Iraq, which had been controlled by the Ottoman Empire since 1534, maintained an almost 1,600 km-long-border with Persia. Over the centuries, the two empires had fought over this frontier, causing it to shift in places. By the 19th century, the border had settled into a roughly defined fashion, although its precise delineation was unclear. Ottoman-Persian Boundary commissions were convened in 1843-47 and 1848-65, but they failed to define an exact boundary.
A final Ottoman-Persian Boundary Commission was convened in 1907-13, and almost immediately its operations became ensnared in high profile global geopolitics. To make a long story short, while for much of the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire was allied with Britain and France, from the 1890s, the Sultan gravitated towards an alliance with Germany, much to the alarm of Westminster.
Beginning in 1903, the Germans stated to build the Baghdad Railway, that would, if completed, link the heart of Iraq to Istanbul, and then on to Berlin, giving the Kaiser the upper hand in the Mesopotamia. The British, who were consolidating their power in the Persian Gulf (making alliances with the sheikhs of Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar, etc.), feared that the German designs would not only compromise their efforts in the region, but could even pose a danger to their hold over India.
Meanwhile, Britain and Russia decided to bury their 80-year-long rivalry in Asia, known as the ‘The Great Game’, signing the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907. This accord not only established agreed zones of influence for the two powers in Central Asia, but also divided Iran (which was ruled by the weak, ailing Qajar Dynasty) an into colonial zones of influence. The British were given control over southeastern Persia, with the Russians given sway over the northern regions, while a strip of the country running from the southwest to the centre was a ‘Neutral Zone’. However, in reality, the British dominance of the Persian Gulf pretty much gave them control over all of Southern Iran.
In a globally transformative historical event, the first commercially exploitable oil deposits in the Middle East were discovered in 1908 at Maidan–i–Naftan, near ‘Masjid Solaimān’, in the extreme southwestern corner of Persia, a region known as ‘Arabistan’ (the western part of today’s Khuzestan Province, Iran), due to its majority ethnic Arab population. The find was located by teams working for the flamboyant Anglo-Australian tycoon William Knox D’Arcy (1849 – 1917), who led the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC), and which was backed by powerful British political and commercial entities, including the Indian Government and the Royal Navy. APOC was able to claim ownership and control over the oilfields due to a 1901 agreement with the Persian Shah. Critically, the Persian oil discoveries not only promised to boost the British industrial economy but would also allow the Royal Navy to switch its fleets from coal to oil power, giving it an edge over its rivals.
The British were prepared to develop and protect their petroleum interests at all costs. However, the oilfields, and the supporting infrastructure necessary to extract, refine and export the oil lay uncomfortably close to the Ottoman border. The Ottoman-Persian frontier in the region was only vaguely defined, leading to the possibility that the Ottomans or Germans could use a legal ‘loophole’ to make a landgrab of Persian territory strategically valuable to the British. Rumours that the Germans wanted to eventually extend the Baghdad Railway to Basra, the Iraqi river port near the Persian frontier, heightened Westminster’s fears. Moreover, the largely ethnic Arab population on both sides of frontier maintained strong ties, opening the prospect of a future pan-Arab alliance, or rebellion, that could threaten Anglo-Persian authority in Arabistan.
The Ottoman-Persian frontier near the head of Persian Gulf was to run along the Shatt al-Arab waterway, a broad navigable channel created by the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The line was to run down from desert and marches in the north, to hit the Shatt al-Arab at a point below Basra, and then follow main channel of the waterway to the Gulf. As the waterway was full of islands, creating various channels, the route of the frontier remained unclear. Critically, the British plans called for the construction of a massive oil refinery and ocean-going port on the Shatt al-Arab (connected the oilfields, to the northeast, by a pipeline), such that the prospect of fluid borders added an intolerable level of risk to their designs.
The APOC moved with alacrity to build petroleum infrastructure in Arabistan, with British agents negotiating a deal with the local Arab potentate, Sheikh Khaz’al, to build the world’s largest oil refinery on Abadan Island, that lay in the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab, connected to the Maidan–i–Naftan oil fields by a 225-km-long pipeline. The nearby town of Muhammerah (today Khorramshahr) was to be the local base of APOC’s operations. This project was completed and made operational in 1912, dramatically altering the course of the history of the Middle East and the British Empire.
Critically, the APOC petroleum refinery on Abadan Island, along with Muhammerah, lay immediately next to the disputed Ottoman-Persian frontier.
Beginning in 1909, the British commissioned scientifically advanced surveys of the Ottoman-Persian frontier in the Shatt al-Arab region, with the hope of defining boundaries that would give APOC’s operations ample breathing space and would close any legal loopholes that could permit Ottoman-German incursions. This project was overseen by Sir Percy Cox (1864 – 1937), the British Resident in the Middle East, and one of the great ‘fixers’ of British imperial history. The mapping itself was undertaken by expert teams of military and civilian surveyors brought in from India.
Given the high stakes, Britain robustly and brazenly, ‘hijacked’ the Ottoman-Persian boundary negotiations surrounding the line in the Shatt al-Arab area, completely side-lining the Qajar Court, and treating with Istanbul directly. It also took the opportunity to leverage the Ottoman into giving up many of their de jure rights in the Persian Gulf. The Ottoman Empire, led by the feckless ‘Young Turk’ regime, was weak and pliable, while their allies in Berlin were too distracted to intervene effectively to buttress their interests.
The British side was represented by Foreign Minister, Sir Edward Grey (1862 – 1933), while the Ottoman delegation was led by İbrahim Hakkı Pasha (1862–1918), the Sultan’s special envoy and a former Grand Vizier (in office, 1910-11). Commencing their negotiations in London, in February 1913, they eventually hammered out the Anglo–Turkish Agreement of July 29, 1913.
This accord pretty much gave Britain everything it desired. Famously, it carved out Kuwait as a British sphere in influence, even if Istanbul was to maintain de jure sovereignty over the sheikhdom, while the Ottomans sphere of influence in the Gulf was to extend only as far east as the ‘Blue Line’ that was to run due south into the Arabian Peninsula, just east of Uqair (in today’s Saudi Arabia), while everything beyond the line was to fall within the British sphere. As such, Qatar and Bahrain gained their autonomy, becoming British protectorates. These developments sealed British hegemony in the Persian Gulf and, in some ways, were seen as the ‘declarations of independence’ for Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain.
In terms of the Ottoman-Persian frontier in the Shatt al-Arab region, Grey pressed for boundaries that he asserted were supposedly long “locally recognized” or “observed”, as shown on the maps created by Cox’s men. These lines largely favoured the Anglo-Persian interpretation of the boundary and were presented to Hakkı as a fait accomopli. This gave the British the feeling of a least a legal, of not military, sense of security over APOC’s operations (which would be taken over by the British crown in 1914). A provisional edition of these interconnecting maps was published by the Geographical Section, General Staff, of the War Office in June and July 1912.
Critically, the accord also guaranteed the free movement of shipping for the vessels of all nations through the Shatt al-Arab, regardless of which side of the river the navigation was to occur.
For comparison to the present set of maps, please see the provisional editions, from the collections of the India Office Records, British Library:
While Grey and Hakkı signed the Anglo–Turkish Agreement of July 29, 1913, the accord was never legally ratified by any of the parties, even if the British accepted its precepts for all practical purposes. Not long after the accord was negotiated, the Ottoman-British relationship dramatically soured, leading the Ottomans to join Germany in fighting Britain during World War I.
So crucial were the APOC operations on the Shatt al-Arab, that Britain’s first move in the war in the Middle East was to land an expeditionary force to secure the region, on both the Persian and Ottoman sides of the waterway, before mounting a full-scale invasion of Iraq (known as the Mesopotamian Campaign, which was eventually won by the British, albeit great difficulty). After the war, Iraq became a client state of Britain, and in 1927, vast oil deposits were found in the country, making Britain the world’s first oil superpower.
In modern times, neither Iran nor Iraq recognized their mutual boundary in the Shatt al-Arab region as imposed by the 1913 accord. Disputes over the border was one of the causes of the brutal Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), that ended with status quo ante bellum, such that today the frontier essentially follows the lines as run by Cox’s men decades earlier.
The Maps in Focus
N.B.: The maps are all housed within a contemporary blue and black faux-leather portfolio (with renewed endpapers and ties), with a manuscript pastedown label that reads: “Turco-Persian Frontier, in neighbourhood of Muhammerah [4 Maps annexed to the Anglo-Turkish Declaration of July 29, 1913]”.
While separately issued from the text of the Anglo–Turkish Agreement of July 29, 1913, a final printed series of maps was annexed to the accord that illustrated the line of the Ottoman-Persian frontier through the Shatt Al-Arab region as proposed by the British, boundaries that were accepted as definitive by the agreement. These official maps were updated from the aforementioned provisional editions published in June and July 1912.
Present here is the complete set of the final version of these official maps. They were published in the immediate wake of the Anglo–Turkish Agreement of July 29, 1913 and are slightly different than the provisional versions of the maps (issued in June-July 1912), although the boundary as proscribed by the British remained very similar (the final treaty line granted the Ottomans a modest amount of additional territory in the swampland north of the Shatt al-Arab). Another key difference between the provisional and final versions of the maps, is that the latter omits some of the annotations on the background information regarding the surveys, while adding the official approval of the treaty lines bearing the chief delegates’ names, as ‘(Sd.) Grey’ and (Sd.) Hakky’, in their lower left corners.
While the interconnecting maps are labeled Map No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4, they number 3 maps, as Map No. 3 and No. 4 combine to form a single map (as the parts are labeled Sheet I. and Sheet II. respectively).
The maps cover the entire scope of the Shatt al-Arab region, tracing the Ottoman-Persian boundary, represented by a bold orange line, from Hawizeh, in the marshes about 60 miles north of the Shatt al-Arab, to then run down to the waterway and through it to the Persian Gulf. The territory near the Persian side of the boundary is very clearly mapped, while the Ottoman side is only mapped in vague outline, as it had not been surveyed by Cox’s teams. The border line itself was scientifically demarcated by plane table surveys, anchored upon basepoints taken by astronomical observations, so being precisely accurate.
All the maps are today extremely rare (in either of their editions, provisional or final). They would have been issued in only very small print runs for private, high-level diplomatic and political use (they were not to be sold or otherwise publicly disseminated). We can locate only institutional examples in 4 complete sets, held by the British Library, National Archives U.K. (2 sets), and the University of Leiden Library, while we cannot trace any sales records for another examples.
The maps are as follows:
- Firoz BAKHT, Surveyor. / Sir Percy COX (1864 – 1937), Project Supervisor.
Sketch Map of Turco-Persian Frontier west and south of Hawizeh. / Map No. 1.
London: Geographical Section, War Office, July 1912 [but 1913].
Lithograph with the international boundary coloured in orange, mounted upon original linen (Very Good, overall clean and bright), 84.5 x 64.5 cm (33.5 x 25.5 inches).
The first map of the series, drawn to a scale of 1:250,000, depicts the borderlands above the head of the Shatt al-Arab, running from the swamps of Hawizeh, in the north, down to the shores of the waterway. It covers the Shatt al-Arab from Qurna, Iraq, to Basra, and then down to Muhammerah, Persia (Khorramshahr). The Ottoman-Persian boundary (the bold green line) is shown to run south down through the marshes to the 31 parallel before heading due eastward, and then meandering south to reach the Shatt al-Arab at Diaji. Otherwise, the map depicts major features of hydrology, vegetation, and areas of cultivation on the Persian side. Compared the provisional version of the map, this final version slightly re-charts the Ottoman-Persian frontier in the swampland in the north to the benefit of the Ottomans, although the British-Persians retained their full claims in the more valuable areas close to the Shatt al-Arab.
As noted on the provisional edition of the map (but omitted here), the map was “Compiled from a plane-table survey from Hawizeh via Shuaib to Diaji April 912, and existing maps by Surveyor S. Firoz Bakht [of the Indian Army], under the supervision of Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Percy Cox, Resident Persian Gulf.”
[Anon. Indian Army Surveyors. / Sir Percy COX (1864 – 1937), Project Supervisor].
Sketch Map of Muhammareh to indicate the Turo Persian Boundary. / Map No. 2.
London: Geographical Section, War Office, June 1912 [but 1913].
Lithograph with the international boundary coloured in orange, mounted upon original linen (Very Good, overall clean and bright), 40 x 76 cm (15.5 x 30 inches).
The second map the series takes up things up where the first map left off, at Diaji, on the Shatt Al-Arab, but features a larger scale (2 inches to 1 mile), tracing the Ottoman-Persian frontier down the waterway to a point just beyond Muhammerah, at the northern tip of Abadan Island. The boundary is initially shown to hug the Persian (northern) bank of the waterway giving all the intra-river islands to the Ottomans, until it reaches a point just above Muhammerah, whereupon it follows the thalweg of the main channel of the river. Critically, the Persians (and APOC) were left in clear control of the strategically critical town of Muhammerah.
The map features one of the most detailed depictions of Muhammerah (Khorramshahr), the oil boom town, given on any printed map of the era, with the legend, upper right, labeling 14 sites. These include: A. Karguzars house (local administrator’s office); 1. Telegraph Office; 3. Post Office; 4. Lynch Brother’s Office (important British traders); 5. Hajji Rais’s house; 6. Wheat Market; 7. (British) Consulate; 8. Dwelling house; 9. Lynch Brothers’ Warehouse; 10. Customs Office; 11. Quarantine Station; 12. Guest house (Persian Gvt.); 13. Quarantine M.Os’ house.
The map is predicated upon surveys by Indian Army engineers, under the supervision of Sir Percy Cox.
3 & 4.
Arnold Talbot WILSON (1884 – 1940), Ali AHMED and Muhammad Zaman KHAN, Surveyors. / Sir Percy COX (1864 – 1937), Project Supervisor.
Map of Shatt Al-Arab & Bahmanshir including Muhammareh & Abadan I. Sheet I. / Map No. 3. [and] Sheet II. / Map No. 4.
London: Geographical Section, War Office, July 1912 [but 1913].
Lithograph with the international boundary coloured in orange, on two un-joined and separately titled sheets, mounted upon original linen (Both Very Good, overall clean and bright), Sheet I.: 41.5 x 61 cm, Sheet II.: 38 x 61 cm; if joined would form a map measuring approximately 67 x 61 cm (26.5 x 24 inches), with the mapped area being of irregular dimensions.
The final map, on two un-joined but interconnecting parts, embraces the view down the Shatt al-Arab from the Muhammerah area all the way down past Abadan Island to the head of the Persian Gulf. This was the first area surveyed by the Indian engineers under Cox’s supervision, having been mapped in the spring-summer of 1909. The map grants and incredibly detailed view of Abadan Island, which was soon to host the world’s largest oil refinery (at the location marked here as Duweh) and is shown on the map to be connected to the Maidan–i–Naftan oil fields by the ‘Proposed Pipe line’. Today the island is home to the large Iranian city of Abadan. In the sector, the Ottoman-Persian boundary is shown to closely hug the Persian shore of the main channel of the Shatt al-Arab by the Muhalleh and Abadan islands, until it reaches the sea.
The map features the note ‘Compiled under supervision of Lieut. A.T. Wilson I.A. from plane table surveys by surveyors, Ali Ahmed, Survey of India Dept., and Muhd. Zaman Khan, 34th Poona Horse, June-August 1909’. Wilson was none other than Sir Arnold Talbot Wilson (1884 – 1940), a distinguished British officer and diplomat, who presided as the British Consul General at Muhammerah, from 1909 to 1901, and subsequently served as a senior administrator in Iraq during and after the World War I. Later on, he became a British Member of Parliament, and was sadly killed in action early in World War II.
References: (re: the maps as catalogued as complete sets:) British Library, India Office Records: IOR/L/PS/10/60; National Archives U.K.: MPKK 1/21/1-4 and MPKK 1/10/2-5; University of Leiden Library: COLLBN 010-01-003/004. Cf. Sabri ATEŞ, Ottoman-Iranian Borderlands Making a Boundary, 1843–1914 (Cambridge, U.K., 2013); Kaiyan Homi KAIKOBAD, The Shatt-al-Arab Boundary Question: A Legal Reappraisal (Oxford, 1988), esp. 39.