A few months ago Flickr sprang to life and I received a curious email:
Hello sir .. and I also thank you very much… I am very happy. I saw my grandfather who died before I was born .. and there is no picture of him… Now I saw it from among the group of these pictures… I thank you very much… I live in Qalhat. My family also lives in Qalhat—Regard, Abdullah”
The photograph in question was taken in 1977, in the remote mountain village of Hilm in the Sharqiya area (meaning Eastern area) of Oman when I was serving with B Squadron, Oman Gendarmerie (OG).
A small group of us was undertaking so-called “hearts-and-minds” village patrols in Wadi Hilm, an area up in the mountain range, north of our camp at Sur.
We used an air force helicopter for these patrols because the only other way to get to these villages was by foot or donkey. At every village, local issues were discussed, and coffee was drunk.
There is a particular ritual to drinking coffee in Oman, and the nature of this practice is one of many interesting Omani customs. However, at one such village meeting at Hilm, I snatched a photograph of proceedings. Coffee is being drunk, and the patrol leader is making his notes. Abdullah’s grandfather can be seen on the photograph’s far left; his legs are partly covered by a rifle barrel.
I subsequently sent Abdullah a digital image of this photograph via email. No doubt he and his family will treasure the picture for many years.
The incident reminded me that both technology and Oman have changed remarkably in these past four decades. Indeed, the whole of Wadi Hilm is now accessible by vehicle and is marketed as an adventure expedition for tourists.
Oman and Britain
So I now need to set the context of how I came to be serving at that time as a British officer in the Oman Gendarmerie and then my continued spell in the Sultan of Oman’s Armed Forces (SAF) in different roles for a total of seven years.
Britain has had close military and political ties with Oman for over 200 years.
The Jebel Akhdar War of 1957 is but one example and the Dhofar Rebellion, which officially ended in 1976, is another. Success was not assured. General Perkins, the British Commander of the Sultan’s Armed Forces, noted in December 1976 that; “Without the assistance and sacrifices of the 4,000 Imperial Iranian Forces, the Dhofar war would not have been won”.
Historians may like to ponder how the Gulf area’s political map would have changed with the defeat of Oman in the early 1970s. The West’s oil supplies through the Straits of Hormuz would, without a doubt, have been threatened.
Notwithstanding the official end of hostilities, the internal security situation was still taut in Oman, with sporadic enemy actions continuing until around 1978.
Once the Dhofar war was won, it was time for Sultan Qaboos to develop his country’s infrastructure and start the process of Omanisation within his Armed Forces.
Until Omanisation was complete, the British supplied loan service officers to SAF and the Omanis also continued to advertise for contract officers such as me. Omanisation was mainly achieved by 1988, and both loan service and contract officers served in increasingly smaller numbers until that time.
I had previously served in the British Army for ten years and, in common with Qaboos himself, I had also been to Sandhurst. However, the depressing tours of duty in Northern Ireland were one motivator for seeking different employment.
My first deployment in Oman in January 1977 was as second in command of B Squadron OG, based at Sur. It was my role to support the newly promoted Omani Commanding Officer. Previously, all command positions in the army, navy and air force of SAF had largely been British.
The Oman Gendarmerie, with headquarters near Seeb, was responsible for the military security of all northern Oman and the Squadrons were responsible for different areas or sectors. South Sector, which coincided with the Sharqiya region, was about the size of Wales.
However, this is enough of the military and political story; let me now deal with photography, which is the theme of this article.
Before my appointment in Oman, I attended adult evening classes on photography, which I found invaluable. I also had my British Army gratuity, and I was able to buy a brand new Minolta SRT303b camera, together with a really sturdy metal carrying case.
When I arrived in Oman in that January of 1977, I hoped to take what would prove to be memorable photographs. I wonder whether readers would consider that the photograph above has the impact to invoke the atmosphere of Arabia.
My seven-year photo odyssey in Oman
During my seven years in Oman, I used slide film, initially Kodachrome 25 and unfortunately later, some Agfa film that has not stood the test of time.
I was able to take photographs over the whole of Oman, from the border of Yemen in the south to Omani islands in the Straits of Hormuz in the north. Later, I scanned about 350 decent images. The scanning was done in 2011 using a Plustek OpticFilm 7300 machine and SilverFast software. Of these, I uploaded about 330 images to a Flickr album in 2014.
To date, this album has had more than 181,000 viewings with a surge from Omanis in the summer of 2020. It was a result of this surge that young Abdullah was able to spot his grandfather, though no doubt it was his relatives who pointed him out.
So why would you, the reader, be interested in these half century old photographs?
All my images, I believe, are “record photography” with only perhaps a couple I would have been happy enough to have as prints on my wall at home. However, in my view, many of these shots are historically important because they show Oman on the cusp of modern development.
There are already two excellent articles on this Macfilos website with their outstanding modern photographic images. They give an insight into Oman now:
Oman in 1977 had a population of under one million. Now it stands at five million. Road infrastructure was just being developed and, when travelling to my first camp in Sur, our party used a dirt road. We also had daily flights into our adjacent dirt airstrip to bring in mail and passengers. Now there are dual carriageways all over Oman.
To preserve this moment of development, I have lodged copies of all my digital images at the Middle East Centre Archive at St Anthony’s College, Oxford.
It was during the first six months of my time in Oman, soldiering in the Sharqiya, that I consider I captured some of my most striking photographs before the infrastructure development really took hold.
Later that year, after one month’s leave back to the very green UK, I moved with B Squadron to Buraimi Oasis, on the border with UAE, to carry out duties in “West Sector” rather than “South Sector”. My experiences there is another story… Such as the day we went to war with the UAE but then realized the intelligence branch had got it all wrong! The UAE weren’t mobilising their forces to attack Oman after all. We learnt later they were just preparing for an exercise.
My key photographic challenges in the desert were sand, high temperatures, the local population’s sensibilities, and taking crystal clear aerial photographs. I would also mention avoiding the X-ray machines at airports where possible.
As regards sand and high temperatures, common sense prevailed. My sturdy camera box proved extremely useful when heaving it in and out of helicopters and bumped over rough terrain in a Land Rover.
As the films were developed back in the UK some months later, there was no way to learn to improve one’s technique in the short term.
The Omanis are charming and very friendly people, but taking photographs of Omani women without permission was against their culture.
I took all my aerial images, either from helicopters or small aeroplanes and for nearly all of them I used an open window and a willing pilot. I set my shutter speed to the camera’s fastest setting of 1/1000s and used what aperture as was available. However, the light always tended to be intense.
Sur and Ras al Hadd
These photographs of the Sur and Ras al Hadd areas really speak for themselves. However, you may like to research Sur’s history with its supposed connections to Sinbad the Sailor and its trading routes to Zanzibar.
Also, on the web there are numerous photographs of Sur as it is now, many of which I am sure I would have difficulty recognising. Now, modern decorative lighthouses and a new bridge across the inlet have been built. The fishermen will also appreciate the new harbour. Dhow building is a huge tourist draw and, even when I was there, small model dhows were being commissioned by some expatriates.
Ras al Hadd also has a fascinating history. In the Oman Gendarmerie headquarters at Seeb, there was a large brass bell with the inscription, “Imperial Airways”, hanging on the guardroom wall. The story I was told was that it came from the flying boat station at Ras al Hadd. On Google Earth, the old fort can still be seen, as can the outline of the former Second World War Royal Air Force airfield’s runways.
Wadi Hilm and Qalhat
The village patrol up Wadi Hilm by helicopter was an exhilarating experience. The intense light, staggering visibility and jagged mountains are hard to portray, and my old photographs are a poor substitute. Without them, though, that journey would be a distant and fading memory.
My photograph of the old villager with his khanjar shows how happy these villagers seem to be even though they lived in very tough and basic conditions. The trachoma eye disease was prevalent in the Sharqiya, and the old villager can be seen to have been suffering from this malady.
The ruined city of Qalhat at the seaward end of Wadi Hilm is another beguiling subject to research. Qalhat flourished in the eleventh and sixteenth centuries CE and exported horses, dates, incense and pearls.
Following Portuguese attacks, it was abandoned in the 1500s. The only building remaining is the mausoleum. The modern town of Qalhat, where young Abdullah and his family live, is north of the ruined city.
South of the Sharqiya
The patrol with a government official, again with Khanjar, to the southern area of the Sharqiya, was particularly memorable. Our route took us over the Wahiba Sands, the aim being to visit the Bedouin in this very sparsely populated area. The long journey meant we had to call at RAF Masirah to refuel the helicopter. The RAF vacated the base a few months later and handed it over to the Omani air force.
Without my Omani photographs, I would have had difficulty remembering many of my extraordinary experiences. One such experience was being involved with the devastating floods which hit the Sharqiya in May 1977.
For a time I was the only British officer in B Squadron, and I was one of about six other resident British expatriates within 40 miles. I learnt the Omani way of life and their culture, as it then was in 1977. Humour was always at the forefront of their demeanour. One British officer made the cutting remark, “Chris, the Omani soldiers will follow you anywhere… only to listen to your appalling Arabic”.
On New Year’s Day 1978, Oman Gendarmerie ceased to exist and converted into a regular infantry battalion, the Oman Coast Regiment. Out went the grey shirt and distinctive headdress of shemagh and agal and in came a black beret and green shirt. I do not believe any other British officer in the Middle East has worn that Arab headdress as part of their military uniform since that date.
Previous articles on Macfilos, with their stunning photographs, give an insight into modern Oman. Perhaps my old photographs will tempt future travellers to take their cameras to the Sharqiya area and compare the old and the new.