x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Qasr Al Hosn fort has starring role in Thesiger's famed photos

British adventurer Wilfred Thesiger had photos that included portraits and line-ups of sheikhs standing outside the high walls of Qasr Al Hosn.

ABU DHABI // Qasr Al Hosn provides the atmospheric backdrop for some of the striking black-and-white photos taken by the British adventurer Wilfred Thesiger in the 1940s.

Thesiger is most famous for crossing the Empty Quarter twice, an achievement he described in his classic book, Arabian Sands.

But as well as being an intrepid explorer and accomplished writer, he was also an expert photographer. His pictures captured the people and scenery of Arabia shortly before a way of life that had existed for centuries was swept away by the discovery of oil.

He arrived in Abu Dhabi in 1948 and, like most visitors, was drawn to the imposing Qasr Al Hosn. He writes in Arabian Sands that the building dominated what he describes as a "small dilapidated town which stretched along the shore".

He and his companions sat outside the walls near some small cannons that were half-buried in sand, as they waited to be admitted. Eventually they were ushered in to meet Sheikh Shakhbut, the then-Ruler of Abu Dhabi, who lived there.

The group remained in Abu Dhabi for 20 days, staying in a dilapidated house near the market. The town had 2,000 inhabitants.

"Each morning the sheikhs visited us, walking slowly across from the castle," writes Thesiger. "We talked for an hour or more, drinking coffee and eating sweets, and, after they had left us, we visited the market, where we sat cross-legged in the small shops, gossiping and drinking more coffee."

Sometimes they went to the beach to watch the fishermen land their catch, and on one occasion a young dugong was brought in.

"It was about four-feet long [1.2 metres], a pathetically helpless-looking creature, hideously ugly. They said its meat was good eating, and that its skin made sandals."

The photos Thesiger took during his stay included portraits and line-ups of sheikhs standing outside the high walls of Qasr Al Hosn.

There is a view of the fort that includes some palms trees, two huts and a single figure standing on the sand in the foreground.

A number of photos show groups of palace retainers with rifles and camel sticks standing or kneeling on the ground outside the fort.

Half-buried cannons can be seen in the background of some of the pictures.

Thesiger was photographed with the sheikhs wearing ceremonial robes over a thobe, and a checked ghutra with agal. The ornate handle of a dagger can be seen, and he holds a camel stick. The fort's walls are on the left of the picture, and there are a few palm trees in the background.

Arabian Sands is published by Motivate Publishing.

csimpson@thenational.ae