Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Air Outpost

I love HDR. Official.

This might not be a technically ‘correctly composed’ shot, but it makes a smashing desktop image (if I say so myself) – drop me a mail or a Tweet if you’d like a full sized image. Nick probably won’t apply. ;)

The image was taken in a mooch around a much-loved monument; Sharjah’s Mahatta Fort Museum. If you haven’t been there, I can only urge you to go.

A nice little slice of the UAE’s history – and a little slice of British history too, is wrapped up in the story of this odd little fort.

Mahatta Fort used to be a mile from the old town of Sharjah. Today it’s enveloped in the city – but the road outside that leads from the traffic lights just down from Mega Mall past the ‘Saudi Mosque’ and through Ittihad Square to meet ‘Smile You’re Insane’ (Sorry, ‘Smile You’re In Sharjah’) roundabout is suspiciously straight and slab-like, with dribbles of bitumen infilling the slabs. There’s a reason for that – the road is actually the old runway of Sharjah International Airport, before the airport was moved out of the city.

In 1937 this runway was a sand landing strip and served Imperial Airways, the (at the time) miraculous air-route that led from Croydon to Australia – a route that traversed Europe, taking passengers to Egypt and from there either through Darkest Africa to Cape Town or through Darkest Arabia through India, Asia and down to Australasia.

This first ever attempt to create a global airway brought the whole (Sun Never Sets On It) British Empire together. It meant travelling from Croydon to the desert town of Sharjah in just four days! From South East Asia, the Imperial Airways service was handed over to the Queensland and Northern Territories Airline Service. You’ll likely recognise it better as QANTAS.

We have a copy of the documentary film Air Outpost, made in 1937 about this remarkable desert airstrip, the fort that was built by the Sheikh of Sharjah to house the 38 passengers of each flight and protect them from marauding bedouin as they made their way through from Alexandria via ‘Bahrein’ to Qwaidar in Baluchistan and on to Karachi in India. In the morning after the Alexandria overnight stop, staff would have to be despatched to the city’s brothels to round up wayward passengers. Honest.

Sharjah held no such attractions, of course...

The film itself is important, credited as being likely the first ever true ‘documentary’ film, one of a series made by director Alexander Korda for Imperial Airways by his London Films company – and featuring a soundtrack composed by William Alwyn, now recognised as an important C20th British composer. The film is preposterous in the extreme, from the quoits-chucking Brit goons playing in the courtyard of Mahatta to while away the time between arrivals through to the stiff fish carried on donkey-back from the ‘Arab city of Shar-Jar’ to serve the lucky guests. There’s even a grumpy looking Scottish station manager who signals to the Sikh walla to ring the bell announcing the arrival of the flight – using, as the instruction, the very same bell-ringing motion he could have used to damn well do it himself. The Iranian petrol-boys play cards as they wait for the flight to arrive and the Sheikh's guard of honour turns out to greet the passengers. Tally ho!

It still amuses me greatly.

The planes used to fly from Alexandria to Gaza in Palestine, and then on to Habbaniya and Baghdad by following ‘The Trench’ – a guideline laid across the black desert of Northern Trans-Jordan by trawling a bunch of chains behind a tractor. After the overnight stop in Baghdad, it was off to Basra, Kuwait, Bahrain and, finally, a landing in Sharjah as the last of the day’s light played itself out.

Imperial Airways eventually became BOAC, the British Overseas Airline Corporation and then just simply British Airways.

Sharjah airport was used to house Spitfires in WWII (A pal of my dad’s used to fly ‘em here – “What you want to live in Dubai for, boy? It’s just a bunch of mud huts on a creek!” I kid you not) and then flew commercial stuff until the new airport was built and Mahatta fell into disuse. The extensive (and fascinating) area of Nissen huts and workshop buildings that used to litter a swathe of central Sharjah was eventually cleared for development, only the broken down remains of the old fort eventually remaining. And then, wonder of wonders, it was renovated and turned into a delightful museum – which is well worth a visit, BTW.

The story of the Handley Page Heracles class biplanes, 38-seat luxury airliners decorated inside in mahogany and chintz (featuring, of course, a bar) that linked the world for the first time ever is a remarkable one that has long captivated me. It ended in tragedy when one of these great planes was lost en-route to Sharjah in the Indian Ocean, somewhere off the coast of Kalba, or perhaps in the Eastern Hajjar Mountains. Nobody is quite sure.

And that is where I end my tale. With a thought for the 228 people who didn’t make it to the runway this week, either, lost somewhere in an ocean. Where, nobody is quite sure...

With consummate cool, The National has posted the full copy of Air Outpost up on its website! You can find it here!


Mita said...

Where in Sharjah? Not being familiar with the place - is there somewhere I get more info on the museum. Sounds amazing. Also would love to see the documentary - a bootleg copy perhaps?

Catalin said...

That's one of the most interesting blog posts you wrote! This and the ones where you talk about my site :)

Joke aside, I know quite a lot about the UAE, but this was a bit of history I didn't know. Have you got an exact address for the museum? Would love to go and have a look...

The HDR shots are getting better :)

alexander... said...

Google Map: http://twurl.nl/tekylg

Mita said...

And the bootleg documentary? :-)

Rishma said...

u are right, the museum is fascinating..one of the first things i saw when we moved to sharjah...a real insight into the history of the emirate..

Ro said...

Wow... I had no idea this place even existed. Thanks for the tip.

Dubai Jazz said...

'imperialistic airlines' would have fit much better ;)

who is said...

Use your new power wisely.

mostafa said...

For more info:

Humanette said...

Hello there, this is a great post with great quoted additions from your own family friends, classic. I wonder how you got this 'copy' of the documentary. And also whether you learned of the Alexandria brothels from the museum itself (that's interesting if a Sharjah museum has that info in its display). Thanks for that!

alexander... said...

Humanette: I can't tell you where I got my copy from, but it is on sale online these days. Mine was an old, old copy that originated in the BA Archive.

As for the brothels info, no that's not from the museum - there are a couple of other sources I used, including a great book about the old Croydon/Australia route and some interesting online resources - including the Aramco website, oddly enough.

There's a follow-up post linked here with more info if you're interested!

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