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A Qatar Explorer

Robert Cheesman: An Arabian Explorer

Charting an Expedition to Qatar by an early Qatar Explorer

Francis Gillespie, author of Discovering Qatar and Gulf Times Natural History journalist, takes a look at a little known explorer who ventured into the Bedouin inhabited wilds of Qatar in the early twentieth century.

Part 1 | Part 2

Cheesman's gerbil
Copyright: David Gillespie
An attractive little sandy-brown rodent found in the deserts of Qatar, and often to be seen foraging at dusk, is Cheesman's Gerbil [Gerbillus cheesmani]. The gerbil and its habits are now well-known to zoologists, but who was Cheesman, who was the first to officially record the species? I had always assumed he was yet another British colonial official with a turn for natural history, but in fact Captain Robert E Cheesman was rather more than that.

Many British officials stationed in the Middle East in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries made valuable contributions to scientific and anthropological knowledge, spending their spare hours photographing and recording and sending their findings to learned societies in London. Robert Cheesman was among these.

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Stationed in Iraq for some years, his main passion was for ornithology, but he was interested in all forms of natural history and also in ancient history, as well as being a competent photographer and a skilled surveyor. He contributed several articles to the journal of The Royal Geographical Society in London, and in 1926 he published a book entitled In Unknown Arabia. In 1936, while HM Consul in Abyssinia, he was awarded the prestigious Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society for his explorations and surveys of the Blue Nile and Lake Tana.

In 1921 he made a journey from Oqair, on the eastern coast of Arabia, down the coast and into Salwa Bay, where he had heard there were some interesting ruins which might just possibly be the remains of the fabled Phoenician city of Gerrha. This coastal Arabian city had been described by the Roman historian Strabo, writing in the first century AD, as being fabulously wealthy and inhabited by people who built their houses out of blocks of salt.

A map of Cheesman's journey
Click for Large Version
Cheesman's other purpose in making the journey was to find out more about the migratory routes used by birds travelling north after wintering in Africa, and to undertake some surveying and mapping along the way. (Click on the map to the right to see the full image.)

The Arabian Gulf must be one of the world's most travelled waterways, but, surprisingly, the Salwa coast had never been mapped by a European. Indeed, the only European who had ever been to Salwa was Burchardt in 1904. He was murdered in 1909 and left little information about this wild and lonely region on the south-west border of Qatar.

While waiting for a reply from the Sultan, Cheesman explored Bahrain with its date plantations and fruit orchards watered by abundant springs, and had an audience with the elderly ruler, Sheikh Isa bin Ali al-Khalifah, who had ruled Bahrain for over half a century.

In addition to a train of camels, Cheesman also needed a ship on which to take readings from his chronometer and to carry some of the delicate instruments which might be damaged by being jolted about on a camel. He therefore arranged with the captain of a large sailing dhow, a baghalah, to follow the land-based expedition down the coast. On March 30th the party set off down the coast.

Discovering Qatar, by Frances Gillespie.
Discovering Qatar
Every evening the dhow anchored, and Cheesman went aboard and took his meals with the crew: ‘Rice, dates and a few lumps of rather leathery meat and flat cakes of unleavened bread.' Making arrangements in advance for the evening rendezvous was not easy, because neither the ship's captain nor the bedouin with the land party had any detailed knowledge of the coast.

After two days of camel-riding they sighted the hills of Qatar for the first time on the far side of the bay of Salwa, but could see no sign of the baghalah: ‘We had no idea whether it was behind or in front of us.'

The food supplies were carried on the dhow, so that evening's meal was even more spartan than usual, consisting of a few dates, and bread made by forming crushed wheat into dough and burying it in the sand under a fire: ‘The resulting bread was very solid with a liberal mixture of sand.'

Read Part 2

Also see: An Introduction to the Geology and Nature of Qatar by the same author.