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22/09/2017

“Views of Aden” by Dr St John Simpson

Dr St John Simpson
Dr St John Simpson

Dr St John Simpson, senior curator responsible for the pre-Islamic collections from Iran and Arabia at the British Museum, presented “Views of Aden” at the Khalili Lecture Theatre, SOAS, on Friday 15th September 2017. In his lecture, Dr Simpson presented a variety of postcards posted during the 1950s and 1960s, during Britain’s mandate in Yemen, sent by tourists or men serving in the army and based in the city of Aden. Some contained friendly messages and others recounted to relatives and friends how it was to spend their holidays in an “exotic” town such as Aden. These postcards have recently been acquired by the British Museum as historically meaningful items because they record how the city was viewed at specific points in time.

Ancient historiographers of the Peninsula said that Aden was the ugliest city in the Middle East, but its significance for the British Empire was not based on whether or not it was a beautiful city – rather on its strategic position, which allowed the East India Company to transport goods to and from Asia. This turned Aden into the most congested commercial port after New York City in the first half of the 20th century.

The British occupation did not only affect Aden’s commercial activity, which remained fairly traditional as local people continued with their usual commercial business in the marketplace, but also had a major effect on the urban landscape. In fact, despite these postcards being objects of mostly superficial interest, meant to impress people back home with their views of natives riding camels and so on, they testify to the way in which the British re-built the town, increasing the number of streets and re-constructing the houses, which had, until that time, and for a large portion of the population, been mostly huts made of straw and animal fur. The British also built Protestant churches, as well as “Little Ben”, a smaller version of London’s Big Ben.

In spite of the lecture covering a very serious topic, for example the metamorphosis of a whole city, Dr Simpson managed to engage the audience in a light-hearted manner, which contributed towards a thoroughly enjoyable evening!



A reception sponsored by Gingko followed the lecture.

“Views of Aden” was the final lecture of the series accompanying the exhibition “Buildings that Fill My Eye: the architectural heritage of Yemen” aimed at promoting the cultural background of Yemen. The exhibition was held in the Brunei Gallery and closed on 23rd September 2017.


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