Sitting astride docile-looking camels, a group of soldiers carry a mix of stern, soldierly expressions and slightly bemused smiles on their faces. Some of the soldiers cross their legs over the saddles like experienced camel riders (though they probably are not). Rising up out of the sand dunes behind them is the noseless head of the Sphinx and one of the Pyramids of Giza. Just visible in the sand at a camel's hoof is a number, the photographer's record of which of the many groups that will fill his day is being recorded.
Or perhaps it is a nurse on the camel. She does not look entirely comfortable – her uniform dress not designed to accommodate the bulky saddle with its striped blanket. She clutches tightly to the saddle horn with her right hand in a bid for stability. The camel is held in place by a local man, dressed in floor-length galabieh holding some kind of stick or riding crop.
Australasians, of course, knew of the pyramids and the sphinx before they visited Egypt in wartime. Through reading and classroom learning, as well as through religious education and entertainment, these ancient wonders were emblematic of the cradle of civilization, and almost always associated with camels. In the New Zealand Catholic newspaper, The Tablet, the correspondent "'Viator" wrote a lyrical column about visiting Cairo in 1900.
"A souvenir of our visit to the pyramids is a photograph of our party, mounted on camels, with the dragoman and Bedouin guides in the foreground, and for background the pyramids, the immortal Sphinx, the Libyan desert." (The Tablet, 28 Feb 1901)
The visual pairing of Egypt's ancient monuments and camels was so strong that illustrations of camels simply became shorthand for the 'mythical' Middle East, its ancient trade lines, the desert landscape, and its 'foreign-ness'. Tourist brochures, advertisements, and religious literature where Eastern 'allure' was required usually involved a camel. They also represented the myth of the unchanged and unchanging 'East' where life continued as it had since before the Bible. In the advertisement below from The Home Quarterly (1920), a modern, 'Western' couple are contrasted with the symbols of 'ancient' culture and people. Even though thousands of Australasians had witnessed the cosmopolitanism of the modern Middle East for themselves - especially in Cairo - these symbols were deeply persistent.
The camel and sphinx combination was also one that Egyptians themselves were happy to promote. Thousands of Arab photographers, tour guides, camel drivers and food and drink vendors made their living from foreign tourists. Their voices are harder to capture from this period. When Melbourne woman Tressie Madden visited her brother Frank in Cairo in 1905, she wrote home of Hassan, the man who guided her tourist activities: Tressie was invited to Hassan's house for a meal where she met his wife and children and wrote of the guide's comfortable home. Tressie described Hassan as 'amusing' and found him a reassuring presence when travelling at night. Hassan's brother Abdul was also a guide, hinting at a successful family business. Hassan and Abdul preferred to use donkeys, not camels, for their clients, however. Camels were photogenic, but donkeys were much more comfortable to ride!