Egypt Through The Stereoscope

A Journey Through The Land Of The Pharaohs

by James Henry Breasted | 1908 | 103,705 words

Examines how stereographs were used as a means of virtual travel. Focuses on James Henry Breasted's "Egypt through the Stereoscope" (1905, 1908). Provides context for resources in the Travelers in the Middle East Archive (TIMEA). Part 3 of a 4 part course called "History through the Stereoscope."...


In connection with the duties of university teaching and its modern obligation to carry on constant research, it has also been my privilege during the last ten years, to begin the work of making a public wider than that of the university lecture-room, acquainted with the life, customs, history, and monuments of the ancient Egyptians. In this latter attempt I have met with a number of different plans for private study, for class study, for lecture courses and the like, among women's clubs, extension centres, literary societies, and similar organizations.

I have been and am still constantly appealed to for outline studies and lists of books, which will furnish the individual student and the reading class or study circle with the material necessary for their study. Heretofore I have never been able to find any books or material which could furnish graphic reproductions of the remains still surviving in the ancient lands of the East, or of those lands and their people as they are today, coupled with an adequate account of their long history, of their life and customs. It was, therefore, with peculiar satisfaction that I made the acquaintance of this system of stay-at-home travel, the great merits of which are but beginning to be appreciated. By its use an acquaintance can be gained, here at home, with the wonders of the Nile Valley, which is quite comparable with that obtained by traveling there.

In my judgment there is no other existent means by which this result can be accomplished. The map system, simple, ingenious, and pedagogically sound, first furnishes a clear idea of locality in every case; and with this in mind, these superb stereographs furnish the traveler, while sitting in his own room, a vivid prospect as through an open window, looking out upon scene after scene, from one hundred carefully selected points of view along the Nile. By this means, then, the joys of travel can be extended to that large class of our people, who thirst for an acquaintance with the distant lands of other ages, but are prevented by the expense involved, or by the responsibilities of home, business or profession.

It was with this conviction, that I have undertaken, in the midst of a heavy burden of numerous other duties, the task of standing with the traveler at every point of view, to be his cicerone, and to furnish him with the indispensable wealth of associations, of historical incident, or archaeological detail suggested by the prospect spread out before him. Nowhere in the ancient world have its great monuments been preserved in such numbers, or so completely as in the Nile Valley, and nowhere, therefore, is the visitor carried back into the remote past so vividly as among the myriad monuments that rise along the shores of the Nile.

Realizing, then, that this land of monumental marvels, so rich in the works of men, has in the past been closed to the average man, and accessible only to him whose means and leisure permitted him to make the journey of the Nile, I have here endeavored to work out this system of travel for Egypt. It enables the great host of those whose constant dream of travel has heretofore remained unrealized to stand under the shadow of the greatest architectural and other monumental works of the ancient Orient and to feel with the sense of substantial reality that these venerable structures are actually rising yonder before the beholder's eye.

These experiences in the presence of all the myriad witnesses of a mighty past, can not only be a source of untold pleasure and instruction, but also, can enormously expand the horizon of daily life, more truly making the beholder a “citizen of the world” than he can ever hope to be without actually visiting these distant lands. In the preparation of the following pages, I have constantly had my eyes within the hood of the stereoscope, and I cannot forbear to express here the growing surprise and delight, with which I observed as the work proceeded, that it became more and more easy to speak of the prospect revealed in the instrument, as one actually spread out before me.

The surprising depth and atmosphere with which the scientifically constructed instrument interpreted what were actually but bits of paper and pasteboard, were a revelation; indeed, I constantly sat by an open window looking out over the actual ruins of the Nile Valley, which I could study, one after another, at will. To the believing beholder there are precious moments, when the mind is perfectly convinced of the reality of the scene before him, and such moments, persistently sought and repeated, come more and more easily as one accustoms himself to the instrument, until afterward the mind looks back upon it all, with essentially all the sensations of having seen the reality; and an actual visit to the place can do little more.

Moreover, by the repeated use of the stereograph, the scene can be often reimpressed upon the mind's eye, and herein lies one of the greatest advantages of this system of stay-at-home travel, that the trip may be made as often as one likes. Much more might be said upon this subject of the possibilities of the stereoscope, but I can only refer the reader to such opinions as that of Oliver Wendell Holmes,[1] to the very useful literature on the subject issued by the publishers, and to my own remarks in connection with the Itinerary (pages 49-51).

It should, also, be said here, that the selection of the stereographed scenes employed, was facilitated by the dispatch of a special artist in the employ of the publishers, to make on the spot a large list of stereographs, indicated by the author, who located the position for each stereograph on maps and plans, the list being accompanied by full instructions. Were it possible to eliminate the element of accident in the production of such a series of stereographs, there would be no difficulty in placing in the author's hands by this method, all and exactly the stereographs wanted. Happily there are in this series only three cases in which the author would have made a different selection had accident not prevented.

The selection of the places to be visited and studied by this system has not been an easy task, and another familiar with the country and its monuments might have made a different choice in some cases. The number of considerations involved in making a representative selection is not small, and every effort has been put forth to be fair to all these considerations. Should this book fall into the hands of an oriental scholar, let him be assured that the orthography of the Arabic proper names is as unsatisfying to the author as to him.

It should, however, be remembered that this book is intended for practical purposes, in the hands of readers who know nothing about and care less for the intricacies of Arabic orthography,—readers to whom the complications of a full and correct system of transliteration, however carefully explained, would mean nothing, and cause only vexation and confusion. In the reproduction of such names, the simplest possible form has been used, with practically no diacritical marks.

If the reader unfamiliar with Arabic will pronounce all the vowels as in Italian, or the continental languages, they will be nearly enough correct for his purposes. The necessity of maintaining the sense of location is sufficient reason for the colloquial tone adopted in these rambles. This also will explain the insistent repetition of the bearings and orientation of each position, a repetition which experience has shown to be essential and useful.

The author wishes here to acknowledge great obligation to Herr Karl Baedeker for permission to use the admirable maps and plans from his unsurpassed guidebook of Egypt. With the exception of the first three, all the maps and plans in the accompanying series are reproduced from his “Egypt.” The large map of Egypt (No. 3) was drawn in Berlin under the author's supervision, from the atlas of ancient Egypt, issued by the Egypt Exploration Fund.

James Henry Breasted.

The University of Chicago, April 1, 1905.

Footnotes and references:


Oliver Wendell Holmes contributed two articles on the Stereoscope and Stereoscopic Photographs to The Atlantic Monthly. These articles have been republished by Underwood & Underwood, and will be sent on request.

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