A vast rectangle of desert 1000 miles long and 800 wide, slung at an angle between Asia and Africa, the Arabian Peninsula consists of almost a million square miles of bugger-all. Most of it – the big, empty middle bit – is Saudi Arabia. Jordan, Iraq and Kuwait wrap around the top end.
Along the Persian Gulf coast, from Bahrain to Ras Musandam, are Qatar and the Trucial states – Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Umm al Qawain, Sharja, Fujaira, Ajman and Ras al Khaima – now collectively known as the United Arab Emirates. From his ancient stone palace in Muscat, the Sultan of Oman rules Jebel Akhdar and down past Ras al Hadd to Salalah in Dhofar. British South Arabia ran along the Arabian Sea and down to the Bab el Mandeb at the mouth of the Bahr el-Abyad (Red Sea), with Aden at the very bottom. Inland, looming both geographically and physically above Aden, is the high massif of the Yemen.
The Asir Mountains, barren and seared, rise along Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast, and sterile deserts slope away eastward for 600 miles to vast salt marshes and the date groves at Abqaiq and Dhahran near the Persian Gulf. Only in the southwest corner of the peninsula – in the Yemen – do the mountains rise high enough to interrupt the monsoon and cause rain. The highest Yemeni peak, Jebel Hadhur Nebi Shu’aib, is 3,800 m (12,400 ft) high.
Farmed intensely since biblical times, the profiles of the big round-shouldered mountains are stepped from foot to crest by irrigated terraces. In these high oases are ancient cities – Tai’izz, Sa’na, Marib and Ibb – once ruled by the Queen of Sheba. The city of Sheba itself (modern Shabwa) is located in the Western Aden Protectorate
The prosperity of successive civilisations in the Yemen caused the Romans to name the area ‘Arabia Felix’ (Happy Arabia). The Minaeans had developed a civilisation as early as 1,000 BC. They were traders with colonies as far north as Maan near the Gulf of Aqaba. They were succeeded by the Sabaeans, who in turn were succeeded by the Himyarites. This southern Arabian civilisation, which lasted 1500 years, came to an end in the middle of the sixth century AD when the great Mar’ib Dam – more than a thousand years old – collapsed, but while it lasted this remote land acquired a reputation for fabulous wealth. For centuries Egypt, Assyria and the Seleucids schemed and fought to control the desert route along which frankincense was carried northward, and in 24 BC the Emperor Augustus sent an army under Aelius Gallus, prefect of Egypt, to conquer the lands where this priceless gum originated. The army marched southward for 900 miles, but lack of water eventually forced it to retire.
The next conquerors were the legions of Mohammed in the seventh century AD. For ten generations the Yemen had been ruled by hereditary Imams of the Mutawakkil family – first in fief to the Ottoman Turks, then as absolute monarchs. In 1962, when I arrived, the mad Imam Yahya was on the throne. The ‘Mutawakkilite Imamate of the Yemen’ – as it was known – came to an end in 1963 when Imam Yahya was assassinated and his son, Seif al Islam (‘Light of the Muslims’) Mohammed al Badr assumed the throne.
Al Badr was poorly regarded both inside Yemen and in the West. Time magazine described the situation in the Yemen as “going from Badr to worse.” In the end, he lost a civil war with Marxist rebels, and was himself slain.
The Sultan of Lahej ceded a 194 sq km area (including Bandar Tawahi) to the British in 1838. In 1857 it was enlarged by the islands of Perim, Kamaran and Curia Muria to 257 sq km. The colony eventually grew to a 287,490 sq km British protectorate, divided into the 229,667 sq km Eastern Aden Protectorate (three states) and the 58,016 sq km Western Aden Protectorate (19 states).
In 1959, 13 states and the colony of Aden joined to form the Federated Emirates of the South, renamed, in 1962, The Federation of South Arabia. In August 1967, following departure of the British, the National Liberation Front expelled all hereditary rulers, and the People’s Republic of South Yemen was proclaimed, renamed on 8 November 1970, the Democratic People’s Republic of the Yemen.
On 30 November 1989, an agreement was signed to unify North Yemen (population about 7,000,000) and South Yemen (population just under 1,000,000) into the present Republic of Yemen. Despite two serious civil wars, the union remains today.
The desert landscape of British South Arabia, below the oases of Yemen, is fabulous. In the west volcanoes, black and hollow, line the shoreline. In many of their deep lunar craters are small salt lakes – blue, yellow, brown and green. There are plains of gravel with sand dunes undulating across them: from the air they look like washboards. Steep mountains rise directly from the beaches. Behind them is a landscape of lava, limestone and shale – bent and crumpled and thrust up together through beige wildernesses of sand, to form intricate mountains – layered in every possible colour from ashen white to deepest red and jet black. From the air you can see the stratification – a geological history book, with millennia between the pages.
In the east is a huge limestone plateau – the jol. Rising 3000 feet almost straight from the sea, it tilts imperceptibly northward and finally, after 500 miles, dips beneath the sands of the Rub ’al-Khali near the border with Saudi Arabia. Barren as the moon, its brown slabbed surface is cut into unequal halves – the Northern Jol and the Southern Jol – by the spectacular Wadi Hadhramaut. The great wadi branches upstream, then branches and branches again, cutting into the plateaux until their vast surfaces are patterned with canyons and crevasses like the veins of a gigantic leaf.
Winds from the Rub ‘al-Khali gnaw at the ends of the jols, abrading them to sand, piling the grains into dunes tens of miles long and hundreds of feet high. Creaking and groaning, they advance like petrified breakers against the crumbling cliffs. Hardly anything grows anywhere, except in the deepest parts of the wadis. All the way from Aden to Salalah in Dhofar, green is the rarest colour in an arid and primeval landscape.
At the very bottom of Arabia are two offshore volcanic peaks – Jebel Shamsun and Adan as Sugra – Mount Samson and Little Aden – each joined to the mainland by a sand spit. The two peninsulas shelter a large body of water, known as Bandar (Port) Tawahi. Aden colony included both peaks, the sand spits, and a narrow strip of coast connecting them.
Bandar Tawahi is almost the only shelter along the straight south coastline. It was occupied by the British in 1837 to use as a staging post on their routes to empire in the east. There was a small fishing village, called Adan, at the foot of Jebel Shamsun. The British appropriated the name (which they mispronounced as ‘Aden’) for their colony. Expanding into the political vacuum around their new port, they gradually subdued their neighbours and progressively brought them under their control. Seventeen little states were eventually forced to accept a sort of ‘Pax Britannica’, and these, collectively, made up the Western Aden Protectorate.
In 1962 the these little states were coerced into joining a political union called the Federation of South Arabia. The Federation was dissolved in 1967 when the British left.
Farther to the east were a pair of larger states – the Qa’iti Sultanate of Ash Shihr and Mukalla, and the Kathiri sultanate of Seiyun and Tarim – whose sultans’ claims to rule the jols were based only on proximity – their people lived around the fringes of the huge plateaux, which were otherwise uninhabited.
Farther still to the east – in the crumpled gypsum landscapes around Jebel Habshiya – were the Mahris, non-Arabic speakers whose land – the Mahra Sultanate of Qishn and Socotra – was ruled by an absentee sultan from Hadibo on Socotra – the ‘island of dragon’s blood’.
British expansion eventually took in Qa’iti and Kathiri, and political advisers were installed in their capitals. Northern Mahra was also brought under control by the simple expedient of building and garrisoning mud forts at the only two wells. The rest of Mahra – the desolate plains south of the mountains – the British never entered (although they had a treaty with the sultan giving them political control of the whole of Mahra). These three sultanates were collectively known as the Eastern Aden Protectorate.
Except in the mountains of southern Yemen, the protectorates had only ill-defined boundaries – lines drawn arbitrarily straight by the British across miles of empty sand and rock. This gave Aden a curiously ad hoc appearance on maps. Shaped rather like a door-stop, British South Arabia – including both protectorates and the colony of Aden – sprawled across the bottom of the peninsula, its thick end in the east at the Mahra border with Dhofar. The city of Aden was close to the pointy end – on a sliver of land tucked away where the mountains of Yemen tumble down into the wilderness of Lahej.
Aden city (estimated 1965 population 140,000) wrapped around the north side of Jebel Shamsun – a huge black fang rising straight out of the sea. There wasn’t a lot of flat land and the city had grown as separate bits. In the east, facing the open sea, was the cliff-top suburb of Ras Marshag, where villas of rich merchants looked down over the Gulf of Aden.
Then came Crater, the old Arab part of the city, sweltering and stinking within its circle of black cliffs. Crowded, stifling and grubby, it faced the open sea diagonally across Front Bay and looked down the sand spit across Khormaksar toward the mainland.
Khormaksar, built on the sand spit connecting Jebel Shamsun to the mainland, was flat, modern and dull. It contained the airport, the RAF barracks, the spanking new Queen Elizabeth Hospital, and a few streets of big concrete villas that were mostly rented to foreigners. We ended up living there.
Ma’alla, beside the dhow harbour, and built on land reclaimed from mudflats, was new – a long dual carriageway lined with eight-storey apartment blocks, cheaply built and expensively leased – which mostly housed the families of British servicemen. They were all eight storeys high because any building of more than eight floors had to have two lifts. Eight or less required only one.
In the commercial centre of the city, Steamer Point, or Tawahi, there was a tatty little maidan – surrounded by 100-year-old Victorian buildings with arched verandahs over the footpaths – and the town rose from it into an amphitheatre of spiky hills.
Beyond Steamer Point was the army base at Ras Tarshyne, and farther along a coral sand beach stretched two or three miles to the volcanic ridge at Elephant Rock, where layers of black lava sloped steeply down into the sea. At the foot of Elephant rock – at the very end of the road – was the Gold Mohur Beach Club.
There were lots of beaches in and around Aden. But the Red Sea in this area was full of voracious sharks and none of the beaches was safe for swimming. The week I arrived, a woman was taken off the beach just outside the Gold Mohur shark nets in less than a foot of water: she had been trying to rescue her toddler who had just been attacked while sitting in less than six inches of water. The chief attraction of Gold Mohur, therefore, was its shark nets. Effectively it was the only place in Aden where swimming was safe.
Aside from the anaemic banyans at Steamer Point and a few tamarisks at Gold Mohur, there wasn’t very much green in Aden. There were thorn trees on some of the streets of Khormaksar and in Tarshyne, and some tough, stringy oleanders.
On one side of the peninsula of Little Aden was a big oil refinery with a workers’ village – rows and rows of grey concrete cubes – and a long pier jutting out into deep water. On the other side, hot winds moaned across a chillingly desolate military cemetery – ranks of identical grey headstones in a wilderness of gravelly sand. On the road between the two peninsulas was the unfinished new federal capitol at Medinat Al Ittihad (‘Union City’), the old Arab town of Sheikh Othman, and lots of Dutch-looking windmills pumping brackish water into salt pans that smelled of dead fish.
Because of the humidity and dust in the Aden air, the sunlight was filtered and shadows tended to be slightly blurred – out of focus. There were hardly ever any clouds. The sky was usually more silver than blue in colour, and brilliant, painful to the eye. No matter which direction you looked you always seemed to be staring directly into the sun.
Sometimes Aden put on wonderful sunsets. Once the sun had gone, the sky seemed to light up. Because there were never any clouds, the displays – unlike ordinary sunsets – were extravaganzas of pure colour involving the whole dome of sky.
The sunsets were almost the only good thing about Aden. Rain fell about twice in a decade, daytime temperatures reached 50C, and humidity averaged about ninety percent. The climate was so awful that people mostly swam in the winter when the sea water was relatively cool. Then there was the wildlife. Onshore there were ticks, mosquitoes, camel spiders, scorpions and snakes. Offshore there were lots of sharks.
Such entertainment as there was had to be mostly home-grown. Aside from ample opportunities for heavy-duty drinking, night-life consisted of a couple of open-air cinemas and a roofless garden club with a sign at the door that read “Gentlemen Will Please Wear Shirts.”
Joe had an apt descriptive phrase for Aden – he had an apt descriptive phrase for almost everything:
“If God ever gives the world an enema,” he said, “Aden is where he’ll insert the tube.”