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The island of two moons:
Kamaran 1954


Nigel Groom, OBE, served in the Colony and Protectorate of Aden from 1946-57, and then in the Colonial Administration in East Africa. From 1962 until his retirement in 1984 he worked in the Ministry of Defence, London. His publications include, ‘An Archaeological Map of South-West Arabia’ (1976), ‘Frankincense and Myrrh: A Study of the Arabian Incense Trade’ (1981), ‘A Dictionary of Arabic Topography and Place Names’ (1983), and ‘Sheba Revealed: A Posting to Bayhan in the Yemen’ (2002).

Two hours out from Aden, the weekly Aden Airways Dakota touches down at Kamaran for thirty minutes on its way to Eritrea. Its passengers disembark hesitantly into the furnace-like heat and scurry towards a patch of shade offered by the wide verandah in front of Kamaran’s tiny airport building. Iced squash and tattered magazines are handed round while an Arab hawker tries to sell scallop shells, and a mountain of tins and bulging sacks containing the personal belongings of a bearded Yemeni merchant, is weighed and labelled.

Some of the passengers cluster round the airport’s famous notice board with its cryptic series of answers to questions that may come to mind. Kamaran, they learn, means ‘the island of two moons’, the second moon being reflected by the Red Sea which surrounds it (1). To those who will see no more of the place, there is nothing else romantic about it. The encircling desert of broken yellow coral shimmers in the heat with a burning glare. The wind kicks up sheets of salty, stinging dust. There is not a house nor a tree in sight.

The Commissioner, in khaki shorts and a topee, scuds across the plain in a battered truck to collect his supplies and mail (2). One feels admiration for this retired colonel, struggling against sandflies, heat and loneliness to uphold, in so remote an outpost, some of the withered glories of our former Indian Empire. With a small Government staff of Arabs and Indians, he sees that taxes are collected, a school and a dispensary run, water distilled, electricity generated, law and order maintained. A posse of armed police from Aden hauls in offenders, but they are few.

Kamaran islander with two members of the Aden Armed Police

CLICK HERE for more pictures of Kamaran

The finest thing on the island is its road system, for the construction of a road necessitates no more than marking out its course with cairns of stones. Although only two vehicles exist on the whole of Kamaran to use them, broad highways sweep across the desert in every direction, provided as a result of the eccentric humour (or was it nostalgia) of a previous Commissioner, with a complete set of British road signs and signposts (3). ‘Steep hill’ is the sign that first greets one as one leaves the airport, and the gentle dip of fifteen feet which follows reminds one how valuable is a sense of humour in such surroundings.

The highest point of Kamaran is little over fifty feet above the sea and it was here that the Commissioner took us to see the earliest traces of Kamaran’s history — an empty Persian tomb cut into the coral. This grave, surrounded by disintegrating fortifications and well over a thousand years old, demonstrated how tenuously but stubbornly man can cling to the most barren corners of the earth. Being strategically sited near the southern gates of the Red Sea, possessing a safe anchorage and a brackish supply of drinking water, Kamaran has been occupied continuously ever since the Persians placed their garrison on it, and perhaps for long before.

The Portuguese have come and gone, leaving behind a fine, but now crumbling, sixteenth century fort. However, the Turks who followed contributed most to the island’s well-being, not only with the wells cut deep through the coral in an inland depression, but also with the conception which gave Kamaran a heyday of prosperity — its use as a quarantine station for Muslims on the pilgrimage to Mecca.

From late in the nineteenth century, ships jammed tight with Muslims from India, Africa and all the countries of the Far East, crowded into the Kamaran anchorage during the pilgrimage season. Their human cargoes were off-loaded into camps, medically inspected, disinfested and disinfected before being allowed to proceed to the sacred soil which began at Jeddah, a little further up the coast, and ended before the Kaaba of Mecca.

When the Turks were defeated in the First World War, an international control was exercised over the Quarantine Station, but it was placed under British administration. In anticipation of a vast increase in the number of the faithful who would make the pilgrimage the camp was greatly extended. Long lines of barrack-like sleeping quarters were constructed where the Turks had provided only wattle huts. Big disinfecting plants were installed where the pilgrims went through an ordeal of cleansing on a production line basis. A power station was built worthy of a small town. The local water supply was inadequate, so a massive distillation plant was introduced to make sea water fit for drinking. There were carpenters’ shops, machine shops, a small railway to transport fuel and stores, a wireless station, a fine landing stage, a cantonment of officials’ bungalows. Lastly, but by no means least in the eyes of all who worked on Kamaran, there was the ice factory, which produced the only means of keeping cool.

The islanders, born to be fishermen and sailors, prospered exceedingly on this trade in potential disease among the devout, and the population grew. In the village of Kamaran, the only settlement apart from a few isolated groups of fishermen’s huts, fine houses and a magnificent mosque went up, and a lively trade in pilgrim requirements was conducted with the mainland. This, on top of the wealth that the more hardy could derive by diving for pearls from the coral reefs, gave the inhabitants a glimpse of previously unimagined wealth.

But their prosperity was short-lived. Anxious to control the pilgrimage in all its aspects (for even in these days of oil royalties it is still a very lucrative traffic), the Saudi Arabian Government decided to construct its own Quarantine Station and to insist that Kamaran be by-passed.

Today, the long lines of buildings in the camps lie empty and deserted and a handful of men maintain a ghost town while arrangements are debated for its breaking up and disposal. Kamaran has become a museum and it was to the exhibits in this museum, illustrating the final chapters of its history, that the Commissioner led us.

We walked through the house that had once belonged to the Turkish Commander containing, incongruously enough, a spiral iron fire-escape staircase leading straight up from the middle of the drawing room on to the roof. It was much as the Turks had left it. On opening a cupboard, the top of a stack of stationary slipped on to the floor — a wad of unused yellowed envelopes, still in their wrapper, with the printed address: ‘To the Sublime Porte, Constantinople’.

We moved through the thousands of rusting items in the Stores; we paused before the dispensary — its shelves bulging with drugs enough to last a lifetime; and we admired the ancient though no longer used wireless transmitter, with its valves in great balloons of glass nearly eighteen inches long.

We looked at the fire engine, a manual pump of early Victorian vintage, and probed into a cupboard jammed full of disintegrating ‘lungis’ held in reserve for the pilgrims whose clothes were beyond cleansing.

Part of the ‘museum’ was working still. The huge distillation plant, with its massive fly-wheel nearly ten feet in diameter, was hissing and grunting slowly; it had been built in 1870. In the power house, one of the three DC generators was still being coaxed by an Arab electrician into giving light until such time as the new machines on order can be installed. In keeping this aged machinery going, they have worked miracles — these half dozen Arab technicians of the Commissioner staff. Unable to call for assistance at anything less than a week’s notice, their adroitness in dealing with an emergency is uncanny. We learned that shortly before our visit, the blacksmith had forged a complete new rear axle for the Commissioner truck out of old drain-pipes.

The Quarantine Station and the administrative area, topped by the high roof of the Commissioner’s bungalow with its sentinels of ancient cannon, are half a mile from the village, where all but ten per cent of the island’s population live.

There must be few places so sleepy and empty as Kamaran village. The wealth brought in by the Quarantine Station having ceased to flow, half the men-folk of the place have had to leave the island for Aden or Jeddah or the high seas in search of work. Today, about two thousand people live in Kamaran but fifteen hundred of these are women and children. The men who remain run a dozen small shops, sail the few dhows that still trade from Kamaran, smuggle, catch fish from small sambuks and, during the season, dive for pearls.

We visited the pearling beaches at the north end of the island after a run in the truck over flat coral and sand, past salty tracts that had once been profitable mangrove swamps until the mangroves had all been cut for fuel and timber. Flamingoes and pelicans fluttered aimlessly among the scanty bushes that remain. The pearling beaches were soon discernible by the stench of millions of empty oyster shells, piled in a continuous bank stretching for miles just above the high water mark. The season for pearls was over, but we learned something of the hazards of this occupation; of the terrible menace from sharks and barracuda to men diving overboard among the reefs; of the frustration of opening perhaps a hundred oysters, gleaned from the ocean bed with straining lungs, before a single pearl would be found; and of the glee with which a fully grown pearl would be extracted after days in which only a hundred minute seed pearls had been discovered. Kamaran provided the Colony of Aden with its wedding present to the Queen — a necklace of large and perfectly matched pearls. In terms of sheer hard labour alone it was a gift almost beyond price.

Pearling enriches a few, but it does little to help the bulk of Kamaran’s population in their poverty. Housing is no problem, for half the houses in the village are now empty, but the question of finding enough money to pay for their simple food in a land where nothing will grow has proved insoluble to many of the island’s inhabitants.

Faced with the need to dispense charity to a large proportion of his people, the Commissioner has formed a Charitable Trust, which hands out weekly grants to several hundred poor and needy. The funds come from a nest egg preserved from the Quarantine Station days, but they are severely limited and Government assistance has had to be sought. Democratically, the Commissioner handed over the administration of this Trust to a committee elected from the island’s inhabitants. It was their first election but it was no success for democracy; the bulk of the island’s electors stood to one side and refused to participate. ‘These things’, they said, ‘are better left in the hands of Government, which knows how to run them’.

Our confidence in Britain’s colonial policy fortified by their simple faith, we returned that evening to drink iced squash under the fan on the Commissioner veranda. How different it might have been, we thought. How different it nearly was, the Commissioner reminded us.

An Italian had come to Kamaran a few months before the last war, a refugee — he had stated — from the oppressions of Mussolini. He was received with courtesy and allowed to occupy one of the empty houses, built for the Quarantine Station’s doctor. He had kept to himself and behaved well, never apparently short of money. He had only drawn attention to himself by installing the island’s first and only flush cistern in his bathroom. The day before Italy entered the war, however, he disappeared without trace, leaving behind him a wireless transmitter and the full dress uniform and regalia of Italy’s first Governor of Kamaran.

That the course of the war would have been much altered had he not taken fright was unlikely, but Kamaran’s history might have been different and the story gave new meaning to the plaintive bugle calls echoing into the dusk as a red-turbaned Armed Policeman sounded the Last Post and the Union Jack slowly fluttered down from its mast head. Gazing out beyond the huge silhouette of a cannon, and the flickering lanterns of the village and the dhows anchored in front of it, we could faintly discern the lights on the mainland of Yemen. Five miles of sea separated us from the shores of Arabia. In this strait Kamaran’s second moon bobbed and swayed on the rippling surface of the dark ocean.


1. This interpretation needs to be treated with caution, since the initial letter of the Arabic place name is ‘kaf’, not ‘qaf’ (qamaran: ‘two moons’). Another explanation is that the daughter of a king of Yemen, having fallen gravely sick, was sent to the island to recuperate; she did so and asked the King to give her name, Kamaran, to the island to commemorate her recovery.

2. Colonel R. G. E. W. Albania, who between 1925—1942 had served intermittently as assistant and acting Political Agent, Muscat.

3. The previous Commissioner was Major David Thompson who spent 17 years on the island from the early 1930s. The travel writer Norman Lewis recounts meeting Thompson and his ‘charming young wife’ when he visited Kamaran in 1937 (A Voyage By Dhow, Jonathan Cape, 2001, pp.45—48).

July 2002