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June 28, 2021

The Story Behind an Epic Picture of a Group of Samurais Posing in Front of the Sphinx, Egypt, 1864

Ikeda Nagaoki (1837-1879) was the governor of small villages in Ibara, Bitchu Province. He was chosen to lead a group of delegates from the Japanese Embassy to Europe, sent by Tokugawa Shogunate on February 6, 1864. In his role as head the mission became known as the “Ikeda mission.”

The main objective of the mission was to secure a trading agreement with the French which would see the closure of the harbor of Yokohama to foreign trade to close the country to western influences and a desire to return to national seclusion or sakoku. The task was unsuccessful due to Yokohama being the centre of foreign presence in Japan since 1854 when the country was opened by Commodore Perry in 1854.

In 1864, en route to Paris, the Ikeda mission visited Egypt. The stay was memorialized in one of nineteenth-century photography’s most extraordinary images — the embassy’s members, dressed in winged kamishimo costume and jingasa hats, carrying their feared long (katana) and short (wakizashi) swords, standing in front of the Giza Sphinx.

The mission visited Egypt where the members were photographed in front of the Sphinx by Antonio Beato. On 23 August 1864, the mission returned to Japan. It was a failure.

Antonio Beato (1835–1906), also known as Antoine Beato, was an Italian-British photographer. He is noted for his genre works, portraits, views of the architecture and landscapes of Egypt and the other locations in the Mediterranean region. He was the younger brother of photographer Felice Beato (1832–1909), with whom he sometimes worked. Antonio and his brother were part of a small group of commercial photographers who were the first to produce images of the Orient on a large scale.

By the 1850s, tourist travel to Middle East created strong demand for photographs as souvenirs. Beato, and his brother were part of a group of early photographers who made their way to the East to capitalize on this demand. These pioneering photographers included Frenchmen, FĂ©lix Bonfils (1831-1885); Gustave Le Gray (1820-1884) and Hippolyte Arnoux, brothers Henri and Emile Bechard and the Greek Zangaki brothers, many of whom were in Egypt at the same time and entered into both formal and informal working partnerships. These early photographers, including Antonio and his brother, were among the first commercial photographers to produce images on a large scale in the Middle East.

Antonio Beato went to Cairo towards the end 1859 or early 1860 and spent two years there before moving to Luxor where he opened a photographic studio in 1862 (until his death in 1906) and began producing tourist images of the people and architectural sites of the area. In the late 1860s, Antonio was in partnership with the French photographer, Hippolyte Arnoux. Beato’s images of Egypt were distinctly different to those of other photographers working in the region. Whereas most photographers focussed on the grandeur of monuments and architecture, Beato concentrated on scenes of everyday life.

In 1864, at a time when his brother Felice was living and photographing in Japan, Antonio photographed members of Ikeda Nagaoki’s Japanese mission who were visiting Egypt on their way to France.

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