From Khor Fakkan to Bahrain: rare historical images explore how the West saw Arabia

A collection of 130 rare images are on view at a new Abu Dhabi exhibition, and a two-day forum will be held in conjunction with the show

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For centuries, the Arabian Peninsula was a source of fascination for Western travellers. Between the 16th to 20th centuries, expeditions from Europe arrived in the region in search of trade, adventure and military research.

Insights into what they saw and how they saw it are revealed in the exhibition Five Centuries of Adventure and Entrepreneurship: Western Travellers in Arabia, on view at the Cultural Foundation until Saturday, November 30.

A collection of 130 rare historical images, including photographs, maps and drawings created by Western travellers, are on display. These documentations have become a valuable resource for historians, who consider issues of East-West relations and how perceptions of Arabian culture in Europe were built through these expeditions.

In these images, we come across historical figures such as Anne Blunt, also referred to as Lady Anne, and her husband Wilfrid Blunt: the pair's equine passion led them to travel to the Middle East in the late 1870s to buy horses from Bedouin tribesmen to breed them in England.

This led to the development of the Crabbet Arabian Stud, which most Arabian horses still trace their lineage to. Their travels took them from Beirut to northern Syria, then Baghdad and present-day Iskenderun in Turkey.

The engraving by French artist Gaston Vuillier shows the couple with their horse, both dressed in Middle Eastern-style garments. There are also illustrations from Lady Anne's book A Pilgrimage to Nejd, one of which shows daily life in a palace courtyard.

There’s also an intriguing photograph by Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje, a Dutch scholar who studied Oriental cultures on behalf of his government. Through his connections in Jeddah, he was able to attend a pilgrimage in Makkah, a rare instance considering he wasn't Muslim. Snouck captured a scene from Mecca in 1898, showing pilgrims camping out in the city.

Then there’s the photograph of Hermann Burchardt, a German explorer who toured the Arabian Gulf throughout most of his adult life. His 1903 photo of Bahrain offers a peek into life back then — a street scene reveals structures made of stone and palm leaves, as well as houses with wind towers.

A street view in Bahrain by Hermann Burchardt from 1903. DCT Abu Dhabi

In a manuscript that dates back to the 17th century is a map of Khor Fakkan fort drawn by Portuguese historian Pedro Barreto de Resende. The triangular fortress seen surrounded by villages and palm trees was built by the Portuguese in 1620. The fort became a ruin before the end of the century, and remnants of the stone structures are what’s left on the site today.

The Fort of Khor Fakkan in UAE, a 17th century Portuguese manuscript, drawings by Pedro Barreto de Resende. DCT Abu Dhabi

Through these images, visitors can learn about the different motivations historians and adventurers had in exploring the Arabian Peninsula. In conjunction with the exhibition, the Department of Culture and Tourism Abu Dhabi (DCT Abu Dhabi) are also hosting a two-day forum titled Orient Pioneers: Western Travellers in Arabia, which features panel discussions by academics from the Gulf and the Arab World as well as international specialists that will dive into the writings and experiences of the Western travellers.

They will also discuss the ways in which European explorers interacted with local inhabitants and situated themselves within the historical complexities of the region. The programme is part of DCT Abu Dhabi’s inaugural series Orient Pioneers, which aims to investigate the history of the UAE through material and research developed by Western travellers through the centuries.

The exhibition is at the Cultural Foundation until Saturday, November 30. For more information, visit