The Philadelphia photographer William Herman Rau captured the temple at Wadi es-Sebua on the banks of the Nile River while on a six-month journey through the Arabian desert to Mount Sinai, Petra, and Palestine in the winter of 1882–83. Erected to honor the pharaoh Ramesses II by his viceroy in Nubia, the temple complex was known as the Valley of the Lions due to its sphinx-lined avenue, which was drowned with sand by the time of Rau’s arrival. Rau’s composition reconstructs the buried processional way by funneling the viewer’s eye between extant sphinx and collosi toward the subject of interest, the temple, in the distance. In order to define a foreground space, Rau posed a local man beneath the camera. The photographer took pains to organize the seemingly endless and shapeless desert into a coherent pictorial structure that followed Western picturesque landscape principles, with a clear foreground, middle ground, and background. The prone figure further implies the lassitude of Oriental life in contrast to the American spirit of energy and progress. Rau and his travel party were intensely nationalistic; they each carried a silk American flag, which they “waved on all particular occasions.”
Despite the photograph’s distanced view of the temple, the image also emphasizes the surfaces of the structure. Rau made use of the dry plate process, which allowed for a high level of architectural detail and clarity while obviating the need to prepare and develop negatives on the spot as required by wet plate photography. Rau was the first known photographer to use dry plate photography in the Holy Land.
Sturgis owned twenty Egyptian prints by Rau. He may have acquired the photographs after viewing them as lanternslides illustrating a series of lectures on the Holy Land delivered by Edward L. Wilson, the publisher of The Philadelphia Photographer and the leader of Rau’s expedition. Wilson also published books on the Holy Land and sold more than one thousand different views as lanternslides, stereographs, and prints made from Rau’s negatives. “What a scene of strange desolation it is,” Wilson wrote of Wadi es-Sebua, “and how much subject it affords us for thought. The once great people who constructed and worshipped in these temples has long since passed away, with but little left to tell of their history.”
William Herman Rau (American, 1855–1920), The Nile—Wady Sabooah—Temple, 1882 (printed 1885 by Edward L. Wilson). Mounted albumen print. Russell Sturgis Photograph Collection, University Archives, Washington University Libraries.