Photography in Ancient Egypt

Ka Statue from The Egyptian Museum in Cairo

Ka Statue from The Egyptian Museum in Cairo

A bit of fun today–a fantasy in what I would call the “Sandpunk” genre. While researching a previous post on early 20th-century mummy portraits, I ran across this 1916 story, “Photography in Ancient Egypt.”

My name is Amenophis, and I was born five thousand years ago in Hermopolis, which was at that time one of the principal cities of the Middle Empire of Egypt. I am at present lying in a mummy-case in the north wing of the Egyptian section of the British Museum. Those who pause to gaze curiously at me do not realize that I can still see all that passes my mummy-case, nor that the long years I have lain here incapable of movement have enabled me to pick up a very fair knowledge of modern languages.

For this reason I was amused, but not astonished, when, last Thursday, a party of tourists which had stopped in front of my niche to take photographs, began to make sport at my expense.

“Imagine this old boy’s surprise,” chuckled a youth in a bright sweater, “if he could wake up and see the pictures I am taking of him. I’ll bet those old fellows back there fifty centuries would have had a fit if they had seen a camera.” The rest of the party laughed, and I was smothering my indignation as best I could, when a kind-faced young lady took the speaker to task.

“Jimmie, how do you know they didn’t have cameras back in the old days? They may have had better ones than yours, if the truth were known.” I could not hear the reply, as they were moving on, but in my heart I blessed the young lady for her kind words, and then my mind left the stone mummy-case in its stuffy little niche and traveled back through the shadowy centuries to the time when I was as young and self-confident as the tourist who had taken my picture. At that time I, like him, believed there was nothing worth knowing that I did not know. Only in my own case my self-esteem led to disastrous results, and, strange to relate, it was this very invention — photography — which caused all the trouble.

My father was the leading physician of Hermopolis, and it was while experimenting with some of his chemicals that I acquired the secret which led to the terrible consequences I have mentioned.

All Egyptian men of science had, for centuries before, made use of the camera in their scientific research-work and for the recording of experiments not involving human likenesses. But none but a madman would have thought of making general use of an invention which would make a likeness of the earthly body of a man, but record no impression of his double, or KA, that elusive but all-important spirit without which man may not exist; for it is only by virtue of its all-powerful protection that the evil spirits which lurk everywhere are kept from destroying him utterly.

Should any be so utterly mad as to do this, the offended KA would instantly forsake the body of the subject photographed, leaving it to its fate. Therefore, the Egyptians took no pictures save of inanimate objects, and then only in specially designed studios where no human being could possibly get in the picture.

The secret I so unhappily stumbled upon was of so stupendous a nature that even now I shrink at mentioning it. It was none other than a formula whereby the KA could be included in the same picture with the man.

Like many other great discoveries, it was totally accidental. I was engaged in trying to discover a method whereby the natural colors could be rendered on the plate, and had devised some specially colored lenses for the purpose. Our knowledge of the coloring and working of glass was far superior to that of your modern lens-makers, and my equipment was such as could have been made only in that time. The art of making malleable glass, invented and practised by us Egyptians, was neglected and, finally, lost during the decline of Egyptian supremacy. Despite the wonderful progress of the nineteenth century, it still remains one of the lost arts.

Having adjusted my camera to my satisfaction, I departed for the northern section of the city, intending to take some views of the tombs of the kings, which were elaborately colored. I also had a desire to experiment undisturbed, and no one ever goes to that section except for a purpose.

I made several exposures, using two different lenses and several kinds of plates, and returned to my laboratory to develop them. Imagine my stupefaction, and even horror, when I discovered the deserted scenes I had photographed to be peopled by myriads of figures, among which my hasty glance recognized several well-known kings. There could be but one explanation of this remarkable phenomenon. I had at last discovered the secret which the scientists had vainly sought for centuries. I had photographed the KA, the soul of man, and my name would go down the ages as the greatest inventor of the day.

Without delay I communicated my remarkable discovery to my father, who was as much astounded and pleased as myself.

We made preparations to photograph one of the slaves, not being willing as yet to trust entirely our own bodies in the test; but before the experiment was made, my father communicated the fact of my discovery to the high priest, Baknishonsu, who during the day mentioned it to Pharaoh. Immediately the news was imparted to him, Pharaoh desired to be the first to have his picture taken. The messenger arrived just in time to prevent the experiment being made upon the slave. Would to Osiris he had been late!

A request from such a source could admit of nothing but compliance, so with all speed my father and I hurried to the palace. Prostrating myself before the great ruler, I told him of my experiment, and offered him the plates I had taken among the tombs. He examined them, recognizing among them the KA of his father and grandfather, as well as others of his acquaintances and relatives.

Any doubts I might have dared to express, for a single minute, would not have been listened to after this recognition, and I was instructed to prepare at once to photograph the great Thothmes.

I made three plates, in order to guard against any possible failure, and hurried home to develop and print them. Imagine my horror when the ruby lamp revealed a most excellent likeness of the king, sitting upon his great throne, dressed in his robes of state — but alas! no sign of his soul, or KA, without which my daring experiment was a sacrilege. This appalling discovery nearly bereft me of my reason. For days I wandered in the marshes to the east of the city, fearing to return, and subsisted upon the berries and nuts I could collect.

When finally I mustered sufficient courage to venture back to the city, it was to have my worst fears confirmed. Pharaoh had sickened the day after his picture was taken, and the physicians held out no hope of his recovery. My father was already in custody, and a strong guard was scouring the country for my unfortunate self, with instructions to bring me to the guard-room of the palace, dead or alive. Without any resistance whatever I gave myself up, and my father and I together bewailed our unfortunate experiment.

Neither of us doubted that it would cost us our lives in the event of Pharaoh’s death, and we were equally certain that this would take place. The only thing that troubled us was as to how the spirit-images on my plates could have become imprinted, if the device was incapable of taking the soul of a man who was alive.

The next day our vain speculations were interrupted by a messenger who bade us follow him to the throne-room. There we found Pharaoh’s son, dressed in mourning, who in a terrible voice told us to prepare for death. We were prepared for the worst form of tortures which the cruelty of man could suggest, but were almost overcome when the order was given us to stand forth and have our pictures taken. In vain we implored the king for mercy. He was inflexible. In the same manner as we had assassinated his beloved father, we should ourselves die. The pictures were taken, and within a week my father was a corpse. He never held up his head afterward. As for myself, I was prostrated with grief. My mind was for weeks a blank. I awoke from a long spell of brain-fever to find myself an outcast from mankind. I lived, it is true, but I truly believe my double left me after my father’s death, for I never felt the same again. Go where I would, I could not shake off the heavy sense of impending evil.

For years I wandered from city to city, always with the fear of death stalking at my heels, without joy in the present or hope of the future. Sometimes I tried to settle down and work off the strange fears which assailed me; but something was lacking, and fears and forebodings of evil drove me away from the place again.

At last I crossed the seas into Babylonia, and for a time prospered as an engraver in a jeweler’s establishment. I thought that at last my troubles were at an end, and that the penance for my folly was over; but it was not so to be.

My employer had an only son, who had gone to Thebes to buy some ivory-work, and while there had been stricken with blindness. Being an old man, he could not make such a journey himself, and he besought me, by our past friendship, to go thither and bring his son to Babylon. With many misgivings I at last consented — I could do little else in the circumstances — and set out at once.

I arrived at Thebes only to learn that the unfortunate young man had fallen from a high roof and been killed, and, while preparing to leave with my sad tidings, I was smitten with some strange malady which the physicians could not diagnose, and rapidly sank into a decline. In my heart I knew that the long-delayed punishment for my temerity had arrived, and that no medicines would be of the slightest avail.

Having resigned myself to my fate, I commended my soul, wherever it might have taken up its abode, to Osiris, and quitted a life which, for nearly a score of years, had been little but a mockery. I was embalmed according to the best practice, as my purse was well lined, and my body deposited in a rock-tomb in the Theban hills.

After nearly fifty centuries, I was discovered and brought hither to the Museum, where I lie and watch the crowds pass, for the most part with idle curiosity, unless some chance remark serves to turn my thoughts backward across the vista of centuries to the troubled time of my sojourn among the cities of the Triple Kingdom. Perhaps, someday, a modern wizard will discover the secret which so long eluded the students of my time. When this is done, I am convinced that my KA will return to its rightful abiding-place, and my niche in the Egyptian section will know me no more. The other day I saw a tourist with a strange and new pattern of camera, which he held in front of him, looking down into a sort of collapsible hood. For an instant I thought that the time had arrived; but I must have been mistaken, for I have not had my double restored to me.

I, who have watched so many centuries glide by, can afford to have patience, however. No doubt the deliverer will appear in the time when the gods appoint. It is quiet in the Museum, and quiet reflection and hope are the things, above all others, most to be desired.

“Photography in Ancient Egypt,” Edward Lee Harrison, Photo-era, Volumes 36-37 1916, pp 274-277

In 1916 spirit photography, after the damning exposures of the 19th century, was making a comeback in the wake of the casualties of the Great War. Perhaps the author was poking fun at spirit photography as he wrote about photographing the KA.

I know nothing about the author except that he was a photographer and wrote technical articles on the subject. As far as I can tell, this was his only piece of fiction.

Any biographical snapshots of the author? Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com