The Holy Land, 150 Years Ago: Snapshots of a Royal Mideast Tour

Images taken of the Prince of Wales' 1862 tour of the region - the first time a photographer accompanied a royal tour - provide a rare glimpse into the impressions of a young King Edward VII.

On February 6, 1862, the 21-year-old Prince of Wales – later to become King Edward VII – departed for a four-month tour of the Middle East. A year earlier, his parents, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, decided to send their young son on this educational tour so he would become familiar with ancient civilizations, history and religions. It would also offer him the chance to meet many of the rulers and diplomats in the region, an experience that they regarded as an essential part of his training as heir to the throne.

The prince was accompanied by the London-born photographer Francis Bedford. Queen Victoria instructed him to photograph Palestine and it surroundings, thus making Bedford the first photographer on a royal tour. He took some 200 shots during the trip.

A collection of these photographs – as well as the diary kept by the prince during the tour (available online) -- are now exhibited at Queen's Gallery at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, in Edinburgh. The exhibition, "Cairo to Constantinople: Early Photographs of the Middle East," is to be shown at Buckingham Palace as well from November 2014 through February 2015. 

Riding on horses and sleeping in tents along the road, the royal tour passed through Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Greece, meeting many leaders, diplomats and notable figures on the way.

In Egypt the members of the entourage visited Cairo and Alexandria, but spent most of their time sailing on the Nile, stopping at selected sites. In his diary, the prince complained of the devastating heat. At the pyramids the royal entourage rode on camels, an experience described by the prince as an unpleasant mode of conveyance. On March 5, the prince climbed to the top of one of the pyramids at 5:30 in the morning, describing the ascent as "rather tedious & difficult," before adding "but you are rewarded by a fine view on the top."

In Palestine they visited Jaffa, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron, Nablus and the Galilee. On March 29, the entourage reached Jaffa, where the Royal Yacht was anchored. The following day they rode horses to Jerusalem visiting Beit Horon, where they viewed the Valley of Ayalon. They reached Jerusalem on March 31, and camped outside the Old City walls, near Damascus Gate. On their first evening in the city they explored the walls.

The prince, who received special permission to visit the holy sites of Islam, toured the Dome of the Rock and the mosque in Hebron. Bradford was also granted special permission to photograph the sites, snapping a shot of the Dome of the Rock on April 1, 1862.

On April 3 the prince recorded his impression of the visit to Bethlehem: "Our tents were struck at 8:30 A.M. & we started at that time (on horseback of course) for Bethlehem… passing on the way Rachel’s Tomb …. On arriving at Bethlehem we visited the Church of the Nativity."

On April 21 they reached Capernaum in the Galilee. In one of the photographs in the exhibition, the entourage is seen picnicking under a fig tree. The prince wrote that day in his diary: "We lunched under a fig tree at 12 o’clock … Mr. Bedford photographed us 'en groupe.'"

In the course of the tour the prince also "collected" several archaeological artifacts, as Queen Victoria had ordered him to do, with special emphasis on items from Egypt and Rhodes.

In Syria and Lebanon they visited castles and fortresses built by the Crusaders in the 12th century. After touring Damascus the prince visited an archaeological site in Baalbek in Lebanon and arrived in Beirut on May 6. The prince loved the people and the city, and wrote in his diary: "The streets through the town & outside of it were crowded with people who gave us an excellent reception, but we were nearly smothered with dust."

The Royal Yacht took them to Tripoli and Tyre, and on to Rhodes. The prince then spent a week in Constantinople, where he visited a hospital that was used by British soldiers in the Crimean War in 1855. On their way home, they stopped in Athens and several Greek islands.

Shortly after the trip, Bedford's photos were displayed in an exhibition that was touted "the most important photographic exhibition that has hitherto been placed before the public."