Barnaby Rogerson

On the trail of Roman Turkey with Don McCullin

The great war photographer has now brought to life some of the finest ruins of the ancient world

One of the finest sculptures of its age: ‘The Dionysus Sarcophagus’, Perge, 2nd century AD, was carved from Attic marble by Athenian sculptors and depicts the revenge of Dionysus on Lycurgus, king of Thrace [© Don McCullin 2023]

The genesis for our book Journeys across Roman Asia Minor was hatched in the autumn of 1973, when Sir Donald McCullin was a young man. He had been assigned by the Sunday Times to work with the writer Bruce Chatwin on a story that would take them from a murder in Marseille to the Aurès highlands of north-east Algeria. It was an emotionally gruelling journey and they rewarded themselves on the way back by stopping off to look at a solitary Roman ruin. No photographs were taken, but the memory of this place from all those years ago remained embedded in Don’s imagination. Three decades later, that seed bore fruit, as he undertook a series of visits to North Africa. I was lucky enough to accompany him on two of these trips, into western Libya and southern Algeria.

With lights sparkling in two pairs of eyes, we thanked our lucky stars for what we had seen

Don was locked into an affectionate dialogue with two of the pioneer photographers of this historical landscape: Maxime du Camp and Francis Frith. I heard from Don about the ‘startling clarity and precision’ that they had achieved with these first images of antiquity, their honest ‘factuality’, and how you could almost hear the crunch of their feet and taste the dust that had flicked up towards the camera lens some 150 years before.

Du Camp had travelled out to photograph the ancient monuments of Egypt between 1849 and 1851, in the company of another eminent Frenchman, Gustave Flaubert. Francis Frith was neither accompanied by some erudite companion nor endorsed by state funding. He was a self-willed, self-funded Anglo-Saxon who at the age of 33 dedicated himself to ‘the rage, the fury, the vexation of all kinds caused by my [obsession with] photography’.

Before this, Frith had set himself up as a wholesale grocer and could have gone on to become a Lipton or a Sainsbury.

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