Museum stories
Postcards from Aden

I travelled thence to Aden, the port of Yemen, on the coast of the ocean. It is surrounded by mountains and can be approached from one side only; it has no crops, trees, or water, but has reservoirs in which rainwater is collected… It is an exceedingly hot place.

– Ibn Battuta, Travels in Africa and Asia, 1325–1354.

The Tanks, Aden. Hand coloured monochrome photograph showing the tanks at Tawila with a horse-drawn carriage at the right and a man in pith helmet with a camel and water barrels at the left. Producer unknown, Aden, about 1910.

Aden, a port city in Yemen excites different views. It is a bleak, waterless spot but offers multiple harbours and is ideally suited to commanding trade with the Western Indian Ocean and Red Sea and is a vital entrepôt for the Yemeni interior.

Its origins and early history are vague but it probably existed as early as the 1st century AD and was described by the great 14th–century author Ibn Battuta. On 19 January 1839, it was captured by the British and until 1967 remained an important British port, firstly run by the East India Company and then as a colony. 19th–century British Political Residents of Yemen often wrote to the British Museum about new discoveries of ancient South Arabian antiquities in the interior and began collecting them on behalf of the Museum. One of these officers was Sir Robert Lambert Playfair (1828–1899) who discovered a series of old rock-cut reservoirs: popularly known as ‘the Queen of Sheba’s water tanks’, which after being cleaned out, became a popular destination for day-trippers and were one of the most commonly photographed sights in Aden.

Steamer Point, Aden. Hand coloured photograph showing the harbour and municipal buildings.
Producer unknown, Aden, 1900–1910.

At the beginning of the 20th century, pictorial postcards began to be produced across Europe in vast numbers and soon afterwards local manufacturers started producing their own in Aden. The sheer quantity means that they are an important visual record. These were aimed principally at British servicemen and passing steamship passengers and show different sides of life here: the bustling downtown bazaars of Crater, the hotels and shops at Steamer Point and the almost brutal functionality of a modern port with piles of coal beside the piers and lighters bringing passengers ashore from the steamships anchored in the bay. The heavy military presence is implicit in the predominance of barracks and telecommunications infrastructure in the photographs yet there are no soldiers in these views and people are generally scarce because photographers using cameras with slow shutter speeds tried to minimise the risk of blurred figures.

Britannia Hotel, Steamer Point. Hand coloured photograph also showing the premises of Samuel Benghiat and the Anglo-Italian Grocery Store (signposted). Produced by Samuel Benghiat, Aden, about 1910.

By contrast, other cards show ‘the other’ Aden: camels bringing supplies from the interior, the dhow yards at Ma’alla, coffee-houses and open-air markets, water-carts, posed figures of Somali warriors and fishermen holding up dugongs (sea cows) as bizarre attestations of mermaids.

Steamships stopped here for a few hours to resupply their coal and this was long enough for long-distance travellers to get ashore, buy trinkets and write postcards: ‘Dear Mrs B. I am sending you these few & will send you more another time. Hope you will like them. Eva. PS. Let me know if you get them safe dear’. This undated message is addressed to one Mrs Blastock and on the reverse is a view of the Protestant church at Aden. These messages also capture snapshots of social history and, when dated or posted, allow the postcards to be dated.

Reverse of Bazaar scene, Crater. Hand coloured real photo card. Produced by Dick Ketchian, Aden, 1960s.

A selection of these postcards are on display at The Brunei Gallery in London as part of the exhibition: ‘Buildings That Fill My Eye’: Architectural Heritage of Yemen, open from 13 July until 23 September 2017.

Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa 1325-1354, tr. and ed. H. A. R. Gibb (London: Broadway House, 1929)