Krakow wa Zakopane (Krakow and Zakopane), by Sherif Sonbol, (Cairo: Polish Embassy in Cairo), 2018.198pp.
In his new photo book, prolific Egyptian photographer Sherif Sonbol takes the reader on a sensational journey to two of the most beautiful cities in Poland.
Krakow and Zakopane is Sonbol's first book in a planned series of works that will document in images different cities. The images in the first book beautifully capture the landscape and sights of the two cities, and are accompanied by an equally smooth and eloquent text that tells not just of the cities’ wonders but also of Sonbol's time in both places.
Sonbol brings readers along on his journey, at times on foot, in a taxi or a cable car. He roams around the cities’ churches, palaces and other locales that are unknown to the average Arab reader.
"The project started when I discovered that there isn't a single book in Arabic about any city in the world. If you wanted to read a book about Paris in Arabic, you won't be able to find it. This is a huge shortage that I wanted to fix through this book, which is part of a series called Al-Alam Bil Arabi (The World in Arabic),” he said.
A lot of people in Egypt speak English and have access to English books, but they are not ready to read a whole book in English.
"Reading in your native language is an advantage, it is much easier even if you are fluent in other languages. For me, I'm not ready to read a whole book in English, this is why I wanted to produce this book," said Sonbol, who has worked as a photojournalist for Al-Ahram Weekly and the Cairo Opera House.
The book is written in simple language and is rich with historical information cleverly woven in the form of a story.
"I meant to use very simple language, because this is a book for the ordinary man. I wanted the book to be accessible to everyone, I want people to have a window into the other cities in the world, to see them and know what happens there," he said.
While Sonbol was looking for someone to finance the project, the Polish embassy offered him a chance to visit Poland to execute his idea, so he headed to Warsaw.
"The thing about Krakow is that I had never heard about it before in my life, so when my friends in Warsaw suggested that the greatest Polish city is Krakow, I was surprised, but I packed my bags and travelled there. In two days I was in love with the city, so I decided to take the Arab reader on a journey there,” he explains.
Sonbol travelled to the two cities three times and spent a total of two to three months in both cities, and there he took pictures and talked with many of the locals to get inside stories and learn about the secret parts of the cities.
Sonbol's texts accompanying each set of pictures give historical information woven with his personal experience and conversations with the locals, portraying a vivid picture in text as much as in photography.
The author starts by introducing us to the history of the city’s founding, then a quick glimpse into its political history before taking us to each of its landscapes and destinations. This isn't your average touristic guide, however, as the author takes us beyond the touristic destinations, creating an inventory of the city, its history, art and restaurants.
Wieliczka Salt Mine
Most of us know that salt is produced by evaporating sea water, but through his tours of Krakow, Sonbol learns that there is another way to extract salt, which is through mining.
While Sonbol was exploring the underground world of Krakow, the old capital of Poland, he stumbles across the stunning Wieliczka Salt Mine, which extends 300m under the city.
Salt hasn't always been a cheap and ubiquitous ingredient. At a certain point it was considered the oil of its age, with wars erupting to control mines or to fight taxes on its production, as was the case in the salt war in Italy in 1540.
Sonbol's lens brings us the glory of the salt mines and the great cathedral inside, which is the biggest underground cathedral in the world.
In the underground city also lies one of Krakow's most successful restaurants, U Babcia Maliny, which serves authentic Polish food in what used to be a large hospital.
Matjeko and Da Vinci's Lady
As an artist himself, Sonbol gives us a tour of Krakow museums and photographs the work of artist Jan Matejko (1838-1893), whose paintings document a very important era in Polish history, when the country was almost wiped off the map by the neighboring empires of Austria, Prussia and Russia.
The author tells of the context in which Matejko's masterpieces were produced and explains how art is sometimes interwoven with the political history of a country.
Sonbol takes us to Matejko's home and to Krakow's National Museum, where the artist’s cinema screen-sized paintings are displayed.
Sonbol then set off to see one of Leonardo Da Vinci’s most famous paintings, Lady with an Ermine (1489–1490), in the National Museum in Krakow.
"When I first went to see the painting it was encased in a glass display, and in front of it was a crowd comparable to those of Cairo's streets. When I explained my mission, however, the museum scheduled a private visit on the museum's day off," Sonbol says.
In the second half of the book, Sonbol takes us on a tour of Zakopane, the resort town at the base of the Tatras Mountains, which became a World War II resistance stronghold against the Nazis.