K.A.C. Creswell Collection of Photographs of Islamic Architecture

Historical and Biographical Note

Sir Keppel Archibald Cameron Creswell (1879-1974) was of the pioneering figures in the study of Islamic art and architecture. Born in London to a family of professionals, Creswell excelled in school, graduating from the Westminster School of London in 1896. At an early age, he developed an interest in travel, the Middle East and its architecture. After training in electrical engineering and draftsmanship at London’s City and Guilds Hall Technical College, he worked for electrical firm Siemens Brothers and later Deutsche-Bank. Creswell developed an interest in Islamic architecture (particularly that of Persia), and from 1910 began to build a library on the subject. His first article on Islamic architecture was published in 1913, and the next year he applied for a position with the Archeological Survey of India.

At the outbreak of the First World War Creswell joined the Royal Flying Corps, and in 1916 was posted to Egypt. Creswell soon began to document Cairo’s Islamic monuments. His first photographs were published by the Survey of Egypt in 1916, in Henriette Devonshire’s 1917 Rambles in Cairo guidebook, and in the reports of the Comité de Conservation des Monuments de l'Art Arabe between 1917 and 1919. In 1919 he published his first article on Cairo’s monuments, “A Brief Chronology of the Muhammadan Monuments of Egypt to A.D. 1517.” In 1919 Creswell was appointed Inspector of Monuments in British General Edmund Allenby’s military administration of the Occupied Enemy Territory, charged with compiling an inventory of monuments. Stationed successively in Aleppo, Amman, Haifa, and Jerusalem, Creswell traveled over 5,000 miles during his posting, measuring and taking almost one thousand photographs of monuments from northern Syria to Egypt. 

By 1920 Creswell began to plan an exhaustive history of Egypt’s Islamic architecture, ultimately receiving a grant from King Fuad I of Egypt funding a three-year project. Later that year he transferred his library from London to Cairo and commenced work on the history. Dissatisfied with the inaccuracy of drawings produced by the Comité de Conservation des Monuments de l'Art Arabe, Creswell undertook to re-measure and draw ground plans and elevations himself. His work resulted in the publication of two groundbreaking multi-volume works on Islamic architecture, Early Muslim Architecture (1932 and 1940) and The Muslim Architecture of Egypt (1952, 1959). Creswell’s other major work, A Bibliography of the Architecture, Arts, and Crafts of Islam, was completed in 1961, the culmination of almost 40 years of work. Listing over 12,000 books and articles and almost 5,000 authors, the work is said to index only items that Creswell examined personally. A supplement appeared in 1973, one year before his death. In all, Creswell published over sixty items in the course of his lifetime. 

In 1931 Creswell joined the staff of Fuad I University (today’s Cairo University), and three years later was tenured as a professor of the newly-formed Chair for Islamic Art and Archaeology. Other professional positions he held during this period included ex-officio member of the Higher Council for the Conservation of Arab Monuments (1939), and trustee of the Palestine Archaeological Museum in Jerusalem (1949). Creswell lost his Chair at Fuad I University in 1951 and was able to continue his research only with funding assistance from the Rockefeller Institute and later the Bollingen Foundation.

As a British citizen residing in Egypt during the 1956 Suez Canal crisis, Creswell feared for the safety of his book collection. In order to safeguard his library, Creswell came to an agreement with the American University in Cairo, donating the library and his photograph collection in return for appointment as professor of Islamic art and architecture. Creswell retained much control over his library for most of the next twenty years, closely supervising the work of students and scholars using the materials.

Creswell never married, and when his health failed him in his ninety-fourth year he returned to England, where he died on 8 April 1974. Creswell received numerous honors during his lifetime, including an Honorary Doctor of Literature degree from Oxford University, election as a Fellow of the British Academy in 1947, and the Order of the British Empire (C.B.E.) in 1955. In 1970, at the age of ninety, Creswell was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.


Scope and Content

The collection contains about 8,000 photographic prints and 1,000 glass slides. All prints are black and white and measure, on average, 13 x 18 cm. Various sizes can be found throughout, including oversized, panoramic, and custom-cut details.

The photographic prints depict Islamic monuments in present-day Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Spain, Tunisia, and Turkey as they appeared between the 1870s and 1960s. The collection also contains some images of monuments in Iran, India, Central Asia, and elsewhere. Creswell produced most of the prints himself over a period of 48 years (between 1916 and 1964), using a box camera while traveling throughout Egypt and the region. Many of these images were used to illustrate his published works on Islamic architecture. 

Creswell also collected prints to complement his own photographs, including about 200 prints by commercial photographers working in the Middle East between the 1870s to 1930s, such as Pascal Sebah, Félix Bonfils, and G. Lékégian. Photographs were also acquired from scholars working in the field like Friedrich Sarre, Ernst Herzfeld, Oskar Reuther, and Gaston Wiet, and from entities like the British Royal Air Force, which produced aerial views of sites in Egypt, Iraq, and Syria. Another source of images was the Comité de Conservation des Monuments de l'Art Arabe, which produced photographs of Islamic monuments in Cairo between the 1880s and 1950s.

The photographs show structures built between the seventh to eighteenth centuries of the present era. Images of monuments in Egypt comprise the bulk of the collection (over 370 monuments, predominantly in Cairo) illustrated by approximately 4,500 photographs. Cities and sites in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine represent nearly 2,000 images. Iraq is represented by about 450 prints and Tunisia almost 300 images. Istanbul and the major monuments of western Turkey and Anatolia are represented by over 500 images. Finally, the monuments of Muslim Spain (in cities such as Cordova, Granada, Seville, and Toledo) are depicted in approximately 200 prints. The majority of the images relate to religious and commemorative architecture, such as mosques, madrasas, and mausoleums, and defensive structures like fortresses and city walls. Selected examples of domestic and vernacular architecture (such as wikalas, sabils and maristan) and some Christian monasteries and churches are also documented.

The collection also includes about 1,000 glass slides of monument views, cityscapes, and ground plans, which were used to illustrate his lectures on Islamic architecture. Many of these are duplicates of the print collection, but the slides also include other views of Egypt and Algeria. A number of these slides were produced commercially and date to the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. Currently, a portion of the collection is available in our Digital Library.


Organization and Arrangement

 The collection's prints are housed in mylar sleeves in three-ringed albums boxes according to the order in which Creswell assembled them in oversized leather-bound albums. A few of Creswell’s original albums were kept for display purposes, but re-housing was necessary due to preservation reasons. Photographs are arranged by country and by city or site and in chronological order by the date of construction therein. The images for each monument are organized, according to Creswell’s original scheme, in the following order: general view, entrance, interior, and features such as mihrab, domes, pendentives, minaret, and other significant decorative elements. Oversized photographs were removed to three custom-built boxes, two containing prints of monuments in Egypt and one for prints from the rest of the collection. The oversized prints are stored in size-specific trays within these boxes. The bulk of the collection’s glass slides are arranged according to the sequence in which they are listed in Creswell’s lecture notes.

Series Descriptions

The collection is arranged in four series:
Series 1: Photographic Prints
Series 2: Oversized Photographic Prints 
Series 3: Miscellaneous Albums
Series 4: Glass Lantern Slides and Glass Negatives

Series 1: Photographic Prints 

 This series contains Creswell’s original photographs of Islamic architecture in the Middle East, North Africa, Asia Minor, and Spain, as well as prints acquired from commercial photographers, scholars, or others. The prints are organized according to the order in which Creswell assembled them in oversized leather-bound albums, which were numbered A1 to A27 and B1 to B18 (with multiple-part albums designated 1 and 2), reflecting their position in the storage slots on either side of a custom-built cabinet in Creswell's library. These albums were organized by country, and the prints within each album according to the chronological sequence of the monuments or sites depicted. The prints are labeled according to their original album and the position on the album pages. Thus a print labeled "A9 pl. 30 a/3" indicates the first of three prints on plate 30 of album A9; some prints are further listed with a copy number ("c.2"), applied to indicate that Creswell had affixed several duplicates or near-duplicates in a single page slot, one under the next.  

Boxes 61 to 67 contain loose prints that Creswell had not assembled in albums. These cover India, Central Asia, Iran, North Africa, Europe (including postcards of Overstrand in England where Creswell summered), and other locations, as well as additional photographs of Egypt (including images of Alexandria and Cairo, gardens, the Haj departure, and Pharaonic structures). Other prints rehoused in these albums depict pre-Islamic architecture, ground plans, ornamentation, and examples of decorative arts. Box 68 contains prints enclosed with correspondence received by Creswell, including photographs of excavations in Iraq. This box also holds portraits of KAC Creswell and photographs of members of his family. 


Series 2: Oversized Photographic Prints

Series 2 consists of oversized prints from Creswell's original albums and loose prints. Because of their size, the prints were removed and placed in custom-made albums and custom-sized mylar encasement.  The first two oversized boxes contain prints of Egypt, and the third box contains prints depicting structures in countries other than Egypt. Within the oversized boxes, the prints are arranged according to size in size-specific trays. Many of the items in this series were produced by commercial photographers and entities like the Comité de Conservation des Monuments de l'Art Arabe. Many of the oversized prints date to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


Series 3: Miscellaneous Albums

Series 3 contains five albums of photographic prints. Three are oversized mock-ups (dummies) of Creswell’s The Muslim Architecture of Egypt (1952-1959) assembled by Creswell for the publisher’s use in placing images in the books. One album features unattributed prints of the city walls of Cairo before the clearing of inhabitants, adjoining buildings, and rubble by the Comité de Conservation des Monuments de l'Art Arabe, and another contains reproductions of classical nude statues.


Series 4: Glass Lantern Slides and Glass Negatives

This series contains almost 1,000 glass lantern slides of monument views, cityscapes, and ground plans, many of which were used to illustrate Creswell's lectures on Islamic architecture. Many of these represent duplicates of the print collection. The slides not labeled as illustrations for Creswell's lectures depict Egypt, Syria, and Persia (Iran), as well as architectural elements such as pendentives and minarets. Also included in this series are a group of slides found in a separate wooden box, which feature views of Egypt and Algeria. A number of these were produced commercially, such as by the Paris firm of Levy & ses Fils, and date to the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. 

The Egypt slides show pharaonic monuments like the pyramids and sphinx at Giza, Memphis, and other sites around Cairo, often with tourists shown in the photographs. In addition to Islamic monuments and sites in medieval Cairo, the contemporary city is represented by images of notable structures like the Kasr El Aini Bridge, the Gezira Palace, and a building labeled "Cairo - Residence," which may depict the headquarters of the British resident minister in Egypt. Other slides feature street scenes or portraits of Egyptians of various occupations, such as guides and fruit sellers, as well as a "Nubian Officer." Views of rural Egypt and the Nile show dahabieh boats, camels and other means of animal transportation, and irrigation methods like the shadouf and saqqia waterwheels. One slide shows a funeral in Alexandria. The slides of Algeria include views of Algiers and its harbor, as well as portraits of local residents (some featuring descriptions like "The Old Moor"). The oasis of Biskra is also shown, with scenes of Bedouin, camel caravans, and the Sahara Desert. A few slides are unrelated to the region. 

Series 4 also includes one manuscript box of glass negatives. Among these are images and ground plans of monuments Iraq, Jordan, and Syria, as well as ornamental elements of houses at Fustat in Egypt. A reproduction of the "Manuscript of Ibn Asakir at Damascus" is also found here.

Use of the Collection

Access and Restrictions

The collection is open to researchers and contains no restricted material.

Use of Materials

Items in the collection do not circulate and may be used only within the Rare Books Library. Users must comply with the Rare Books Library’s rules on handling and care of materials.

Publication Rights and Copyright

Permission to publish or reproduce collection materials must be received from the University Archivist. Items may be subject to copyright. The user must also secure permission to publish from the copyright owner.


The preferred citation for quoting material from this collection is:
[Item Title], K.A.C Creswell Photograph Collection of Islamic Architecture, [Album or Box Number], Rare Books and Special Collections Library, The American University in Cairo.

Administrative Information

Acquisition Information

The collection was acquired by the American University in Cairo in 1956 as the result of an agreement under which KAC Creswell joined the university’s faculty as a distinguished professor of Islamic art and architecture. At this time he donated to the school his photographic archive, personal library, and papers. The negatives from which many of the collection’s prints were generated were bequeathed to Oxford University’s Ashmolean Museum upon Creswell’s death in 1974. 

Processing Information

Processing of the collection was directed by Simone Bass under a 2004-2006 project sponsored by the Getty Foundation.

Related Material

The K.A.C Creswell Papers and the personal library of K.A.C Creswell are both located in the Rare Books and Special Collections Library.


Separated Material

The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom holds the negatives for many of the prints in this collection.