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!
Canberra is a town where Australia's military history is plain to see. Lining the broad avenue of Anzac Parade are a series of memorials commemorating individual campaigns and arms of the service, leading up to the monolithic Australian War Memorial. Not only is this impressive precinct testament to the powers of town planning, but (as you probably could have predicted if you have been reading this blog with any regularity) the history of Australia and New Zealand's involvement with the Middle East is sprinkled throughout the memorials and in the museum itself.
Further up Anzac Parade, on the other side of the road there is a very different memorial. The Kemal Ataturk Memorial, opened in 1985, was designed to honour Mustafa Kemal who led the Turkish troops opposing the Anzac landings at Gallipoli. He later went on to become the first President of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, but is a figure wrapped in legend. The famous 'mothers wipe away your tears' speech, which is credited to Ataturk was, almost certainly, not delivered by him, and indeed was finessed by an Australian Gallipoli veteran in the 1970s to be the speech with which we are familiar. Fittingly, however, for a man dubbed Ataturk (or 'Father of the Turks'), there was a wreath placed at the memorial when I visited, wishing Mustafa Kemal a happy father's day.
Finally we make it to the Australian War Memorial itself. Unique among national war memorials, the AWM is a museum of Australia's involvement in war from the First World War through to modern conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a war museum, it is full of exhibits relating to the Middle East (which says something of the nature of our relationship with this region over the past century). I wanted to single out one particularly interesting, and controversial, collection item for discussion.
During the Second Battle of Gaza in April 1917, Australian troops overran Turkish trenches near the town of Shellal, and found that the Turks had partially uncovered remains of a sixth century Byzantine mosaic. In a fitting symbol for the destructive effects of war on all things bright and beautiful, the mosaic was damaged from having a machine gun nest dug into it. Others have told the story of how the mosaic made its way to Australia, so I will not do that here. All I will say is that artifacts like the Shellal Mosaic have recently become objects of interest again with the growing call for repatriation of cultural treasures looted by colonial powers.
The placement of the mosaic makes me wonder if the AWM is aware of the controversial nature of the object but is uncertain how to manage that controversy. It was not easy to find in the museum - I had to ask an attendant for help locating it, and it was hidden away behind a partition wall in the otherwise unrelated Hall of Valour, which commemorates Australia's Victoria Cross recipients. I could be reading too much into this placement. It simply could be that there are few places to display the admittedly very large artwork, but it seemed a curious choice when there are several large open galleries relating to the Palestine campaign in which the mosaic was discovered.
The reason I was in Canberra was to attend the '1919-1939 - Towards a New History of the Interwar Period' conference at UNSW Canberra. It was an enlightening couple of days, covering everything from economics and international law, to interwar art and literature and the Australian military in the 20s and 30s. I would like to acknowledge the generous support of UNSW Canberra and the Society for Military History in enabling me to attend the conference, and participate in a series of interesting and stimulating discussions.
In late August, we had the pleasure of hosting Dr Meredith Lake, author of The Bible in Australia: A Cultural History, for two days. Her book has just won the Australian History Prize in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, recognizing its readability, the wide-ranging exploration of the ways the Bible infused Australia’s past, and her argument that in order to understand the colonial history of Australia (and we’d add New Zealand), we must better understand how the Bible operated as a cultural and literary text in our societies.
The Bible is central to our project. It was the key way in which Australasians encountered the Middle East in the late 19th century, and it was the common reference point for almost all Australians and New Zealanders who went to the region in the first half of the 20th century. Sunday schools and Bible study groups flourished in the mid to late nineteenth-century as part of what Lake calls a ‘church boom’ in the colonies. Sermons and family bible reading ensured that the lessons of the Old and New Testaments were tightly woven into daily life in Australia and New Zealand.
Bibles were also the most common book soldiers took to war. Harold Kretschmar’s Bible Study group gave him a Bible before he embarked, which had a photograph of the group pasted inside the front cover. Australasians learned the Bible in varying depth, but for most, at the very least, ‘the Holy Land’ was the place of Jesus’ birth and death. Chaplains and padres led tours and gave lectures to men and women who were stationed in the Middle East. How men reacted to the sights of the Holy Land were also influenced by Bible-learning with many soldiers being dismayed by the ornateness of the Church of the Nativity, or the commercialism of what they saw as sacred places.
Sunday Schools were a vital mechanism for learning the Bible in the early 20th century, probably more so than church attendance. As well as the establishment of Sunday School classes across Australia and New Zealand, large numbers of tracts, newspapers, and journals were produced for young readers and those who taught them. Illustrated Bibles and Children's Bibles were especially popular, creating not only stories of the Bible and its peoples and landscapes for children, but images as well.
Last week, I was in Melbourne doing more research for the project and I'll be honest, it was mixed. Research is like this: you can't find gold every time. So I'll start with the disappointments.
Before the publication of the Australian Women's Weekly from 1933, there was a range of women's magazines that catered for readers of different classes and interests. Most of these aren't digitized and, more importantly, are on poor-quality microfilm. That's the first barrier to their use, but if you can get past that, they have some amazing content. The Everylady's Journal was published in Melbourne from 1911-1931 as a magazine for "women of Australasia", and published a regular column on how the political system worked, features on "What Girls Should Read" and asked readers to send a postcard listing 6 books they were glad they had read. Distractingly, they also published articles on "Do Australasian Girls have too Much Liberty?" (don't read that Kate!) Fashions were important in this magazine, especially because Everylady's Journal offered paper patterns "with instruction by experts" by post so that readers could make their own dresses, undergarments and children's wear.
But there was nothing to help me with the influence of the Middle East in Australia - no fashions obviously influenced by 'Eastern' glamour; no desert romances reviewed; no cosmetic advertisements (in fact cosmetics seemed positively frowned upon in general). So, that was a day of micofilm-induced headaches for nothing.
On the other hand, Australian Home Beautiful, first published in 1925, was more promising. It was the DIY building and decorating magazine of its time, with articles on featured houses, aspects of house design and furnishings, and a gardening section.
The nurse and the correspondent
I visited the Melbourne Museum to view the photographic collection of WWII nurse Isabel Plante who served mainly in the Middle East. Isabel, her friends and colleagues worked in strenuous conditions and took their periods of leave to have as much fun as they could. Isabel's album presents a world we can't imagine: shopping in Tripoli, visits to Tel Aviv and Beirut, and, as often as they could, they swam at the beach at Gaza.
'My Dears,' she wrote home in one of her letters to Australia, 'We had another day at the beach yesterday for the first time in a long time. I was so tired by the end of the day I could hardly stand. I only had two hours sleep before the boys called for us - we went into Gaza to Spinney's for our usual spot of dinner and the combination of lack of sleep, nothing to eat since 6pm the night before... and the heat when we came out into the street was nearly too much for me. However with some dinner I came good and when we went out to the beach the water did the trick...'
One last delight from Melbourne is the Forum on Flinders Street... we'll have a blog post on theatres very soon, but you could look at the theatre in your own town next time you walk past. You might be looking at a Persian Palace too. Let us know if you are!
In recent weeks, I have been up at Auckland War Memorial Museum doing some research for the project. In doing so, I realised (as I have so many times over the past year and a half) what a rich treasure-trove of New Zealand’s Middle Eastern history is out there, once you start looking for it. Here are some highlights from my recent visit.
Auckland War Memorial Museum, PH-ALB-495-1
The AWMM houses the five souvenir photo albums that Sergeant John Starr collected during the Second World War. Each of the albums was unique in its material and design, but this album of ‘Views of Jerusalem’ stood out. It is a small album, each page only big enough for one photo, but the front and back were embellished with decorated wooden blocks, that appear to have been glued over top of the original leather covers. These blocks have been hand painted with the words ‘Souvenir of the Holy Land’, ‘Jerusalem’, and a scene of 'Rachel’s Tomb'. Souvenir albums were popular with New Zealand soldiers in the Middle East, but I have never seen one like this before, with such a high level of customisation done to the cover.