Niall Atkinson and the Travellers of Cairo


Colgate welcomed Professor of Art History at the University of Chicago, Niall Atkinson, for a discussion about the historical world of Cairo.

Have you ever wondered what the world truly looked like hundreds of years ago? Have you considered what the structural composition of ancient cities was like? Or, have you questioned why today’s architecture differs from the designs of buildings in the past? Unfortunately, without extensive records of photos or detailed drawings, answering these questions becomes a difficult and relatively imaginative process. Although no one will ever genuinely or fully know the physical appearance of ancient civilizations, members of the Colgate community recently got an opportunity to address these inquiries by diving deep into the historical world of Cairo, Egypt.

On Wednesday, February 20, Colgate’s program in Medieval and Renaissance Studies co-sponsored an Art & Art History Lecture and welcomed guest speaker Niall Atkinson to campus. Atkinson is an Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Chicago and his teaching primarily centers around architecture and urbanism of Medieval and Renaissance Italy. Atkinson’s interdisciplinary lecture, entitled “Viewing Cairo on the Move: The roaming bodies of early modern travelers,” touched upon written and expressive accounts of Cairo from early modern Italian travelers. The opportunity to hear from a distinguished professor and learn about Cairo’s urban modern society and architecture drew a large crowd of Colgate students and faculty.

Atkinson began his lecture by mentally transporting the audience back in time to the city of Cairo during the modern period. He analyzed written accounts of early Italian travelers upon their arrival in Egypt, which included detailed descriptions of Cairo’s houses, palaces, mosques and pyramids. Italian travelers also emphasized the area, composition, walls, roofs and openings of Cairo’s buildings. Through the exploration of these written records, Atkinson discussed how Italian travelers made sense of foreign lands. He also marveled at the physical engagement of Italian travelers with numerous spaces in Cairo, noting how this gave rise to his study of the relationship between identity and space.

Atkinson’s lecture was complemented by a stunning visual presentation that brought the written descriptions of Cairo to life. By displaying first-hand drawings and diagrams from Italian travel journals, Atkinson provided the audience with numerous visual interpretations and depictions of Cairo. Meanwhile, Atkinson’s examination of written and graphic portrayals allowed audience members to picture the ancient world.

Atkinson concluded his lecture with a short question and answer session where Colgate students and faculty had an opportunity to engage with Atkinson’s research. Throughout this session, Atkinson demonstrated a comprehensive knowledge of his studies, and it became clear that he had successfully peaked the curiosity of his audience members. Colgate is fortunate to have had the opportunity to engage with Niall Atkinson and get a glimpse into Cairo’s architectural and structural history.

Contact Sarah Speegle at [email protected].