Nearly 60 photographs of Eastern Arabia from the 1930s to the 1990s were drawn from collections in Bahrain and Devon for the exhibition, including photographs taken by staff of the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies.

Arabia in Photographs

Historic photographs of Arabia from the 1930s to the 1990s form part of an exhibition at the University’s Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies (IAIS).

The Exhibition, drawn from nine collections in Bahrain and Devon, is running alongside the annual Gulf Studies conference, which commemorates the 30th anniversary this year of Gulf Studies at Exeter.

A third of the photographs on display come from the Bahrain National Museum, Bahrain Petroleum Company, Ali Akbar Bushiri Archive and Falcon Cinefoto (Khalifa Shaheen Archive), and illustrate Bahrain’s dramatic transformation from the 1930s to the 1970s.

The remaining photographs are taken by members of the IAIS and the former Director of Exeter Maritime Museum, Major David Goddard who both took and developed black and white photographs of Arabian boats, particularly the pearl-diving and trading dhows in the sixties and nineties. The dhows are iconic large wooden boats that would have been seen along the lengthy Gulf coastline. The images form a dramatic part of the exhibition.

Chair of Arabic and Islamic Material Culture, Professor Dionisius Agius has seven images of dhows in the Arabian Gulf taken during his field work when researching into the Maritime Culture of the region between 1990 and 2000. He said of the photographs, ‘Sadly, some of the dhows like the Omani badan and Ghanja have since disappeared and these photographs are an important record of a once thriving maritime culture. It is a poignant record of a way of life which has largely disappeared and this exhibition will hopefully stimulate greater interest in the folklore and cultural heritage of this fascinating part of the world.’

The photographs taken offer a fascinating glimpse of Arabia’s people, ships, forts, buildings and street scenes from the 1930s to the 1990s.

Glencairn Balfour-Paul, an IAIS Honorary Research Fellow took the opportunity to capture images of life in Dubai, Bahrain and other emirates, and Iraq, in the sixties and early seventies. He served as Britain’s Political Agent to Dubai and later as Ambassador in Iraq, Jordan and Tunisia. In the Gulf his access to the ruling families enabled him to photograph the Ruler of Dubai, Shaikh Rashid bin Sa’id Al-Maktoum as well as everyday life in the region. It was also fortunate that Balfour-Paul took pictures of the Iraq marshes that are now much reduced by the draining of the area during Saddam Hussein’s reign.

His wife, Dr Jenny Balfour-Paul, also an IAIS Honorary Research Fellow, lived and worked in the Middle East in the mid seventies, and subsequently undertook fieldwork in many Arab countries while researching their indigo industry and traditions. For example, she photographed in the eighties the last indigo dyers of Oman and Yeman. Of the changes that have taken place in the Gulf, she said ‘People who lived there during the 1960’s will now find the area totally unrecognisable. There used to be lots of deserts, low level buildings and palaces. However, once oil was discovered the landscape completely changed with rapid development including many high-rise buildings. Our photographs now look really historic.’

Many of the photographs on display recorded life before the transformation generated by the impact of oil wealth in the region. University Fellow and former lecturer in Arabic Mr Leslie McLoughlin and his wife also illustrate in their photographs what used to be the Trucial States, now the United Arab Emirates and the former Western Aden Protectorate, now the Yemen Arab Republic. There is a 1964 photo of Leslie in the officer uniform of the Trucial Oman Scouts, a type of uniform that is now preserved in one of the museums established by the Ruler of Sharjah.

A later photo from 1980 is a colour photograph of Mr McLoughlin and shows him standing in front of an ancient fort at the Omani settlement of Boshar just outside Muscat, he said, ‘At that time my wife used to join the many other lady artists who flocked to paint and draw at Boshar because it had everything: a warm welcome from the Omanis, a mosque, palm trees, traditional houses, a fort, plenty of sand and sand-coloured rock, and a water system based on the Persian “falaj”. Now, Boshar is barely visible as it is entirely surrounded by expressways and even has a floodlit football stadium.’

The exhibition is part of a larger, collaborative project with the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter to digitise and preserve hundreds of historical images from Arabia. It has been made possible by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council’s Designated Challenge Fund and considerable support from collectors willing to share their experience of the Gulf.

Tony Eccles, Curator of Ethnography in the Department of Ethnography, Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) Exeter wanted to strengthen the museums connection to the University. The connection began with John Carter who published a book 'Tribes in Oman' and he donated some of his material to the museum which has a small Arabic collection. As the Project Manager of the DCF he explained, ‘The collections require assistance with the interpretation of the material and most of the photographs on display were done by the RAMM on the Institute’s behalf. In time with the help of volunteers they will continue to digitise the collection of archive photographs so that they can be preserved and made accessible via publications, lectures and most importantly, the University's website.’

The exhibition is open to the public from Monday 7 July till 27 September at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter.

Date: 4 September 2008