Photographs of the Governor's Palace in Khartoum and the Mahdi's tomb in Omdurman (September, 1898)



Photographs of the Governor's Palace in Khartoum and the Mahdi's tomb in Omdurman (September, 1898)



Sudan, Khartoum, Omdurman, Mahdi, Gordon


A photograph album entitled 'Khartoum', which is held at the Royal Engineers Museum, contains photographs of two symbolic events in the aftermath of the Battle of Omdurman: the bombing of the Mahdi’s tomb and the subsequent Christian memorial held for Gordon in the ruins of the palace at Khartoum.
The photographs taken in Khartoum generally depict soldiers exploring the ruins of the palace but there are some which specifically document places where Gordon allegedly spent his last hours. Gordon’s death was mythologised in the contemporary Victorian press and visual culture; a diorama of the event was even displayed at Madame Tussaud’s (an image of which is curiously included in the album). The image of his death as commemorated in the Tussaud display was inspired by George William Joy’s famous painting of the same moment. This heroic interpretation of events has had a long visual legacy and was carefully reconstructed in Basil Dearden’s film ‘Khartoum’ of 1966. Joy’s painting imagines Gordon standing aloof in the face of death. The architectural structure of the palace is captured before its subsequent dereliction, still a stable symbol of Anglo-Egyptian authority and order.

The photographs in the album, which capture the palace in ruins, provide a powerful contrast to the popular perception of Gordon’s death in British visual culture. The photographer captures emotionally charged images of ‘Gordon's view when he looked for our steamers’ and a soldier walking up the derelict steps to ‘the spot where Gordon was killed’. One particularly evocative image depicts soldiers standing with heads lowered in respect for the place where ‘Gordon’s body was cut to pieces’. These photographs were taken only a day after a similar treatment was exacted upon the body of the Mahdī. His tomb in Omdurman was blown up and his body disinterred and beheaded. This shocking act of disrespect provided symbolic retribution for Gordon’s death, but was an act which Lord Kitchener was eventually required to answer for in a letter of apology to Queen Victoria.

Interestingly the two photographs in the album showing the outside of the tomb are taken from a perspective which makes it appear reasonably intact. Only a hint of its disintegration can be spotted on the top left-hand side of the qubba. Significantly, the brass finial of the qubba is missing. This was removed and taken back to Britain. It is now held at the Royal Engineers Museum.


Making African Connections


8 January 2021


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