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A lucky eclipse: Major Tony Altounyan's 1946 expedition into Mahra Country 

Quentin Morton

Tony Altounyan's journey into Mahra country is one of the lesser-known episodes of Arabian exploration. Perhaps the fact that he travelled on behalf of an oil company has had something to do with this since the purpose of his journey, to pave the way for a possible oil survey, was hardly a romantic one. Yet it was a remarkable journey: he was the first Westerner to penetrate fully Mahra country, travelling alone and unarmed in the company of tribesmen whose conduct and customs had changed little over the centuries, men who still had a predilection for blood feuds, fighting over camels and arguing about the division of catches of fish. 

Major Tony (Tadeus) Altounyan was a British subject, Armenian by birth, from a family well known in the field of medicine in Aleppo. He was related to Dr. Ernest Altounyan who was a close friend of T. E. Lawrence and Arthur Ransome whose book Swallows and Amazons was inspired by Dr. Altounyan's children learning to sail in the Lake District. Tony Altounyan was educated at the American University in Beirut and later at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He joined the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC) in 1932, holding various appointments in Syria, Lebanon and Palestine before leaving for war service in 1940. He returned to the company in 1946, aged 41. His knowledge of Arabic and the Arabian tribes made him the ideal choice for a fact-finding mission to Mahra country, the eastern-most part of the Aden Protectorates. 

IPC had created a subsidiary company Petroleum Concessions Limited (PCL) to survey the Aden Protectorates. In 1938, PCL obtained an exploration permit from the Governor of Aden and carried out an aerial survey. Studies on the ground were restricted to the coast; the Hadhramaut valley and the area around Shabwa were out-of-bounds because of the 'local objections' of tribesmen, and for similar reasons Mahra was considered a non-starter. But American oil discoveries in Saudi Arabia had thrown the whole question of oil exploration in the Arabian peninsula into high relief. Where Arabia had once been considered devoid of oil, the opposite was now true. Following the end of the World War II, PCL appointed Altounyan to explore conditions in Mahra country as a precursor to a geological survey. 

The rocky terrain which fell between the Wadi Masila to the west and the Qara mountains to the east was still wrapped in mystery. The ferocious reputation of the Mahra tribes, talked up by the chatter of expatriates and perhaps exaggerated by the Mahra tribes themselves as a way of deterring intruders, had kept the great travellers away. The difficult terrain, too, had added to its air of impenetrability: the lie of the land was formed by a series of mountain ranges running into the sea with sand dunes, gravel patches and wadis in between, providing many obstacles. 

In November 1946, Altounyan arrived in Mukalla. The first part of his journey was a distance of about 120 miles by motor car along a well defined track from Mukalla to Raidat Abdul Wadud. For the rest of the expedition, Altounyan would travel by camel, this being the only mode of transport available or suitable for the terrain: there were no horses or mules, indeed no-one he spoke to had ever seen a horse. He reached the mouth of the Wadi Masila on 29th November. For the next four weeks, he travelled about unarmed, successfully negotiating his way through the tribal areas, using Maria Theresa dollars to hire escorts from each area he passed through. This system of engaging guides to provide safe conduct through hostile territory was known as sayyara

The caravan headed eastwards along the coast, picking up travelling companions as it went, such as two sheikhs and a merchant on their way to the next town, all joining in the general gossip. The escorts examined the dusty track and recognised the footprints of people they knew, discussing them excitedly. They stopped in each village to ask the inevitable question: 'What's the news?' Friends rubbed noses, strangers shook hands. 

At the village of Musaina'a, a place of low houses built of black lava stone, the sight of two pretty young women was enough to banish thoughts of squalor momentarily from Altounyan's mind. They had smooth faces painted a bright lemon yellow and their eyelids were painted an indigo blue, their white teeth flashing from behind deep indigo lips, silver bangles clanging at wrists and ankles, and each toe with its own white ring. 

All along the coast, the smell of rotting fish persisted. Fishermen had piled their catches into large, stinking mounds for the sun to leach out the blood and oil into pits where it could be collected. Sometimes the smell was so nauseating that it could be detected from twenty miles away. 

There was always an undercurrent of fear. The Mahra people had been constantly subjected to tribal raiding from the north and the appearance of a stranger was something to dread. Although every man carried a rifle, from which he was never separated, the sight of Altounyan's party was enough to send people scurrying for cover behind rocks and bushes, from which they pointed their rifles until it was apparent that the strangers were friends. 

Then the requests for medical attention would flow, a shabby parade of the sick and wounded emerging from their hiding places, eye-infected souls and ragged lepers, the crippled and mentally impaired. At these moments, the Mahra people were able to set aside their differences with the Christian, firmly believing in the power of medicine to cure the sick, no matter how sick they might be. 

At Saihut, forced to break his land journey in order to avoid the hostile Zueidi tribe, Altounyan hired a canoe with nine rowers to travel the 50 miles to Qishn by sea. They travelled through the night, the rowers keeping up a steady rate of twenty strokes per minute, the silence broken only by the rhythmic swishing and creaking of the oars and heaving of their lungs. For the first three hours, no-one rested: they threw all their energy into each stroke, rising up on their footrests, pulling back on the oars and falling back into their seats only to repeat the manoeuvre all over again. They kept the canoe as close to the rocky coast as they could, taking care to avoid the great cliffs that jutted out to sea. 

Mahra country was nominally ruled by the Sultan of Qishn and Socotra. The British had been in treaty relations with successive Sultans of the 20 ruling Bin Afrar family since 1886, offering the usual 'protection' from outside interference in return for an undertaking not to negotiate with a foreign power without the British Government's knowledge and agreement. As theTreaty Sultan preferred to reside on the island of Socotra some three hundred miles south of the Mahra mainland, contact with him was infrequent and mainly confined to border disputes or inter-tribal disputes over which the British Resident Adviser in Mukalla would occasionally be asked to adjudicate. 

A branch of the Bin Afrar family, headed by Sultan Ahmad bin Abdullah bin Ibrahim, were settled in Qishn on the mainland, and it fell to Sultan Ahmad to greet Altounyan on his arrival and to invite him to stay for two days while the next stage of his journey was discussed. 

At noon, twelve hours after leaving Saihut, Altounyan made landfall at Qishn. He found neither pomp nor ceremony, just a sixty-five year old barefooted Sutan Ahmad with a simple white spade beard and a rifle slung horizontally under his arm. He wore a 'simple coarse cloth' and spoke a strange dialect that Altounyan somehow understood. Without newspapers, wireless or telephone, people were several years behind the news and everyone wanted to know if the great war of the Christians was over. Strange stories circulated about the Christians - known collectively as Nasara - and their great wars and devilish machines. During the war the RAF had established two air strips on the coast but Altounyan reported that these were abandoned and unserviceable.

Over the next two days, Altounyan talked for hours about the outside world with Sultan Ahmad and his brother Sultan Khalifa, 'a youngish and active man.' For many of the minor potentates of the Arabian fringe, the discovery of oil was the remedy to relieve the grinding poverty that so afflicted their domains. The Sultan was enthusiastic for an early exploration of the country, and offered as much help as he could. Altounyan was anxious to wander the country at will, testing the state of security for himself but, with the Sultan having little authority over the inland tribes, the sayyara system would still have to be used. 

Altounyan pressed on. After climbing the difficult mountain pass of the Fartak range, he was able to gaze down on the sandy plain of Ghaidha and savour a cool, fresh breeze. Then it was down the other side on a perilous path that twisted and turned, the camels slithering and stumbling over the loose stones until his small caravan reached a salt lake where the escorts could bathe the camels' feet. 

The next two villages were in Bin Braafit country and his escorts, being members of the Kelshat tribe, were naturally cautious and reluctant to pass through them. So they waited until dusk before moving off towards the seashore, hoping to skirt the villages in the darkness. But a full moon rose and hung over the sea turning night into day, making the risk of detection too great. The escorts were considering another route when a miracle happened - an eclipse occurred, gradually snuffing out most of the moonlight - so that they could safely carry on. At first the escorts said the eclipse must have been a trick of the Nasara but, after Altounyan had reassured them that it was in fact God's doing, they told him 'God must be with you and has caused the eclipse in order to relieve your anxiety.' 

In Ghaidha, a public discussion took place about who should provide the escorts for the next leg of the journey. The Kelshat delegation was led by a sheikh armed with an umbrella stick shorn of its spokes and the Bin Kidda delegation was led by a sheikh with long grey hair down to his shoulders who was carrying a spear and a sword. Bare-backed men squatted around with rifles held upright in their hands with only Altounyan to oppose them. The arguments went on all day with the tribesmen displaying the full range of their rhetorical skills before making an offer of fifteen tribesmen at a cost of 300 Maria Theresa dollars which Altouynan promptly turned down. Eventually, after more haggling stretching over days, a compromise was agreed. 

The final stage of his journey from Ghaidha to Tarim, a distance of 265 miles, was covered in nine days with an escort of six tribesmen. For the first two days, his caravan rode due west through the stony bed and dwarf bushes of the Wadi Jeza, reaching Kheis el Murait with its water wells and palms and then taking the Wadi Mouba. Altounyan carried in his pocket a small piece of ambergris, given to him by his host in Ghaidha who had advised him to eat a small piece in the event of being bitten or stung. It was also believed that ambergris gave physical strength and good health but Altounyan remained unconvinced: 'I have since tested the validity of this statement by consuming small quantities of ambergris, and the only effect I can record is that it produces nausea and might well be taken as an emetic.' 

There were no dwellings or people to be seen in these parts, the only notable feature being the distant lime hills that protected Mahra country from encroachment by the sands of the Rub al Khali. The mornings were cool; the caravan trotted along as the men sang a tune which the camels 'seemed to know and like'. By eleven o'clock, the heat was intense and only began to cool about an hour before sunset. At night, they lit a fire and gathered around it for warmth, talking into the night. The butt of all jokes was Hamad, who had heard of the motor car but could not imagine what sort of 'legs' it had. 

Upon reaching Jebel Kunmain, the border between the Mahra and Manahil territories, the escorts seemed especially alert. That night, they were challenged by distant voices in the darkness, answering some and ignoring the others. One persistent voice demanded to know who they were and, on being promised that he would be safe if he emerged from the darkness, a figure appeared with an 1874 rifle levelled at them. He sat among the tribesmen and told them a story about two wolves that had eaten two babies as they slept in a cave the night before. When the time came for the visitor to leave, Altounyan insisted he stay. Reluctantly, he accepted the invitation and they sat around the fire together, watching into the dark and listening attentively until it was time to move again. 

On the final stretch of the journey, they overtook a caravan of eighty camels taking dry fish and fish oil from Ghaidha to the Hadhramaut valley. A passing peasant with a fat ram provided an excuse for Altounyan to throw a farewell feast for his trusty companions. The ram was duly slaughtered in the name of God and in honour of the first Nasrani to cross Mahra country. Altounyan was offered the heart and liver, with the remainder - including head and feet - being divided between the tribesmen. By morning even the marrow had been sucked from the bones so that 'not even an ant could have got a meal from them.' 

Next day, Altounyan ended his expedition at Tarim. On his return to London, he reported to his company that conditions were satisfactory for an oil survey. When PCL mounted a geological survey the following year, Altounyan was appointed to lead it with my father Mike Morton as one of the two geologists in the party. The simple hospitality given to Altounyan in the so-called badlands of Mahra was extended to this expedition and the survey was completed without anyone being harmed. However, much to the disappointment of Sultan Ahmad and many others, no oil was found. 

Altounyan's account of his journey The Land of the Mahra was published in the Journal of the Royal Central Asian Society in 1947 and reveals a people isolated and suspicious of strangers. And yet, in a closed society where tribesmen still believed that the Nasara were fighting Armageddon with their monstrous war machines, this lone ambassador, unarmed and unthreatening, brought a softer message from the outside world and in turn helped to dispel some of the wilder myths about the land of Mahra that circulated in Aden and beyond. In all, Altounyan organised three expeditions in the Aden Protectorates (the third being to Beihan in 1949). He went on to become a manager involved in industrial relations on behalf of IPC, retiring from the company in 1965. He passed away in 1991. 

The Wadi Masila
Altounyan on a camel negotiates with 
tribesmen in Mahra Country, 1947.
A water well at Qishn.
Riding along the Mahra shore.
A Mahri tribesman


The Land of the Mahra, MajorT. Altounyan, Journal of the Royal CentralAsian Society, 1947, 34, parts iii-iv, page 231. 

Reconnaissance of the Mahra Country, Memorandum of 14th January 1947, MajorT. Altounyan, IPC 119, PC/44 Part 3(270), BP Archive. 

A Report on the Mahra by MajorT. Altounyan, IPC 119, PC/44 Part 3(274), BPArchive. IPC Handbook 1948 

In the Heart of the Desert, M. Q. Morton, Green Mountain Press, 2006. This book contains a full account of Major Altounyan's second and third expeditions to the Aden Protectorates. 

Photographs from the collection of Mike Morton taken on the 1947/48 expedition to Mahra country. 

Vol 18. 2010