This extremely rare map is one of the first broadly accurate surveys of the strategically critical Ahwaz region of Arabistan (today’s Khuzistan province, Iran). The map was made during the early days of World War I, when British-Indian forces occupied the area to ensure that its petroleum resources did not fall into Ottoman-German hands (the border of Ottoman Iraq was only a short distance away). Importantly, the map is one of the first to show a great stretch of the ‘Pipe Line’, being the Anglo-Persian Oil Company’s (A.P.O.C.) main conduit connecting the Middle East’s first oil field at Masjed Soleyman, (described here as the ‘Oil works’, located 23 miles off the map) with the Company’s refinery at Abadan, located about 35 miles below the map. The oil pipeline, which was completed in 1912, is represented by a bold blue line which runs diagonally across the lower-righthand side of the map. The map was made by the Survey of India as part of its stellar ‘Degree Sheet’ mapping programme; published at its headquarters in Calcutta, it was predicated upon recent surveys made by both Indian Army Engineers and APOC.
The city of Ahwaz, located near the centre of the map, rests along the banks of the Karun River, the meandering course of which, fed by its tributaries, dominates the map. The Karun, which had been dredged in 1880s, allowed medium-sized steamships to reach Ahwaz from the Persian Gulf, by way of the Shatt al-Arab. The city’s port, ‘Badar Naseri’ (Bandar-e-Naseri), is labelled to south side of the town and featured facilities which played a vital role in the petroleum industry.
The ‘References’, in the lower-left margin, provide the symbols for unmetalled roads; camel trails; footpaths; telegraph lines; telegraph offices; military posts; the locations of ‘khor’ (marshy lakes); as well as the shrines and rural mosques. Indeed, the map is highly detailed, labelling virtually all topographical features of note, while providing many notes on the quality of the terrain and travel routes, such as a road which is ‘Practically impassible during rains’; ‘Banks wooded with tamarisk jungle’; and the ‘limit of navigation for light draft steamers’ on the Ab-i Diz River (a major tributary of the Karun). Of note, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company’s warehouses on the Ab-i-Gargar River are labelled as the ‘Oil Coy: Sheds’, in the far upper left corner.
It should, at this point, be considered that Britain’s interests in the Persian Gulf came under the auspices of the British Raj (the Government of India), although Whitehall retained the right to directly intervene whenever it so chose. For decades, the Indian Navy and Army played key roles in surveying the Gulf region, with the resulting maps being edited and published by the Survey of India.
The Indian Government and the Survey of India’s interests in the Gulf intensified in the early 20th Century, due to oil exploration and the rise of Ottoman-German cooperation which threatened British hegemony. The Survey of India thus sought to develop a series of maps of the Gulf, Iraq and Persia, executed to high scientific standards and to uniform scales sufficient to aid both strategic commercial and military use. In southwestern Persia, the Survey worked closely with the surveyors contracted by APOC to map the oilfields, pipeline routes and other petroleum infrastructure (the Indian Government was a major stakeholder in APOC).
Colonel Sidney Burrard, who served as the Surveyor General of India from 1911 to 1919, was one of the most driven and visionary modern holders of the office. He decided to expand the highly regarded ‘Degree Sheet’ surveys of the Indian Subcontinent to include Persia and Iraq (in 1910, his predecessor had authorized the mapping of Kuwait in this fashion). As the name suggests, these surveys were comprised of adjoining map sheets that each covered a rectangle of exactly one degree of latitude by one degree of longitude (for instance, the present sheet depicts the area between 31° and 32° N and 48° and 49° W). While such parameters for survey sheets were not novel, they proved highly popular in South Africa during the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), and the Survey of India started producing degree sheets covering India beginning in 1905.
In 1912, Burrard initiated the publication of the ‘Degree Sheet’ surveys of Iraq and Persia under the title Turkey in Asia and Persia, with the sheets done to a scale of 1:253,400 (1 inch to 4 miles). This scale was ideal for both military and civilian strategic planning, clearly depicting all key details of a given district, producing maps sheets of a size as to be conveniently portable for use in the field. The sheets were accordingly updated and reissued as new mapping and intelligence arrived at the Survey’s headquarters in Calcutta. While the sheets of the Turkey in Asia and Persia series were made to be able to be joined to form ever-larger maps, the sheets were issue separately and were considered to be standalone publications in and of themselves.
Importantly, the maps of the series were, as noted on the present map, classified ‘For Official use only’, as they featured militarily and commercially sensitive information. The map sheets were intended for senior military officers, senior government officials, and the principals of British commercial entities (such as APOC) and they were never to be sold of otherwise publicly distributed. Unless you were pre-authorized to receive the sheets, you would have had to apply to the Chief of the General Staff of the Indian Army in Simla to gain permission to receive examples.
A Note on Editions and Rarity
All the map sheets of the Turkey in Asia and Persia series were published in only small print runs exclusively for high-level official use, while the survival rate of the sheets, which tended to be heavily used in the field, would have been very low. Not surprisingly, all issues of all the sheets are today extremely rare.
The present map sheet, being No. 10 A. of the series, is labelled as a ‘Rough Provisional Issue 2nd Edition’, with the first edition likely having made earlier in 1915. While ‘Provisional’, and so subject correction, it was nevertheless carefully drafted and featured recent information supplied by the British-Indian forces following their large-scale military deployment to the region from November 1914. Subsequently, the map seems to have been reissued with further updates as additional sources came to light.
We cannot definitely trace the location of the present map in any of its editions. However, the Bodleian Library (Oxford University) and the University of California at Berkeley hold collections of Iraq and perhaps Persia Degree Sheets dating from 1921 to 1936 that may contain later editions of the present map.
The Birth of the Petroleum Industry in the Middle East & the resulting Geopolitical Struggle
Throughout the 19th Century, Britain sought to extend its commercial and political power into the Persian Gulf. Britain, through the agency of the Government of India, had continually interfered in the affairs of Persia, ruled by the ailing Qajar Dynasty. At the same time, it took advantage of the ebbing influence of the Ottoman Empire in the region, progressively making several of the small Arab emirates along the Gulf’s shores British protectorates.
At the dawn of the 20th Century, Britain’s interests in the Gulf region assumed greater importance. Geologists were certain that the region possessed massive, albeit undiscovered, exploitable petroleum reserves. This came at a time when Britain had a great demand for oil, both to fuel its industrial economy and to hopefully switch the Royal Navy’s reliance upon coal in favour of lighter, more efficient petroleum. Whitehall was also alarmed by the Ottoman Empire’s budding alliance with Germany, just as it was making peace with Russia, its traditional nemesis in Western Asia.
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, was thought to be the most promising region in the Gulf to explore for oil. Enter the flamboyant Anglo-Australia tycoon William Knox D’Arcy (1849 – 1917). Backed by powerful political and commercial entities, including the Indian Government and the Royal Navy, D’Arcy applied to the Persian Crown for a petroleum concession. In 1901, he obtained the exclusive rights to explore and exploit oil for a sixty-year period throughout a massive 1,200,000 km2 tract, covering almost all of southern Persia, in return for an upfront payment of £20,000 and the promise of 16% percent of his venture’s annual profits. This was later revealed to be a terrible deal for the Persians, a reality that has haunted Anglo-Iranian relations up to the present day.
In 1903, D’Arcy formed the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) with the initial capital of £500,000, an astounding sum for the time. Suffering under the weight of the costs, he soon invited the Burmah Oil Company to join as a partner for a buy-in of £100,000.
Meanwhile, Britain and Russia buried their almost century-long Cold War known as The Great Game, singing the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, which divided Persia into zones of Russian (northern Persia) and British (the south of the country) influence. While the Qajar shah was still technically sovereign, he was not consulted on the accord, which made Persia into something akin to a colony.
Back to the oil, D’Arcy recruited the world best geologists and drillers, yet striking commercially viable deposits proved elusive. After frustrating and incredibly expensive failed endeavours around Shardin, in 1907 his teams shifted their focus to the Masjed Soleyman area, to the northwest of Ahwaz. After feverish activity, no major deposits were found, and by early May 1908, a nearly bankrupt D’Arcy telegrammed his managers to “cease work, dismiss the staff, dismantle anything worth the cost of transporting to the coast for re-shipment, and come home”.
Fortunately, the lead driller, George B. Reynolds, refused to give up. He continued operations and on May 26, 1908, at the Maydon-e-Naftune field, struck a massive, game changing gusher! From that point on, more and more fabulous wells were established, promising the AIOC a bright future.
D’Arcy knew that it was one thing to have productive oil wells, but another to refine and transport the oil to market. This was especially true in the Gulf, a region of political instability and underdeveloped infrastructure.
The only viable route to exploiting the wells near Masjed Soleyman was to secure facilities along the Shatt al-Arab, about 225 kilometres away, and for that they had to gain the support of a powerful local potentate. Arabistan, while nominally a part of the Persia, was actually the autonomous Emirate of Arabistan, ruled by Sheikh Khaz‘al bin Jabir bin Merdaw al-Ka‘bi (1863 – 1936). The Sunni Arab ruler was a larger-than-life figure who, from his capital at Muhammareh (today Khorramshahr), controlled an army of 20,000 horsemen, exerting influence that extended for hundreds of kilometres beyond his realm. It certainly helped that in 1902 Khaz’al had signed a treaty that made Arabistan a British Protectorate.
In July 1909, acting on behalf of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, Sir Percy Cox, the British resident in the Gulf, and the region’s premier political brinksman, negotiated a deal with Sheikh Khaz’al for a ten-year renewable lease on land on Abadan Island sufficient for the oil refinery, storage tanks and port facilities, as well as various other privileges, in return for a £6,500 advance payment and a loan of £10,000.
The pipeline from the Masjed Soleyman field to the Abadan Refinery, as partially featured on the present map, was built in an expeditious manner and became operational in 1912, while APOC maintained extensive support facilities across the Ahwaz region.
The British government assumed a majority stake in the Anglo-Persian Oil Company in 1914, leading Whitehall to directly control a large percentage of Persia’s oil economy. By the late summer of 1914, Britain was at war with Germany, although the Ottoman Empire had not yet joined the conflict. However, the British high commands in both Whitehall and India would not to leave anything to change regarding the Abadan Refinery, the Masjed Soleyman fields and the pipeline, which lay dangerously close to the Ottoman border. Elaborate secret plans were drawn up in both London and Calcutta to deploy a force to Abadan to protect the oilworks, while preparing to invade Iraq, in the event that the Sublime Porte entered the conflict. This army, termed the Indian Expeditionary Force (IEF), left Bombay and arrived in Bahrain on October 23, 1914.
The IEF arrived off of the Shatt al-Arab on October 29, the same day that the Ottomans effectively entered the war, upon attacking Russian positions in the Black Sea. Britain declared war on the Sublime Porte on November 5 and her forces promptly took out the Ottoman positions on the Al Faw Peninsula, securing the vital telegraph station at ‘Fao’ on the present map. Shortly thereafter, the IEF secured Abadan and the Persian side of the Shatt al-Arab. On November 21, the Ottomans abandoned Basra, leaving the British to take the city unopposed. However, while the British would remain firmly in control of Arabistan and the Basra area for the duration of the war, the possibility of German sabotage of the Abadan refinery remained a concern, so a top-level state of alert was maintained until the end of the conflict. The relative peace in Abadan and Basra was very much at odds with the scene further up the Euphrates-Tigris basin, where both sides became bogged down in the horrendous Mesopotamian Campaign, during which the contest see-sawed back and forth, before Britain finally gained the upper hand in 1917.
All the while, the oil from Abadan played a crucial role in Britain’s global war effort, powering the Royal Navy, as well as tens of thousands of army and civilian vehicles.
In the wake of the war, Britain came to control Iraq and southern Persia. APOC went from strength to strength as new wells were opened, while oil prices remained high. By the mid-1920s, Abadan Refinery was producing almost 4.5 million tonnes of petroleum per annum!
However, the rise of Reza Pahlavi, a Russian-trained military strongman, who gained the Persian throne in 1925, represented a formidable challenge to British power. He was a nationalist, and while too pragmatic to directly oppose Britain, was prepared to curtail APOC’s power by indirect means. The same year he assumed the throne, Reza had Sheikh Khaz’al kidnapped and deposed, dissolving the Emirate of Arabistan, and removing a stalwart British ally from the scene. He then mounted and diplomatic and public pressure campaign to force the Britain to the negotiating table to review the unequal 1901 Qajar-D’Arcy agreement. After years of haggling, APOC finally agreed to pay the Persian Crown a flat rate of £4 per liquid tonne of oil exported from the country, which was considerably more that the Persians’ established 16% take on the Company’s profits. In 1935, APOC rebranded itself to become the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) to reflect the country’s change in name.
Meanwhile, in 1927, British-backed interests discovered massive exploitable oil deposits in Iraq, near Kirkuk, which promised to make Britain less reliant upon Persian petroleum.
Yet Reza Shah still felt short-changed and during the early days of World War II, he showed strong sympathies towards the Third Reich. This caused Britain and the Soviet Union to invade Iran in 1941, deposing Reza in favour of his malleable 22-year old son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. In the post-war period, AIOC reached new heights, with the Abadan facility becoming the largest oil refinery in the world.
AIOC’s monopoly on Iranian oil continued until the country abruptly nationalized its oil industry during the premiership of Mohammad Mosaddegh (1951-3), who deposed Mohammad Reza and set up the National Oil Company of Iran (NIOC) to control the sector. However, in 1953, the CIA and the MI6 deposed Mosaddegh, restoring the Shah’s more ‘cooperative’ regime. While AIOC ended up losing its singular control over Iran’s oil in 1954, changing its name to British Petroleum, it remained a major stakeholder in the shared control agreement with NIOC and various foreign enterprises.
The extreme and unyielding resentment of the majority of the Iranian people to the foreign “theft” of their country’s most valuable natural resource was one of the main drivers of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which removed Anglo-American interest from the country, setting Iran upon a new and controversial course.
References: N / A – No examples of the present edition traced. Cf. [Re: Collections of Iraq Degree sheets from 1921 to 1936 that may include a later edition of the present map:] Oxford University – Bodleian Library: Maps N12487410; University of California – Berkeley: G7610.s253 .S8 / OCLC: 743383533. Cf. Eugene ROGAN, The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East (New York: Basic Books, 2015), pp. 79-87.