egypt and the Levant. He made the journey through Egypt to Nubia by sailing boat where he was quite impressed by the ability of the Egyptian sailors. Throughout his journey, he notices and mentions the horrific conditions under which the Pasha’s (Mehmet Ali) subjects lived.

The Aqueduct of the Nile from the Island of Rhoda
This aqueduct was erected by the Sultan El Ghoree in 1503, to supply the Cairo citadel with water. The apparatus raising the water from the Nile proved inefficient, ushering the induction of Belzoni to Egypt. In the presence of Mehmet Ali, the object proved a hazardous failure and so the scheme was abandoned.
View on the Nile. Isle of Rhoda. And Ferry of Gheezeh
The Island of Rhoda lies off the shore about a mile from Cairo. The gardens of the island were luxuriant in vegetation, and were an excursion venue for the Cairenes. The gardens belonged to Ibrahim Pasha, and were laid out under the direction of Mr. Trail, a Scotchman. There is also an interesting tradition that Moses’ mother left him on this island. The Pyramids of Sakkara appear on a distance.
Cairo, from the Gate of Citizenib, looking towards the Desert of Suez
This view is taken from the high ground immediately without the gate of Citizenib, which leads to old Cairo (Egypt Babylon) and Giza. The Citadel magnificently rises from its foundation above the Hill of Mokattim. On the left, minarets and noble dome of the mosque of Sultan Hassan. On the right toward the Western Desert lies the vast sacred cemeteries of Cairo.
The Ghawazees, or Dancing-Girls of Cairo
The Ghawazees are dancing girls who performed unveiled in the public streets to amuse the rabble. They danced in the court of a house or on the street before doors, on occasions of festivity. They seem to have had their own language, and ethnic background. Their existence, while traceable prior to the Israelite exodus from Egypt, was interrupted by Mehmet Ali’s order to banish them from Cairo and Lower Egypt to Esneh.
Group in the Slave-Market in Cairo
A scene of slaves and their dealers. Slaves of color were kept in the Kaitbey mosque, while others remained in the private houses of their dealers. The picture shows a number of slaves awaiting a change of master.

He lamented the great disparity between medieval Egypt, and that of the ancients’. Although such sentiments were overshadowed by the majestic landscape and its monuments. “The sun rising and setting are the most glorious perhaps in the world…” – David Roberts. Towards the end of his stay in Egypt, he had sketched “upwards of one hundred, all of them paintable subjects.” “Roberts was back in Cairo on December 21st, 1838. For two weeks he plunged into the old city, drawing street-scenes and the interiors of mosques. For that purpose, he had to have Egyptian clothes made, his whiskers shaved off, and to forswear the use of brushes made of hog’s bristles.” 

Mosque of the Sultan Kaitbey, Cairo
The Sultan Kaitbey, was one of the Circassian or Borgite dynasty, a line that reigned in Egypt from 1382 to 1517. The tombs have received their appellation from one of these princesses who died and was buried there in 1496. Attached to each tomb is a mosque, schools, and dwelling houses. The structure stands out for its architectural elegance.
⦁ The Gate of the Metwalis (Bab Zuweyleh)
This gate is one of the gates within the walls of Cairo, which served to communicate between one part of the city and another. The gate towers are surmounted by the two minarets of the mosque of el Mua’yyad.
⦁ The Silk-Mercer’s Bazaar of El Ghooreeyeh, Cairo
El-Ghooreeyeh is a chief Cairo bazaar situated between two mosques. It is where rich silks, cottons and other costly materials are sold. The Bazaar takes its name from the mosque and tomb of Sultan El-Ghoree, which were completed in 1503 A.D.
⦁ Interior of the mosque of Sultan Hassan
The magnificent sky open court of Sultan Hassan mosque is about 76 m2. On each side is a deep arched recess, the one with the Mihrab is the Quibla recess where prayers turn to pray. On the right of the Mihrab is a wooden pulpit covered with rich arabesque carvings.
In the center of the court, are two domed ablution fountains.

After his return to Cairo, Roberts then embarked on a trip to the Levant and Holy land, after which he returned again to Egypt in May of 1839. On his return, Roberts was given a chance to see the Egyptian fleet and was granted an audience with Mehmet Ali Pasha. Afterward, he was invited to dine with the Pasha’s son, Said, and have his portrait made.

⦁ Alexandria Port, The fleet of the Pacha
The history of commerce shows that Alexandria became the port through which the riches of the East were poured into Europe. Mohamed Ali’s fine fleet rides in the port, the principal ship, as well as all surrounding ships, is rising Egypt flag of the Pasha- a crescent and a star on a red back ground.
⦁ Lithograph of the meeting between Muhammad Ali Pasha, and David Roberts, at Alexandria (May 16th, 1839).
At the palace of Ras al-Tin, Muhammad Ali reclines on his sofa enjoying smoking his shisha, with his advisors standing beside him. His secretary is crossed-legged on the floor, taking minutes of the meeting. Roberts is the first seated figure on the right. Next to him is an assistant, and the British Councilor, who has a portfolio in front of him, explaining Roberts’ mission to document Egypt, which obviously needed permissions from the Pasha to move in the country with ease.
The result of this meeting was the famous publications of David Roberts of Egypt’s ancient and Islamic monuments.

Robert’s approach to depicting the east through his work sprang from his passion for travel and discovery. On returning to England, he worked out, published, and exhibited the many sketches he produced in the East. His work was published by Mr. Francis Graham Moon of the Publishing Company of Moon, Boys and Graves who prepared to finance a publication of Roberts’ works. His friend the Belgian lithographer Louis Haghe was to lithograph many of his works as well, which brought Roberts’ work and paintings to great fame and international recognition.

Note: This article is was previously published in Issue 17 of Discover Egypt Magazine – Courtesy of the Rare Books and Special Collections Library at the American University in Cairo.


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