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Kuwait / Iraq (Basra) / WWI Middle East / Important Ottoman Cartography: بصره [Basrah].



Very rare and historically important – the most detailed and accurate Ottoman map of the Kuwait and the Basra region of Iraq, issued by the General Staff of the Ottoman Army for strategic and operational planning early in World War I and during the twilight of the reign of Sheikh Mubarak Al Sabah, the ‘Father of Modern Kuwait’; depicting a global geopolitical hotspot at a critical historical juncture.

Colour lithograph (Very Good, light wear along old folds, some very mild print transference, contemporarily trimmed a bit on the top margin grazing the title), 49.5 x 67.5 cm (19.5 x 26.5 inches).



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This important work is the most detailed and accurate Ottoman map of Kuwait, the Basra region of Iraq and part of the Arabistan province of Persia (today Khuzestan, Iran) and was made by the General Staff

of the Ottoman Army early in 1915, during the World War I British invasion of Iraq known as the Mesopotamian Campaign.  With text entirely in Ottoman Turkish, the map is predicated upon recent surveys.

The map features all major topographical and infrastructure features that could aid senior Ottoman officers in their strategic and operational planning, including the locations of cities, towns and villages, waterways, areas of elevation, roads (both main and secondary), as well as telegraph lines.

Kuwait City, with its fine natural harbour, appears in the bottom centre.  It was the capital of the Sheikhdom of Kuwait, a small but proud state that while a de jure part of the Ottoman Empire was a British protectorate.  With barely 50,000 residents, Kuwait punched well above its weight during this period, the twilight of the rule of Sheikh Mubarak Al-Sabah (reigned 1896 – 1915), a clever and visionary leader who is considered the ‘Father of Modern Kuwait’.

To the north is the navigable Shatt al-Arab waterway, formed by the confluence of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.  Cutting through the desert, it is lined by a ribbon of green representing its world-famous date plantations.  In the upper centre is the great river port of Basra, for centuries Iraq’s window to the world, and the Ottoman Empire’s main base in the Persian Gulf.  It was taken by the British on November 23, 1915 and become the headquarters of the British forces in Iraq for much of the war.  The British notably fought off an Ottoman attempt to retake the city, at the Battle of Shaiba (April 12-14, 1915), near Zubair, holding Basra and Southern Iraq for the duration of the war.

Further down the Shatt al-Arab, on the Persian side of the waterway, is the town of Muhammareh (today Khorramshahr) and Abadan Island, which was home to the first oil refinery in the Middle East, completed in 1912 by the Anglo-Persian Oil Company.  Also of note, is the telegraph line shown running from Basra down the Shatt al-Arab to the Al Faw Peninsula and then under the Persian Gulf; this line then provided the British with their communication lifeline to India.


A Note on Issue and Rarity


While separately issued, the present map is part of series of interconnecting maps of Iraq and adjacent territories published by the Erkan-ı Harbiye-i Umumiye Matbaası, the press of the high command of the Ottoman Army.  It would have been produced in only a small print un for high-level official use.  Moreover, its survival rate would have been low, given that examples would have been heavily used in the field.

We could not find any institutional examples.


The British Domination of the Persian Gulf and the Rise of Modern Kuwait

The modern histories of Kuwait and the Basra area of southern Iraq were always deeply intertwined, and during the 19th century the region became a globally important geopolitical hotspot.

Basra was founded as a military outpost in 638 CE, near the beginning of the Islamic era in Iraq.   At the head of the navigation of the Persian Gulf, is soon became Iraq’s dominant port, its window to the world.  By the 11th century, it was a wealthy and sophisticated cultural centre with a grand mosque, and by the 13th century it became a base for Genoese traders, indicative of its global status.  In the 14th century, the legendary traveller Ibn Battuta noted that Basra was “renowned throughout the whole world, spacious in area and elegant in its courts, remarkable for its numerous fruit-gardens and its choice fruits, since it is the meeting place of the two seas, the salt and the fresh”.

The Ottoman armies of Suleiman the Magnificent conquered Basra in 1536, although Turkish control over the city and its region would ever only be light at best.  Shortly thereafter, Basra came under Portuguese influence, before becoming a largely autonomous region under the technical sovereignty of the Sublime Porte.  The port flourished as Iraq’s window to the world and the Sublime Porte’s gateway to the East.

Turning to Kuwait, it was historically an entirely rural, sparsely populated desert region that had little impact until the modern era.  From the 16th century onwards, its territory was claimed as de jure part of the Ottoman Empire, an extension of Iraq, but for generations little or no effort was made by the Sublime Porte to control the region on the ground.

The town of Kuwait, upon its fine natural harbour, was founded in 1613, and it soon established itself as the capital of an autonomous sheikhdom.  While Kuwait remained small, it became a centre for fishing, pearl diving and, most of all, ship building, for which the Kuwaiti dhows became famous throughout the Indian Ocean.   Kuwait also served as a vital link on the trade routes between Aleppo, Iraq, Arabia, and India.

In 1752, Kuwait came under the rule by the Al-Sabah family, who have governed the country ever since.  The sheikhdom’s big break came during the Ottoman–Persian War of 1775–1776, when Basra was besieged by the Persians (the siege lasted until 1779).  This caused many of the city’s leading merchants to flee to Kuwait where they re-established their enterprises, much to the benefit of their new home.  From that point onwards, Kuwait remained a major commercial hub, buoyed by trade with the East India Company.

Dovetailing into the larger geopolitical theatre, in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain, having consolidated its control of the Indian Subcontinent, was looking to expand it horizons towards the Persian Gulf.  While Britain had long maintained deep commercial ties to the Gulf, it was only recently that it sought direct political power region, as opposed to mere economic influence.  Britain, which had essentially made Oman a protectorate in 1800, signed the General Maritime Treaty of 1820 with Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Ras al Khaimah, Sharjah and Bahrain, that locked these sheikhdoms into the British defensive-economic system (Dubai would join the accord in 1835); these territories (with the exception of Bahrain) would become known as the ‘Trucial States’, the forerunner to the United Arab Emirates.  During the Anglo-Persian War (1856-7), the British forced the weak Qajar Dynasty into staying out of their way, making the Gulf into something close to a ‘British Lake’.

Britain’s political and military affairs in the Gulf were largely under the auspices of the Indian Raj, and the authorities in Calcutta saw Basra as crucial, guarding an envisaged overland travel route between India and Europe, while Kuwait was a critical trading hub that possessed commanding position at the head of the Gulf.   The British established major commercial interests in Basra, and hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of British merchandise were stored in it warehouses at any one time, while British trade with Kuwait continued to rise.

In 1871, the Midhat Pasha, the hyperactive and reforming Ottoman Vali (Governor) of the Baghdad Vilayet, of which Basra and Kuwait were de jure parts, sent large armies down to the Gulf for the first time in decades to enforce the Sublime Porte’s authority on the ground.  While Kuwait would be permitted to maintain a high degree of autonomy, the Ottomans made it clear that it should pay tribute to and remain militarily loyal to Istanbul.  Indeed, the Al-Sabah dynasty was caught in a difficult position, trapped between the competing interests interests of the Ottoman Empire, Britain and the Wahabis of the Nejd (their traditional enemies).  For the next twenty years, Kuwait struggled to maintain its autonomy, while trying to avoid the aggressive intervention of those powers.

In 1892, Muhammad Al-Sabah ascended to the Kuwaiti throne, advocating a Turcophile policy.  He was in a sense given a freer hand by the fact that a local power vacuum had developed in Arabia, as the Saudis had in 1891 been temporarily evicted from their capital, Riyadh by the Al Rashids of Ha’il.  However, he did not count on the extreme anti-Ottoman sentiments held by a large portion of his countrymen, including members of his own family.  In 1896, he was overthrown by his half-brother Mubarak Al-Sabah, who would be regarded as the ‘Father of Modern Kuwait’.

Sheikh Mubarak decided to throw his lot entirely in with Britain, signing the Anglo-Kuwaiti Agreement (1899), that made Kuwait a British protectorate.  Henceforth, Kuwait was to trade and politically correspond only with Britain; in return Britain was to provide financial support and protect the country from the Ottomans and the Saudis.  That being said, all parties were to still recognize that Kuwait would remain a de jure part of the Ottoman Empire, even if in name only.  The Anglo-Kuwaiti relationship was solemnized upon the visit of Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India, to Kuwait in 1903.

At the dawn of the new century, Britain’s interest in the Gulf heightened as it began to search for commercially exploitable petroleum deposits in order to fuel its industrial economy and to provide a new, improved power source for the Royal Navy.  The Anglo-Persian Oil Company was formed for this purpose, and the Middle East’s first commercially viable oil field was discovered at Masjed Soleyman, in southwestern Persia, in 1908.

Meanwhile, the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II, seeking to counter British influence, solidified his alliance with Germany, which was quickly rising to become Britain’s main geostrategic rival.  In 1903, the German interests commenced the building of the Baghdad Railway, from Istanbul to the Iraqi capital, that was proposed to one day be extended to Basra, and perhaps even Kuwait.  Needless to say, the project posed an extreme danger to British interests in the Middle East and caused Calcutta and London to redouble their efforts in the Gulf.

In 1904, the British sent Captain S.G. Knox to be its first resident in Kuwait, and with British assistance, Sheikh Mubarak countered several credible Ottoman attempts to take over the country.

In a last-ditch effort to deescalate tensions in the Gulf, in the Sublime Porte and Britain signed the Anglo-Ottoman Convention of 1913, by which the Ottomans essentially agreed not to attempt to occupy Kuwait and the other Gulf sheikhdoms they claimed, in exchange for Britain acknowledging the Sublime Porte’s de jure sovereignty over these areas.  Critically, the Convention established Kuwait as being a legally distinct entity from Iraq, even if such a position was not universally accepted.

However, the 1913 agreement was not to last long, as greater geopolitical forces were placing Britain and the Ottoman Empire (encouraged by Germany) on a collision course.

In the summer of 1914, Britain, fearing for its interests in the Persian Gulf, formed the Indian Expeditionary Force (IEF), a special unit of the Indian Army, and deployed it to the region.

The IEF arrived off of the Shatt al-Arab on October 29, 1914, the same day that the Ottomans effectively entered World War I on the Central Powers side, upon attacking Russian positions in the Black Sea.  Britain declared war on the Sublime Porte on November 5, commencing the Mesopotamian Campaign.  Her forces promptly took out the Ottoman positions on Iraq’s Al Faw Peninsula, before securing the APOC Oil Refinery at Abadan.  On November 17, they battled the Ottomans at Sahil, opposite Abadan, evicting them from their positions.  The way to Basra was now open.

Meanwhile, Kuwait managed to remain safely out of the conflict, as the British (temporarily) prevailed upon the Saudis to desist from attacking Kuwait or otherwise interfering in the war.

On November 19, 1914, two brigades of British and Indian troops began their march towards Basra, amidst heavy rains.  With difficultly they managed to position their artillery near the city’s outskirts, scoring a few well-placed salvos into the Ottoman trenches.  Realizing that they were hopelessly outgunned, on November 21, the Ottomans sent a delegation under a white flag to parley.  They proposed to be allowed to evacuate the city and be given safe passage out of the vicinity, an offer that the British accepted.  British forces raised the Union Jack above Basra on November 23.  The British secured their control (or so they thought!) of the greater region, upon capturing Qurna on December 3.  While many Basrans did not trust the British, they were pleased to be rid of the Ottoman ‘Young Turk’ regime which had taken on an antagonistic attitude towards Arabs.  They were also eager to resume trade with the British-dominated Gulf.

As the British base for the ongoing Mesopotamian Campaign, Basra flourished, as supplies and money flowed in from India; the city’s traders made a fortune supplying the occupation regime.

However, in what was to become a reoccurring theme of the campaign, the British, having so easily taken Basra, became complacent.  In April 1915, the very month that the present map was published, the Ottomans mounted a reprise that came close to rolling back all the British gains.  The British had sent the majority of its forces up the Tigris, leaving Basra to be defended by a skeletal force.  The Ottoman Lieutenant Colonel Suleiman Askeri Bey formed a force of 18,000 men (both regulars and tribesmen) and set about attacking Basra from its soft underbelly, the interior.

At the Battle of Shaiba (April 12-14, 1915), just to the northwest of Zubair, Askeri’s army was confronted by a British force of only 6,200 men under Major-General Sir Charles John Melliss.  After two days of very heavy and bloody combat, the British mounted a daring bayonet charge that so startled the tribesmen allied to the Ottomans, that Askeri’s force retreated en masse into the desert.  The British hold on Basra would not be threatened for the duration of the war.

As for the ongoing Mesopotamian Campaign, the relative peace enjoyed at Basra in the wake of the Battle of Shaiba was very much at odds with the scene further up the Euphrates-Tigris basin, where both sides became bogged down in a horrendously bloody contest that see-sawed back and forth, before Britain finally gained the upper hand in 1917, taking Baghdad on December 11, 1917.  From that point, the British continued their conquest northwards, albeit slowly.  While World War I in the Middle East ended upon the Armistice of Mudros (October 30, 1918), in contravention of that agreement, British forces took Mosul on November 14, 1918.

The Treaty of Versailles (1919) led to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and made Iraq into British-controlled mandate (essentially a protectorate).  The British now had total domination of the Persian Gulf.  Relieved of the pressures of fighting the Ottomans and Germany, Britain felt no special obligation to protect her smaller regional allies, often leaving them to their own devices.

Even though Kuwait was still technically a British protectorate, the sheikhdom was left on its own to fight the Kuwait-Najd War (1919-20), whereby it successfully defended itself from a Saudi invasion.  However, at the Uqair Conference (1922), Kuwait was compelled by Britain to cede nearly half its territory to the Saudis, in order to placate what was the rising power on the Arabian Peninsula.  Even then, Kuwait was subject to a Saudi embargo from 1923 to 1937, during the country suffered greatly as its pearl fishery revenues diminished.

Fortunately, in 1938, the Kuwait Oil Company (founded in 1934) discovered the Burgan Field, the country’s first commercially viable petroleum deposit.  In the wake of Kuwait’s first oil exports in 1946, the country’s economy and society was utterly transformed into being a wealthy state with the funds to create modern infrastructure, including hospitals, schools and the urbanscape of Kuwait City, just in time for the country to gain its full independence in 1961.

As for Iraq, the British-backed interests discovered the massive Kirkuk fields in 1927.  In the coming years, many new oil fields were discovered, including in the Basra region.  While Iraq technically became independent in 1932, Britain continued to dominate its politics and oil production until the July 14 Revolution of 1958, which brought in a nationalist republican regime opposed to Western hegemony.

As we all well know, Iraq and Kuwait’s destinies collided in an unfortunate way when Saddam Hussein invaded and occupied Kuwait in August 1990, dusting off the old Ottoman arguments that Kuwait was merely an extension of Iraq.  During the resulting Gulf War, Kuwait was liberated by U.S.-led Coalition forces on February 28, 1991.  While Kuwait had suffered greatly during the conflict, it soon bounced back, buoyed by its massive oil revenues and foreign investment.

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