An Egyptian granodiorite statue of a seated woman emerged from the desert sands of a Nubian excavation site in Kerma, unearthed—methodically—according to new scientific approaches espoused by early-20th-century US archeologist George Reisner. It was December of 1913, and at each stage of uncovering the meter-high statue, one man used a camera to capture artful, beautifully toned images, each on its own glass negative.
Behind the lens was Mohammedani Ibrahim, one of the first Egyptian-born archeological photographers and one of the most skilled. Ibrahim’s photos of the statue identified as depicting Lady Sennuwy of Asyut, wife of Djefaihapi of Asyut, and dated to the 12th dynasty of Egypt’s Middle Kingdom between 1971 and 1926 BCE, were later shipped with the statue to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Ever since, Ibrahim’s photos of Lady Sennuwy’s statue have been among his most viewed. While others were displayed in the museum or published in Reisner’s academic papers, most were deposited in the museum’s archives together with Reisner’s records. The only reason anyone knows Ibrahim’s name, despite leaving behind more than 9,000 photographs, is thanks largely to Reisner. Ibrahim, who spent more than 30 years documenting fragments of bygone eras of his homeland, has remained nonetheless almost as obscure as the long-ago architects, masons, sculptors and painters whose works he recorded on film.
But how did one of the first Egyptian archeology photographers working with Reisner, later hailed as one of the founders of scientific archeology and the father of American archeology—in large part because of his use of photography to track his decades of work, primarily in Giza—become a nearly invisible historical footnote?
“There’s no pure process of writing history out there,” says Christina Riggs, who specializes in the history of archeological photography at Durham University in the UK. “These stories develop, but a lot of the people involved disappear out of the story even when they’re on the page and in the photos.” Riggs continues, “Nothing is produced—no knowledge, no collection, no field—without being a part of a historical moment.”
Ibrahim’s and Reisner’s moment was bound up in the history of Egypt. The country had been grappled over by foreign powers since Roman days in the first century CE. Although Egypt remained a de jure province of the Ottoman Empire until the after World War I, Ottoman influence in the region had been waning for more than a century as European powers vied for influence—and artifacts. Napoleon’s French army came first, in 1798, bringing with it a contingent of scientific savants who, in addition to producing the monumental survey Description de l’Égypte, filched more than a few artifacts, including the Rosetta Stone, which the British later stole from them. Then there were the British, uneasy about an Egyptian nationalist movement, who invaded in 1882. The camera, meanwhile, invented as the metal-plate daguerreotype in 1839, had already been deployed to capture many of the country’s monuments.
While the object of most early photography in Egypt was the recording of legacies left in stone, there was little interest living civilization of the day. Many early photos of Egypt are landscapes deliberately devoid of humans.
“Modern Egyptians were almost never in the photos, and that was no accident,” says Pomona University professor of art history Kathleen Howe, who specializes in how photography has shaped Western views of Egyptian culture. “It was a lot easier to take things from a people who just were not really there. The native Egyptians just didn’t count. They were seen as mere cogs in the machine, even as they pulled tourists up and down the Nile and worked alongside the famed white, male archeologists that were setting up shop there.”
But while the camera was being used as one tool of imperial ambition, it was also increasingly deployed in archeology. These cameras were heavy and fragile, and their individually coated glass plates were ill-adapted to heat, sand and dust, making their use a matter of perseverance and craft.
“While people like Reisner and Ibrahim would be working as true archeologists in the years to come,” Howe says, the first people working at these sites would be better classified as antiquarians, many of whom “weren’t approaching what they were doing scientifically or systematically” but “just grabbing up stuff they unearthed and taking it back to Europe and America.”
However, as antiquarians gave way to archeologists—people who believed someone shouldn’t dig straight into the heart of a mound at first sight but rather peel it back layer by careful layer—the two fields diverged.
“This was a different mindset, and it gave rise to a whole different approach to archeology photography,” Howe says. “A systematic approach was developed with site overviews, photographing certain angles, all details that soon made this very different from the guys trying to get an angle on the Luxor Halls that tourists will want to buy and take home.”
Gradually cameras became easier to operate, too, with the advent of pretreated glass plates in the early 1900s, just as Reisner and a new generation of archeologists were beginning to delve into Egypt. Reisner understood the value of documenting field work as it unfolded and favored the lens over the artist’s sketch. In writing a detailed guide to archeological photography in 1924, Reisner wrote, “When I first began work in 1899 I laid down the principle that every observation should be supported as far as possible by a mechanical, that is photographic, record of the facts observed. Now in 1924 I would lay down the same principle.” For Reisner, hiring an able photographer with an acuity of vision was crucial. Although higher level professions in archeology were not generally open to Egyptians, Ibrahim, whose birth year—although unknown—was likely in the 1890s, proved exceptionally talented.
A school to train Egyptian archeologists opened in 1869 in Cairo and closed a few years later due to lack of funds. But it produced one of the first Egyptian archeologists, Ahmad Kamal, who later served as curator of the Egyptian Museum. It took Kamal decades to secure a job with Egypt’s antiquities ministry. Although educated at the School of Ancient Egyptian Language under one of the premier German professors in the field, Kamal and his fellow aspiring Egyptian archeologists were blocked for years from positions in the French-dominated Egyptian Antiquities Service.
While Kamal managed to oversee some of his own excavations, he worked primarily as a German tutor until he persuaded Egypt’s prime minister to have him appointed as a translator and secretary of the museum that famed French Egyptologist and the first head of Egypt’s Antiquities Service, Auguste Mariette, had founded in Cairo. However, Mariette and the other Frenchmen who subsequently occupied that post were not interested in promoting Egyptians. Shortly before Kamal’s death in 1923, his plea to another French Antiquities director to train Egyptians in Egyptology was dismissed with the claim that Kamal was the only Egyptian in the entire country interested in the field. Kamal’s riposte was sharp: “Ah M. Lacau,” he wrote, “in the sixty-five years you French have directed the Service, what opportunities have you given us?”
Although the French and other Western archeologists kept tight control of the work being done in Egypt, one of Kamal’s own students, Selim Hasan, made further inroads. Hasan would become the first Egyptian Egyptologist to run his own excavation site and, in the 1930s, discovered a series of tombs in a Giza plot near Reisner’s that international reporters eagerly chronicled. But while Hasan was receiving acclaim, Ibrahim was working primarily in the same cemetery, with his photos appearing in academic journals for more than 20 years, generally without a byline. The absence of credit, however, was not atypical for the time. Early photography in general was regarded as more of a mechanical process than an art, and many of these first photographers were not given attribution for their work. Ibrahim’s photographs, however, stood out.
“From what I know of the Giza photo archive, Mohammedani’s photographs were of especially high quality,” Riggs says. “At that time, while all archeologists were using cameras in their work, some were better photographers than others, and some spent more money and time on it than others.” He was “among the most proficient photographers working in the early 20th century in Egypt—and deserves more study,” she says.
Little is known about Ibrahim’s upbringing. He hailed from Qift, a village about 40 kilometers north of Luxor, at a bend along the Nile. By the time he was born, the town was already famous for the archeological workers it produced. William Flinders Petrie, who would become known as the father of British Egyptology, put the town on archeology’s map when he began recruiting and training workers almost exclusively from there in the 1890s. When Petrie set up a dig site near Qift, he started training workers along the specific lines he had created for a more scientific approach to archeology. From there other archeologists, including Reisner, arrived in Egypt and began following in his footsteps, so when it came time to hire workers, they too sought out men from Qift who already had specific skills required for the work. It is a tradition that continued well into the 20th century, and there are still those who hail from Qift working at Egyptian archeological sites today.
“It’s not that there weren’t people who were talented at archeological work from other places in Egypt,” says Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, antiquities curator Lawrence Berman, “but they were particularly talented there, and they developed a reputation.”
Reisner first arrived in Egypt in 1897 as part of a contingent of international experts who were working to organize the Egyptian Museum of Cairo’s already extensive collection, but within a couple of years he’d secured funding and government dispensation to start his own dig site on the Giza plateau. Initially funded by Phoebe Hearst, mother of US publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, and later in 1905 funded by his alma mater Harvard University and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Reisner took Petrie’s innovations—including a more methodical approach to unearthing sites and employing cameras to document excavation progress—and refined them to establish the most-calculated approach to archeology to the date. It depended much on photography.
Reisner also took another page from Petrie’s book by choosing to hire his workers from Qift, even when he was working far to the south in Nubia or other locations outside of Egypt. Early on Reisner began training a select few to handle the cameras. Petrie had shot all of his photos himself, but Reisner didn’t have time. Instead, Reisner’s team had four plate cameras in constant use, a “very well-made snapshot camera” for informal photos, and seven high quality lenses, including a Zeiss wide angle lens. He trained his crew to take and develop photos on site of the digs and issued “standing orders” about what views to take and what plate sizes to use. He also put photography into a chain of onsite documentation, so every good photo negative was registered and prints were crosslinked to record cards for each tomb. One set of prints was numbered in running order to mark the time it was taken while another set was put in a loose-leaf album divided up by subject matter.
Reisner wrote Ibrahim’s name on every print, but cropping in publication often left the matter of credit—or not—to editors.
Once Ibrahim was recruited, around 1906, he began his training as part of the photography crew. “He wasn’t from a photographic family, but he clearly had a passion for this,” says Amr Omar, assistant director for Middle East and Egyptology Collections at the American University of Cairo. “Sometimes, if you hire a professional photographer, he will do his work and get his salary, but that’s not what Mohammedani was doing. He was doing this work with perfectionism, the kind of professionalism that translates to produce exacting, specific excellent work.”
While most early archeological photographers were anonymous employees, Reisner took a different approach. The Indiana native known for a sharp sense of humor and an uncanny resemblance to US President Theodore Roosevelt, made a point of attributing his photography team’s work in the expedition diaries, on each glass-plate negative shipped to Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and in the academic articles published.
“He was crucial to Reisner’s work,” Omar says about Ibrahim. “Soon Mohammedani was so important that his absence or attendance would be recorded in day-to-day business.”
Although Ibrahim followed Reisner’s instructions for views and angles, many of his images are hauntingly beautiful, visually eloquent with subtleties of composition, light and shadow that convey emotion as clearly as they detail the unearthing of a statue, the echoing darkness of a queen’s tomb or a casual evening gathering at the Giza Harvard Camp that housed Reisner, his family and the other foreign members of the team.
Reisner’s mentoring and promotion of Ibrahim, who was named senior photographer in 1914, was unusual at the time. Other Western archeologists treated Egyptian workers just as dismissively as the Antiquities Service treated aspiring local leadership. Western photographers could achieve a higher profile far more easily, such as British archeological photographer Harry Burton, whose photographs of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb and treasures won him acclaim around the world. But no one among the massive Egyptian crew that was working alongside Carter was ever acknowledged.
“It’s not always seen in the photos, but lots of Egyptians were working in all kinds of capacities on these digs,” Riggs says. “It’s only now that we are beginning to acknowledge the Egyptians that were right there every step of the way.”
Reisner was certainly progressive for his time, notes Harvard Egyptology professor and Reisner expert Peter Der Manuelian. Reisner lived in Egypt year-round, was fluent in Arabic, and earned a reputation as a considerate employer whom his Egyptian team came to rely on.
Berman observes that Reisner “had people who worked for him, from young boys to old men, and he took care of them, always making sure to find them work. … He said, ‘Without them we wouldn’t be where we are. These are the people who helped us discover these masterpieces. We owe them.’”
While notable that Reisner usually provided credit for his photographers, he went a step further by publishing the names of every crew member in his academic papers. However, the photos, upon which the photographer’s name was written, were often closely cropped in reproduction, which left the matter of byline to the editors of the publication, and most of the Reisner expedition photos appeared only in scholarly works or to illustrate an artifact at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Although he wasn’t receiving acclaim outside of the Harvard Camp, within it, other than the foreman, Ibrahim was the most-important Egyptian on the team, Omar notes. Ibrahim appears regularly in the expedition records and diaries, with notations about him taking photos at a particular site, going vacationing in Qift, visiting a sick daughter, “going to town without permission,” as one note mentions, or taking a photo that is not part of Reisner’s recordkeeping system without asking first.
The only photo that may show Ibrahim himself is a playful group photo from 1938 showing Harvard Camp’s Egyptian crew, all lined up in rows and smiling proudly. All except for the unidentified man whom researchers believe is likely Ibrahim, stretched out like an enormous cat front and center, slim, mustachioed, propping himself up on one arm and flashing the camera a mischievous grin. He only ceases to appear in the expedition’s published records around Reisner’s final years.
Reisner died in his sleep at Harvard Camp in 1942, and his grave marker in Cairo notes that he was mourned by his family, friends, colleagues, and “by his Egyptian workmen in honor of their mudir [director] and friend.”
The expedition continued for a few more years. “The backers felt honor-bound to ensure that the families who’d depended on Reisner for a living for decades were able to slowly finish up the work and to find other employment gradually and without too much pressure placed on them,” Der Manuelian explains.
From there it’s unclear what happened to Ibrahim, but there are hopes more may be learned about him in the coming years. Many scholars believe that, as they continue to delve into archives and previously overlooked expedition records, just as Egypt’s own sands continue to yield discoveries, they too may find more.
“His photos were never perfunctory. They captured the moments, the details, information that can even help us today to better understand things,” Omar says. “He shot so many photos as well. If a picture is worth a thousand words, Mohammedani Ibrahim gave us a wealth of knowledge.”