THE FIRST KEWITE IN PERSIA: ABADAN | C. Matthews — THE JOURNAL OF THE KEW G U I L D, September 1931


(N.B.—This communication reached the Secretary via the Basrah-London Air Mail).

Archives photo: 1973, Ernst Van Der Laan & his children at SQ 246, Braim, Abadan.
Credit: Ernst Van Der Laan’s personal website

As I am In the unenviable position of being the only Kewite in Persia, I ventured to write a short article from this part of the world in the hope that it would prove of interest to Kewites in general and more especially to those who are familiar with Middle Eastern conditions.
It was with mixed feelings that I relinquished my post at New Delhi (that vast and wonderful garden city, ot which ” the half has never yet been told to take up a position with the AngloPersian Oil Company at Abadan, near the Persian Gulf.
The town of Abadan has sprung up with mushroom-like rapidity during the last few years and, consequently, is only shown on very recent maps. It comprises the old native village of Abadan, the Oil Refinery (probably the largest single refinery in the world, occupying an area of about two square miles and employing 16,000 men), and the staff bungalows, etc., which increase In numbers as the refinery develops. It stands on the East bank of the River Shatt-al-Arab, which is the confluence of the Rivers Euphrates and Tigris, and is about 40 miles from the river mouth. It has a population of 680 Europeans and 35,000 ” natives,” who are roughly 50 per cent. Arabs and the remainder Persians. The river at this point forms the boundary between Persia and Mesopotamia. The mean annual rainfall is six inches, which occurs from November to April. The winters are cool and bracing, and the summers very hot and arid.

Two miles in a north-easterly direction, the River Bamashir flows peacefully on to the Gulf, and eight miles westward the River Karun flows into the Shatt-al-Arab, feeding the Bamashir on its way, Thus Abadan stands on an Island, a flat expanse of salty clay only a few feet above sea level. Unlike the majority of eastern rivers, these streams are deep, wide and slow-moving bodies of water, suggestive of power and wealth, and the ” natives ” had taken full advantage of these features by planting up the banks thickly with date palms (Phoenix dactylifera) for many miles, in days gone by. In the shade of these palm groves, one finds mulberries, peaches, apricots, vines, figs, apples (in name only), Cordia Myxa, ZizyPhus Jujuba, etc. Natural flora is almost non-existent.
I have not had an opportunity of visiting northern or central Persia yet, but from all accounts it is a totally different country compared with the south, in that it is mountainous, comparatively cool and possessed (in certain localities) of quite a ” respectable,” if not luxuriant, flora.
In the capitals, I understand, remains are still to be seen in various stages of decay, or semi-preservation, of the Old Mogul gardens which originated in Persia, and were later reproduced in Northern India. The following extracts from ” Gardens of the Great Moguls,” by C. M. Villiers Stuart, is of interest :

But it was from the North, from Central Asia and Persia that the splendid garden traditions were introduced into India, taking root there under the various Mohammedan conquerors and developing into a native style which culminated in the beautiful Kashmir gardens, built by the Mogul Emperor, Jahangir and his Persian wife, the Empress Nur-Jahon.”
‘ Nearly two centuries later, in Persia and Turkestan, the art of building irrigated gardens was very fully developed and had behind it an ancient history and long unbroken traditions. Japan is always thought of as the country where flowers and gardens play the largest part in the national life and arts, while the parallel case of Persia is almost forgotten. This is not surprising when one reflects that in Japan, garden-culture flourishes as a living art whose results are apparent to every traveller, while in Persia, years of warfare and misgovernment have left the old gardens neglected and almost inaccessible.”
Apparently, garden craft is one of the many arts which, sad to relate, have been entirely lost by a decadent nation. One wonders with what feelings these great Mogul builders would view the bungalows and gardens of our modern eastern cities !
The oil ” fields ” are about 150 miles up-country in a northeasterly direction. I visited them twice last spring by car, when the surrounding country was at its best. The first hundred miles was made over flat desert, relieved only, where water is available, by fields of corn, among which I was surprised to see ” wild ” Gladioli growing. The last fifty miles traversed barren mountains from 2,000 to 3,000 feet in height, ” barren ” except for grass and wild flowers which were a source of real delight and surprise.

The mountains continue towards the north, east and west, as far as the eye can see, and one came suddenly upon homely wild flowers. To mention the most common, I saw Poppies, Anemones, Larkspurs, Celsias, Anchusas and Gentians, and according to local gossip many others abound. For a few weeks only the hillsides are thus brightened, then the flowers fall as the summer comes and burns the land into one unending dusty expanse.
The salt of the plains is here replaced by gypsum, and the water problem is great, but in spite of all difficulties, the Oil Fields’ community have achieved much in the culture of flowers and vegetables. Almost every bungalow has a garden of some description. When one considers that these people are removed 150 miles from civilisation, even as we know it in Abadan, one can only admire and praise their keenness and tenacity. They have formed a Horticultural Society, and hold annual flower and vegetable shows. Little did they suspect at the time of my visit, that millions of locusts were soon to settle around them and devour the fruits of their season’s labours !
To return to .Abadan and my duties there, Where we employ chiefly Arab labour. The Arabs are born cultivators in a primitive way, and more loyal and obedient than the Persians. In the early days (1927-1928) it was hard work to achieve any results at all, a matter of absolute pioneering where decorative gardening was concerned. Gradually we are breaking down barriers and overcoming difficulties, and progress becomes more rapid as year succeeds year. Our greatest difficulty is that the soil is saturated with salt and often water-logged two feet below the ground level. Salt is generally removed by continual flooding and washirig, but occasionally whole areas have to be excavated and new soil substituted— rather a costly undertaking, even on a small scale. Our next difficulty is the time and expense incurred in introducing new subjects, the majority of which have been obtained from Northern India. Mowing machines and miscellaneous tools are imported annually from England.
It is not unpleasant, whilst reviewing the work of the last three years’ to recollect that nearly 150 bungalow gardens have been constructed and maintained in Abadan and outlying districts, besides a public park, and gardens to clubs, hospitals, offices, etc.
Hundreds of trees have been planted and are established in about fifty species, the most successful being Albizzia Lebbek, Cordia Myxa, Dalbergia sisso, Eucalyptus rostrata, E. rudis, Ficus bengalensis,
F. infectoria, Poinciana regia, Terminalis arjuncc and Zizyphus Jujuba. It has been extremely difficult to acclimatise even shrubs from Northern India on account of the intense dry heat and dust, which prevails throughout the summer months, but about 20 species are doing well, the most notable being Buddleia asiatica, B. madagascariensis, Cassia glauca, Nerium Oleander, Parkinsonia aculeala, Thevelia neriifola and Vitex Negundo. Palms and other decorative foliage plants have been introduced and will do moderately well if carefully treated. Roses are not wholly a success, but certain varieties do extremely well, in particular the hybrid tea class. The process of selection, trial and elimination, however, is rather a slow and dissatisfying one. Possibilities in the annual world appear to be almost unlimited, especially during the cold season. Bulbous plants, succulents and herbaceous perennials are struggling for an existence with varying degrees of success.
A horticultural society has been established and soon we hope to hold our first flower show.
About the time that the Oil Fields were ravaged by locusts, we experienced one visitation here—the sky was almost black with them, but fortunately only a comparatively few settled and the resultant damage proved to be very slight. The locust appears to be an ever-increasing menace all over the Middle or Near East, defying the most scientific attempts to control it. Large tracts of land are ravaged annually, and so great were the visitations last year in Mesopotamia that even trains were held up by them.

 

Abadan Times’ Note: Thanks to Barbara McCarthy for providing Article’s header photo: A couple in a house garden, Braim, Abadan 1960’s.