A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, February 13, 2015

Zeppelins in the Middle East, Part II: The Graf Zeppelin's Visits in 1929 and 1931 to Paletine and Egypt

1933 Egyptian Stamp Marking 1931 Visit
In yesterday's first part of this two-part post,we dealt with the use of Zeppelins in the Italo-Turkish War in Libya and the bizarre 1917 adventure of German Zeppelin L59 attempting to cross British-occupied Egypt and Sudan to resupply troops in German East Africa.

Dr. Hugo Eckener
As mentioned in yesterday's post, after the death of Count von Zeppelin in 1917, the Zeppelin enterprise was headed by Dr. Hugo Eckener, When the Versailles Treaty force Germany to give up all military Zeppelins, Eckener began to seek permissions for civilian passenger Zeppelin airships, and by the late 1920s there began the age of luxury airship travel, when these luxury liners in the sky offered elites a way to cross the oceans faster than ships, at a time when heavier-than-air crossings were still he realm of adventurers like Charles Lindbergh and passenger aircraft with such range were still in the future (though the first passenger flying boats were beginning to challenge them).

Eckener's crown jewel was the Graf Zeppelin, named for the founder Count von Zeppelin. It remains one of the best-known Zeppelins, its memory eclipsed only by the ill-fated Hindenburg, whose end was so memorably captured in newsreels in 1937. (The Hindenburg was not one of Eckener's. He hated the Nazis and the feeling was mutual, and he was removed from his position after Hitler came to power and the Zeppelin works nationalized by the Nazis. Hindenburg, with its bright swastikas on its tail, was Hitler's attempt to impress the world. Well, it's certainly remembered.)

Returning, though, to Graf Zeppelin. Designated LZ 137, she was built at the Zeppelin works at Friedrichshaven am Bodensee between 1926 and 1928, she was 776 feet long (the largest airship built to that time) and could reach a top airspeed of 80 mph, though it normally did not reach that speed. During its lifetime (1928-1937)  it would make 590 flights and cover a million miles, including one round-the-world trip (Weltfahrt). She was Weimar Germany's pride and joy, and she was meant as a demonstration of German aviation prowess.

As a result its trips were often intended to impress, and therein lies the theme of this posts: its Middle East visits, to Palestine in 1929 and to both Palestine and Egypt in 1931. It would also visit Tangier during one of its Mediterranean voyages, as well as I believe on its trips to Latin America.

The  1929 Visit to Palestine

For a good summary of both the 1929 and 1931 visits, let me refer you to zan  article by Alan McGregor in a 1994n issue of Saudi ARAMCO World: "Contrary Winds: Zeppelins Over the Middle East." 

Originally, the 1929 trip was supposed to include both Palestine and Egypt, but as the article notes, while Britain approved overflying the Palestine Mandate, it vetoed the visit to Egypt, worried about Egyptian nationalism and determined that the first dirigible to visit Egypt should be the British R-101, and intending that it make a visit in 1930 to India, making a stop in Cairo. Nevertheless, an Al-Ahram reporter, Mahmud Abul-Fath, was going to make the voyage. The ARAMCO World article quotes dispatch he publish on March 24, 1929, the day before the flight:
"The Egyptian people, through no fault of their own, are being prevented from witnessing a magnificent spectacle. This is due to [British] envy of the thoughtful, hard- working German nation, which is developing so quickly and outclassing most other countries, particularly in aviation. As a result, the people cannot see the [Graf Zeppelin], and it will not see the Suez Canal."
Below is a German map of the 1929 route (in which rhe Zeppelin did not land):
Route of the 1929 Visit
Leaving Fridrichshafen on March 25, 1929, tthe Graf passed over Italy, Crete and Cyprus before reaching Palestine in the evening.

The ARAMCO World article is a little confusing in its sequencing:
By early evening they were over Palestine, dropping a bundle of 5000 letters to the large German colony at Jaffa. They found Mount Carmel bedecked with German flags and the word "Willkommen " spelled out in 8-meter-height letters; then they flew along the coast to Tel Aviv, where a passenger showered confetti on the crowds below.
Since Jaffa and Tel Aviv adjoin each other, while Mount Carmel towers above Haifa, this is confusing. Mail drops were in fact made at both Haifa and Jaffa, and in fact franked postcards from both are collectors' items, frequently seen on E-Bay and philatelic sites. Both Haifa and Jaffa had large German colonies (actually Jaffa's was at Sarona, now a part of Tel Aviv), but oher accounts and the map make clear that after the mail drop at Haifa, he Zeppelin proceeded down the coast to Tel Aviv-Jaffa, I'm unsure if this photo of the Zeppelin over Sarona is from the 1929 or the 1931 visit (most photos are from 1931, since most of the 1919 flight was after dark):
Over Sarona
The ship then sailed east to Jerusalem, stopping its engines to hover over the Old City, then proceeding eastward to Jericho and the Dead Sea. Over the sea, the captain  descended to close to the surface before rising and proceeding back over Jerusalem, now visible in bright moonlight.

Proceeding out over the Mediterranean, the Zeppelin proceeded along the Egyptian coast, where Dr. Eckener, off Rashid, sent birthday greetings to King Fuad I, regretting that "contrary winds" prevented him from visiting Egypt. Graf Zeppelin then passed over Greece, circled the  Acropolis, and proceeded via Vienna to Friedrichshafen and home. The first Middle East visit had lasted four days, May 25-28. Her next Middle East visit would be in 1931.

Meanwhile,  the British completed their challenger to he Graf Zeppelin, the R-101. On October 5, 1930, on its first trip outside Britain, R-101 crashed and burned in France, killing 48 of the 54 people aboard including Britain's Air Minister. That marked the end of British dirigible building. It also brought Dr. Eckener to the funeral of those killed. At that point, the British Air Ministry invited Eckener to visit Egypt with the Graf.

On April 9, 1931, Graf Zeppelin left Friedrichshafen at 6:10 AM and proceeded south over Corsica, Sardinia, and Sicily, and reached the Libyan coast at 5:15 AM the next day and proceeded eastward over Benghazi, crossing into Egypt at Sollum and continuing to Alexandria at 12:55 PM. The Zeppelin spent 40 minutes circling over Alexandria while much of the population watched.
Over Alexandria
From Alexandria, the ship followed the Nile to Cairo, arriving around 3:30 PM. Eckener brought it over the  Qubba Palace, where King Fuad I and Queen Nazli were watching from a balcony. He dipped the great Zepplin's bow three times to the monarch.

So much of the 1929 trip had been in the dark that there were few photo opportunities, But the 1931 trip offered plenty of the sort of publicity photos Eckener and Germany had been hoping for.
Over the Cairo Citadel and Muhammad ‘Ali Mosque
After cruising over Cairo, Graf Zeppelin then proceeded to the Pyramids at Giza, providing multiple photo ops and descending to only a short distance above the Great Pyramid of Khufu. These were to become some of the most iconic pictures of the visit:

The Zeppelin proceeded south to the Step Pyramid at Saqqara and then cruised northward over the cities of the Delta overnight, while the passengers slept. At the coast it turned back towards Cairo and its first landing in the Middle East.

At 5:15 AM,the ship reached Cairo and the old Almaza airfield, which was Cairo's original civil airport and is today an Air Force Base some distance south of Cairo International Airport which replaced it. There, at 6:10 AM, British troops stationed in the area manned the mooring cable and also formed  a cordon around he airship to hold back surging crowds, estimated at 30,000, who had flocked to Almaza to see it Firehoses were reportedly used to hold back the crowds when it took off later. An account of that visit can be read here.
Troops Guarding the Zeppelin
Eckener and some of the crew disembarked in Cairo, as did others wishing to see Cairo. Eckener had lunch with dignitaries and an audience with King Fuad. Meanwhile,  the Zeppelin took off for a voyage over Palestine, passing over the Suez Canal, gaza, ajd Tel Aviv-Jaffa, then turning east toward Jerudalem.

Arriving this time in clear daylight at 11 am, the Zeppelin took several circuits over the city, stopping her engines 100 meters over the Church ofthe Holy Sepulchere, and also unfurling the German flag over the (German-run) Augusta Victoria Hospital on the ridge east of the Old City. And, of course, again providing great photo opportunities:
Over the Old City of Jerusalem

Over the Old City of Jerusalem
Over David's Tower and the Jerusalem Citadel

The Graf Zeppelin then returned to Cairo, landing at Almaza at 5 PM. After picking up Eckener and the other, and departed over the desert, passing over Siwa and exiting over Libya. The second Middle East visit of the Graf Zeppelin was over. She returned to Friedrichshafen after 97 hours (four days plus an hour).

The ARAMCO World article cited earlier claims that for years Egyptians used the phrase "zayy al-zeppelin" (like the Zeppelin) to refer to something very large.

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