3. American representations of the North African Orient,

Early American painters and the North African experience, 1870-1890

In the second half of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, an increasing number of European artists, writers and travellers were attracted to the Orient, a large geographical region extending from Moorish Spain, to North Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Near East. They travelled to Spain, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and Palestine and produced a rich array of images, testifying to the fascination that the mysterious Orient still exercised on Western imagination.

Interest in pictorial representations of the “Orient” can be traced back to the Renaissance but it was during the second half of the nineteenth century that the West truly encountered the East and that the taste for things oriental became all the fashion in Europe and later in America. As the century progressed, the “Orient”, which referred to those Muslim lands around the Mediterranean, including the Maghreb, provided a new source of inspiration for droves of Western artists and travellers. They went in search of bright sunlight, exotic landscapes and scenes, customs and architecture. The French tended to concentrate mainly on North Africa while Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey were the favourite haunts of British artists. By the 1870s, however, there was a new influx of European artists from various countries but also of American artists. The latter were mostly expatriate artists, studying or living in Paris, who travelled to North Africa, painting, photographing, filling sketchbooks with images of scenes and people they discovered there.

Frederick Arthur Bridgman, Edwin Lord Weeks, Samuel Colman, Willard Leroy Metcalf, Charles James Theriat, Louis Comfort Tiffany, and John Singer Sargent, stand out from that large group of American artists who set off across the Mediterranean to North Africa, mainly to Morocco and Algeria, in search of new subject-matter and inspiration.

Morocco’s proximity to Spain made it a favourite destination of visitors who undertook the easy trip across the narrow strait that separated the two countries. Initially, at least, the majority of travellers restricted themselves to Tangier, and avoided venturing in the heart of the country which, until the late 1890s, remained largely inaccessible to Western visitors (1).

Frederick Arthur Bridgman (Tuskegee, Alabama 1847--Rouen, France1928):
A painter- traveller in Algeria

The son of a Bostonian doctor, Frederick Arthur Bridgman was born in Tuskegee, in Alabama. He spent his childhood in that southern slave state before his widowed mother returned to Massachusetts with her three children, just before the outbreak of the Civil War. Later they moved to New York where Frederick, who showed early artistic gifts, was apprenticed as an engraver to the American Banknote Company. More interested in painting, he took evening drawing classes first at the Brooklyn Art Association, then at the National Academy of Design. Following an exhibition of his works at the Brooklyn Art Association, he was sponsored by a group of Brooklyn businessmen to study in Paris. The French were then the undisputed masters in the art of painting. So it was to France that young American artists, eager to learn from the best flocked, apprenticing themselves in the studios of renowned masters such as Gérôme, Cabanel, and other masters.

In the autumn of 1866, Bridgman moved to Paris where he was admitted to join the atelier of Jean-Léon Gérôme, then a professor at the Paris Ecole des Beaux- Arts. For four years, from 1866 to 1870, he studied there, spending two summers at Pont-Aven village in Brittany where a small colony of American painters had settled and worked under the direction of Robert Wylie (1839-1877), a painter from Philadelphia who acted as their mentor.

Bridgman tried his hand at landscape painting in the manner of Wylie but it was Gérôme’s influence which eventually determined the turn that his artistic career was to take. Not simply did the French master’s teaching help the young American artist develop the fundamentals of his aesthetics, but it was Gérôme’s enthusiasm for the Orient which fired Bridgman’s life-long interest for the Orientalist painting genre. Apart from Gérôme’s works, Bridgman was also very much inspired by the Orientalist paintings of Eugene Fromentin and Gustave Guillaumet who held regular showing of their works at art galleries and at the Paris Salon since the mid-1860s.

Bridgman’s first contact with the Orient began with a long trip to North Africa which was a turning point in his career. In the winter of 1872-1873, he crossed over from Spain to Morocco and spent some six months, visiting the north-western coast of the Maghreb. Bridgman was not the first artist to sail from Spain to the nearby city of Tangier, but he was one of the earliest American artists to visit Morocco, and possibly the first to extend his travels to the interior of Algeria. From Tangier, which he found picturesque but appallingly poor, he proceeded to Oran by boat, then by train to Algiers where he settled for the whole winter in the suburb of Mustapha Supérieur, then a select British residential enclave on the heights of Algiers.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, a rise in wealth and the development of travel facilities had brought an important British colony to settle in Algiers. In fact, even before the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 which made it the most important port of call in the Mediterranean, Algiers had become, with Egypt, a favourite British wintering resort in North Africa.


The majority of those British visitors who took their winter quarters to Algiers did so in search of health. At the time, the only cure available for consumptives - as the patients suffering from tuberculosis were then called - was to send them south, to drier and warmer climates. An important medical literature promoted Algiers’ winter climate, recommending its curative virtues for invalids. By the early 1860s, Algiers’ reputation as a health resort was well established and the city became, with Cannes and Nice, one of the principal British sanatoria abroad. The season for visiting Algiers was from October to April. The golden age of these wintering migrations culminated in the last third of the nineteenth century, when the British colony in Algiers counted some 1,500 residents, mainly established in Mustapha-Supérieur, in private and rented villas or in new hotels that had been built in the area to cater for the needs of the British visitors.

Bridgman settled in Mustapha for the winter in a rented villa amidst beautiful grounds and gardens, travelling briefly to Constantine and Tunis, and visiting on his way the Kabylia villages, in the hilly areas east of Algiers. That first trip to North Africa introduced Bridgman to the Mediterranean Orient and was to mark a turning point in his career. Although he later travelled further east and visited Egypt, it was Algeria that eventually provided the subject matter of the majority of his paintings. Turning his back on downtown Algiers, then in the midst of frantic urban development, Bridgman explored the narrow, winding alleys the old Casbah, the Moorish cafés, the bazaars, making countless drawings and sketches of Algerian scenes and types. “Coffee House, Algiers” and “Aïcha, Woman of the Kabylie Mountains, Algeria” are representative examples of the works generated by his first visit to Algeria. They all reflect an illuminated discovery of a world so far removed from his own experiences, as well as a surprising aesthetic maturity for an artist in his twenties. “The Courtyard”, in particular, displays Gérôme’s influence in his emphasis on the rendering of detail and his desire to record with great accuracy, the specific scenes and types: marble floor, ceramic tiles, architecture, and wood-work, carpets, Moorish attire and pose, all are dazzlingly ‘real’, while providing valuable documents on Algerian urban life in the second half of the nineteenth century. He also took walks and excursions in the neighbouring countryside, discovering as he noted in his travelogue Winters in Algeria (2), the richness and exoticism of the Sahel, the coastal area around the city of Algiers.

Bridgman’s first trip to North Africa encouraged some of his fellow-art expatriates in Paris to visit the area. The following winter, he travelled to Egypt with another American artist, Charles Sprague Pearce (1851-1914), whom he had met in the south of France the year before. In Cairo where they arrived in December 1873, they worked in the city, producing a large corpus of material that covered Islamic architecture, scenes of ancient Egypt, biblical images as well as contemporary streets and bazaar scenes. They took an extensive journey up the Nile River from which they brought back hundreds of sketches and an array of Oriental objects which Bridgman started to collect.

Pearce spent the following winter of 1874-1875 in Algiers with William Sartain (1843-1924), another American artist. Like Bridgman, Sartain responded with a particular fascination for what was left of Moorish life in a city that was fast changing under European encroachment. His Algerian Water Carrier reflects a keen sense of the native architecture and local lifestyle.


On his second trip to Algeria in the winter of 1879, Bridgman spent most of his time in eastern and southern Algeria and Tunisia. He visited the coast and the large cities of Constantine and Tunis, but it was the more remote areas to the South that appealed to him. Following in the footsteps of a group of French Orientalist painters including Eugène Fromentin, and Gustave Guillaumet whose works Bridgman had probably seen at the Paris Salons of 1865 and 1867, he ventured further south, visiting the oases on the northern fringe of the Sahara. He stayed at Biskra where he rented a house in the native quarter of the village, which he turned in a studio. He explored the neighbouring oases on horseback, discovering the desert and austere lives of the oasis dwellers, so different from that of the urbanized Moors of Algiers. He commented in his travelogue on the Arab tribes of the desert and the biblical simplicity of their life-style. That experience, together with the influence of Guillaumet, sharpened his vision and helped him introduce a greater degree of realism into his painting but still with that touch of idealization that had characterized his earlier paintings. In his Interior of an Algerian House, Biskra, such details of composition as domestic artefacts, postures, clothing, accessories, are all true to life but the rough aspects of desert life are slightly glossed over to highlight the pastoral simplicity of desert Bedouin life. The painting is a good example of the works derived from his Saharan trip, representing scenes of desert village life, showing women about their daily domestic chores, spinning, weaving, grinding grains, activities approached with an eye for the realistic detail that makes them as many valuable documents on traditional rural life in the Algerian hinterland.

Bridgman returned to Paris in the spring of 1880 with a collection of painted canvasses, studies, pencil and ink drawings, and all sort of accessories he was to use as props for his studio works. He took his third trip to Algeria in November 1885, staying there until May 1886. After five years away from Algeria, it was with some exhilaration that he embarked on what was to be his last visit to the country.

The near prospect of revisiting its sunny shores was to me one of those delightful anticipations in life which haunt the fancy; and no sooner I set foot on land than I began with joy to sniff the odours so peculiar to Oriental towns -- perfumes of musk, tobacco, orange-blossoms, coffee, hashish -- a subtle combination which impregnates Algerine clothing and hovers about the shops and bazaars.(3)

The visit proved particularly productive, and it allowed Bridgman to add a number of new oil paintings to his collection. The corpus of paintings he executed in the wake of that sojourn tends to suggest that he sought greater understanding of indigenous manners and cultures than other fellow artists for whom the Orient was an exotic and more often than not, an erotic metaphor.


In L’après-midi, Alger and scores of other representations of women quarters, Bridgman showed the social life of the urban Moorish women involved in domestic activities, embroidering, weaving or just entertaining visitors and listening to musicians. He also documented their outdoor social life and showed them visiting shrines and cemeteries on religious festivals. His paintings show a genuine response to the Muslim heritage which he delineated without any irreverence, balancing meticulous observations and a keen sense of culture even if his representations appear to be too polished and slightly idealized.

In May 1886, just before he returned to Paris, Bridgman made an excursion to Tlemcen, some 370 miles west of Algiers. Although the ancient capital of central Maghreb was only the shadow of her former self, Bridgman found the city and her surrounding countryside exceedingly pleasant and rich, offering splendid occasions for work out of doors. Together with Tangier, Algiers, Tunis and Fez, Tlemcen became a favourite destination of the artists who visited North Africa. Samuel Colman (1832-1920), one of the earliest American painters to cross over to North Africa, had made an excursion to Tlemcen in the spring of 1875, which produced The Moorish Mosque of Sidi Halou, one of his most achieved watercolours in terms of architecture, atmosphere as well as rendering of Arab representation and activities. During his sojourn in Tlemcen, Bridgman explored the remnants of her old Moorish buildings, as well as the neighbouring villages, visiting the shrine of Sidi Boumedienne, the patron-saint of the city as well as the waterfalls of El-Ourit, tirelessly sketching and drawing mosque courtyards, fountains, gardens, shop-stalls and bazaars. Most of the illustrations he used in his Winters in Algeria were wood engravings of his drawings and paintings done on that trip.

The following spring, Bridgman held his second major exhibition at the Fine Art Society in London. The two hundred odd works presented in that show belonged to his last North African trip. Consisting mostly of studies of mosques, religious rituals, street scenes in Algiers, Blida and Tlemcen, they provided a rare opportunity to look at the artistic production of Bridgman at the peak of his career. In France, his adoptive country, he was regarded as one of the major representatives of the Orientalist school. Five of his works were selected for public display at Paris Exposition Universelle in 1889. They included Femmes d’Alger au cimetière; On the terraces, Algiers; and Fête du Prophète à Oued-el-Kébir, Blidah; which all belonged Bridgman’s last period in Algeria, and which translated in paint, his fascination with urban Moorish domesticity and culture, as he wrote:

The cold blue-white tombs and gravestones now in deep shade, the hundreds of long tapers lighted in anticipation of the night procession, the glowing fires of the cafes under the long sweeping olive boughs, formed an ensemble of color and mystery that seemed quite unreal.(4)

The early 1890s saw Bridgman’s recognition and artistic success peak as the Orientalist painting genre reached its zenith, not only in Europe, but also in America. They opened with the publication in 1890 of Winters in Algeria, a compiled account of his three journeys to the country. A large exhibition of his paintings was held at the Fifth Avenue Art Gallery in New York.


It comprised some 400 paintings focusing on his Algerian production. Most of the exhibits were for sale and about a hundred pieces were sold by the time the exhibition travelled to Chicago after it was shown in Minneapolis and Boston. The American market for the Eastern painting genre was quite buoyant as industrial magnates and financiers, eager to enlarge their interests, began to collect the works of artists who had achieved international recognition. Bridgman customized his subjects to the more conservative taste of his wealthy American patrons, carefully avoiding those erotic images that were the staple of French Orientalist art.

Bridgman made enough money from his American sales to acquire a new property directly behind the house he had bought in 1883 on the exclusive Boulevard Malesherbes, in Paris. Part of the building was turned into an Algerian studio, decorated in the oriental style with pieces of furniture, ornaments, garbs, and fabric he had brought back from his North African trips. Like many artists of his day, Bridgman painted a number of Orientalist and Algerian themes in the studio, using these accessories or photographs as props. The studio became a landmark and a curiosity for the American artists visiting Paris

Following in Bridgman’s footsteps, Willard Leroy Metcalf (1858-1925) and Charles James Theriat (1860-1934), two American painters, who had both studied under Jules Lefebvre and Gustave Boulanger in Paris in the early 1880s, headed south to explore the oases on the northern fringe of the Saharan desert. Metcalf spent the winter of 1886-87 in the oasis of Biskra where he painted several canvasses, recording scenery, street scenes, and the social life of the local people. Three of his paintings, Café at Biskra; Arab Encampment; and Arab Market; all dated 1887, won him an honourable mention at the Salon of 1888. Charles James Theriat travelled initially to Algeria for health in 1890. And for the next four years, he spent the winter and spring seasons in Biskra, using his Arab house as a studio and a tent when he ventured further south on his painting trips. A superb colourist, Theriat developed a simple, subdued style of orientalism. He lived next to the local villagers, becoming familiar with their activities, customs, and even their vernacular, which made it easier for him to work. The series of oils on panel he did on his different sojourns there, are realistic representations evoking atmosphere through detail, and remarkably illuminated by the clear, bright light of the desert. Theriat started sending his Saharan subjects to the Paris Salons; some of these paintings were exhibited at the Paris Exposition of 1899, where they won him an honourable mention.

Edwin Lord Weeks (Boston, Massachusetts 1849-Paris, France 1903): A painter and recorder of pre-colonial Morocco

Edwin Lord Weeks was one of the most prolific and, at least during his lifetime, one of the most celebrated of the American Orientalists. With the exception of Bridgman, no other American fellow-artist achieved as he did such a large pictorial output along with a rich body of travel writing, articles as well as photographs of the place he visited.

Weeks belonged to a wealthy merchant family from Boston who probably encouraged and supported the young man’s interest in travel and painting.
In 1872, accompanied by a friend, the illustrator A.P. Close, he travelled to Egypt, the Holy Land and Syria. It was during a brief stop in Morocco, in the course of that journey, that he met Robert Gavin (1827-1883), the Scottish artist who lived and worked in Tangier in the 1870’s. That first contact with Morocco instilled in Weeks his passion for the swarming life and magnificent colours of the Mediterranean Orient. What survived from that first visit was a painting of the port of Tangier dated 1872, his sketchbooks of North African scenes, and photographs recording architecture, street scenes, and local customs.

In 1874, Weeks arrived in Paris to train at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts where he intended to join the studio of Jean-Léon Gérome. While waiting for his application to be accepted, he started to study under Léon Bonnat, himself a former pupil of the Spanish painter Mariano Fortuny (1838-1874), who instilled in his American student the need for meticulous realism and a love of colour. The early enthusiasm that Weeks showed for painting in Spain and Morocco owes a great deal to Fortuny’s example. Weeks, actually, described himself as a “colourist”, not an “Orientalist”, clearly defining his work in terms of its artistic treatment rather than its subject-matter.

Weeks was to spend the next three decades travelling back and forth from the United States to Paris and North Africa where he made daring incursions in regions of Morocco which had remained largely closed to foreigners. In 1878, he embarked on a dangerous journey to Rabat and the neighbouring city of Shela, now Sallé, on the Atlantic coast. The six months Weeks spent in 1878-1879 travelling down the coast of Morocco from Rabat to Mogador, now Essaouira, where he obtained the governor’s permission to enter the interior of the country escorted by an armed guard as far as Marrakech, proved harrowing but quite productive. Weeks returned from that journey with a rare collection of finished canvasses on Moroccan themes. Two of these, Camels embarking on the shore of Sale, and The gate of the ancient “Fondak” in the Holy city of Sale, were exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1880. Both display the distinctive style that became the hallmark of the artist: depicting scenes of local activity against monumental gates and city walls, faithfully rendering for his contemporaries, the colour and bustling life of a world still unscathed by European encroachment. Other splendid canvasses which he brought back from that journey such as Open market, Morocco; Arrival of a caravan outside the city, Morocco; Blacksmith shop at Tangiers, further emphasized Weeks’ place as one of foremost visual recorders of pre-colonial Morocco to the Western World.


In the autumn of 1881, Weeks exhibited some of his North African sketches in a Paris newspaper office, an event which generated one of the first profile of the artist to be published in Europe and which helped create for a larger public the idea of a painter-reporter who did not hesitate to take serious risks to bring back rare and authentic pictures of the places he visited.

The success of Weeks’ paintings of Morocco opened the field to an increasing number of fellow-American artists: he was followed there by Robert Swain Gifford (1840-1905) and Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) who travelled through France and Spain and crossed over from Gibraltar to Tangier in the autumn of 1870. The city, on the North African coast had become an obligatory stop for American artists seeking to experience the colours and light of the Mediterranean Orient. Market Day Outside the Walls of Tangiers, one of the paintings Louis Comfort Tiffany brought back from that visit to Morocco, is quite representative of the exotic subject-matter popular during the late 1860s-early 1870s, in both Europe and America. The composition illustrates the great interest in architecture, colour and light that was to characterize Tiffany’s artistic production. Further extensive travels in the Eastern Mediterranean allowed him to become well versed in Islamic art and architectural traditions. Some of these architectural elements such as the broad volute columns and the roofline would later reappear in interiors and buildings he helped design, including Tiffany House (1885) at 72nd Street and Madison Avenue, New York, and Laurelton Hall (1902-1905), his Long Island country estate.

In the last third of the nineteenth century, the attractions that were to lure many American artists to Tangier grew steadily, transforming the Moroccan city into a fashionable tourist destination. The American impressionist John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) made two separate trips to Tangier, the first during the winter months of 1879 and 1880 directly after a visit to Spain. He returned again to the Moroccan city in 1895, showing a particular interest for her unique light and mystery: White Walls in Sunligh; Open Doorway; Courtyard, Tetuan; as well as his better known painting, Fumée d’ambre gris, all display his haunting fascination with the enigmatic North African Orient.

Tangier was also to figure large in the works of Edmund Aubrey Hunt (1855-1922) who started first his career as a painter of marine scenes, and who turned to the Orientalist genre with some success rather late in his career. He actually made his name after a series of his paintings of Tangier were shown in Paris and London. It was in the summer of 1890 that the artist crossed over to Morocco accompanied by his wife and their fourteen-year-old son. The Hunts went there in search of a warmer climate for their ailing boy. They settled in a rented villa in Tangier for the rest of the summer. Hunt purchased a horse and spent much time on riding and sketching expeditions around the city. After that first visit, he wintered regularly there at least until 1907. At first, continuing in the marine genre, he painted a large series of the port city. Later, he turned to representation of native life and activities in such paintings as The Souk, The Farrie, or Fantasia.


By the end of the 1890’s, Orientalism as the school of painting handling North African or Near Eastern themes was already a spent force. Western painting was moving away from the world of realistic figuration to impressionism. Younger painters like John Singer Sargent distanced themselves from an Orientalist genre that was already looking “passé”. Bridgman, on the contrary, would not or could not adapt to the artistic revolution and continued to hack at the same exhausted vein. Although he lived until 1928, his career ended with the outbreak of the First World War when his works fell rapidly into oblivion. It was not until the mid-1970s, when soaring crude oil prices and ensuing Middle-Eastern affluence generated a new interest in Orientalism, particularly in Britain, that his paintings were re-discovered and re-appeared in art exhibitions, auction houses, or in private art galleries like the Mathaf Gallery in London.

In his native country, however, Bridgman remained largely ignored by the general public. As a matter of fact, he had lived most of his life in France where he had his permanent residence. After the death of his wife in 1901, he had married a French woman. In 1907, Bridgman was made an Officer of the “Légion d’honneur” by the French State, and when the First World War broke out, unlike many Americans who returned to the United States, Bridgman never considered leaving France. He had simply become more French than American, identifying so much with his adoptive country that he was often mistakenly classified as a French Orientalist painter. From that point of view, Bridgman’s work has yet to be rediscovered and fully recognized in the United States, as part of its artistic legacy, and even more so in Algeria, as an invaluable part of its cultural heritage.

Early American photographers and travel-writers in North Africa

Apart from the group of Orientalist painters, the Americans who ventured on trips to North Africa also included photographs, established writers or simply excursionists, intent to discover the Mediterranean Maghreb on their own.
During the 1850s the number of photographers who toured the Muslim lands around the Mediterranean increased. They were following in the footsteps of an earlier generation of artists who were sent to North Africa as topographical draughtsmen and as chroniclers of military campaigns there. In 1830 Horace Vernet (1789-1863) was sent to Algeria to record the expeditions and battles that led to the French conquest of the country. Less than a decade later, he used a daguerreotype to photograph the entrance to the Harem of Muhammad Ali in Alexandria. A few years later, Maxime Du Camp (1822-1894) provided a daguerreotype record of the antiquities of Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Turkey he collected between 1849 and 1851.

The daguerreotype which was a complicated process yielding just one unrepeatable image was replaced by a new type of photography called calotype. Using the new process, photographers were now able to reproduce several copies of a particular picture from a single negative. A further improvement led to the collodion process, introduced in the late 1850s. It required a dark tent and glass plates, cumbersome pieces of equipment on long expeditions.


After 1900, the first Kodak portable cameras, created by George Eastman appeared and soon became a necessary appendage for all visitors of foreign lands.

The vogue of Orientalist painting coincided with the development of photography. In fact, a number of painters, including Bridgman and Weeks began to use this new medium of visual documentation, and took to working from photographs as props for their studio paintings. By the end of the 1850s, illustrated photographic books of North Africa and the Near East began to circulate in Europe in response to the demands for images of lands for which there was an increasing interest in the West.

During the years 1856-1857, French photographer Felix Jacques Moulin (1802-1875), a former daguerreotypist, spent nearly a year in Algeria, taking hundred of photographs and stereoscopic views documenting life of the French troops and showing Algerian scenes and landscapes. Moulin met on that trip, another calotypist, the American John Beasley Greene (1832-1856), who was taking calotypes in Constantine and Cherchell in the winter of 1855-56, a few months before his death at twenty four from tuberculosis in Cairo. The son of a Paris-based American banker, John B. Greene was born in France but was raised in the United States. Trained as an archaeologist, he developed an interest in Egyptian archaeology and photography. Greene had studied photography under Gustave Le Gray (1820-1884) and became a founding member of the Société française de photographie. He was the first archaeologist to use photography to document his work. In 1853 and 1854, he made several trips to Egypt collecting more than 200 calotypes of monuments, landscape, and sculptures. Some of these views appeared in his large Italian format volume, Le Nil: monuments, paysages, explorations photographiques (7), which established his reputation as a photographer. In the winter of 1856, Greene visited Algeria where he was authorized to carry out archaeological diggings on ancient sites on which he worked with Louis-Adrien Berbruger, a French archaeologist who set up the first Museum of Antiquities and the National Library in Algiers.

Greene produced a series of calotypes of the country, showing especially Roman archaeological sites in Cherchell, the ancient Julia Caesarea. Nearly a century before, between 1765 and 1766, the place was visited by James Bruce (1730-1794), the British explorer who was the first European to make a voyage to the region with a commission to study the Roman ruins in central and eastern Algeria. Bruce who was accompanied by the Italian artist Luigi Balugani used a camera obscura in the drawing he made of the Roman sites he documented on that mission of scientific discovery. The young American archaeologist was probably aware of the existence of Bruce’s drawings, which were presented to King George III and became part of the royal collection at Windsor Castle.

Some of the Orientalist painters made use of photography as a convenient aide-mémoire for reworking on their oriental scenes back home. Edwin Lord Weeks was an enthusiastic photographer, and wished to reproduce its accuracy in his rendering of the architectural monuments against which he usually set his scenes. Apart from being a painter and a photographer, Weeks prompted attention from magazine publishers.


Between 1893 and 1895, illustrated accounts of his many travels appeared in the “Harpers” and “Scribner’s” magazines, later appearing in book form as “From the Black Sea through Persia and India” in 1896. Weeks also gave a brief account of his various journeys to Morocco in his article “Two centuries of Moorish Art” in the April 1901 issue of the “Scribner’s”.

The mid-nineteenth century also saw a confident, expanding America embarking on its first attempt to penetrate the Eastern Mediterranean. After the end of the Civil War the interest was rekindled on an unprecedented scale. More Americans than ever before began rushing overseas on pilgrimage to the ancient biblical lands in search of their religious roots.
The North African countries, which had remained until then largely outside the pale of American political interest, began to acquire a place in public attention as American visitors started to include them in their excursion to the Levant and the Holy Land. The first tour of Americans visiting Europe and the Mediterranean on their way to the Holy Land was organized in1867. Mark Twain was on board. He was sent by the San Francisco newspaper, “The Daily Alta California” to cover this premiere for readers back home. Twain had agreed to file letters from abroad for publication. These dispatches along with a few others sent to newspapers in New York became the basis of Twain’s first book of travel, The Innocents Abroad, published in July 1869.

The voyage, which lasted just over five months from June to November 1867, combined a pilgrimage to the Holy land with a tour of Europe and “intermediate” points of interest. In three weeks, the steamship was in Gibraltar where some of the excursionists chose to visit Spain while Twain with another party, sailed across the strait to Tangier.

Chapters VIII and IX of The Innocents Abroad are devoted to that short side-excursion to Tangier. His vivid tableau of the city and the colourful mixture of its races echo familiar themes of the Orientalist genre.

Tangier is a foreign land if ever there was one, and the true spirit of it can never be found in any book save The Arabian Nights. Here are no white men visible, yet swarms of humanity are all about us. Here is a packed and jammed city enclosed in a massive stone wall which is more than a thousand years old. All the houses nearly are one-and two-story, made of thick walls of stone , plastered outside, square as a dry-goods box, flat as a floor on top, no cornices, whitewashed all over – a crowded city of snowy tombs! And the doors are arched with the peculiar arch we see in Moorish pictures; the floors are laid in varicoloured diamond flags; in tessellated, many-coloured porcelain squares wrought in the furnaces of Fez…(8)

Twain describes its jostling crowds of Bedouins of the desert, stately moors, Jews, swarthy Riffians from the mountains, Moorish women enveloped from head to foot in white linen, African slaves, swirling dervishes. He makes some derisive comments on Moorish society, mocks the local customs and rails the despotism and rapacity of its rulers, reflecting views that were commonly held and reported in the eighteenth century narratives of captivity in Barbary.


A few paragraphs further down, he rises to the occasion when he evokes, for his readers back home, the impressive antiquity of the place.

Here is a crumbling wall that was old when Columbus discovered America, was old when Peter the Hermit roused the knightly men of the Middle Ages to arm for the first Crusade; was old when Charlemagne and his paladins beleaguered enchanted castles and battled with giants and genii in the fabled days of the olden time; was old when Christ and his disciples walked the earth; stood where it stands today when the lips of Memnon were vocal and men bought and sold in the streets of ancient Thebes! (9)

The fifty-three letters to the Alta and the half-dozen to the New York Tribune brought popular celebrity to Mark Twain. Written in a vivid style, full of fresh colours and humour, rakish at times, they came as a breath of fresh air to a public weary of the solemn, scientific, travel literature of that period.

Ellen Browning Scripp’s “Letters from Algeria”

Algeria, which had remained until the late eighteen-seventies outside the pale of American political and commercial interest, began to acquire a place in public attention as American visitors and travellers included the North African country in their grand tour around the Mediterranean. Ellen Browning Scripp was probably the first American spot journalist, reporting from Algeria. In 1881, she took leave from the Detroit Evening News, one of the newspapers owned by the Scripp family in order to travel with her younger brother to the Mediterranean where his doctors were sending him for his bad health. It was from Algeria, and later from an extensive tour around the Mediterranean and to the Holy Land that she sent the letters which began appearing as regular columns in the Detroit Evening News in December 1881. She wrote about the places she visited with her brother, her rides in the interior of the country, but more interestingly, about her experiences with the people she met, about the homes she visited, sharing with her readers back home, her discovery of a world so far removed from her own mid-western life. Being a woman in Algeria, she was able to gain a first hand experience of a social life from which foreign male visitors were excluded.

Within, seated on cushions on the floor with a brazier of red-hot charcoal in their midst, was a little group of Moorish ladies, apparently callers like ourselves. Divested of their outer robes, which make them in the street like so many big bolsters, they displayed a richness of attire and a blaze of jewelry… The room was heavy with aromatic odors and its few furnishing were of the most luxurious order. The only light that was admitted was through the stained glass of small, deeply recessed and strongly barred windows that looked out on the court. The door and windows were bordered with beautifully variegated tiles and a band of the same decorated the white-washed walls. Occasional arched niches in the walls displayed some rare treasures of oriental art, quaint pottery, and ivory chest inlaid with silver. The ceiling was beautifully sculptured and richly preserved. Against the outer wall were placed luxurious cushioned divans for reclining, and on the tiled floor were laid Turkish rugs, with cushions of different sizes for seats. Not a chair or a table, a mirror or a book. The whole formed a rich setting for the bejewelled central group. (10)


Titillating harem scenes and odalisques became common tropes of 19th century Orientalist paintings, multiplying as so many distorting mirrors, the image of a secret world redolent of intrigues and sensuous indulgence. The first hand observations of those foreign women who were able to gain an inside view of the Moorish women’s quarters were disappointingly more mundane and much less exciting than the mythical harem of Western imagination.

Fanny Bullock and William Hunter Workman’s Algerian Memories

Fanny Bullock Workman (1859-1925), an intrepid traveller, mountaineer and early militant of the women’s right movement, epitomized the new American woman of the late 19th -early 20th centuries. The daughter of a former governor of Massachusetts, she received a private education and was sent off to Europe on a tour just before she married William Hunter Workman, an Ivy League man and trained medical practitioner. In 1889, the couple crossed the Atlantic for a cultural tour after poor health forced Dr. Workman to go into early retirement. They both shared a common passion for travelling, settling semi-permanently in Germany by 1890. That year also marked the beginning of a full decade of bicycle tours across the back roads of Europe, North Africa, and India, charting new pathways for fellow cyclists.

The last twenty years of the nineteenth century had seen the arrival of the bicycle and the beginning of bicycle tours as a new and exciting form of travelling. Women’s adoption of the bicycle began with mechanical advances that made bicycling easier and safer, notably the arrival of the “safety bicycle” in 1885, featuring two equal size wheels, the availability of the drop frame for ladies – to allow for full skirts --, and the introduction of pneumatic instead of solid rubber tires in 1890. Of conservative taste in dress, Fanny Workman avoided wearing the more fashionable sportswoman trousers and cycled in full skirts.

In 1895, the Workmans published their first travel book after a tour of Algeria. Algerian Memories (11), their joint-authored book tells of their journey of more than fifteen hundred miles through Algeria, starting from Oran to Algiers, over the Ouarsenis hills, through the Chelif valley and Mitidja plains. It appears that bicycles were not a novelty in Algeria since the Workmans mention a visit to the bicycles club in Algiers in search of accurate road information. The second leg of their cycling tour took them from Algiers to Tunis via Constantine with excursions on their way to Timgad and to the North-Saharan oasis of Biskra. The last third of the book is an account of their return journey through the Kabylia and the Djurdjura mountains.


The travel narrative, organized in brief chapters, covering one particular excursion or event, is a mixture of observations and personal travel experiences. The general information they provided were largely derived from the available guidebooks on Algeria like the French Guide Joanne, a copy of which they carried with them on that trip. As for their personal impressions, the Workmans did not try to get under the surface of things and very rarely mixed up with the native population. Neither did they mix more than was necessary with the few Europeans they came across in their cycling tour. Quite evidently, a wide social and cultural gap separated the educated, well-off middle class American excursionists from the poor white settlers, isolated in their farms or inns in the interior of the country. They were more concerned with their sporting performance which, considering their machines and the road conditions was quite an impressive physical accomplishment.

A large number of roads built of limestone are hard and excellent when dry, but soften and become slippery when wet. The roads from Oran towards Tlemcen are of this character. Others, having a superficial covering of ordinary clay soil, are fair when dry, but when wet become utterly unrideable with the bicycle, on account of the tenacious, glue-like quality of the mud, which adheres to and clogs the wheels. In the desert the roads degenerates into camel and mule tracks, in places quite rideable, and in place rough. After rains the large feet of the camels, sinking into the soil a foot or more, leave the surface in an impassable condition. (11)

They had chosen Oran as the starting-point of their journey having sailed from Marseille on the Ville de Bone. From Oran which they found the least interesting because of its motley population of poor European emigrants and Arabs, they moved west to Tlemcen which gave them their first real taste of the Mediterranean Orient. They visited the mosque of Sidi El-Haloui, whose Moorish courtyard, fountain and marble columns, they claimed, “could rival with any of Granada’s ancient palaces”. Tlemcen struck them as totally different from everything they had previously experienced in Europe or America.

There are Moors such as are seldom seen in Algiers, for Tlemcen is only seventeen kilometres from the border of Morocco, and Arabs lean and tall, with peaked faces, and negroes broad and brawny with massive Ethiopian features, and lastly the Jew, who adds just the brilliant colouring needed to set off the scene in his red, blue or yellow burnous and bright turban, sharply contrasting with the white drapery and simple heik, adorned with twisted yarn coils, of the Arab… It is like the effect of fine music on the mind to watch them as they walk forward and back, or stand talking in groups, or, better still, about on the benches. Who ever looks twice at men, women or children sitting in the Boston Common? At Tlemcen, every man thus seated is a subject to be framed and sent to the Paris Salon. (12)


Fanny Workman, later on her trip, also regretted the rapid Europeanization of Algiers as well as the frantic urban developments already in full sway in the ancient Moorish Casbah.

The Kasbah still offers some interesting points…Old quaintly-decorated doors are here and there to be found, which one studies with a sense of regret at the prospect that another year or two may see them torn down by the ruthless hand of the French builder, for the Arab house, like the Arab costume, is bound to disappear from Algiers. (13)

By the time the Workmans visited Biskra, its reputation as a health station was well-established: with the opening of the railway, the North-Saharan oasis, according to the Cook’s literature, could be reached from Algiers in two days with a stop of one night en route. The road the cyclists took from Batna to Biskra proved to be fairly good up to El Kantara, but it soon degenerated into a caravan track. The rough going, however, did hardly discourage the cyclists’ high spirits. As they scrambled to the top of the last hill, the view that met their eyes was one of the great rewards of their cycling labours.

As we rode towards the sand-hills that lay between us and Biskra, we realized the beauty of its situation; a vast palm garden in itself, with the desert on one side and the mountains on the other, purpling in exquisite sunset tints as the evening approached. (14)

The long stage across the Aures region from Khroubs to Tebessa through the land of Roman antiquities does not appear to have roused the interest of the American visitors who did not provide any new information on the subject. They mention of course, on their way, the triumphal arch erected in 212 AD to Septimius Severus, Julia Donna, his wife, and to Caracalla, their son. But like all the guidebooks at the time, they also failed to point out that Septimius Severus was the first of a dynasty of Roman emperor of North African descent. Born in Leptis Magna, near present-day Tripoli in Libya, and educated in Rome, Septimius was called away to Britain where the native Highlanders of Caledonia -- present day Scotland -- were resisting Roman invasion. By one of those ironies of history, it fell upon a Roman emperor of African origin to spend the last years of his reign, fighting the native Highlanders into submission, and extending the northern frontiers of the Roman Empire to the British Isles.

The last leg of their tour took the Workmans through the Kabylie region and the Djurdjura mountains from Bougie (now Bejaia) to Tizi Ouzou. They walked from Tizi Ouzou to Fort National (now L’Arbaa-N’Ait-Irathen), a fortified strategic site built by the French in 1857 to control the rebellious local tribes. The ride from Fort National to Michelet on their way to the Tirourda pass which offered the most extensive views of the rugged spine of the Djurdjura range was another impressive moment in their Algerian memories.


The road runs along a high horizontal crete, and as it circles in and out of the curling contour of the mountain brings into sight peak after peak of the Djurdjura, and ridge after ridge of the village-covered Kabylie. We could not help recalling the road to Sorrento to Positano and Amalfi, and that from Taormina toward Messina, not on account of any similarity in the landscape, but because each in its way is so superlatively lovely. (15)

As they were looking at Berber ornaments in the shop of the only jeweller in the town of Fort National, the Workmans were invited by its owner to visit Beni Yenni, the village where they were made. Two days later, they rode on muleback the steep rough paths that led to the place, perched on the mountains. The Beni Yenni tribes were noted for their silver jewellery plain or set with coral, their weapons, their pottery, as well as their article of furniture. It turned out that their host spoke fluent French, and had even been to Chicago World’s Fair, to which he had been sent in charge of twenty local notables, hand-picked by Algiers French government. Surprising as it may seem, it was France’s public policy, as one of the leading colonial nations, to use the international exhibitions as a showcase for the variety of people and production of her Empire. With the exception of such like chance encounters and journey anecdotes, the Workmans appeared to have been more concerned with road conditions, bad weather and accommodation than with the lives of the local people they met on their way. Even the life of drudgery and hard work of the “Femmes Kabyles” to whom a whole chapter is devoted, does not appear to have aroused the indignation, or even sympathy of the proponent of women’s rights.

Fanny Bullock Workman and her husband went on to accomplish many amazing cycling and mountaineering performances. In 1897 the couple set off for an extended tour of the Far East, cycling across Asian countries and the Indian Subcontinent and publishing more travel accounts as they went. In 1898 another type of travel excursion was emerging: mountain climbing. For the rest of their careers the Workmans turned to mountaineering, and went on several Himalayan expeditions between 1898 and 1912. In 1906, Fanny Bullock Workman set a record by becoming the first female mountaineer to climb to an altitude of over 23,000 feet (6,930 meters) in the Karakorams Mountains and made history when she was photographed, standing on the summit in full skirts, displaying a “Votes for Women” placard.

Edith Wharton’s North African journeys

In February 1888, Edith Wharton and her husband embarked on a cruise of the Mediterranean. Edith Wharton who was twenty-six at the time kept a diary which remained unknown and unpublished until a French scholar, Claudine Lesage of the University of Amiens discovered it in a public library in 1991. The diary entitled The Cruise of the Vanadis after the name of the steam yacht they had chartered in England for their Mediterranean cruise opens with the account of the first leg of their tour which took them from Marseille to Algiers where they spent three and a half days. Although she was ill and passed the greater part of her time on board the yacht, Edith Wharton describes the city’s topography, its architecture, gardens and vegetation with a sense of the meticulous detail that will be the hallmark of her later literary works. On their way to Tunis, because of bad weather and rough sea, they put in at Bone, the ancient Hippone of Saint Augustine.

The afternoon of our arrival we went ashore in the steam-launch, and drove to Hippone. The road lies through a lane overshadowed by high hedges of prickly pear and aloes, behind which we caught glimpses of orange and lemon groves full of fruit. The ruins stand on a hill overgrown with olives and consist of the piers and vaulting of a very old church, covered with a climbing mass of green. Whether it is the church destroyed in the 7th century or a later one, I do not know. Higher up the hill, Catholic ardour is raising the walls and columns of a new cathedral, the crypt of which is already finished and used as a church. Here we met some Sisters of Charity, who showed us the French Orphanage near by, and after lingering for some time to look at the beautiful view of mountains, plain and sea, we drove back to Bone. This time our road led through the valley behind the town, skirting a stream overhung with cactuses and blooming mimosa. All the trees were in full leaf, and the land was a blaze of young spring green. (16)

Twenty-six years later, in the spring of 1914, Edith Wharton having then moved to Paris seven years earlier, sailed with a party of travelling companions from Marseille to Algiers. By that time, her reputation as one of the most admired and widely read American novelists was well-established. During the fifteen months which followed her divorce in 1913, Edith travelled a great deal, experiencing after the end of a twenty-eight year marriage, an exhilarating sense of liberation. She had just returned from a journey to Sicily when she began to make plans to cross over to Africa. The Parisian artistic circles were all buzzing with the recent vogue of primitive art and for things African. Also, her newly acquired freedom had rekindled her fascination for the exotic Orient. Probably under the influence of Walter Berry, her lifelong friend who had just returned from a journey to the East, she talked of taking a trip to Baghdad and Beirut after North Africa. Her travelling companions for the trip to North Africa were Percy Lubbock; Gaillard Lapsley who succumbed to dysentery and had to leave the party to return alone to Europe; Cook, her private chauffeur; Elise Duvlenck, her personal maid in attendance.


Elise had recently joined Edith’s household and after the group began its journey, she took charge of luggage, conveying it from place to place by train while the rest of the group travelled in Edith’s Mercedes (17). The motor-car that was still something of a novelty when the Whartons had acquired their first motor-car ten years earlier was now a fairly common means of transport for the well-off classes.

The party drove from Algiers to the oases of Bou Saada and Biskra, then turned eastward across the Kabylia mountains to Timgad, Constantine and then on to Tunis. They visited Kairouan, Gabes and pushed as far south as Medenine where they came to the end of the motoring road. Exciting as it may have been, the flitting journey through Algeria and Tunisia elicited but a few lines in her autobiography (18). The ancient Roman city of Timgad seen under a full moon was such a breathtaking experience that she chose not to commit it to the written page for fear that the vision “might turn into a pinch of dust, like that beautiful Etruscan queen too rashly dragged from her painted tomb into the daylight” (19). The journey, merely a diverting brief escape from an increasingly gloomier Europe as war approached, left little traces in Edith Wharton’s writings as if she had been distracted, all that time, by the rumblings of the coming conflagration. Her impressions are essentially known at second hand, from the memories of her travelling companions who tell of a passive, effortless surrender to the pacifying influence of the desert (20). At Biskra, she stood with Percy Lubbock and watched the moon rise over the Sahara. “I had no idea what desert magic could be” she wrote. With the noises of modern western cities still in her ears, it was above all the uncanny silence of the desert that enchanted her. Even the natives seemed noiseless, and she later compared the “beautiful silent swift Arabs” to the “strident apes” (21) who touted her in Naples on the journey back home.

As the party sailed back to Europe in the gathering storms of a war, rumbling ever closer, Edith Wharton felt she had been torn away from a warm, luminous world. She conceived an enduring attachment to North Africa and might have pursued this passion further had the outbreak of the war not prevented her from doing so. She eventually returned to North Africa in 1917 and spent one month in Morocco as the guest of the Resident-General, Hubert Lyautey who invited her to visit the annual exhibition held in Rabat. Escorted by French officers, she was sent, with her close friend Walter Berry, on a three-week motor tour of the protectorate. She was driven to Meknes, Fez, and Marrakech. She walked the streets of ancient Sallee where Robinson Crusoe in Defoe’s book, had been held captive. She visited the ruins of the Roman city of Volubilis. As a special visitor, she was permitted to enter the saintly city of Moulay Idriss and to see the Hamadchas (22) perform their ritual dances on the feast-day of their patron-saint. At Fez, she visited the old summer-palace of the Sultan’s wives, which was now the residence of Lyautey and where her party was accommodated. She explored the old city, riding on a pink-saddled mule. She enjoyed the hospitality of Sultan Mouley Youssef and was admitted to visit in the company of Mme. Lyautey, the restricted women’s quarters in the Imperial palace.


She was also invited to visit the women’s quarters of a local dignitary at Fez. The description she gave of the passive-looking women and their pale children in their curtained apartments was certainly truer if less romantic than the images of sexual indulgence that the word “harem” invariably evoked to Westerners’ ears.
The brief enchantment of this journey through a country still unaffected in its aspects and culture by Western influences, and almost untouched by modern tourism was, as she wrote, “like a burst of sunlight between storm-clouds” (23). She returned from her escape south to the gloom of the dark winter of a Europe still at war. Back again to her wartime activities in Paris, she had no time to work on her notes. It was not until 1920 that she took them up in a series of articles later collected in In Morocco (24), her last travel book. What made Edith Wharton’s journey to Morocco unique is the fact that she visited the country in that brief moment of transition when, although virtually under complete subjection to colonial authority, it was still largely untouched by European encroachment. The preface of her book sounds a note of sadness as she could not help feeling that the rich “mystery” of Moroccan culture would inevitably vanish under the coming Western onslaught.

Romanticized representations of the desert in American popular arts

In the first third of the twentieth century, thanks to impressions largely derived from many popular novels of romance and adventures as well as films, the Saharan desert became an essential motif in the Western imaginative geography. The French had very early developed a historical attachment to the desert through colonial interests in Africa and the Foreign Legion’s adventures. Long before P.C. Wren wrote Beau Geste in 1924, the French were writing tales exalting the exploration and military conquest of the Saharan territories. The commissioned officers and their white squadrons of camel-riding meharists (25) who patrolled the Saharan barren wastelands had become part of the romantic mystique which sublimated not only the desert, but also the colonial adventure itself and the popular excitement it inspired.

In Britain, P.C. Wren exploited that vein and continued the tradition of military adventures, enlarging on the romantic myth of the French Foreign Legion. Since its creation in 1831, the French Foreign Legion had caught the popular imagination in the Western world, inspiring a large number of books, stories, and later, in the 1920s and 1930s, of a whole series of films. For generations of Britons and Americans, the mere mention of its name conjured up images of desert outposts defended by rugged, sun-scorched men holding out against hordes of fanatical natives.

P.C. Wren’s Beau Geste (1924) established that tradition of adventure stories whose common ingredients were desert warfare, Arab fanaticism, brave deeds, and the wonders of Africa. Films inspired by Wren’s stories like Beau Geste and Beau Sabreur (1926), both starring Gary Cooper, and lesser variants on the same theme instilled in the public imagination the idea of a most exciting body of social rebels, of tough young men, high on romance and machismo. The reality was in fact less romantic.


The Foreign Legion was a corps of mercenaries, many of whom were criminals who enlisted to escape imprisonment. Unlike the Meharist Corps, the Foreign Legion never enjoyed any particular link with the desert. It was garrisoned at Sidi-Bel-Abbès in Western Algeria. From there its units might be sent anywhere in the French colonial empire where there was particularly nasty fighting to be done. Thus, especially after the First World War, many battalions were sent to the Sahara to reinforce exposed positions or more often to carry out punitive raids against native tribes. When recalled to their headquarters, they usually left behind a trail of smouldering hatred and fear. It was not, however, this unsavoury image but the romanticized myth which Wren had created and which Hollywood had reinforced that fastened on the collective imagination, both in Britain and America.

The popular success of Robert Hichens’s novel, The Garden of Allah (1904) which was set in Biskra, in the magnificent tropical gardens of Count Landon de Longeville, turned the desert into a romantic destination and brought trainloads of visitors every winter to the north-Saharan oasis. The book ran into several editions and was adapted for the stage and produced at Drury Lane Theatre in June 1920, all with real Bedouin tents, camels and Ouled-Nail dancers. Hichens’s novel inspired two silent films in 1916 and in 1921. The second was directed by Rex Ingram, the Irish-born film maker whose personal style revolutionized motion-picture technique in the 1920s. He seized his chance when he was chosen to direct the screen version of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), a huge fresco of the First World War based on Vicente Blasco Ibanez’s best-seller. Ingram selected Rudoph Valentino, a ballroom tango dancer and obscure actor to be the dashing playboy who abandons the pleasures of Paris for war and the battlefields where he dies.

Biskra also provided the setting for Edith M. Hull’s novel, The Sheikh (1919) and its sequel, The Sons of the Sheikh (1925), two very popular melodramas which exploited the theme of the white captive fallen into the hands of a dark and daring Arab lord of the desert. The heroine, Lady Diana Mayo, is a spirited young aristocrat who has been brought up by her older brother after the death of her parents. Slim, boyish-looking, more at ease in the riding breeches than in the chiffon dresses, she travels with her brother, leading the cosmopolitan life of the idle rich. The haughty, emancipated girl spurns love as a weakness and her views of marriage smack heavily of the militant feminism of the early 1920’s. Like many of her contemporary “flappers”, she goes about, conspicuously claiming her right to be free and have fun. On a visit to Biskra, she ignores the warning of the French local authorities and makes a dash into the desert where her caravan is attacked and she is abducted by the chief of the raiding party. The book describes her emotional relation with her desert ravisher, which evolves from fear and even revulsion to passionate love. The story is a hedonistic extravaganza where the desert serves simply to create the atmosphere of escapism and of being cut from the world of conventions.

A silent film version based on the romance novel was released in 1921. The phenomenal success of the film propelled Rudolph Valentino into stardom. A song, Sheik of Araby written by Harry.B Smith and Francis Wheeler with music by Ted Snyder was composed in 1921 in response to the popularity of the silent screen icon (26).


The song was also adopted by early jazz bands in New Orleans, and became a jazz standard in the 1920s. It became part of the popular culture, earning a mention in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby.

A sequel of The Sheik, The Son of the Sheik was made in 1926. It was Valentino’s last film before his untimely death. The film in which he played both the role of the aged sheik and that of his impetuous adult son had all the ingredients that fans wanted to see in the desert romance: adventure, great horseback riding, and those insinuating love scenes.

The success of The Sheik inspired many imitations and spin-offs. Rex Ingram’s The Arab (1924) was designed to rival Valentino’s popularity in starring Mexican-born Ramon Novarro whose career as the new iconic, Latin lover he helped launch. The film was shot in parts on location in southern Tunisia, at Gabes and Gammarth. Ingram discovered on that occasion North Africa, a region he fell in love with and to which he frequently returned. His genuine interest in Arab culture in general, and his careful research gave his film a realism and authenticity that was often lacking in the lushly exotic and kitsch décor of the other film directors.

Ingram returned to the desert romance in his last picture, Baroud (1931) a sound film shot in Morocco, in which he cast his wife, actress Alice Terry, and in which he himself played the lead as a sergeant in the Spahis, the corps of the Algerian native cavalry in the French army. Released in the United States in a shorter version and renamed Love in Morocco (1931), the film was not a commercial success which led Ingram, who had difficulty adapting to the sound movie to put an end to his career in the film business.

The theme of the Foreign Legion desert romance was revived in Morocco, an early sound film directed by Josef von Sternberg. The 1930 picture was based on a play, Amy Jolly, Die Frau aus Marrakesh by Benno Vigny, a young German journalist who had served in the French Foreign Legion and who drew upon his legionnaire’s experiences to capitalize on the success of P.C. Wren’s stories. The film launched Marlene Dietrich’s career in America. She plays in it a cabaret singer who somehow has ended up in Mogador, Morocco. There she meets a devil-may-care American private in the French Foreign Legion, played by Gary Cooper who, though pretty cynical about his women, becomes drawn to that overtly provocative woman with a past just as tattered as his own. An older but wealthy and enamoured French suitor completes the triangle love-story. She eventually decides to turn down the life of a kept mistress in Paris to follow her legionnaire in the desert. First hopping on high heels shoes, then throwing her shoes off, and running along with a handful of native women, donkeys, and goats which make the rest of the “regiment followers”. The film made $2 million for Paramount in a dark depression year, and was an international hit.

The Hollywood cycle of the desert romance came actually to an end in 1936 with a new adaptation of Hichens’s melodrama, The Garden of Allah, produced by David O. Selznick who was renowned for his big-budget, prestige pictures. The film starred Marlene Dietrich as heiress Domini Enfilden who has long been caring for her recently deceased father, and French actor, Charles Boyer, as Boris Androvsky, a tormented Trappist monk who has fled his monastery.


Both are fugitives, newly escaped from their own personal prison, and pursuing in the desert the elusive mirage of a new return to life. The film, photographed in Technicolor and richly decorated and costumed was shot in parts on location in the Arizona desert. The Garden of Allah did not do as well as its producer hoped, though it won a special Academy Award for its use of colour cinematography.

By 1941, following the Pearl Harbour attack and the entry of the United Stated into war, the Hollywood film industry converted to war production. The glamorized desert romances of the 1920s and 1930s faded out and were being supplanted by a gloomier reality as the dark shadows of war began to fall across the world.

Quite interestingly, it was a film set in Morocco, Casablanca, which inaugurated Hollywood’s new cycle of wartime romance films with the atmospherics of the typical black and white visual effects that were to become the hallmarks of the genre. The romantic drama film was set in the Vichy-controlled Moroccan city of Casablanca during the Second World War and focuses on a man’s conflict between love and sacrifice for a higher cause.

After France occupation by the German army in June 1940, the French-controlled city of Casablanca became a transit point of passage for people fleeing to America from Nazi persecution. Rick Blaine, an American expatriate and one-time gun runner to the resistance movements fighting the Fascists in Europe, owns a nightclub, which is frequented by refugees, German officers, gamblers, and all sorts of underworld characters. It is also a place where visas of transit to America can be obtained against bribes. One day, a Czech resistance leader arrives with his wife in Rick’s place looking for visas. By the most extraordinary coincidence, Rick and that woman had shared a passionate love affair in Paris, only a couple of years before. They got separated from each other in the great confusion which preceded the entry of the German troops in the French capital. It happens that Rick, who still loves Lisa, has in his possession two letters of transit that could guarantee the resistance leader and his wife safe passage to the free world. The shady American cabaret owner must choose between his revived love for a woman he has never forgotten, and doing the right thing by helping her and her Resistance leader husband escape from Casablanca, to continue their fight against the Nazis.

The film, distributed by Warner Bros was rushed into release in 1942 to take full advantage of the Allied Forces landing in North Africa and their capture of Casablanca a few weeks earlier.


(1) Even in the nineteenth century Tangier was a city apart, one of the few places in Morocco open to foreign visitors. It was also the place where Sultans allowed Western countries to establish their consulates. The rest of the country was generally off-limits to Westerners.
One of the very first European artists to penetrate in the interior of the country was Eugène Delacroix, who quite early in 1832 visited the country as part of the Comte de Mornay’s French diplomatic mission sent to the Sultan of Morocco. As a semi-official member of that mission, Delacroix was provided with an escort, a privilege that allowed him to have access to otherwise inaccessible places.

(2) Frederick Arthur Bridgman, Winters in Algeria, New York: Harper and Brothers, 1890.

(3) Ibid., p. 2.

(4) Ibid., p. 84.

(5) Letter of Edwin Lord Weeks, Rabat, to Alexander S. Twombly, dated 8 December, 1878, in “Alexander S. Twombly papers”, Yale University Library, New Haven, Connecticut

(6) Seventeenth century Sallee was a stronghold of corsair activity. The “Sallee Rovers” ventured in the Atlantic, bringing back loot and captives. The character of Robinson Crusoe, in Daniel Defoe’s novel spends two years in captivity in Barbary. He eventually succeeds to escape and sails for the Cape Verde Islands. While on his way, he is picked up and taken on board a ship bound for “the Brasils”. The better known adventures of Robinson Crusoe take off from that point.

(7) John B. Greene, Le Nil: monuments, paysages, explorations photographiques, Lille : Blanquart-Evrard, 1854.

(8) Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad, or the New Pilgrims’ Progress, Hartford: American Publishing Company, 1869, p. 76-77.

(9) Ibid., p. 79.

(10) Ellen Browning Scripps, A Sampling from travel letters, 1881-1883, Claremont, California, Scripps College, 1973, pp. 24-25.


(11) Fanny Bullock Workman and William Hunter Workman, Algerian Memories: A Bicycle Tour over the Atlas to the Sahara, London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1895.
An electronic transcription edited by:
Electrononic Research Center
University of Minnesota
Minneapolis, MN 55 455
United States of America

(12) Ibid., Introduction, p. v.

(13) Ibid., Chapter II, p. 10.

(14) Ibid., Chapter V, p. 44.

(15) Ibid., Chapter X, p. 89.

(16) Edith Wharton, Edith Wharton Abroad: Selected Travel Writings, 1888-1920, edited by Sarah Bird Wright, New York: St. Martin Press, 1995. p.42.

(17) R.W.B. Lewis, Edith Wharton: A Biography, London: Constable, 1975, pp. 357-362.

(18) Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance, New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1933. Rpt. London: Constable, 1972, p. 333.
The title was taken from Walt Whitman’s line “A backward glance o’er travell’d roads”.

(19) Ibid., p. 335.

(20) Percy Lubbock, Portrait of Edith Wharton, London: Jonathan Cape, 1947.

(21) Quoted by R.W.B. Lewis in Edith Wharton, a Biography, op. cit., p. 360.

(22) Hamadchas: a Sufi religious brotherhood with a large following in Morocco.

(23) Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance, op. cit. pp. 357-58.

(24) Edith Wharton, In Morocco, London: Jonathan Cape, 1920. Rpt. London: Century Publishing, 1984.

(25) From “Mehara”, an Arabic word designating a particularly swift breed of camels.


(26) These were the opening lines of the song:

Well I’m the Sheik of Araby
Your love belongs to me
Well at night where you’re asleep
Into your tent I’ll creep
The stars that shine above
Will light our way to love
You rule this world with me
I’m the Sheik of Araby.


Ackerman, Gerald. American Orientalists. Paris: ACR Edition Internationale, 1994.

Edwards, Holly. Noble Dreams, Wicked Pleasures, Orientalism in America, 1870- 1930. Princeton University Press and Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, published on the occasion of the exhibition.

Fort, ILene Susan. Frederick Arthur Bridgman and the American fascination with the exotic Near East. Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Dissertation Services, 1990

Jammes, Bruno. “John B. Greene, an American calotypist”. History of Photography, vol. 5, October 1981, pp.305-324.

Lapierre, Alexandra and Christel Mouchard. Women Travellers: A Century of Trailblazing Adventures, 1850-1950. New York : Flammarion/Rizzoli Publications, 2007.

Middleton, Dorothy. Victorian Lady Travellers. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965.

Russel, Mary. The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt: Women Travellers and Their World. London: Collins, 1986.

Stevens, Mary Anne, ed. The Orientalists: Delacroix to Matisse: European Painters in North Africa and the Near East. Exhibition catalogue, London: Royal Academy of Arts, 1984.

Thornton, Lynne. The Orientalists, Painter-Travellers 1828-1908, Paris: ACR Edition Internationale, 1983.

Workman, Fanny Bullock and Workman, William Hunter. Algerian Memories: an electronic transcription.
Electronic Research Centre, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, M N, 1998
E text taken from the first edition of Algerian Memories: A Bicycle Tour over the Atlas to the Sahara. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1895.

Website resources

Frederick Arthur Bridgman, The Complete Works.

Edwin Lord Weeks, Samuel Colman, Louis Comfort Tiffany, John Singer Sargent, Elizabeth Nourse, William Sartain

Material to illustrate this part:

The Courtyard, Alger 1873
Fête of the Prophet at Oued-el-Kebir, Blidah, Algerie, 1889
Interior of a house in Biskra,

Samuel Colman :

Moorish Mosque of Sidi Halou, Tlemcin [Tlemcen], Algeria, 1875.

Edmund Aubrey Hunt:

The Farrier, Tangiers, oil on canvass, signed and inscribed “Tangiers”.
Fantasia, Tangiers, Morocco, oil on canvass.

Edwin Lord Weeks:

Arrival of a Caravan Outside the City, Morocco.
The Departure of a caravan from the Gate of Shelah, Morocco.
Open Market, Morocco.
Blacksmith’s Shop in Tangiers, 1876.
Village in Atlas Mountains, Morocco

John Singer Sargent:

Courtyard, Tetuan, Morocco.

Robert Swain Gifford:

A View of Ksar.es-Souk in Morocco, watercolour,ink and pencil on paper.
Constantine, 1875, watercolour.

Louis Comfort Tiffany:

Market Day Outside the Walls of Tangiers,(1873 – Smithsonian American Art Museum).

Elizabeth Nourse:

Rooftops of Tunis, 1897, oil on canvass, signed and inscribed, “Tunis”.
A Tunisian woman, 1897, dated Tunis 97.