Alsherief: Historical Photography in Coptic Cairo
It’s likely that taking a trip to Mary Girgis will result in coming back with some photos; the stunning architecture which lines its streets are reason enough to go there, but if you can draw your eyes away from the Coptic churches and ruins for just a momen, there is another, more recent, piece of Cairo’s past to be glimpsed. It’s a story which goes back to the beginning of the twentieth Century and has ended up today in a small gallery-come-shop in Coptic Cairo.
Alsherief is home to hundreds of negatives which have been turned into prints and are available to buy in a variety of sizes and mediums. The stories of finding the pictures are as interesting as the images themselves and staff there are eager to retell how they came about.
The photographs originate from a collection belonging to Orientalists, Ernst Landrock and Rudolf Lehnert, a German and an Austrian respectively, between the years 1904 and 1930. As young men, Landrock and Lehnert were keen travellers and after meeting in Tunisia, they set up a business partnership to produce photographs. However, at the beginning of the First World War, they were forced to transfer the business to Cairo.
Although begrudging of the move themselves, the arrival of these two men turned out to be an important moment in the preservation of some key moments in Egypt’s history. A collection of photographs showing the Nile flooding to the Pyramids and the excavation of the Sphinx are just some of the images they sought out. There are also many portraits showing unposed moments in the lives of Cairenes that include touching family scenes or people just going about their daily routine.
Today, the shop is owned by an Egyptian family and is run by Mahmoud Hanafy, who takes great pride in telling Egyptian history through the photographs; one which can’t be found in any guidebook or history tome. The original glass negatives have been reproduced for the shop and are sold as photographs, postcards and framed pieces of art at prices that range from 15LE to 100LE. The shop is an established stop on many tour guide routes, but, Hanafy stated that since the revolution his clientele has changed, and to the better. While locals would previously overlook this artwork, today the photographs serve as a nostalgic reminder of better times passed.
Mahmoud told us the story of one of his most popular pieces, ‘The Gypsy Girl’, which is a close up portrait of a young Bedouin girl’s blankly staring face, and explained how this is an example of a person who could not exist in modern times; one who represents a part of Egypt’s culture now lost.
While the most popular photographs are of the iconic monuments of the city, the shop also does a good trade in old film posters and stills of actors from the 1920s-1970s, which were bought from the Egyptian film cinema and reproduced. The pictures, which can be bought as postcards for 10LE-15LE, have pin-up girls such as Samia Gamal, as well as smug mustached leading men from the golden age of Egyptian cinema, like Omar Wagdi.
Besides being a great retro find for tourists who can’t fit another sphinx key ring in their luggage, this art provides an important look at Egypt’s history and its people, which is proving increasingly meaningful to Egyptians and foreign visitors alike.