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IRAQ / KUWAIT / IRAN / PETROLEUM HISTORY / WORLD WAR I: Lower Mesopotamia between Baghdad and the Persian Gulf.



The rare first edition of the first accurate and highly detailed topographical general map of Central and Southern Iraq, Kuwait and Khuzestan (Iran), created by the British War Office, the culmination of three generations of espionage and exploration missions, capped by late breaking discoveries; the authoritative map used by both sides during World War I’s ‘Mesopotamia Campaign’, Britain’s dramatic invasion of Iraq, opposed by Ottoman-German forces, as well as the definitive overview map for early petroleum exploration; published by the British War Office in 1911.


Colour lithograph (Very Good, overall clean and bright, some modest wear and toning along old folds, wide upper and lower margins trimmed a bit with partial loss to small additional title label upper right), 71.5 x 70.5 cm (28 x 27.5 inches).


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This highly important work is the first edition of the first accurate topographic general map of Central and Southern Iraq, Kuwait and Khuzestan (Iran), created by the British War Office in 1911.  This map was dramatically superior in all respects to previous maps, the culmination of over three generations of espionage and exploration activities, capped by critical late-breaking discoveries.  The War Office map was the authoritative map used by both sides during the Mesopotamia Campaign, Britain’s invasion of Ottoman Iraq, one of most dramatic and surprising theatres of World War I.  It also served as the authoritative overview map for early petroleum exploration in Iraq, as well as being one of the earliest maps to depict the soon-to-be operational oil exploitation infrastructure in Persia, servicing the first viable petroleum fields in the Middle East.


The map embraces all of central and southern Iraq (dominated by the great basin of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers), from Baghdad and the lower part of the ‘Sunni Triangle’ in the north; down past Basra, the gateway to the Persian Gulf, in the south; plus, most of Kuwait and the Khuzestan Province (also known as ‘Arabistan’ due to its high Arab population), in southwestern Persia.  Critically, upon the outbreak of World War I, the part of Mesopotamia depicted here made up the Ottoman vilayets of Basra and Baghdad, while Kuwait was a British protectorate, while southern Persia was a British zone of influence (dominated by the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, the forerunner to British Petroleum).


The map is the first accurate general topographical rendering of the region.  While initially created in the pre-war years to aid oil exploration, the building of pipelines, as well as transportation infrastructure, the British War Office always had its obvious military utility in mind.  Due to the desert climate of Iraq, the water levels of the mighty Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, and the surrounding swamps, experience dramatic seasonal fluctuations, making the area incredibly difficult to traverse.  The present map features all the necessary information into aid military movement, including the locations of the various channels of the rivers; swampy areas, labelled as ‘liable to inundation’; the locations of towns; cultivated areas; roads; railways; fortifications; desert wells; telegraph lines; caravan tracks; as well as points of elevation.  The map features extensive annotations on the nature of the terrain; the identities of the native tribes; as well as countless archaeological sites in what was the cradle of Middle Eastern-European Civilization.


Importantly, regarding oil exploration, within Iraq, there are labeled the locations of ‘Petroleum & Bitumen wells’, although the first viable oil well would not be discovered in the country until 1927.  In Persia, the map is one of the earliest printed maps to depict the entire route of the first oil pipeline in the greater region (shown here as uncompleted; it would not be finished until 1912), one of the greatest assets of the British Empire, controlled by the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (A.P.O.C.).  Labelled as the ‘Anglo-Persian Oil Co.’s pipeline’, it ran from the Middle East’s first commercially exploitable oil deposits (discovered in 1908) at the ‘Maidan-i-Napthun’ (Maidan-i-Naftan) Oil Fields, near ‘Masjid Soliman’, down southwest past ‘Ahwaz’ (Ahvaz) to the A.P.O.C. Refinery on ‘Abadan Island’ (today the major Iranian city of Abadan).


Also notable is the labelling of the ‘Eastn. Tel. Co.s Cable to Bushire & India’, a submerged telegraph line (completed in 1864) that ran from ‘Fao’ (Al Faw), Iraq, under the Persian Gulf to the Persian port of Bushire, and then continued on in two alternative lines (completed in 1864 and 1869) to India, so completing the first real-time communications link between London and the gem of the British Empire.


The map represents the apex of three generations of espionage and military, commercial and archaeological exploration.  Its depiction of Iraq incudes highly important new discoveries from such sources as Sir William Willcock’s irrigation surveys of Lower Mesopotamia, conducted on behalf of the Ottoman Government from 1909 to 1911; river maps made for the Lynch Brothers Shipping Company in 1909, an enterprise which sought a monopoly on commercial shipping on the Tigris and Euphrates; Captain Frank R. Teesdale’s military reconnaissance of the Lower Euphrates; amongst many other stellar sources.


The depiction of Kuwait is ground-breaking, predicated upon the 1910 surveys by the famed British military adventurer, Captain William Henry Irvine Shakespear (1878 – 1915), who befriended the country’s ruler which also forging an alliance with the Saud Dynasty of the Nejd.  Much of the mapping of Khuzestan, Persia, comes from oil and infrastructure surveys conducted by the Anglo-Persian Oil Company in 1910; while a good part of the area connecting Iraq and Persia is based upon the itinerary maps of the esteemed archaeologist Dr. Ernst Herzfeld, notably his Routenkarte von Bagdad nach Shiraz (1907), indicating that the modern mapping of the region was never an entirely British exercise.


The Genealogy and Sequencing of the map of Lower Mesopotamia between Baghdad and the Persian Gulf


The Geographical Section of the General Staff of the British War Office issued the forerunner of the present map in November 1907, although this work was far less detailed and accurate than the later editions, as it did not feature the aforementioned vital information from new discoveries in 1909-1911.  As such, it is something of a skeleton, or maquette for the present work.  This version of the map is exceedingly rare and did not seem to have been publicly distributed.


The War Office issued the present much-improved version of the map embracing the new discoveries, in June 1911, effectively making it the first accurate and highly detailed topographical general map of Central and Southern Iraq, Kuwait and Khuzestan (Iran).  This edition of the map, which is rare, was made available for public sale through the War Office’s private sector partners (as listed in the bottom margin)


Upon the outbreak of World War I, the superiority of the map to all it rivals was recognized by all sides in the conflict.  As such, the 1911 War Office edition was copied and published by the Kartographische Abteilung des Stellvertretenden Generalstabes des Armee, the map division of the German Army High Command, in Berlin, probably early in 1915.  This German ‘pirate edition’ is identical to its antecedent in all respects save for the addition of a German language imprint. This edition was seemingly made in only a very small print run for the exclusive use of senior German and Ottoman officers during the height of the Mesopotamian Campaign.


In December 1915, the British War Office issued a revised version of the 1911 map, with some additions from new information gleaned in the war theatre over the previous 13 months.  This map was issued in conjunction with Edward Stanford Ltd., the War Office’s principal private sector partner.  Another further revised edition was issued by the War Office and Stanford in August 1916.


Early in 1917, the German army issued another ‘pirate edition’ of the map, based upon the August 1916 British edition, but this time published by the Königlich Preußische Landesaufnahme (Royal Prussian Surveying Office), in Berlin.


Following Britain’s conquest of Mesopotamia and the end of World War I, the British remained in what became Iraq, as the League of Nations mandatory authority.  To assist in their oversight of the country, the War Office issued a final, further revised, edition of the map in 1919.


It is worth nothing that to assist the Anglo-Indian Army in their participation in the Mesopotamian Campaign, the Survey of India issued a reduced-sized version of the present map, Lower Mesopotamia (Dehra Dun: Survey of India, 1914), which ran into various editions.


A Note on Rarity


While all editions of the map Lower Mesopotamia between Baghdad and the Persian Gulf are today scarce, the present 1911 edition is very rare.  We can trace only 3 institutional examples, held by the University of Oxford; Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin; and the Universitätsbibliothek J.C. Senckenberg (University of Frankfurt); moreover, we cannot find any sales records for an example of this issue.


Espionage, Oil, War and the Contest for Mesopotamia


Mesopotamia, today known as Iraq, was the cradle of civilization in the Middle East and Europe, having over the millennia formed a key part of many empires.  Since 1534, the region fell to Suleiman the Magnificent’s armies, becoming part of the Ottoman Empire.  It was duly divided into the three vilayets (provinces) of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul.  Mesopotamia was perhaps the most ethnically and religiously diverse part of the Middle East and Ottoman rule over the country was generally weak, with practical power invested in local leaders.


In the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain aimed to expand its empire in India and to gain total dominance over the Indian Ocean.  The Persian Gulf was viewed by Whitehall as vital to its strategic interests and, beginning in 1820, Britain began signing protectorate treaties with the Arab Gulf States, hitherto known as the ‘Trucial States’, which progressively allowed the Royal Navy to make the Gulf into a ‘British lake’.


Beyond its proximity the Gulf, Mesopotamia held a special place in the British mind.  Those intellectually inclined were enthralled by the possibility of uncovering the archaeological wonders of the region, while figures of a more business-like disposition saw Mesopotamia as providing the key part of an overland route from Europe to India.


Beginning in 1826, members of the British Indian Navy, with the Sublime Porte’s reluctant permission (Britain was a key ally of Constantinople, albeit a meddlesome and exploitative one), commenced charting the notoriously treacherous Euphrates an Tigris Rivers in search of routes for steamships that would account for a critical stretch of the overland route.


Beginning in the 1850s, British Indian engineers commenced topographical surveys of the lowlands near the rivers, while also conducting rudimentary archaeological surveys.  In the 1860s, the British proceeded to make surveys and set up telegraph lines in Mesopotamia, as part of an eventual rapid communications system connecting India with Berlin and London (via Persia and Russia).


Importantly, while these surveys were conducted for their stated purposes, they all had a dual role.  The surveyors were all spies, under instructions to make observations on the land, the local people and the political and military situation, before presenting their findings to officials in both London and Calcutta.  By the late 19th Century, Britain had a stellar knowledge of the region that was, in some respects, more comprehensive than that possessed by the Sublime Porte!  British merchants in Basra and Baghdad also played a key role in the economy of the country.


To assert its control of the head of the Persian Gulf, in 1899 Britain recognized Kuwait as separate state from the Ottoman Empire.  In 1914, Kuwait became a British protectorate, in a manner like the Trucial States.


Around the turn of the century, geologists were reporting that the Persian Gulf region was likely home to vast petroleum reserves.  Oil was not only the key fuel for the next stage in the West’s industrial development, but if supplies enough to support the Royal Navy’s fleets to transition from coal to petroleum, it promised to give Britain an indominable military edge.

With the signing of the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, whereupon Britain and Russia ended ‘The Great Game’, their decades-long cold war, Britain gained suzerainty over southern Persia.


The British War Office produced the first edition of the present map in November 1907 with these imperatives in mind.


In 1908, oil was discovered in Persia at Masjed Suleyman, in the Khuzestan region of southwestern Persia (labelled as ‘Masjid Suliman’ on the middle of the of the far-left side of the present map),  and the British founded the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) to guard and exploit these discoveries (APOC was the precursor of today’s British Petroleum).

The British then turned their sights to Mesopotamia, which geologists believed contained massive petroleum deposits, in both the north (the Mosul and Kirkuk region), as well the far south of the country, near Basra (adjacent to Khuzestan).  This sparked a massive surge in British interest in Mesopotamia, including a diverse array of megaprojects from irrigation schemes, to shipping lines, to mercantile enterprise and military reconnaissance missions.  In a familiar refrain, all these endeavours were also espionage missions, with detailed intelligence being reported in a steady stream to Whitehall.


Enter Germany, which likewise possessed extensive interests in Mesopotamia.  Since the late 1880s, it had worked to gradually displace Britain and France as the major foreign financial and military player at the Sublime Porte.  Deutsche Bank, Kaiser Wilhelm II’s preferred financial vehicle, assumed control of the Orient Express (the famed rail route that connected Constantinople to the heart to Europe) and the Anatolian Railway, the uncompleted line that was to run across Turkey.  In 1903, the Germans agreed to expand the Anatolian route through to Baghdad (and perhaps even Basra), creating the Baghdad Railway (German: Bagdadbahn), the envisaged Berlin-Baghdad Express.  This line, if ever completed, would pose a terrifying threat to British interests in the Persian Gulf, especially the petroleum industry.


In 1912, the British backed the formation of the Turkish Oil Company to search for petroleum in Mesopotamia.  This international affair curiously not only included British investors, but in an example of ‘keeping your enemies closer’, had Deutsche Bank as a major stakeholder, while the firm was headed by the brilliant Armenian tycoon and art collector Calouste Gulbenkian.  Ironically, despite its name, the company did not feature the involvement of the Sublime Porte.  While the venture showed enormous promise, the advent of the World War I ensured that any projects could not be realized for some years.

The outbreak of the Great War seemed to catch everyone in the Middle East a bit by surprise.  However, the British, fearing for its interests in the Persian Gulf, had the Indian Army move quickly to invade Mesopotamia.  In what became known as the Mesopotamian Campaign, the Indian Army arrived on scene in November 1914 and easily took Basra and most of the surrounding vilayet.


Importantly, during World War I both sides placed an incredibly high priority on obtaining geographic intelligence, especially in the Turkish-Middle Eastern theatres, where the topography was not so well known.  The creation and acquisition of maps sufficiently accurate and detailed to aid military movement was often not only a supporting, but rather a decisive, factor upon tactical operations in theatres such as Gallipoli, the Sinai and Mesopotamia.  The present map is one of the most consequential examples of the transference of geographic intelligence between sides during the conflict.


In 1915, the British gradually advanced up the Tigris and Euphrates valleys, scoring victory after victory against the Ottomans.  However, they grew overconfident and overextended their lines.  Meanwhile, the Ottomans received major reinforcements from Turkey (carried by the partially completed Bagdadbahn, which could transport troops from Constantinople to Baghdad in only 21 days), while the Germans provided massive assistance in the form of sophisticated artillery and airplanes.  Moreover, they dispatched Field Marshal Colmar Freiherr von der Goltz, better known as ‘Goltz Pasha’, the famed Prussian strategist and long-time military advisor to the Sublime Porte, to oversee the Central Powers’ efforts.

The British rashly attempted to take Baghdad but were defeated by the reinvigorated Ottoman-German forces at the Battle of Ctesiphon (November 22-25, 1915), only 35 miles south of the city.  The main British force under Major-General Charles Townshend was then driven south to the strategically important (yet vulnerable) town of Kut-al-Amara, located on a bend in the Tigris, about 160 miles south-east of Baghdad (in upper centre of the map).  The town was encircled by Goltz Pasha and the Ottomans, commencing the Siege of Kut (December 7, 1915 to April 29, 1916).  After almost five months, the starving British garrison surrendered to the Ottomans.  In what was one of the greatest Allied defeats of the war, only 13,164 of the original 45,000 British imperial troops had survived the siege (while most of these men subsequently died during the POWs’ ‘death march’ to Anatolia).  This was not only a devastating blow to British pride and morale, but for a while it threatened to cause the many of the hundreds of millions of Muslims living in the British Empire to question their loyalty to the seemingly flagging Allied case.

Later in 1916, the British were determined to recover and avenge their defeat, sending massive reinforcements to Mesopotamia commanded by a vigorous new leader, Lieutenant-General Sir Stanley Maude.  Meanwhile, the death of Goltz Pasha, due to cholera, on April 19, 1916, was a great blow to the Ottoman-German effort.

Beginning in December 1916, Maude’s force methodically made its way up the Tigris and Euphrates.  The British spooked the Ottomans into retreating, abandoning Baghdad to Maude on December 11, 1917.  Henceforth, the British continued their conquest northward, albeit slowly.  While World War I in the Ottoman lands ended upon the Armistice of Mudros (October 30, 1918), in contravention of the agreement, British forces continued to move north, taking Mosul on November 14, 1918 (so giving the British control of the most promising potential petroleum region!).

The Treaty of Versailles (1919) hailed the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and made Iraq into British-controlled mandate (essentially a protectorate / semi-colony).  The Turkish Petroleum Company ramped up its exploration ventures, discovering the massive Kirkuk fields in 1927.  Renamed the Iraq Petroleum Company in 1929, the firm went on to discover many new oil fields, including in the Basra region, located on the present map.  While Iraq technically became independent in 1932, Britain continued to dominate its politics and oil production until the July 14 Revolution of 1958 brought in a nationalist republican regime opposed to Western hegemony.

References: University of Oxford: D19:8 (1); Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin: Kart. D 6198; Universitätsbibliothek J.C. Senckenberg (University of Frankfurt): KT KF 22; OCLC: 863254256, 302283398, 1234146045.

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