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Tuesday , October 26 2021

A place of clay between steppe and sea

‘On the morning of February 24th, 1912, comes at last the long-expected moment of departure,’ Danish explorer Barclay Raunkiaer recorded in his journal as he set off on a perilous desert journey by camel caravan from Kuwait. It was the day after his twenty-third birthday and his ambitious goal was to find a base for a full Danish expedition into the great southern desert of Arabia, then quite unknown to the Western world.

For some three weeks Raunkiaer had been a guest of the Amir of Kuwait, Sheikh Mubarak Al Sabah, lodging in the Seif Palace while preparing for his trek across largely unmapped desert to Riyadh, Buraidah, Hofuf, and ultimately Bahrain. Of the farewell to his host he wrote, “The Sheikh, surrounded by his bodyguard, emerges from the serai into the radiant morning sunshine. I take leave of my hospitable host outside the door of my room in the central part of the palace, and with slow, solemn gait, the chief, with his variously and brightly dressed men about him, goes on his way to the bazaar.

An aerial shot of old Kuwait from the Kuwait Digest published in 2001 by the Kuwait oil Company from their archives.

“My groaning camels lie waiting to be loaded in the narrow lane between the upper and middle parts of the palace,” Raunkiaer continued. “Some of the Sheikh’s men drag out my sacks and boxes, and after giving tips to everybody…our little expedition is under way. In order to avoid passing through the crowded bazaar we make a detour through empty streets, at times so narrow that the camel packs scrape the walls on both sides…”

Once in the desert outside Kuwaiti territory, Raunkiaer’s caravan faced danger from widespread lawlessness. On one occasion the young Dane nearly lost his life at the hands of hostile tribesmen; he was spared when they learned he was traveling under the protection of Sheikh Mubarak Al Sabah.

Raunkiaer and his men also endured incredible physical hardship. He had already become seriously ill with fever during his stay in Kuwait. By the time he reached Riyadh he was barely able to walk, yet still managed to ride, clinging tenaciously to the back of his camel. The fever kept recurring throughout the journey, but despite his weak condition his powers of observation were keen. After his return to Denmark he wrote a detailed and fascinating account of his trip titled “Through Wahhabiland On Camelback” published in Copenhagen in 1913.

Sadly, Raunkiaer never regained his health and succumbed to tuberculosis just two years later, at the age of 25.

In 1916, Raunkiaer’s manuscript was translated from Danish into English and published by Great Britain’s Arab Bureau in Cairo. T.E. Lawrence, then affiliated with the Arab Bureau, praised it as one of the best accounts of Arabian travel. But with just one hundred copies printed, it would not have been accessible to many readers had it not been discovered by Gerald de Gaury who verified and edited it and had it republished as part of a travellers and explorers series in 1968. His insightful introduction adds much to the account.

Gerald de Gaury is himself a fascinating character. A highly-decorated military man, Arabist, and author of many books and articles on Arabia, he served as British Political Agent to Kuwait from 1936-39, directly succeeding Colonel Harold Dickson. Such a brave and adventurous man as de Gaury warrants much further description, but his story will be told in another article. For now, let’s return to Barclay Raunkiaer and his vivid portrayal of Kuwait in 1912.

Sheikh Mubarak Al Sabah. Raunkiaer noted that his strong rule of law made Kuwait an oasis of stability during troubled times in the Arabian Peninsula. Traveling under his protection was to save the explorer’s life.

By the time Raunkiaer reached Kuwait he had already undergone an arduous overland journey from Copenhagen to Baghdad, sailed on a Tigris paddle steamer to Basra, and travelled south on horseback the rest of the way. The first settlement he came to in Kuwait was Jahra, which he spelled “Jihara.”

“Jihara is a village in flat, open surroundings with about five hundred inhabitants. North of the houses are a few fields…and a couple of date plantations, the number of palms not exceeding a hundred,” Raunkiaer noted. “We water our horses…march through the village and take midday rest on its southern side by Mobarek’s clay fort. The fort is of the usual Arabian type, a square court being enclosed by a crenallated wall with four corner towers freely loopholed.”

After leaving Jahra, Raunkiaer stated that, “No nomads were to be seen, but we constantly pass Arabs, either singly or in groups driving loaded donkeys—a sign that here is more public security than usually obtains in Arabia.”

Raunkiaer’s observation about the security enjoyed in Kuwaiti territory was well-founded. In those days, with most of the Arabian Peninsula embroiled in turmoil, Sheikh Mubarak’s strong rule of law made Kuwait an oasis of stability, and as has already been noted, his influence in the desert was far-reaching.

The approach to Kuwait town on tired horses plagued by flies was long and uncomfortable but not without its own austere beauty. “On we go, slowly and limpingly through the grey-green country. Not a breath of wind is astir. Eastwards stretches the Kuweit bay, glittering like a sheet of glass and on the far side of it lies Kuweit, a long low line of yellow dots,” wrote Raunkiaer. “Hour after hour passes without our seeming to come any nearer to the town; a beautiful sunset left all the western sky aglow, but it was soon quenched by rapidly falling darkness and still we have not reached Kuweit.”

Throughout the journey, Raunkiaer’s mindset was that of a punctual European who didn’t want to waste time and this was to put him at odds with his travel companions on numerous occasions. A hint of what was to come can be perceived in the following remark, “Already, at three o’clock in the afternoon, I had enquired of one of my Arabs how far it was to Kuweit. ‘An hour’s ride’ he answered. Two hours later I repeated the question. ‘An hour’ was again the answer. When two hours on, I put the same question and got the same reply, I gave up further enquiry, profoundly distrusting the Arabs’ estimate of time.”

Raunkiaer and his party arrived in Kuwait town in complete darkness, arriving “before a fortress-like building eight to ten meters high and of such great extent that its full bulk could not be made out in the night. Into this otherwise seemingly inaccessible mass of clay a very narrow lane penetrates and at its mouth we call a halt, because our pack-horses would have wholly blocked the passage. The lane is immediately filled by armed men…some of them bearing torches or lanterns. Very deliberately they take my letters of recommendation to be conveyed to Mobarek. Some time passes in impatient expectation before one of the Sheikh’s trusted men, Mohammed, came and made a sign that we were to be admitted,” Raunkiaer reported.

“We are led through a low door and down a dark passage between two rows of janitors, all armed to the teeth, and come out into a little irregular court surrounded by a medley of buildings. In one of these I was shown into a room, the baggage was piled in a corner, a carpet was spread over the straw mats which cover the floor and I myself take a place on the carpet, an object of great curiosity to the Sheikh’s men.”

Raunkiaer had arrived at the Seif Palace. During his stay Sheikh Mubarak’s man, Mohammed, was put at the explorer’s disposal and instructed to show him the town. Although he would have liked to have assembled his caravan quickly and set off across the desert without delay, it is during this waiting time that Raunkiaer provides what are the only detailed descriptions of Kuwait during this time-frame by a Westerner.

“Quite apart from the great political importance of the town, it claims no ordinary interest because, with the exception perhaps of Makalla, on the south shore of Arabia, it is the least disturbed by foreign civilization of the few ‘independent’ Arab coast towns of any importance,” Raunkiaer reported. “The town’s greatest extent, somewhat over two kilometres, is along its water-front, while inland it is hardly one kilometer in depth.”

Raunkiaer described the busy seafront where boats were drawn up on shore for repair and piles of timber lay ready for shipbuilding. “We go down to and along the beach where bales of goods lie stacked in disorderly piles, the sun shines from a perfectly cloudless sky and out on the bay move various boats, whose curving lateen sails gleam in the sunshine on the blue green sheet of water like little white wings.”

Raunkiaer put the number of Kuwait’s sailing vessels at about five hundred, with the larger ships used for trading voyages down the Gulf and over to India and Africa, and the smaller craft for pearling. He calculated the number of men engaged in the pearling industry to be between ten to fifteen thousand.

“Kuwait is, however, much too small a town to be able to provide so large a body of men for a single industry and accordingly the crews with which the boats are manned are of a very composite character,” he observed. “The hinterland from which the pearl fishers are recruited stretches in fact from central Arabia through Mesopotamia to Persia. In the month of April when the season is approaching, large caravans of young men are prepared in the Nejd oases, and these arrive on the coast, after several weeks’ journey through dangerous and forbidding deserts, to engage in an industry itself by no means free of danger and far from their homes deep in the motherland.”

Raunkiaer described the British Political Agent’s house as being a conspicuous building on the waterfront with the flag of Great Britain waving from a mighty mast. A red lantern was hoisted on the mast at night to guide sailors. Known today as the Dickson House Cultural Centre, the blue and white house that served as the Political Agency was in those days situated directly on the water. Arabian Gulf Street was constructed on reclaimed land many years later.

Captain William Shakespear was British Political Agent at the time of Raunkiaer’s visit. Raunkiaer was very grateful to him for securing camels and a guide for his trip and providing him with letters of recommendation to other British officials in the Gulf. Raunkiaer also enjoyed many hours of hospitality at the Agency. The two men must have had a lot in common as Shakespear was also an avid explorer. He mapped uncharted areas of Northern Arabia and made the first official British contact with Ibn Saud, then the future king of Saudi Arabia. As fate would have it, both young men were to die the same year; Shakespear was killed in battle fighting alongside Ibn Saud’s forces in central Arabia in January 1915.

Raunkiaer also spent a good deal of time in Kuwait’s bazaar, which not only served as a trading center but also as the starting point for caravans. “Because Kuweit has such extensive caravan trade with the interior the bazaar and market have a very lively character…” he remarked.

Raunkiaer had quickly sensed that Kuwait enjoyed a degree of security that was rare in the rest of the Arabian Peninsula. Remarking upon the flourishing overland trade with the hinterland he pointed out that Kuwait “is a point which the Arabs can reach from the interior unmolested…” As a result, Kuwait attracted traders, merchants, and craftsmen from around the region. Kuwait’s thriving bazaar and its wide-ranging sea and overland trade allowed the innovative Kuwaitis to build up cosmopolitan business empires long before anyone dreamed of the resources stored below the ground.

Other observations by Raunkiaer were about the very modest style of local architecture, including Sheikh Mubarak’s audience hall in the bazaar, still in existence and safeguarded under historical preservation; and the mosques with their low, square minarets barely taller than the roofs of the houses. The houses, he remarked, were usually only one story and all were made of sun-dried clay.

“The window openings, or rather the air and smoke holes in the walls, hardly ever give on the street. The doors, of which each house has the fewest possible, are kept fastened. The clay for houses comes from south and east of the town, where in consequence the ground is all uneven and full of holes. Clay is dug out anywhere a man happens to fancy or where his donkey has minded to stop. When the panniers on the donkey are full he is urged back to town, where the clay is soaked with water and kneaded with straw and twigs into a good cohesive mixture with which the houses’ walls are luted up.

“The houses all have flat roofs from which gutter pipes project into space at intervals,” said Raunkiaer, continuing his description of Kuwaiti neighborhoods. “When once in a long while it happens to rain, the water from these gutters just about hits the middle of the lanes and this, added to the traffic along them, makes a trough down the centre. The streets and lanes are, however, conspicuous for their cleanliness.”

Summarising his impressions of Kuwait town, Raunkiaer remarked, “Kuweit is emphatically a town of the desert and the sea, without any arable or garden ground whatever. Greenstuff and dates must be fetched from Fao and elsewhere and not a shady or beautiful growth is anywhere to be seen. It has not one single tree, if groups of stunted tamarisk be ruled out. To the mixture of seafaring men and nomads in its population, to both of whom digging and planting are uncongenial, it is owed that Kuweit is just a place of clay between steppe and sea.”

In his introduction to Raunkiaer’s manuscript, Gerald de Gaury noted that although the young adventurer was unable to fulfill his goal of establishing a base for an expedition into the south Arabian desert, his journey was still remarkable. Raunkiaer having passed away at such a young age combined with the fact that de Gaury’s edition of his manuscript has been out of print for many years are probably the reasons why the Danish explorer is not well known.

Writing in 1968, de Gaury stated that “Where Barclay Raunkiaer rode, no caravans pass today. Giant trucks loaded to capacity pound at high speed along motor roads or with specially large tyres seethe through clouds of dust along well-beaten tracks and even surmount the sand dunes, taking two days where he took a month or where he took two days, taking an hour.

“Acceptance of a rafiq, or companion, from the tribes, and the payment of a toll as surety while in the dira of each one of them, is practice no longer. Desert lawlessness is cowed and there is peace.”

By Claudia Farkas Al Rashoud – Special to the Arab Times

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