Postcard Album: Ancient Egypt: Where tourists go, vintage postcards follow

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Postcards from The British Museum show more detail than the Egyptian-produced ones, but the color isn't as subtle and attractive. Images courtesy Barbara Andrews

What do Alexander the Great, Caesar and Napoleon have in common — aside from being ruthless conquerors? If their time in Egypt comes to mind, you’re 100 percent right.

Alexander lingered there to explore the mysteries of the ancient religion. Caesar spent time bonding with the last Pharaoh, Cleopatra. And Napoleon brought an army, hoping to take the country away from the Ottoman Empire. None of these famous military men can be called tourists, but their interest reflects the awe and fascination people of all ages have had for Egypt.

Nobody built as many elaborate tombs as the ancient Egyptians. From the massive pyramids made for Pharaohs to the secret labyrinths in the Valley of the Kings, thousands of years of history are wonderfully preserved. These wonders have been a magnet for travelers from Roman times to the present.

Tourists must have souvenirs. Napoleon brought a host of scholars and artists along with his army and managed to snag the Rosetta stone. His people were only the vanguard of an army of archeologists and looters who helped themselves to tons of priceless artifacts now housed in museums worldwide. (The Egyptians would like them back, of course.)

Between Napoleon’s aborted attempt to conquer Egypt and Howard Carter’s discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1924, the country became the ultimate traveler’s destination. Fortunately, not every tourist could afford to ship a mummy or a priceless artifact home. For those with greater scruples or less cash, postcards hit the racks in the early 1900s.

 ancient egypt memphis vintage postcard
Pierre Agopian published “The Grave of Memphis.” The pictures on the sides were also used on “Joseph and Pharaoh,” which isn’t a reproduction of a tomb painting. The spelling is French! This series is more fanciful than the others, but the detail and color are outstanding.

Like every other country, Egypt sold a lot of cards showing local attractions. The pyramids, the Sphinx and temple ruins are common scenic cards. Native types are less common, but not rare.
The ultimate fascination for visitors is the ancient art. No high-status tomb was complete without extensive wall paintings with religious significance. The story of ancient Egypt is preserved in the burial places, thanks in great part to the dry climate.

The most beautiful postcards to come out of Egypt are artist-drawn reproductions of the tomb art. Three series from the early 1900s especially stand out for their subtle but lovely coloring and attention to detail. The first was published by J.D. Auria in Cairo. There are at least 18 cards in the series, all printed with undivided backs that have a red border and both French and Egyptian writing on the address side. Some, but not all, have a caption in English, as well as French.

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Postcards from The British Museum depict priests performing an “opening of the mouth” ceremony. Prices can range from $5 to $10 per card.

De Giogio of Cairo published several lettered series with at least six postcards in each. The backs are the same as Auria’s, suggesting that they were printed by one firm and sold to individual publishers. A third series, also using the same back, was made for Pierre Agopian of Alexandria. The highest-numbered card in my collection is No. 25, but there could be others. None of the cards I’ve seen have been mailed, suggesting that travelers bought them as keepsakes.

To round out a collection of Egyptian art cards, it’s necessary to look for those made by The British Museum. They were issued in series designated by letters and numbers. B 52 is the highest numeral in my collection, while the mummy series are all C’s. These, too, have undivided backs, but unlike the Egyptian issues, they were printed on heavy card stock. The color is good, but not as outstanding as on the Egyptian-made postcards.

This is only a sampling of how widespread the production of Egyptian souvenir postcards was during the 20th century. Sometimes there was artistic license, in that the artists didn’t produce exact copies of tomb art, but their work adds beauty and interest to any collection.

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More Images:

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There's much to be learned from The British Museum's postcards, even though they don't originate in Egypt. One series shows mummy cases in the museum's collection. This one belongs to a priestess of Amen-Ra from around 1000 B.C. It's numbered C10.
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The Book of the Dead was just what the name implies: a guidebook for the life beyond. This postcard issued by Auria shows a "leaf" out of the book.

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