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Thesiger Revisited

Wilfred Thesiger was the first modern travel writer to explore the Arabian Peninsula, mapping remote oases and endless deserts. Thesiger Revisited is dedicated to retracing his footsteps, exploring the towns and villages that he visited in the 1950s, and finding out how they have changed over the years.

Wilfred Thesiger, the Ethiopian-born son of a British Minister, was the first modern day travel writer to explore the Arabian Gulf, leaving behind airplanes and cars, in favour of traditional tribal life, camels, and eating whatever food he could catch. He saw mystic visions on his travels through the Empty Quarter in the Arabian Desert, attended the coronation of Abyssinian Emperor Haile Selassie, and lived with the marshmen of Iraq.

The Gulf has changed beyond recognition since Thesiger visited in the 1950s, but there are still visible traces of what he wrote about in his book Arabian Sands. In the book, Thesiger set off from Salalah deep into the Empty Quarter of the Arabian Desert, meeting tribes that the world forgot, and witnessing natural sights unlike anywhere else. He visited Abu Dhabi when it was a small seaside settlement, made of single-storey coral houses and Sharjah’s litter-covered streets. And he experienced Al Ain, Buraimi Oasis, and Wahiba Sands before the tourist crowds discovered them.

Salalah to Shisr
Wilfred Thesiger’s journey across the Arabian Peninsula really began in Oman, in the southern town of Salalah. He wrote:

‘A landscape of black rocks and yellow sand sloped down to the Empty Quarter. I looked out over the desert. It stretched away unbroken for fifteen hundred miles to the orchards round Damascus and the red cliffs of Rum.’

Standing atop the Aftalgot Cliffs at the edge of Salalah, modern day travellers can see what captivated Thesiger more than six decades ago. At one side, endless views of the Arabian Sea and the hundreds of huge cargo ships that pass by every day. At the other side, a wide expanse of white sandy desert with a spine of towering peaks leading the way deep into the sparsely populated Arabian Desert. If you come at the right time of year, the lush green forests that magically rise from the arid sands when the rains fall create a spectacular vision that will never be forgotten.

When Thesiger and his exploration party of Bedouin tribesmen left Salalah they:

‘… moved down to the pool of Aiyun, which lies beneath sheer-sided limestone cliffs two hundred feet in height, at the head of the Wadi Ghudun. This deep pool, which is fed by a small spring, is a hundred and fifty yards long and thirty yards across, and its still, green waters are fringed with rushes.’

‘A landscape of black rocks and yellow sand sloped down to the Empty Quarter. I looked out over the desert. It stretched away unbroken for fifteen hundred miles to the orchards round Damascus and the red cliffs of Rum.’

‘We approached a small Arab town on an open beach (Sharjah); it was as drab and tumble-down as Abu Dhabi, but infinitely more squalid, for it was littered with discarded rubbish which had been mass-produced elsewhere.’

Today, the pool of Aiyun is a popular local fishing hotspot, where Dhofari locals can often be seen in their dishdasha with wooden fishing rods trying to catch their dinner. It is an awesome sight that offers a refreshing escape from the dry air as you get closer to the desert, further away from the sea. The green rushes and lily pads that caught Thesiger’s eye are still there, swaying in the light breeze.

‘We travelled slowly northwards following the Ghudun, one of the five dry river-beds which run down from the coastal range to form the great trunk wadi of Umm al Hait. Gouged out from the limestone plateau the Ghudun begins abruptly as canyon two hundred feet below the desert floor.’

Thesiger trekked along the wadi to the deep canyon at Ghudun. Today the Wadi Ghudun is an area of outstanding natural beauty, with cascading waterfalls dropping from orange limestone hills and mountains into flowing turquoise rivers and streams. Along the path of the rivers, thick palm trees and bushes line the way to the mysterious prehistoric stone burial mounds that have laid untouched for millennia. From the mounds, views of dry desert shrubs, cliffs shrouded in a thick haze, and the ghostly hue of a setting sun explain why Thesiger decided to visit here.

‘We watered as Shisur, where the ruins of a crude stone fort on a rocky mound mark the position of this famous well, the only permanent water in the central steppes. At the bottom of the large cave which undercuts the mound there was a trickle of water in a deep fissure.’

‘Among the palms (at Mughshin) was a salt-encrusted ditch of very brackish water, three hundred yards long, and in the middle of it a small spring of fresher water just fit to drink.’

‘He said that if we could cross the formidable Uruq al Shaiba, which he described as successive mountains of sand, we should arrive at Dhafara, where in the palm groves of Liwa there were wells and villages.’

‘the Wadi al Ain, the largest of the three great wadis which run down from the Oman mountains into the desert to the west, consisted not of a single dry river-bed, but of several smaller watercourses separated by banks of gravel and drifts of sand.’

‘We passed through the settlements of Qutuf and Dhaufir. Palms were planted along the salt-flats, close under high steep-sided dunes, and in hollows in the sands. The groves were fenced in, and other fences were built along the dune tops, to try to control the movement of the sands, which in a few places had partly buried the trees.’

‘In Abu Dhabi, a large castle dominated the small dilapidated town which stretched along the shore. There were a few palms, and near them was a well where watered our camels.’

When Thesiger and his Bedouin guides arrived in Abu Dhabi, oil revenues had not yet been used to develop the city, and what lay before him was little more than a small town with dilapidated houses, camels roaming the streets, and the castle home of the ruler of the city-state. Modern Abu Dhabi is possibly as far from the town of Thesiger’s day as possible.

Abu Dhabi of the 21st century is a city of towering minarets, glistening office blocks, and world-class attractions. Thesiger could never have imagined a theme park dedicated to fast Ferrari cars, nor would he have ever thought that visitors from around the world could shop in huge malls where international brands from every corner of the world were represented, with no haggling necessary! The palms may still be here, and Liwa Castle still takes pride of place, but the dilapidated buildings have been replaced by perfectly manicured lawns, ultra-luxurious hotels, SUV-filled highways, the uber-modern domes and minarets of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, and towering glass skyscrapers.

‘Stay in the new ‘hotel’, where the rooms were filled with furniture in the Victorian style. On the walls were framed prints of Scottish lochs and Swiss chalets; there was electric light, fans, and tinned food … we stayed at Abu Dhabi, a small town of about two thousand inhabitants.’

“Behind the diversity of houses which lined the waterfront were the suqs, covered passageways, where merchants sat in the gloom, cross-legged in narrow alcoves among their piled merchandise.”

It is thought that Thesiger stayed at the Subhanallah Hotel and Restaurant, the most luxurious accommodation option that Abu Dhabi’s rulers used to house visiting dignitaries at the time. The building sadly no longer exists, so modern day visitors cannot experience what the weary English man did those decades ago. Not long after Thesiger’s visit, however, the Hilton Al Ain was built, making it the oldest luxury hotel still open in the UAE.

The Hilton Al Ain is typical of the architectural style at the time, with white concrete walls, balconies overlooking the border with Oman and the oases of the city, and date palm plantations that make the city so famous.

Since the hotel opened, guests have included Mohammed Ali, Queen Elizabeth II, and the world’s tallest man, and until modern hotels were opened in the 2000s in Abu Dhabi city, Shaikh Zayed used the Hilton Al Ain as his venue of choice for large-scale functions, meetings and parties, including a royal wedding. Now the rooms all have power showers, flat screen TVs and luxurious furnishings, but the atmosphere and air of prestige throughout the building has changed little.

‘We approached a small Arab town on an open beach (Sharjah); it was as drab and tumble-down as Abu Dhabi, but infinitely more squalid, for it was littered with discarded rubbish which had been mass-produced elsewhere.’

Much like Thesiger’s first impressions of Abu Dhabi, his first visit to Sharjah before it had been developed came as a shock. When he visited, Dubai’s neighbouring Emirate it was little more than a small military airport on the coast surrounded by crumbling single-storey houses and a handful of small shops selling goods that arrived by sea.

Today, Sharjah would be totally unrecognisable to Thesiger if he was able to visit again. Modern glass and metal high rises, the grand white Ottoman-style Al Noor mosque, and the Al Qasba Eye of the Emirates Ferris wheel would all be alien to him. No longer can Sharjah be described as drab and tumble-down. Today, Sharjah is immaculately clean, modern, and a melting pot of different cultures, religions, and ethnicities.

‘… rowing-boats patrolled the creek to pick up passengers from the mouths of alleys between high coral houses, surmounted with square wind-turrets and pleasingly decorated with plaster moulding. Behind the diversity of houses which lined the waterfront were the suqs, covered passageways, where merchants sat in the gloom, cross-legged in narrow alcoves among their piled merchandise.’

Although much of what Thesiger experienced has changed beyond recognition, his visit to Dubai is perhaps the most familiar. When Thesiger and his accompanying Bedouin tribesmen arrived into the Deira neighbourhood, his senses were assaulted with the sounds of rowing boat paddles hitting the water and people haggling flowing through the air, the smells of fragrant spices and oudhs, and the breeze flowing through the wind turrets. Today, traditional dhows still traverse the waters of Deira creek, authentic high coral houses and wind towers are still visible in the Al Fahidi Historical District, and people still haggle now just like they did those decades ago.

The shaded and endless souqs that Thesiger saw are also still here today. Gold souq is a sight to behold, with row after row of glistening jewellery and watches lined in rows in stall windows. Spice souq is, as the name suggests, the place to buy countless colours and smells of spices and seasonings piled high in huge wicker baskets. And sellers call out to travellers to try and sell their wares – little has changed here since Thesiger’s day.

‘We camped on top of the dunes, two hundred feet above the Wadi Batha. The valley was about six miles across and was bordered on the far side by a narrow belt of sand. Beyond this were low dark hills, and towering above these the stark range of the Hajar.in spite of the haze I could see the peaks of Jabal Jaalan near the coast at the eastern end of the range.’

As his long and arduous trip across the Gulf neared its end, Thesiger, one of the world’s greatest travel writers, made one last stop off at the Wadi Batha in Oman. The wadi was nothing more than an outpost in an endless desert, with mountains all around and a slow flowing river winding through a valley. Despite this, Thesiger obviously liked being close to nature, being in complete silence with no modern distractions.

Wadi Batha has not changed since Thesiger visited. During the rainy season, shadows are cast over the dark hills that captivated Thesiger so, and the clouds still shroud the towering peaks of Jabal Jaalan. Untamed sandstorms still blow over the wadi, creating alien landscapes unlike anywhere else in the world.

Wilfred Thesiger explored the Arabian Gulf without the luxuries that modern day travellers enjoy. He didn’t have an endless supply of 5-star hotels to chose from. Local tribes were unhappy about his arrival, and he had few friends in the region, save a few Bedouin who supported his long treks through the arid deserts.

The Gulf has changed dramatically since the 1950s, but it is still possible to experience some of what Thesiger loved so much.


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