A Journey in the Hadhramaut

Courtesy of OSPA

by Mary Reid
A Journey in the Hadhramaut
Hadhrami Bedouin Legion
At the beginning of 1963, the children having returned to school after the Christmas holidays, I received an invitation to accompany my husband on a visit to the Eastern Aden Protectorate and, as the guests of the Commandant of the Hadhrami Bedouin Legion (the H. B. L.), to go on a 5 day drive through part of the Hadhramaut and down the West Road to Mukalla on the coast. This really was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and one which I was thrilled to grasp since, apart from intrepid travellers such as Freya Stark (The Southern Gates of Arabia and A Winter in Arabia), few women have ever been welcomed in that part of the world - and particularly in its upper reaches which constitute the Hadhramaut.

A Journey in the Hadhramaut
Wadi Hadhramaut
As I am sure many of you are aware, a 'Wadi' is a rocky water-course or river bed, dry except in the rainy season, and the Wadi Hadhramaut stretches roughly 350 miles and almost due West to East, is some 50 miles wide, and lies to the south of the great N orthern Desert which, in turn, runs along the southern edge of the Sand Sea and the Rub-al-Khali Desert or 'Empty Quarter' (much written about by that noted Arabist and desert traveller, Wilfred Thesiger).

The Eastern Aden Protectorate comprises the states of Qa'iti, Kathiri and Mahra and it was to the two first named that I paid my memorable visit in 1963 (as a result of territorial and constitutional changes, Wahidi State which was formerly one of the member states of the East had become part of the Western Aden Protectorate by the time of my visit - but it may be of interest to you to hear that legend has it that the biblical Wise Man who bore the myrrh on the occasion of the Nativity hailed from Wahidi State).

A Journey in the Hadhramaut
DC3 at Khormaksar
Our journey started from Khormaksar Civil Airport where our party of three (my husband, myself and a member of my husband's staff) boarded a vintage DC3 ('Dakota') of Aden Airways. To anyone who has never flown in these parts, at that time (and possibly even now) an air passage in South Arabia was an experience never to be forgotten - 'charter' and 'bucket-shop' flights are the height of luxury in comparison! This wonderful, old, aerial work-horse of World War 2 had been converted so as to be a combined passenger/ cargo carrier - humans up front and goods and livestock at the tail - dispensing with the need for 'in-flight entertainment' since goats and/or chickens invariably escaped from their netted confines at the rear and sought out their owners! But it was our fellow passengers (we three were the only Europeans on board) who got our trip off to an exciting start - entirely male, of course, since the place of the woman in the Eastern Aden Protectorate was very much in the home and in the village. However, the men-folk more than made up by their colourfulness - young soliders of the HBL returning from furlough, strutting proudly in their gay 'mufti' - olive-skinned Kathiris with their distinctive oriental features (about which I shall be commenting later) - fine-featured merchants from Mukalla, immaculate in white, almost Indian-like garb - and, of course, the ubiquitious dark-skinned Bedouin tribesmen, fierce of eye and beard and wild of hair, with jambias (curved daggers) at their waists, crossed bandoliers and loaded (yes LOADED!) rifles across their bare knees.

A Journey in the Hadhramaut
Ghuraf Airport
As was to be expected, our take-off was delayed and I leave you to imagine the atmosphere inside the tight-packed cabin in that least comfortable, albeit most reliable, of old 'planes - a heady mixture of sweat, goats, fruit and vegetables, chickens, petrol fumes - and over all the smell of the cheap perfume with which even the humblest of Arab males loves to douse himself. However, we eventually lumbered into the air and headed out to sea - thence along the coast, skirting the white line of the surf where it broke across the sands of Arabia and so to Bir Ali on the furthermost edge of Wahidi State - thereafter we turned inland, almost due north, over lifeless craters and volcanic outcrops and the sprawl of the mountains on the route which I would be taking on my forthcoming journey - up to 6,000 feet high, a sepia mass that ruled a straight line across the brilliant blue of the sky. And so, about two hours after take-off, we touched down at Ghuraf Airstrip where we were met by Qaid (Lt/Colonel) 'Pat' Gray, Commandant of the Hadhrami Bedouin Legion since 1959 and who had previously served under the famous Glubb Pasha in Jordan and latterly in Muscat and Oman - a great, ruddy-faced bear of a man with magnificent handle-bar moustaches and with his red and white Arab head-dress at a jaunty angle. With him was his tall, lean second-in-command, Major David Eales, seconded from the British Army, who was to be our guide and mentor over the next five days - and, standing by, were two long-wheel-based Landrovers with their attendant HBL drivers, immaculate in their khaki drill, knee-length, skirted tunics, crossed bandoliers, red cummerbunds, putteed legs and bare feet - all topped by the same head-dresses as their officers. Whilst our baggage was being off-loaded we took shelter from the blazing sun in the shade of the Dakota's wings and took stock of our surroundings - noticing amongst other things that each of the Landrovers bore a foot-wide, painted red strip across its bonnet - and this, we were told, was to identify them as 'ours' in open country in the event of punitive RAF air-strikes into tribal territory! Eventually all was ready, the 'plane had proceeded on its southward way to Mukalla, our kit had been loaded onto the vehicles and we were off on the 20 mile drive to Seiyun, the capital of Kathiri State.

A Journey in the Hadhramaut
Colonel Pat Gray
The words 'South Arabia' and 'desert' understandably conjure up visions of searing heat, limitless stretches of rolling sand-dunes, camel trains, the occasional oasis and swash-buckling Arab horsemen as portrayed by Rudolf Valentino or Omar Shariff. Admittedly, my first impression of the Eastern Aden Protectorate was of dry, glaring heat but there any preconceived ideas ended and our drive from Ghuraf to Seiyun, with a back-cloth of jagged, inhospitable hills, was along a reasonable 'murrum' (baked soil on a stone foundation) surface road winding between pocket-handkerchief sized fields of millet, yams and a variety of pulses, all with strategically laid out irrigation channels fed from deep wells from which the precious water was being drawn by either 'Persian Wheels' (a large, multi-spoked, wooden wheel rotating a sort of conveyor belt of tin or pottery vessels which scooped the water from deep down in the ground, brought it up to tip it into one main distribution area - the whole Heath-Robinsonish contraption being operated through a series of cogs and shafts turned via donkeys or mules walking in constant circles alongside) or by simple block and tackle and pulley systems mounted over the wells' openings on crude wooden tripods with camels trudging up and down ramps and hoisting goatskin bags of water from the depths to be hand poured into the channels. In the field - this being a male chauvinistic society - it was the women-folk who were doing the hoeing, weeding and harvesting, dressed either in shapeless black, or equally shapeless but much more colourful, red shifts and wearing on their heads tall pointed straw hats which made them look like witches without their broomsticks. And it appeared that the donkeys and camels at the wells were the responsibility of ragged urchins of both sexes, encouraging their charges with shrill, throaty cries - and children were also to be seen in the fields, with equally unkempt pi-dogs, scaring the birds from the crops - but stopping to gaze wide-eyed as we passed.

A Journey in the Hadhramaut
After about 15 miles the periodic clusters of shabby village houses, with their scratching chickens and foraging goats, began to give way to much more affluent looking dwellings - white-painted villas much decorated with plaster curlicues and lattice-work edging to their roofs, surrounded by low walls enclosing gardens with cannas, oleander, zinnias, frangipani and bougainvillea creating a riot of colour in the shade of groves of date palms. Seiyun is a prosperous town, known as the 'Paris of the Wadi', its wealth stemming from a long-standing tradition of emigration to Malaysia, Indonesia and Zanzibar - in particular of the ruling Al Kaf family who were reputed to be multi-million sterling millionaires - and it was on remittances from their Far Eastern cousins that the merchants of Kathiri State had built up their prosperity. It is a gentle, civilized world of its own, set somewhere between Arabia and South-East Asia with its high cheek-boned, semi-Malay faces, its ginger coffee and its elaborate Indonesian-style mosques.

It was evening by the time we reached Seiyun, we were hot and dusty and stiff after our drive so we drove straight to the Sultan's guest house - a three-storeyed villa on the outskirts of the town, furnished a bit like a Victorian boarding-house but with high-ceilinged and refreshingly cool rooms, and charmingly set in a large date-palm grove. There was the luxury (for South Arabia) of electricity but, in true Arab style, our toilet facility consisted of a 'long drop'down the side wall of the house to a deep pit - but I did bless another true Hadhramaut facility in the form of a large, indoor bath-house on the ground floor (called a 'jabia') where, in four feet of deliciously cool water, I was able to wallow, after soaping off the travel grime standing by the side. With the dust and fatigue removed, we ate a leisurely - and not too Arab - meal (with the inevitable tinned fruit and condensed milk, of course) then sat on the flat roof amongst the palm branches and watched the moon over the surrounding hills. All was quiet except for the distant barking of dogs and the hum of the nearby electricity generator - and so to bed...

A Journey in the Hadhramaut
The next morning dawned clear and cool, the sun just appearing over the "johl" and with a background of sound and smell which I have come to associate with the break of day in the desert - the barking of dogs, bleating of goats and "honking" of camels and the smell of wood-smoke as the nearby village houses came to life - and the welcome rattle of cups and saucers from the guest-house kitchen down below. After a leisurely breakfast, our little convoy of two landrovers set off on the 25 mile drive to the ancient, walled city of tarim - a place much revered in the Islamic world as a centre of culture and learning, full of grey-bearded "sayyids" (holy men) fingering their "worry beads" and dreaming of past glories - and my lasting impression of Tarim is one of sombre, shuttered buildings, shadowy alleyways and unsmiling people, going unhurriedly about their chores.

We did not linger overlong in Tarim, but retraced our steps to Seiyun, this time skirting a new road which was being built by gangs of local labour - mile after mile of football-round stones covered with crushed soil from ant-hills, then watered and beaten hard by primitive implements. This road, of course, had strategic significance since Tarim is just that bit nearer the Northern Desert and raiding Bedouin tribesmen.

A Journey in the Hadhramaut
Seiyun Mosque
Seiyun is, by comparison with the claustrophobic air of Tarim, gay and genuinely justifying its reputation as "The Paris of the Wadi" - a town of palm groves and gardens, gleaming white villas of up to three storeys - and, in its centre, the Sultan's palace which looked as if it was made of marzipan - towering over the market square - white, of course, but picked out in candy pinks and blues and greens and with a gaudy standard flying from a central tower. In the glare of the noonday sun the vast market place sprawling out in front of the palace presented a vivid scene of hustle and bustle, of colour and sound and, if one did not look too closely, of gaiety and even opulence. Market women squatting by their displays of fruit and vegetables spread out on the baked ground - red and green peppers, ginger, yams, sweet potatoes, corn-cobs, fresh dates on their stems, oranges and limes. Ramshackle stalls with flimsy canvas awnings over bolts of cloth - coloured cottons, cheap satins and silks and brilliantly woven camel saddle-cloths. Coffee and fruit juice vendors crying their wares and rattling their cups - cooked meat sellers enveloped in spicey wood-smoke - woeful little donkeys - and groups of supercilious looking camels with their equally haughty drivers. That evening we were invited to dine at the palace as guests of the Kathiri Sultan who was hosting a party in honour of a visiting dignitary from the Foreign Office in London. This was to be no desert meal, with basic fare by guttering oil or pressure lamps and attended by down-at-heel, fierce-looking tribesmen - but a true, 5-star, Arab-Sultanic banquet (clearly organised to impress "the Man from the Ministry" who had, hopefully, come bearing gifts from H.M. Government!!) As you undoubtedly know, Arab dining is done squatting on the ground around the dishes of food - and etiquette demands that feet must point decorously away from the food and that only the right hand must be used with which to eat. The guest of honour, however, was clearly more accustomed to the eating habits of the West End and, at well over 6 feet in height, his initial contortions as he endeavoured not to offend, caused not a little discreet amusement amongst the other guests! Eventually he succeeded in disposing of his limbs in something approaching an acceptable position and the feast commenced - and feast indeed it was - not the usual goat, rice and chuppaties - rather steaming platters of saffron, pillaf and brown rice, haunches of mutton and lamb straight from the spit, curried chicken and guinea fowl, great dishes of assorted vegetables - okra, beans, tomatoes, peppers, onions, yams and others I did not recognise - cheeses made from goat's or camel's milk, little earthenware pots of wild bee's honey and, of course, the ubiquitous, piping-hot, flat pancakes of coarse, unleavened flour. All this in the surroundings of a large, airy chamber carpeted in richly-coloured oriental rugs and with plump cushions for the guests' comfort - chandeliers shining from the vaulted ceiling - and everywhere a positive army of white-clad retainers. This gargantuan meal finished - to the accompaniment of appreciative belches and burps - we were offered bowls of rose-water with which to rinse our fingers before adjourning to an ante-room, equally sumptuously furnished, where we were served tiny cups of sticky-sweet and milkless tea and offered bowls of fruit and sweetmeats.

A Journey in the Hadhramaut
Kathiri House
It was an entirely different face of South Arabia that presented itself to us as we drove westwards out of Seiyun the following morning - as we passed through the outskirts of the city the villas and gardens gave way to isolated clusters of village houses, the palm groves to clumps of wind-blown camel thorn and the trim, cobbled streets to dusty desert tracks stretching mile after limitless mile into the distance. But on either side it was far from a scene of desolation and what might have been viewed as a desert waste was in fact a land awaiting the onset of the rainy season - the season that would fill the irrigation channels and bring the desert back to green life. But this was the dry time of year and we drove along in the hot, desert air - I was in the leading landrover with Major Hales and driver, Saleh, my husband's vehicle lurching along a quarter of a mile behind, well out of range of our billowing wake of dust and sand. From time to time we would halt to stretch our limbs, have a welcome drink from the canvas water-bags hanging on the Landrover doors and take stock of our surroundings - in the distance the rugged wall of the "johl" with sometimes the crumbling walls of some one-time prosperous town on the long abandoned trans-desert route shimmering through the heat haze, and by the side of the track unaccountable piles of massive boulders. And then, away in the distance - like some Stonehenge transposed from the green downs of Wiltshire to the sand dunes of Arabia - there appeared our immediate objective, the astonishing sky-scraper town of Shibam.

A Journey in the Hadhramaut
If Seiyun is known as "The Paris of the Wadi", then Shibam can rightly be called its "New York". The town simply burst upon us like one of those Italian towns that are built facing inwards, so as to present a rampart wall of houses to the outside world - no towers, no grand entrances and exists - just a solid facade of windowed buildings constructed solely of mud bound with straw (as in biblical times) with interior support pillars of straight palm-tree trunks and soaring to ten, twelve and even fourteen storeys. The approach road swung in a wide detour, past white mud villas, each in its own walled garden, and our little convoy entered Shibam up a ramped approach and through a great archway into the public square. Those towering mud buildings all lean against each other and that square with its massive gateway is the only way in or out of the city - a sombre place and yet with an air of dignified wealth and tradition. Shibam is a place of great antiquity but, in truth, there is no reason for its being - it is not an agricultural centre but is purely residential, maintained by the wealth of its menfolk who traditionally depart as youths to the four corners of the globe to make their fortunes - but always to return in middle and old age. As a consequence, there are reputed to be three women to every resident male - many of them high-born ladies known as "sharifas" or descendants of the Prophet - but women were conspicuous by their absence at the time of my all too brief visit and I was told that, unlike other places in the Hadhramaut, purdah is enforced most rigidly within the high walls of Shibam. After a meal in the ante-room to the "city hall" - a 12 storey pile, like a white wedding cake - we resumed our trek across the desert and I looked back and watched Shibam fade into the distance - a lonely, white fortress mass in its desert of sand - one of the most Alice-in-Wonderland cities in the world, the memory of which I shall carry vividly for ever - and I often think how privileged I was to be permitted to see it for myself and to feel its aura of mystery.

A Journey in the Hadhramaut
Wadi Du'an
Our onward journey continued almost due south across the floor of the wadi with the foothills of the johl in the far distance and, on either side, the monotonously far reaches of sand, the air clearing as the day wore on. Occasional groups of Bedouin tribesfolk would pass us with monosyllabic greeting, the men with bare feet or wearing crude leather sandals and clutching their antiquated muzzle-loaders, fierce of eye and blue of dyed skin, with their womenfolk, camels, goats and children trailing in their wake. Every so often we would pass roadside wells, reminiscent of mini-mosques with their domed roofs, where we would pause to rinse the sand from our mouths - for we were now on the old caravan route from Saudi Arabia to the sea at Mukalla, and Koranic law and custom requires that travellers be provided with that most precious of commodities in the desert - water. In the late evening we drove into a typical desert village of mud houses to a welcome from the inevitable pack of barking dogs and groups of wide-eyed, ragged and none-too-clean children, with glimpses of blackrobed women watching us furtively from around walls and corners. We drew up at the rest-house on the outskirts of the village in the long evening shadows being cast by the sun beginning to set behind the johl above us. This was the limit of the Wadi Du'an, an off-shoot of the Wadi Hadhramaut, and already we were at about 2,000 feet and the evening air was blessedly cooler as we stretched our cramped limbs and made our way indoors to a warren of sparsely furnished rooms and a traditional bath-house, which was a far cry from the comparative luxury of the "jabia" at the Seiyun guest-house - but we were tired and dusty and paid scant attention to the scruffiness of our surroundings as we sluiced off the stains of travel. Then we sat on the verandah to a supper concocted by one of the HBL drivers - a meal of rather greasy fried Spam (which unhappily was to cause me not a little discomfort on the following day's leg of our journey) yams and some unidentifiable vegetable, followed by the ubiquitous tinned fruit salad. Whilst we were eating, by the light of hissing tilley lamps in the velvet darkness of the desert, our camp beds were being got ready indoors - and most welcoming they were when we eventually turned in.

A Journey in the Hadhramaut
Our route next morning started with a bumpy traverse of the rocky outcrops at the foot of the johl until we reached the start of the winding road which scales the northern face of the mountain in a series of carefully graded (tho' nonetheless hair-raising!) bends and which ascends to more than 4,000 feet in only a few, grinding miles. We were now well and truly on the johl, although the track continued to climb gradually until we reached our next stop, yet another dilapidated rest-house at Mula Matar, named after a legendary prophet of one of the mountain Bedouin tribes and whose fifteen foot long tomb lies amongst the rocks at some 6,000 feet. Our drive there took us across one of Arabia's most barren landscapes where there are hardly any villages or cultivation and where the scattered tribes who people the johl live either in caves or under bushes, scratching a meagre living from the soil and depending on their goats and the charcoal which they burn for barter and for cash. At frequent intervals we would stop so that David Bales could exchange greetings with local headmen along the way and dispense basic medicines to treat the high incidence of trachoma which is sadly endemic in that bleak part of the world, especially amongst the children and elderly. It was late afternoon by the time we reached Mula Matar but darkness falls swiftly in desert countries and as the next leg of our journey was to be a hazardous one down from the johl it was decided that we would spend the night at Mula Matar and be off at first light next morning. And a bitterly cold night it proved to be, for with sunset came a biting wind and the meagre stock of firewood which we had found at the resthouse soon ran out so that, in desperation, we had to have recourse to breaking up some of the ramshackle furniture to feed the fire - and I can assure you that there was no question of sluicing down with cold water before getting under my blankets for the night! We were up with the sun next morning and although it was still jolty chilly, the air was clear and the cliff faces all around flushed pink in the morning sun. The landrovers were soon loaded up and we were on our way again across the harsh bleakness of the johl, this time in a south-easterly direction and almost into the sun - with once more the periodic stops to dispense eye salve to other pitiful scraps of humanity. And in the cool of the morning and whilst the dew was still on the ground I was able to stop and marvel at one of the botanical wonders of that inhospitable, moonlike landscape, the elephant's foot rose - grey, rubbery textured stumps protruding through the rock and scree and leaving one in no doubt as to how they came by their name - and, wonderfully, extending tentatively into the fleeting cool of the day's beginning were long, fleshy and leafless stems tipped with delicately pink tinted flowers, like crosses between a frangi-pani and a rose. Blooms of sheer beauty which were, indeed, destined to waste their sweetness on the desert air - for soon they were fated to wilt and die in the searing sunlight.

A Journey in the Hadhramaut
Eventually we reached the far edge of the plateau and began cautiously to edge our way down to the plain below and although, if anything, the descent was even more nerve-racking and awe-inspiring than the climb up, one's apprehension gave way to sheer wonder at the rugged grandeur all around as we jolted our way downwards. The freshness and cool air of the johl gradually gave way to the oven-like heat of the approaching lowlands and the air became decidedly humid as we drew nearer to the coast - and soon the sea came into view, shimmering in the far distance. After about an hour's driving the track levelled off and we were on to a reasonably fast, straight road which, another hour later, brought us to Mukalla, the capital of the Qa'iti Sultanate and administrative centre of the Eastern Aden Prot.

A Journey in the Hadhramaut
Colonel Pat Gray's Murder
Mukalla straggles along the seashore, its further progress inland barred by the mountain range, and there is an old-world charm about the place which was entirely absent from the modern Aden. Gleaming white buildings, and minarets - heavy studded doorways and lattice-work windows and verandahs - narrow, shadowy alleyways winding up from the waterfront - the harbour at one end of the town with a slim groyne jutting out into the bright blue of the sea - and at the other, the busy caravan park (and by that I mean the terminal of the ancient trans-desert caravan route and not one of those conglomerations which blight the English countryside in summertime!) A jostling mass of robed humanity, vast piles of incoming and outgoing merchandise, the smoke of innumerable cooking fires, decrepit-looking lorries of dubious pedigree and, of course, vast numbers of camels, bellowing and sneering at all around. Whilst Mukalla is basically a traditional Arab town one detects a whiff of India - in the dress of the prosperous merchant class and in the architecture of many of the buildings - and this is not to be wondered at since the ruling family of Qa'iti has long maintained a close connection with Hyderabad State and young men of Qa'iti have traditionally served with distinction in the army of the Nizam. But the wind of change was beginning to blow through Mukalla's narrow and dusty streets - the songs of Cairo and the propaganda of Egypt were to be heard from Japanese transistors; not all the looks we got were friendly and, indeed, several times the epithet "Nazarene" ("Christian") was directed at our backs as we strolled in the street. But this was just one very minute speck of discord in what had been a thoroughly spectacular five days which did nothing whatsoever to distract from the store of wonderful memories which I was able to take away with me when we finally flew back to the harsh realities of Aden.


In conclusion, I should like to pay tribute to two very gallant gentlemen - our genial host in Mukalla, Lt/Col. "Pat" Gray and his second-in-command. Major David Eales, our guide and mentor on that never-to-be-forgotten journey - both of whom were most tragically murdered by dissident elements within their beloved Hadhrami Bedouin Legion in the closing days of the British presence in South Arabia.

Colonial Map
Hadhramaut Map
Colony Profile
Aden Protectorate
Originally Published
OSPA Journals 60, 61 and 62: October 1990 - October 1991
Further Reading
Harvest of Journeys
by Hammond Innes

The View from Steamer Point
by Charles Johnston

The Barren Rocks of Aden
by James Lunts


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