Farid Atiya – A Multi-Dimensional Egyptian Legend

by Nile El Wardani

On the eve of his passing, I feel privileged to write about an Egyptian man I greatly admired and called my friend. My young son calls Farid a legend. Coming from medieval Latin legenda means ‘things to be read.’  Indeed Farid Atiya left the world many things to be read, cherished and revered. Farid Atiya, was a remarkable, yet humble, modern day Egyptian legend.

Farid Atiya was an Egyptian man that discovered, explored and appreciated every dimension of his beloved Egypt. From the magical depths of the Red Sea, to the most remote areas of Egypt’s deserts, its oases, the villages and hamlets of the falaheen, the wadis of the Nubians, the vast ancient Pharonic, Islamic and Coptic sites and certainly the magnificent diversity of the Egyptian people, Farid lived, worked and immersed his senses in each treasure, person and setting with incredible passion.

Farid Atiya had an enormous appreciation for the beauty of life, our planet Earth and his beloved Egypt. He begged the question “What could be more beautiful than the naked molluse of the Red Sea?” He writes of Egypt’s Western Desert “the geomorphological activity of our planet” is represented in “the romance of time, captured by the surprising remnants of this prehistoric Savannah.”

As a young man Farid studied at DAO and then electronic engineering at Cairo University. He worked as an electronic circuit designer but soon discovered the sea, which changed everything. Farid wrote of the Red Sea “As we gaze into the cool green light of the liquid depths we are transported into a new world and we fairly grasp the 1wonder and magnificence of the scene below us. We cannot help feeling resentment that we must remain in a world apart, that we cannot live our lives in the peaceful atmosphere of this garden of our dreams.”  He was one of the first to photograph this underwater dream.

Farid combined his entrepreneurial spirit with his passion for photography and the sea and began printing some the first postcards of Egypt’s underwater world.  Ashod Pappazian and Ayman Taher were also pioneers in underwater photography that Farid greatly admired and befriended. For twenty years Farid traveled to the Red Sea hundreds of times, making thousands of dives and shooting hundreds of rolls of film, which eventually were incorporated into his first two books The Red Sea In Egypt (Part I and II).  A master diver, Farid became an amateur naturalist, schooling himself in the biology of fish and invertebrates.

As a technical person he became obsessed with knowing and using the best camera equipment on earth, taking into account the uniqueness of each picture, he meticulously planned each shot. For portraits and statues he used the Hasselblad 500 CM and 501CM with Sonar 150 mm lens. For close-ups, the  Macro S-Planar 120 mm lens and for greater magnification Macro S-Planar 135 mm lens with bellows. He photographed the ceilings of tombs in the Royal Valley with the fisheye 30 mm F-Distagon lens and for architectural photography, the Planar 100 mm lens, the Arc-Body with the Schneider 45 mm lens, and the SW/C camera. Self taught, Farid Atiya became one of Egypt’s greatest photographers.

Always accompanied by one of his many Swedish Hasselblad cameras (the Rolls Royce of cameras) Farid was a perfectionist. He never used digital cameras, because he believed that the best quality pictures in regard to sharpness, contrast and detail could only be captured on film.

As an industrialist, an author, and a publisher, Farid pushed the boundaries of publishing, reaching almost the physical limit of press resolution. He founded Farid Atiya Press and specialized in the publication of books on Egypt, its culture, history, monuments, museums and the Red Sea. The Press became known for the complete integration of professional photographs and offset printing, from the design to the final product.

After 25 years of diving and photographing the sea, Farid discovered the subtle pride of the desert and her havens the oases.  He began by photography Bahariya and Farafra Oases which resulted in The Silent Desert which he co-authored with Jenny Jobbins. With his Hasselblad he got very precise but also very artistic results. Going against the trend, Farid photographed in black and white as well as color.  He captured much of the noble desert including the Crystal Mountain, which stood on the very edge of the White Desert,  gone today, taken away bit by bit by people.

He became interested in flora. The acacia tree, he learned, is a complete ecosystem unto itself. Farid would begin photographing an acacia from afar, capturing the light playing upon the leaves and the shadows cast upon the desert crust, ever so often he would pick up his tripod and move in closer, adjusting his equipment and lens, whereupon he would seize the photons of something new. Closer and closer he got until he was inside the tree capturing each living thing; a spider in his nest, snails in the root system, black iron pyrite pebbles upon the sand and a piece of quartz glistening in the setting sun. Farid worked in total silence, not to scare the creatures or even the petrified wood away.

Farid was often accompanied by his wife Sawsan Merza and their son Fady, both of whom learned to work in silence and assist him. Glimpses into the pages of his many published books reveal their presence. Fady and Sawsan are seen in the burial chamber of the Meidum Pyramid in Egypt – Monuments, History and Myths. A devoted family man he shared every experience with Sawsan and Fady.

Farid was also a loyal friend. His life long friend Dr. Osama Asfour, an ophthalmologist shared a great understanding of optics and the human eye, often joined Farid and his family on desert safaris. He too is seen a top a sand dune with his Hasselblad in the Western desert.

Even has Farid was taken by the silence and majesty of the desert he began to discover the awe of Pharonic objects found in the desert. He was given permission to photograph the objects, but had to pay the Antiquities Department by the hour for access. Thus began yet another new passion, Pharonic Egypt. Smitten by its beauty and wonder, Farid spent a lot of money photographing the Pharonic, Islamic and Coptic sites of Egypt, along with the objects housed in Egypt’s many museums. While Farid was an excellent businessman, what drove him most was his pursuit of beauty, the sharing of wisdom and art and his insatiable thirst for perfection.

He was proud of his Egyptian heritage and of his Coptic roots although he was not a religious person.  Farid was one who admired the best in all cultures and traditions. This is exemplified by the stunning Islamic style salon he designed for his home. He was also smitten by Pharonic Egypt; the philosophy of life, death and rebirth, the temple ceremonies and the every day life. In short, Farid found everything stage of Egyptian history awesome.

He authored, co-authored and published over 400 books about Egypt filled with photos shot on his Hasselblad. Many of his books were square, an unusual shape for a book, a testimony of his homage towards the Hasselblad which operated with square 6X6 film. The genres and titles were expansive and included the acclaimed; The Red Sea in Egypt (I and II), The Best Diving Sites in the Red Sea, The Brother Islands, Cheop’s Solar Boat, The Fourth Dynasty’s Pyramids, The Giza Pyramids, Luxor Temple – History, Legends and Festivals, The Silent Desert – Bahariya and Farafra Oases, Egypt’s Monuments, History and Myths, Ancient Egypt, Jewelry of Ancient Egypt, and The Egyptian Museum in Cairo – A Walk through the Alleys of Ancient Egypt to name just a few.

Farid Atiya Press published in many languages, including those which are not covered by other publishers. In addition to the customary languages he included Dutch, Polish, Japanese, Greek, Chinese, Spanish, and Portuguese. He wanted tourists from every nation to feel welcome in Egypt.

In the last few years Farid began to publish the works of others such as The Great Pyramid by Jean Pierre Houdin, a book that put forth a new theory as to how the pyramid was built. Scoffed at by many Egyptologists Houdin was unable to find a publisher in Egypt until he met Farid Atiya who understood his theory and believed in stretching the limits of scientific historical research. He published The Funerary Art of Ancient Egypt a thesis by Abeer El Shahawy a scholar at the Universite de Montpellier.

Always expanding his horizons, Farid became interested in publishing biographies that had to do with Egypt. He published the biography of Markus Pasha Simaika – His Life and Times (Founder of the Coptic Museum in Cairo 1924.)  And if all this was not enough he began to reprint old books that were out of print including; Sons of Ishmael – A Study of Egyptian Bedouin (1936) and Bonaparte – Governor of Egypt by F. Charles Roux. Farid always had many exciting projects ongoing. When he passed away only 40 days ago, he was preparing the books of Breasted an English Egyptologist who had written Mark Anthony and Cleopatra (1926).

Farid the Egyptian, was perhaps the most nationalist Egyptian I have known. Nationalist in the sense that he deeply loved and understood the depth and beauty of Egypt. Farid was one that intimately knew Egypt’s magnificent lands and seas, Her art, history, character and all that Egypt had contributed to the world for millions of years. He spared no expense to discover Egypt’s intricacies. He hired planes to fly him over her pyramids, wadis, seas, deserts, islands, cataracts, temples, valleys and high rise towers, to have a look for sure, but more, to capture Egypt’s magnificence with his trusted Hasselblad. Farid’s aerial shots of Egypt from the cataracts of Aswan, to the geographic plate tectonics of the Sinai Peninsula, and certainly the aerial shots of the Giza Plateau are among the most crystal clear, luminescent and stunning photos ever taken of these world renown sites.

Exceedingly proud of being Egyptian, Farid never sought to immigrate and when he traveled outside Egypt, he was always keen to return after ten days. Since the revolution, he saw many of his Coptic colleagues and friends, fearing the future, leave Egypt. Not Farid. Farid was one of Egypt’s peaceful revolutionaries. During the 18-day revolution and on many days since, Farid was in Tahrir Square with tears in his eyes and hope in his heart for a better tomorrow for his beloved Egypt. He remained totally positive and optimistic in regard to Egypt’s future. In the past year he had become a scholar of revolutions, delving into histories and political science annals, in hopes of finding the keys that unlock the mysteries of what makes for a successful revolution and transition to an open and free society, something he dreamed of for Egypt.

Quite political and absolutely progressive, Farid was a member of the Garden City Club where he gathered with friends most Thursday nights, always beside him was his best friend, his confident, and fellow adventurer, his beloved wife Sawsan. At the GCC Farid was in his element, sitting with Egypt’s intellectuals, writers, artists and journalists. He sat back listening and taking it in line by line. Always an observer, Farid Atiya, cherished the complexity and variety of Egypt especially Al Masreen, the Egyptian people.

A truly multi-dimensional man of Egypt, Farid Atiya was an Egyptian legend. A legend because he will stay in the hearts of his family, friends, colleagues and all that knew him forever. He employed hundreds, perhaps thousands of Egyptians during his career, no small contribution to his beloved Egypt, where having a good job is highly cherished.

Farid a legend, because he created and left behind over four hundred books and more than a million stunning photographs of his magical Egypt. Exploring, documenting and photographing every possible dimension; air, sea, land and below, Farid Atiya is an Egyptian legend because he left behind ‘things to be read’ forever.


Nile El Wardani is a professor at the American Univeristy in Cairo.


One thought on “Farid Atiya – A Multi-Dimensional Egyptian Legend

  1. Pingback: Farid Atiya – A Multi-Dimensional Egyptian Legend | Nile El Wardani, MPH, PhD

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