World Renowned Photographer Sarite Sanders Portrays Mysterious Radiance of a Fatimid Tomb and the Elegance of the Aga Khan Mausoleum

Sarite Sanders

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(I) The Mysterious Radiance of a Tomb in Aswan’s Fatimid Cemetery

Note: All photos by Sarite Sanders may be clicked for enlargements. For those with high speed access, we recommend you view the larger images.

For the past three decades, Sarite Sanders of world renown has been travelling to Egypt in the company of writers, scholars, artists and Egyptologists, and this mission has resulted in a remarkable book,  The Eternal Light of Egypt: A Photographic Journey (see details below), as well as an imposing  exhibition which has already shown in Chicago and is currently underway, until June 13, 2010, at the Albany Institute of History and Art. The Eternal Light of Egypt is dominated by haunting and surreal photographs of ancient Egyptian monuments which invite the observer to engage with Egypt’s most enduring legacy – the temples, the mummies, the gods and goddesses, and the pyramids. A remarkable feature of  some of these  40 photographs in Albany is that they were taken by the photographer using infra-red film which makes the images magical and mystical at the same time.  The technique was especially popular in the 1960s when musicians like Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa used it on their album covers. Says Sander’s about this technique:

“I took color images as well but the infrared black and white was much more stunning. The film I used has now become extinct, or at least the 35mm (format) has. The film captures a wider spectrum of light, 700 to 900 nanometers, which is not visible to the naked eye; it extends the spectrum and in doing so, captures heat, but also creates an otherworldly effect and an illusory sense of halo, as well as a powerful contrast. Infrared film also renders detail nicely. It is a high-grain film and when enlarged it becomes much grainier, and translated to print it gives it a much more antique feeling.”

The Fatimid Cemetery is adjacent to the Nubian Museum in Aswan and home to a vast collection of well-preserved mud-brick buildings, which often feature impressive domed roofs. Photo: © Sarite Sanders

Among the 40 captivating photos at the Albany exhibit, there is one of a tomb which Ms. Sanders took in the historical Fatimid Cemetery in Aswan (see III below for article about the cemetery). This photo was fortuitously ‘trapped’ in our Google search! Our request to the Albany Institute for permission to reproduce the photo on this web site was immediately forwarded to Ms. Sanders, and she responded by sending us a total of five photographs for publication on this Web site  – the two of the tomb  and an additional three of the late Aga Khan’s mausoleum. She also developed the captions. We are deeply indebted to Sarite Sanders for  her kindness and generosity, and  thank Tammis Groft, Deputy Director for Collections & Exhibitions at the Albany Institute, for forwarding our  original request to Ms. Sanders.

Another view of the Fatimid Tomb. Many of the actual graves are not in great condition and a number of the marble inscriptions are now on display in Cairo. Those who choose to visit Aswan’s Fatimid Cemetery should head to the back, where there are a group of mausoleum structures built during the 9th century and are therefore of great historical significance. Photo: © Sarite Sanders

The photos shown on this page are only a minute representation of Ms. Sanders’s architectural sweep of Egypt’s monuments, and we invite readers to visit the artist’s web site at to see more of her works. For those in and around (or passing) Albany, New York, please visit  the photo exhibition at the Albany Institute of History and Art. The exhibit continues until Sunday, June 13, 2010. The Web site is


(II) Photos of the Mausoleum of His Highness the Aga Khan III in Aswan

The late Aga Khan had expressed a wish to be buried in Aswan in Egypt. The Imam had a special place for Egypt ever since his first visit to the country in 1935. In his Memoirs, the Imam writes:

“On my way home to India I visited Egypt for the first time. Those who have not experienced it, who have not been lucky enough to fall under Egypt’s spell, will find it difficult, I suppose, to realize the sheer magic of the first sight of Egypt. And that my first sight was on a perfect early winter day, and need I say that all my life since then I have had a special corner in my heart for Egypt, and that I have returned there as often as I could.”

In an interview with the Al-Ahram Weekly (23-29 April, 1992), Mata Salamat, the Begum Om Habibah explained the choice of Aswan:

“…We had been coming here since 1935, when the place was not a touristic location at all but a health retreat and resort. We used to come for one or two months and stay at the Cataract Hotel and have lovely promenades on the Nile. We did not come to be cured of asthma or such things, it was just to enjoy the good weather and good air of Aswan.

“During these visits to the hotel, one day my husband said: I would like to be buried in Aswan’.”

continued after photo….

High up on the west bank of the Nile in Aswan stands the tomb of Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III, the 48th Imam of the Ismailis, who died in 1957, and of his wife the Begum, who died in 2000. The Mausoleum is a very elegant pink granite structure of late 1950 origin. The Aga Khan succeeded his father in 1885 when he was eight to become the 48th Imam. Upon his death on 11 July, 1957, he was succeeded to the Imamat by his grandson, Prince Karim Aga Khan, who celebrated his golden jubilee in July 2007. Photo: © Sarite Sanders

“He used to say Egypt is the flag of Islam’. And he wanted to be buried here. Then we looked around and one day while on the Nile in a felucca with the Director, who said: ‘But why do you insist on finding somewhere to be buried? You see that house’? It was absolutely closed and neglected. ‘It is on sale. Why don’t you buy it and enjoy yourself here’? My husband replied: ‘But I agree. Provided I have the permission to build a mausoleum behind’. And we bought it.”

The villa was named Noor al Salaam.

“He put the house entirely in my hands saying: You will choose the mausoleum. The style and everything else – do as you like. I want to be buried here’.”

continued after photo….

Aswan was the favourite wintering place of the Aga Khan and the Begum , and the family's white villa, Noor al Salaam, is seen in the garden beneath the tomb. This magnificent mausoleum of Aga Khan III was modelled on the Fatimid tombs in Egypt. Photo: © Sarite Sanders

“Now building the mausoleum was a great task for me. I was not sure of which style. But my husband had told me to see one of his friends at the American University, a British professor specializing in Islamic architecture. He took me all over Cairo and finally I made my choice, but if you see what I chose to copy, what inspired me, you may not see a resemblance.

“It is the al-Juyushi mosque. It is Fatimid and that is why I chose it; the piece that inspired me the most was the mihrab.”

continued after photo….

The mausoleum has an excellent view, including the Aga Khan's white villa below, and is near the Monastery of St. Simeons on the west bank at Aswan. His Begum, or wife, lived in the villa three months of the year. Every day that his widow was at the Villa, she placed a Red Rose on his white Carrara marble tomb. Omme Habibah, popularly referred to as "The Begum" or Mata Salamat by the Ismailis died on July 1st, 2000. The other months, a gardener filled this function. Photo: © Sarite Sanders

“And something that maybe nobody knows is that this monument was made entirely by hand. Most of the marble is carved from one piece. It is the only thing, coming from abroad Carara marble, a very special and rare pure kind of Carara. The remainder, granite and sandstone from Aswan.”

Note: All photos shown above may be clicked for enlargements. If you have high speed access, we recommend  you view the enlargements.



(III) The Fatimid Cemetery in Aswan – Scientific Study will help Document Tombstones and Restore Declining Ruins

The vast Fatimid Cemetery in Aswan is located south of the city’s public garden, and is adjacent to the Nubian Museum. The cemetery is an exceptionally important archaeological complex for the early Islamic history of Egypt. It consists of a group of 31 elaborate domed graves enclosed within a limestone wall which date back to the 9th to 12th centuries and is believed to be the resting place of the governors of Aswan. Some of the tombs even pre-date the Fatimid Caliphate. The tombs are very attractive, with roof corners protruding like horns. Some domes near the outer edges of the cemetery are decorated with flags and much better kept than the others. These belong to local saints and one may see local Aswan residents circumambulating a tomb, praying for the saint’s intercession.

World renowned photographer, Sarite Sanders, whose Fatimid tomb photos are shown in (I) above, notes in a caption that “many of the actual graves are not in great condition and a number of the marble inscriptions are now on display in Cairo.” This sentiment of the state of the cemetery was also highlighted in Egypt’s Al-Ahram newspaper, in its weekly on-line edition dated 19-25 July, 2001. It noted that many of the archaeological sites in Aswan were suffering from the increasing level of the water table, and “the effects of erosion are painfully clear at the Fatimid cemetery on the east side of the Aswan reservoir.”

 The paper also described the cemetery as “overgrown with weeds, and to get around the graves one must sidestep deep pools of water. The section of the necropolis at the top of a sandy hill is very well preserved, while that at ground-level suffers both water and urban encroachment.” Magdi Abdin of the Islamic Antiquities in Aswan, responding to this concern, mentioned that the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) was carrying out a restoration plan to save 15 of these Fatimid domed tombs by pouring white gravel into the area. At that time no long-term steps were taken to stop the infiltration of water.

Thus, it is not at all surprising that Lonely Planet observed that “many of the old tombs are in bad shape due to neglect and seem to be only short time from falling apart.” In addition to the poor state of the cemetery, there is also the issue of the identification of the tombstones (stelae) in this vast cemetery. A most unfortunate event occurred more than a century ago when the original marble inscriptions fell off after a freak late 19th-century rainstorm. In a poor attempt of preservation, inscriptions were removed from the tombs, but without recording what came from what. Because of that, it has today become difficult to reconstruct the origin of each structure.

Both these concerns of preservation of the cemetery and identification of the tombstones are now being addressed through the activities of the German Archeological Institute of Cairo (Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, Kairo, or DAI). The Institute has been conducting regular field campaigns at the necropolis for three years now with the aim of documenting and restoring its structures. This work is expected to contribute decisively towards the preservation and scientific description of this significant monument complex as well as to a fuller understanding of it. The institute is of the strong opinion that the description, publication and expert analysis of the cemetery are now a matter of some urgency.

Thus, from February 13-20, 2010, DAI in collaboration with Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities conducted an international workshop in the Nubian Museum of Aswan under the theme The Stelae of the Islamic Necropolis of Aswan. The forty scholars and experts who had gathered at this workshop were for the first time able to establish with some accuracy the number and location of the stelae which have been removed from their original context. This corpus consists of several thousand gravestones with Arabic inscriptions from the 7th to the 12 century which document the occupation of the cemetery. The stelae are scattered in museums and storage depots around Egypt and the rest of the world and the intention is to document them in a multilateral digital project and make it accessible to researchers via an open-access database. The historical and biographical sketches which the Arabic inscriptions contain will enable significant contributions to be made to the understanding of the role and history of Aswan, and of culture and religion precisely in this early Islamic period, the transition between late antiquity and the Middle Ages.


Photo Credits:
© Sarite Sanders. The Photos of the Fatimid Tomb (Story I) and the Aga Khan Mausoleum (II) are copyright. They are published on this Web site under a licensing agreement with Sarite Sanders. They are not to be published, shared digitally or reproduced in print or paper products without written permission of the photographer, Sarite Sanders.

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Lonely Planet – Fatimid Cemetery Review
DAI Press Release – International Workshop in Aswan
DAI Newsletter – International Workshop in Aswan
Al-Ahram News Report


Please also read Literary Reading: Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah, Aga Khan III – Long Reign Ends

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Summary of “The Eternal Light of Egypt: A Photographic Journey” by Sarite Sanders

Front Cover of Book

The book marks the culmination of thirty years of dedicated Egyptophilia for photographer Sarite Sanders. With a blunt austerity, the book’s first line informs the reader that “this is not your usual picture book about Egypt.” It’s true. The 130 black-and-white infrared photographs comprising Sanders’s collection bring to mind the documentary efforts of 18th and 19th century artists and archeologists; but the differences between Sanders’s photographs and those of her predecessors are substantial enough to say that she presents a vision of Egypt unlike anything you’ve seen before – and it’s likely that she’s done it in a way that you might never see again (in part because, earlier this year, Kodak discontinued the specialty film Sanders used to capture the teeming, aural signatures of things hovering at the lower edge of our visible light spectrum). Technology and time have transformed the way people look at ancient architecture. Sanders says she chose infrared because it could reveal the elusive, unchanging light that has pooled in the same astronomically aligned parapets and alcoves for thousands of years. “While there are plenty of beautiful color photographs out there, [infrared] had a haunting, otherworldly, and timeless quality to it,” Sanders says. “I was looking for a way to impart that timeless element to Egypt, against a landscape that I was watching become more and more manicured and constrained.”

Book published by: Thames & Hudson (September 2008), 220 pages, hard cover, 126 duo tone photographs


Note: Some of the comments shown below were republished at a later date, and therefore have a March 30 date.

12 thoughts on “World Renowned Photographer Sarite Sanders Portrays Mysterious Radiance of a Fatimid Tomb and the Elegance of the Aga Khan Mausoleum

  1. Another superb article Simerg!! I have never visited Egypt in my life but always wanted to go there. Your article and the breathtakingly beautiful pictures displayed therein have finally convinced me to pay a visit by ship, train, airplane and any other type of transportation needed starting at the mysteriously radiant Mausoleum of our 48th Imam and his wife Begum Om Habibeh in Aswan(Southern Egypt) and working my way upwards (northwards) to where the Nile River’s tributaries empty into the Mediterranean Sea and including the Azhar Park (considered to be the air-purifying lung of Cairo) and remnants of forts, castles, walls and gates in Cairo, the great library in Alexandria (where Alexander the Great and Neoplatonic Greek Philosopher Plotinus lived), the Suez Canal, the Sinai desert, the beachfront tourist paradise at Sharm Al Sheik, the Pyramids and Sphinx by camel ride and all the world-famous museums and burial sites discovered so far!

  2. I am actually going to Egypt tomorrow. And am so glad that Aswan is a part of my itinerary! Can’t wait to check out the tombs and such. Although I hear we are not allowed to enter the Aga Khan mausoleum as once was allowed.

  3. I visited the Mausoleum a few years ago, and this brings back wonderful memories of my trip! Thank you for sharing the rare insights and photos!

  4. I’m hoping to return to Cairo to continue my studies of Arabic & the Qur’an. The visit to Aswan is a must after reading your article.

  5. Ms. Sander’s photographs – above and at the Albany Institute – are breathtaking. Having “played” with IR film (once upon a time), I can appreciate the ethereal quality that Ms. Sanders speaks of, but her eye takes these photographs to a different level altogether.

    The pictures brought back a flood of memories of our own explorations of Egypt and resolved one of the many puzzles that we encountered. What is the Fatimid Cemetery in Aswan, and to whom do the masouleums bear testimony to? The reliable facts are hard to come by and I am delighted to be informed – finally!

  6. I have visited Egypt many times but the next visit will have to be Aswan.The photographs by Sarite Sanders have inspired me and I feel I should look at Ismaili history next.

  7. Nice pictures of the Imam’s mausoleum. I visited it in 1961, around January. I was hitch-hiking from England to Uganda during a gap year before going to university. I crossed the river on a motor boat. The man pointed it upstream by quite a bit, letting the current take the boat to the landing point. I climbed the winding hill to the burial building. The man was there with a red rose and he recited the fatiha for me. It was quite hot even in January. I did reach Uganda after two months.

  8. We are planning a trip to Egypt soon and the information provided in this article will be beneficial. Thank you.

  9. Extraordinary photographs, the article well written and informative. I have visited Egypt quite a few times but before the Mausoleum of His Highness was built. After seeing the photographs I am tempted to visit it again. Thank you

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