When I saw two photos of Edith Wharton visiting the Bahia Palace of Marrakesh, adrenaline rushed through me. I am a historian, so I constantly seek out new documents that illuminate the past. In these black and white photos, Wharton was with her best friend and traveling companion Walter van Rensselaer Berry as well as eleven other men and women. They had all traveled to the southern Sahelian city in October 1917, after visiting a colonial fair in Rabat. In a dark tailored suit with a veiled hat, Wharton cocked her head in a distinctive manner.
As a historian, my job consists of spending thousands of hours in archives. This term “archive” signals a physical space that contains the records—letters, government documents, photos, for example—that emanate from the past. These primary sources allow historians to assess the workings of a given place at a specific time. They offer clues, in some sense, that allow one to solve a mystery in a past era.
To understand Morocco during the era of Edith Wharton’s trip, which occurred at the height of World War I, I cull newspapers in Arabic that shed light on the conditions in the country. I examine correspondence in French to assess French colonial policies in this North African Protectorate. And I read with interest the diary entries and letters of Wharton herself. Ultimately, I seek to understand how Wharton’s work influenced discussions in the United States about European imperialism in the Arab world. Why did she strongly support this policy?
I found these photos in the online catalogue of France’s Centre des archives diplomatiques du ministère des affaires étrangères. Most scholars working on Wharton are not historians of North Africa, so this archive has yet to be explored to understand Wharton’s work, specifically the travelogue In Morocco (1920).
Some nameless administrator in the French Protectorate had neglected to properly catalogue the photos, which he lumped with others produced by French Morocco’s Department of Fine Arts. He listed one photo of Wharton at a fountain in very general terms: “Marrakech. Groupe d’européens posant dans le palais de la Bahia.” He marked the other similarly: “Groupe d’européens posant dans un cours intérieur dans le palais de la Bahia.”
Annoyed at the lack of precision in labeling the photo, I wondered who else was in this photo! Who had accompanied her on her special trip to Marrakesh, besides Berry. I wanted to know with whom she spoke and exchanged ideas. That way, I might be able to infer what she learned about Morocco and colonization.
Though I had studied Edith Wharton’s trip to Morocco for three years, these photos offered my first physical glimpse of the Grande Dame of American literature in North Africa. She had filled her travelogue, after all, with stock photos of monuments, staged scenes devoid of everyday life. She did not include personal snapshots. Here, I saw the smiles of Wharton and her traveling companions as they encountered a land that the travelogue In Morocco presented as highly exotic.
Finding this image filled me with a sense of professional accomplishment. I had uncovered two new photos of Wharton!
The group posed in an extavagant courtyard house of what was once a rich and influential political family. The French appropriated this Bahia Palace when they established the Protectorate in 1912. The first Resident General, Hubert Lyautey, would make it “the Residence,” his official office and living quarters. Lyautey invited Wharton and Berry to stay as his guests while in this southern town. Wharton deemed the Bahia “the loveliest and most fantastic of Moroccan palaces.”
In one photo, Wharton and her companions sit for a photo near an Andalusian fountain. Running water in this fountain would have signified great wealth in a city smack dab in a semi-arid land. In the second photo, they stand in the principal room off this courtyard where a rich patriarch would have greeted his guests.
In these black and white photos, the viewer cannot fully appreciate the architectural luxury enveloping the travelers.
The principal courtyard is vast, and a football field would fit there. Its floor comprises green and white zellij, chiseled tile creating intricate geometric patterns. Rooms have high ceilings. You must crane your neck uncomfortably to view the elaborate reds, yellows and oranges motifs on them. The window grills consist of arabesque scrollwork of iron. Artisans chiseled elaborate praises of Allah in ancient calligraphy in the plasterwork molding. Trees grow in a secondary courtyard.
In real life, the colorful backdrop must have offered a stark contrast to the austere wartime fashions of Wharton and her cohort. The trench coats sported by men and women in this photo were a military innovation of World War I. The war shifted female fashion, due to a lack of fabric and a need to move more quickly. Hemlines were short, showing ankles. Wharton’s outfit emphasized functionality and simplicity in women’s clothing.
Dark and dour, the fashions of the day reflected the trauma and penury of the political moment, a contrast to the ostentatious exhibition of confident power and plenty at the Bahia Palace.
Two weeks after my discovery of the photos, I would travel to Marrakesh and seek out the very spot where Wharton once sat.
It was exciting to visit a place where Wharton had been nearly 102 years ago. In the US, signs at houses or B & B’s announce that “George Washington Slept Here.” At the Bahaia Palace, I wanted to post an announcement that “Edith Wharton Slept Here.” As I walked through the building, I thought about how I was now literally traveling in the footsteps of this famous author.
I had morphed from a historian to a literary tourist.
At the fountain where Wharton had posed in October 1917, I handed my iphone to a friendly stranger with a Scandinavian accent. One day, I thought, I may experience creative slowdown. Or the research funding may fail to materialize. Or noteworthy and useful documents within a given archive will hide from me.
At that time, I will remember the professional satisfaction I took in finding these new photos of Wharton as well as the personal contentment I felt the day I reenacted them.