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Photography, Archaeology, and Imperialism in the

Nineteenth Century, Part One

Nineteenth Century Imperialism in the
Middle East
Part One: James McDonald and the
Ordnance Survey
It is in fact with the Bible in his hand
that a traveller ought to visit the Holy
Viscount Franois-Ren de
Chateaubriand.Itinraire de Paris
Jrusalem (1811)
Heres a question for you: what is the
connection between a college
graduation, the Suez Canal and the terrorist group ISIS, also known as ISIL? The answer lies in the
political condition of the Ottoman Empire in the Levant in relation to the European powers, which
were circling like vultures of a still stirring corpse as early as the beginning of the nineteenth
century. During the entire nineteenth century, it was easier to pick off chunks of the recumbent
empire than it was to instigate a direct war and the European powers allowed their ally during the
Crimean War to continue as an ineffective shadow of its former self. If nothing else, the continued
existence of the Ottoman Empire was a check on the ambitions of another circling vulture, the rising
Russian Empire. The extent of the inability of the Ottoman Empire to respond to the incursions or
invasions into its territories by its fellow empire makers, France and England, can be measured by
the weak response of Turkey to the French usurpation of Egyptian lands and Egyptian peoples
during the building of the Suez Canal. Ever since Napolon scouted Egypt in 1798 and claimed it as
his conquest before he returned to France, the French were aware to the possibility of cutting a
canal across the Isthmus to connect the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea. Teams of Napolonic
engineers were sent out the explore the feasibility of such a project but incorrectly concluded that
the relative sea levels were too incompatible for such a connection.It wasnt until 1847 that more
modern and accurate surveys revealed that the levels of the Mediterranean and Red Seas were
similar and the dream of a canal was resurrected.

In the intervening decades, England had surged ahead of France and began to build a substantial
empire, with India firmly in the hands of its East India Company, and Great Britaineyed French
activities in Egypt warily. For England, Egypt was an important land bridge to India. Indeed, due to
the Anglo-Turkish Trade Treaty of 1838, the British Empirehad strong trade interests in Egypt,
especially in its cotton, accounting for a lions share of the imports and exports of its subordinated
partner. And in fact, by mid century, the strategic territory was semi-independent from the Ottoman
Empire but under the dubious protection and control of England and France. England, ever
interested in transporting its goods across Egypt, built a railroad, the Alexandria-Cairo-Suez,

completed in 1857. In response to the English activities in Egypt, the French proposed the long
dreamed of Canal across the Suez. Perhaps wisely, the British stood back and allowed the French to
dig the massive trench, intending to claim its rewards in increased trade while spending no English
money in the process. During the messy and corrupt business of building the Canal, the British
protested the sheer scale of theft of lands from a simple people and the outright slavery of the
Egyptian workers in the service of the French government of Napolon III. The Emperor was related
by marriage to the former diplomat,Ferdinand de Lesseps (1805-1894),who was in charge of
financing the project and fashioned a favorable agreement with the viceroy of Egypt, Said Pasha.
Pasha, in return, granted the necessary lands along the canal route and needed the quarries for
materials and the human labor, all provided without costto the French.
Although the actual construction of the Canal began in 1861, the time of the industrial revolution,
the conditions for workers was the same as that of ancient Egypt under the Pharaohsthey worked
with their hands, no machines and no salaries. Machines were expensive and cheap labor, four-fifths
of which worked for free under the threat of government violence,greatly increased the future
profits for the French, especially if those who toiled used the same methods employedunder Pharaoh
Senusret III in 1850 BCE. Igniting a media campaign, the British used the French exploitation of
Egyptian labor as a wedge between the French and the rest of the civilized European world.
Eventually, public opinion and threats from the Ottoman Empire, the Porte, forced the Emperor and
his minions to pay the workers a living wage in 1863 and the increased expense forced the French to
use and even invent machines to build the Canal. The Egyptian government went into such debt
breaking open the Isthmus that it sold the majority of its shares to England and France, who now,
for all intents and purposes, owned the Suez Canal when it opened in 1869 in a ceremony on
November 17surely the high-water mark of the Second Empire. At the request of the viceroy, the
composerGiuseppeVerdi (1813-1901) wrote the opera Aida in 1871 and its famous triumphal march
used for college graduations to this day.

Opening the Suez Canal, November 1869
Historically,Egypt was not the only Middle Eastern territory of the Ottoman Empire where England
and France vied for control. The two nations also took advantage of the lax control of Turkey over
the Levant or the modern nations ofIsrael,Jordan,Lebanon,Palestine,andSyria, and Iraq. This is the
medieval territory of the caliphate or parts of the old Abbasid Caliphate, from mid eighth century to
the mid thirteenth century, predating the Ottoman Empire. By the mid nineteenth century, all of
these nations were withinthe imperial sphere of England and France, as tolerated by the Ottoman
Empire. The extent to which this modern imperialism was self-assured and unchallenged can be
quite literally illustrated by amajor photographic activity in the area, the Ordnance Survey of the
Peninsula of Syria, which includedJerusalem. This massive military and biblical examination of the
holy land was undertaken by the British Empire between 1864 and 1869. Ordnance means exactly
what the word states, weapons, ammunition, guns, cannon, and other military supplies. The result of
this Survey was hundreds of photographs, most taken by a sergeant, James McDonald, in the service
of his country, a military reconnaissance acting under the guise of biblical antiquarians in search of
archaeological sites.

James McDonald.Members of the Sinai Survey
(The Ordnance Survey of the Peninsula of Sinai) (1869)

In 1873, the British publicationThe Athenaeum announced that the Ordnance Survey of the
Peninsula of Sinai made by Capts. C. W. Wilson and H. S. Palmer, R. E., under the direction of Col.
Sir Henry James, R. E., Director-General of the Ordnance Survey. 5 vols. had completed its
publication, explaining that three of the five volumes, containing the photographs, had been
published two years earlier.The newspaper noted that the idea of the Survey was instigated by
religious figures who wanted to explore what was then called the Holy Land to locate the major sites
mentioned in the Bible. The significance of such a religiously inspired survey can be better
understood not only against the backdrop of the Suez Canal in progress and the recent publication
of Charles DarwinsOn the Origin of Species in 1859, a book that challenged conventional Christian
assumptions of faith with suggestive science. Photographs, such as those taken by McDonald, of
Biblical sites were thought to be a form of irrefutable proof of the final truth of the events related in
the Bible itself. Today, as Suzanne Richard pointed out in Near Eastern Archaeology: A
Reader(2003) pointed out, the fields of Biblical archaeology and Palestinian archaeology, i.e.,
religious studies and historical studies, while overlapping in spheres of interest, are separate in
methodologies, but in the dawn of archaeology, there would have been no distinction between the
Bible and actual history.

James McDonald.Seyal (Shittim) Tree, Mouth of Wady Aleyat (from the album Ordinance Survey of
the Peninsula of Sinai (1869)
The Ordnance Survey sprang out of an innocent desire on the part of English scholars to find the
fact of the Bible. Sponsored by Queen Victoria, the Palestine Exploration Fund, or the PEF, was set
up in 1865 by British and American scholars who needed accurate maps and a precise exploration of
the Holy Land. According to the 2013 bookHebrew Bible / Old Testament. The History of Its
Interpretation. III/I: From Modernism to Post-Modernism,the full title of the PEF was Palestine
Exploration Fund. A Society for the Accurate and Systematic Investigation of the Archaeology the
Topography, the Geology and Physical Geography, the Manners and Customs of Holy Land for
Biblical Illustration. The author Steven W. Holloway also noted that From the beginning, the PEF
operated in a place and time when Victorian Protestantism marched openly in step with British
imperial pursuits. When the French built the Suez Canal, the PEF, founded by Arthur Penrhyn
Stanley, Dean of Westminser and Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Oxford, provided
excellent cover for the Ordnance Survey, which produced no nonsense military instruments, virtually
devoid of biblical allusion. This pattern of military cartography under camouflage of biblical research
would be repeated several times by the PEF..or what could be termedGovernmental backing in
theprosecution of Kiplings Great Game, or the imperial contest between England and Russia.
In her 2003 essay, Mapping Sacred Geography: Photographic Surveys by the Royal Engineers in the
Holy Land, 1864-68, Kathleen Stewart Howe noted that the official survey photographer Sergeant
James McDonald posed the Officers of the Royal Engineers ofthe Ordnance Survey with the PEF
scholars of Oxford and Cambridge, who were in the dubious business of claiming the Holy Land as a
uniquely British possession. As the author pointed out, echoing Holloway, Surveying the East, in this
case, the birthplace of Western Christianity, united military surveyors, philologists and biblical
scholars in a quasi-military campaign articulated in terms of the great intellectual project to know
the Orient. The taking, organizing, collecting and viewing of the photographs was an integral part of
that project. Howe recognized the tangled alliance between photography and areas of belief,
intellectual inquiry and imperial claim.As early as 1856 the Engineers had prowled around
Jerusalem, as if they owned the territory outright, examining buildings and and bridges, with the
intent of modernizing where needed, locating sites where soldiers could drill and even Recording the
effects of the explosion of gunpowder in different positions. Keep in mind that all this British activity,

from explosions to photography, was undertaken in the heart of the Ottoman Empire with apparent
Given that the meaning of McDonalds photographs were purely documentary and intended for the
combined military and religious contention that, as the Archbishop of York, William Thomson
expressed it in 1875, Our reason for turning to Palestine is that Palestine our country. I have used
the expression before and I refuse to adopt any other,these images by McDonald are devoid of the
poetry expressed by Eadweard Muybridge in Yosemite and lack the flights of imagination played out
by Timothy OSullivan in the barren deserts of Western America. McDonald was required to record
the territories of Jerusalem and the Sinai Peninsula for two purposes, military information and
religious convictions, or as Howe eloquently expressed the role of the photographs as graphic
articulations of a physical possession, defined and justified by a pervasive geopiety centre on the
lands of he Bible; at the same time, they reinforce that attachment to sacred place with is geopiety.

James McDonald.Mount Sinai.PEF Palestine Exploration Fund (1868-1869)

Little is known of McDonald himself
beyond the fact that he was a Color
Sergeant who had been selected for
the task due to his dual expertise in
surveying and photography. The Royal
Engineers were among the first
military units that instituted
photography as a basic skill taught to
the specialists. McDonald, however,
was primarily a surveyor,his main task
for the Palestinian Exploration Fund.
Like all the engineers, he was part of a
support group, providing expertise to
the scholars, but when he wasnt
engaged in the Survey itself, he was
expected to take photographs of
important religious sites. In his role as photographer, McDonald worked directly under the personal
supervision ofthe Director General of the Ordnance Survey, Major General Sir Henry James, who
had been instrumental in raising the public subscriptions or funding which paid for the Survey and
its staff, including the photographer. Sir Henry even used his own money to purchase the necessary
photographic equipment and supplies, and the photographs taken by McDonald should be
considered as supplemental to or illustrative of the (military) maps produced by the Survey party. As
James explained, This map is especially required by Biblical scholars and the public, to illustrate the
Bible history, and to enable them, if possible, to trace the routes which were taken by the Israelites
in their wanderings in the wilderness of Sinai and to identify the mountain from which the Law was
given. Despite the private/public hybridity of the mission of the Survey, the images taken by
McDonald are singularly lacking in any spiritual feeling. It is clear that the Sergeant did not seek
either light or shadow to imply religious implications or significance. Instead, the photographs are
best seen as imperial images, worked up by a military man with a straightforward mind, recording
the terrain of a weakened ally, Turkey, which was allowing Britain to possess and map what would
be its future possessions. In an age of empiricism and positivism, photographs could be matched to

biblical sites and became part of an archaeological collection of evidence that reinforced stories told
in the Bible. The intellectual thought process matched the straightforwardness of a McDonald
image: if a place mentioned in the Bible can be found, then the existence of this sacred terrain
proves that the Bible is not only true but also history. Charles Darwin was thus challenged on the
empirical ground of scientific evidence.
If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette andArt History Unstuffed. Thank you.