Could this be the oldest known photograph of the land now known as the UAE?

A grainy image thought to be of Sharjah in 1873 predates previously recognised picture of Qasr Al Hosn from 1901

An image thought to have been taken in Sharjah in 1873. Photo: British Library
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The oldest known photograph of the land now known as the UAE was an image of Qasr Al Hosn in Abu Dhabi, which is fitting because the watchtower was also the emirate's first structure. Taken in 1901, the photo was shot by Samuel Zwemer, an American missionary.

But now another photo has come to light – one thought to predate Zwemer's image by almost 30 years.

Taken in the 1870s, at a time when cameras were still a novelty, the black-and-white photo of Sharjah, seen from the water, has long been identified as one of Bahrain, but research has now concluded that its real location was 400km to the east.

The photo shows buildings and ships along the Sharjah waterfront from a sandbank that then separated the town from the Arabian Gulf. On the far left of the photo, a small boy can be seen wading in the water.

The photograph is part of an album of more than 200 images of sites in China, Italy, India and Scotland.

Currently held by the British Library, the catalogue names the owner as Sir James Robert Dunlop Smith, an official in the British Army. The album, however, was most likely put together by his son-in-law, Sir Charles Umpherston Aitchison, who held senior posts in Burma, now Myanmar, and the Punjab in northern India.

Sir Charles is unlikely to have taken the photographs himself, but bought them much as we now do souvenir postcards. The British based their headquarters in the Gulf in Bahrain, so it is likely he passed through there, perhaps buying the photo under the impression it showed Manama.

Digitalised as part of the Qatar Digital Library's online archive, the photograph has the original handwritten description “Bahrein”. Doubts about its accuracy were raised by Prof James Onley at the American University of Sharjah, who has also researched the Qatar archive.

The revised caption for the photo now says: “A gravelly area to the left in the foreground indicates that the photograph was taken from land, not from on board a ship. This photograph was previously identified as the view of the sea front in Bahrain, presumed to be either Manama or Muharraq.”

Examination of a map of Bahrain from the 1930s reveals there is no land in either city from which the photo could be been taken. On the other hand, another map in the archive made by a British naval officer in 1822 clearly shows a spit facing the old city of Sharjah.

More evidence comes from two of the towers in the photo that have distinctive triangular defensive features for firing on attackers. “The architectural style of the two defensive towers with their distinctive 'noses’ in the photograph's centre and centre-left is common in the UAE but unknown in Bahrain,” the caption explains.

As well as the boy, closer examination of the photo shows a large group of people gathered in front of a building near the water’s edge, an arish palm frond house, several dhows and, faintly visible, a flag flying on a large building in the middle.

There is no clue, however, as to the identity of the photographer. Many of the first photographers of the Middle East were Armenians living in what was then the Ottoman Empire. A Christian minority, many of them opened studios from Cairo to Jerusalem and Iraq.

Among those active in the 1870s were Antoin Sevruguin, who lived in what is now Iran after fleeing persecution in Russia. His photographs were popular with western visitors to the region. Others included Pascal Sebah, born to a Syrian Catholic father and Armenian mother, who had a studio in Cairo, and Rober Caracachian, who was based in Istanbul and whose images were popular among tourists.

What we do know is how the photograph was produced. It is an albumen print, a method first developed in 1847 in France and widely used until the end of the 19th century. It uses paper coated in a mixture of egg white and salt, then dipped in a solution of silver nitrate to make it sensitive to light.

Cameras from the 1870s used expensive and fragile metal or glass plates as film. They were bulky wooden boxes supported on a tripod and required long exposure times.

As a result, very few frames were taken, certainly in comparison with the billions of images from today’s smartphones. But it seems unlikely this photographer travelled all the way to Sharjah to take a single photo, raising the intriguing possibility that somewhere there are further examples of 19th-century life in the Emirates.

Updated: March 28, 2024, 12:04 PM