Thousands of her black-and-white photographs of Egypt spanning more than three decades, detailed travel notes of her keen exploration of the Western Desert from the 1970s, as well as archival notes and dispatches acquired from the British Army—these are just some of the astonishing materials that photographer, historian, and AUC Press author Cassandra Vivian is donating to the Rare Books and Special Collections Library of the American University in Cairo.
A native of Pennsylvania’s lush Laurel Highlands, Vivian was consumed with wanderlust from the moment she joined the Girl Scouts. She first arrived in Egypt in 1974 and ended up staying for twenty years. “Egypt is my adopted country,” she writes in her blog, and having come to the capital, she “systematically devoured Cairo. Street by street and block by block, . . . sitting down in old sabils, in the Sudanese market, in a home in Sakkara, drinking tea with the people, learning their customs.”
When the desert road to Bahariya reopened in 1978, Vivian ventured out with her camera, often in her blue Beetle Volkswagen, to the remote oasis south of Cairo to document the customs, dialects, and way of life of Bedouin women. She was to explore each of the oases of the Western Desert, in the process amassing a striking collection of artifacts (such as dresses, jewelry, baskets, rugs, and pottery), and photographs. Some of them feature in her bestselling The Western Desert of Egypt: An Explorer’s Handbook, which was published by AUC Press and ran to several editions. Vivian was also the Press’s marketing manager between 1984 and 1988.
“Vivian’s collection is a mine of information about the Egyptian desert and its legacy, filling the huge gap in desert studies after the pioneering research and publications of the explorer Ahmed Pasha Hassanein (1925) and Egyptologist Ahmed Fakhry (1945), said Amr Kamel, Assistant Director, Middle East/Egypt, Rare Books and Special Collections Library.
“It was Kent Weeks, the director of the Theban Mapping Project, who suggested I approach the Rare Books Library about my collection,” explained Vivian. The American Egyptologist initially contacted her to say how useful he found The Western Desert of Egypt. “As we communicated, I told him I was looking for a good home for my material. He liaised with AUC and made it happen,” said Vivian.
Her slides, negatives, and photographs span a period of thirty-four years, from 1974 to 2008. “I shot every aspect of Egypt: the rich, the poor, the middle class; Cairo and all districts, including the suqs and the European quarters; the Nile valley from Alexandria to Aswan; Sinai, the Eastern Desert, and my beloved Western Desert and its oases,” she notes in her blog.
The collection holds letters, maps, old postcards, microfilm reels, and official documents relating to research she had carried out for her books. More personal items range from her old passports and awards to dairies and notes from her journeys “in steno books, mile by mile, discovery by discovery over a 30-year period,” with GPS locations.
Included, too, are her numerous articles about Egypt and editions of her books, such as The Western Desert of Egypt; Egypt: Touching the Land; and the 1988 edition of AUC Press’s Cairo Practical Guide. Her Americans in Egypt, 1770–1915: Explorers, Consuls, Travelers, Soldiers, Missionaries, Writers and Scientists relates the experiences and attitudes of fifteen American personalities who worked, lived, and traveled in Egypt from the 1770s to the beginning of the First World War.
Vivian has had a long association with the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, which has hosted exhibits of her Egypt photographs and rich collection of artifacts. She now lives in the United States but Egypt has inevitably left its mark: “I learned so much from the people of Egypt. I learned humility. I learned how to live with very little. I learned that an ancient people have far more tolerance and patience than upstart countries.”
“We certainly shall include Vivian’s collection in an exhibit since displaying such interesting collections is one of our main goals,” said Kamel of AUC’s Rare Books Library.