In 1856, he visited Egypt for the first time. Gérôme's itinerary followed the classic grand tour, up the Nile to Cairo, across to Faiyum, then further up the Nile to Abu Simbel, then back to Cairo, across the Sinai Peninsula through Sinai and up the Wadi el-Araba to Jerusalem and finally Damascus. This would herald the start of many orientalist paintings depicting Arab religious practice, genre scenes and North African landscapes.
In his travels, Gérôme collected artefacts and costumes for staging oriental scenes in the studio, and also made oil studies from nature for the backgrounds. In an autobiographical essay of 1878, Gérôme described how important oil sketches made on the spot were for him: "Even when worn out after long marches under the bright sun, as soon as our camping spot was reached I got down to work with concentration. But Oh! How many things were left behind of which I carried only the memory away! And I prefer three touches of color on a piece of canvas to the most vivid memory, but one had to continue on with some regret."