On August 3, 2003, an old man of ninety-three died quietly in a rest home in England, leaving behind him a sixty-year legacy of travel experiences, a series of elegant books, and an incredible archive of photographs taken by him throughout the Middle East and Africa. His name was Wilfred Thesiger, and he was one of the most colorful and intrepid British explorers of the twentieth century.
He traveled extensively with, and lived among, the native peoples of the Sudan, Saudi Arabia, southern Iraq, and Kenya, enduring extreme hardships under the most arduous conditions. His only peers in Arabian exploration are Richard Burton and Johann Burkhardt, who belonged to the previous century.
Thesiger was born in what is now Ethiopia, the son of a career British diplomat. His experiences and memories there, he tells us, “implanted in me a lifelong craving for barbaric spendor, for savagery and colour and the throb of drum, and it gave me a lasting veneration for long-established custom and ritual…” His education was furthered at Eton and Oxford, though without the barbaric splendor. He did, however, excel in boxing and other vigorous sports, and displayed an affinity for languages.
During the 1930s, he participated in African expeditions in the Sudan and Abyssinia under the auspices of the Royal Geographic Society and the Sudan Political Service. These early experiences honed his proficiency in Arabic and Islamic customs, knowledge that would prove invaluable to him soon enough.
When war came in 1939, Thesiger was attached to a British auxiliary unit in the Sudan that conducted hit-and-run raids into Italian Abyssinia; he was decorated for his involvement in an attack on one garrison at Agibar.
The winding down of the war, and the British Empire, placed Thesiger finally in a position to execute a plan he had contemplated for years: to explore the remote, nearly unknown desert interior of Arabia. Even well into the twentieth century, the wastes of southern Arabia were known only to the few hardy Bedouin tribes who haunted them; and they, existing in a perpetual state of warfare with each other, revealed nothing to the despised عجمي (ajami), the “foreigner.” Even other Arabs knew well enough to give them a wide berth.
Not even the Romans had been able to subdue the peoples of this area. According to the Greek geographer Strabo, a Roman expeditionary force commanded by Aelius Gallus was sent to win over the region for the empire in 26 B.C. It was destroyed by disease and native treachery in the Arabian interior, after having been deceived by local guides.
Southern Arabia retained its independence, and no foreign power–neither the medieval Arabic caliphates nor the Ottomans–ever entirely controlled them. The situation had changed little in the intervening two thousand years. As Thesiger relates in his classic account of his travels, Arabian Sands (1959):
The southern desert [of Arabia] stretches for nine hundred miles from the frontier of the Yemen to the foothills of Oman, and for five hundred miles from the southern coast of Arabia to the Persian Gulf and the borders of the Najd. The greater part of it is a wilderness of sand; it is a desert within a desert, so enormous and so desolate that even Arabs call it the Rub al Khali, or the Empty Quarter.
It was into this cauldron of sand, heat, flies, and tribal conflict that Thesiger now plunged. Already proficient in Arabic, he prepared extensively by educating himself in Islamic rituals and customs, from the tiniest details of ablution to the most intricate and recondite aspects of Bedouin toiletry.
He would go barefoot, as the natives did, for Thesiger made it a point of pride to subject himself to as much brutal discomfort as possible. In this habit he was similar to his progenitors of Arabian exploration, Johann Burkhardt and Richard Burton. This passage in Arabian Sands gives a revealing view into the author’s thinking:
Soon after dinner I would spread out my rug and sheepskin and, putting my dagger and cartridge belt under the saddle-bags which I used as a pillow, lie down beneath three blankets with my rifle beside me. While I was among the Arabs I was anxious to behave as they did, so that they would accept me to some extent as one of themselves. I had therefore to sit as they did, and I found this very trying, for my muscles were not accustomed to this position…For the same reason I went barefoot as they did, and at first this was torture. Eventually the soles of my feet became hardened, but even after five years they were soft compared with theirs.
Thesiger’s pretext to conduct explorations was his hiring by a British firm searching for locust breeding grounds in southern Arabia; but he appears to have financed a good deal of his travels himself. He had no family and would remain a bachelor until his death at the age of ninety-three; for such men, travel is the all-consuming passion of their lives.
In 1946, he crossed into Arabia from Oman with a small party of Bedouin. Some of his party refused to continue, but he pressed ahead with several youths from the Rashid and Bait Kathir clans, whom he had won over with his humility and willing austerities. A second journey into the Empty Quarter was undertaken in 1947 from Yemen.
This time Thesiger was not so lucky; ignoring royal directives from the Saudi king to proceed no further, he was arrested and jailed in Sulayil. His charm quickly secured him release, and he eventually made his way to Abu Dhabi, which in those days was little more than a provincial backwater.
The details of these travels were collected into what would become one of the great travel accounts of the twentieth century: Arabian Sands. Published in 1959, it was written by Thesiger during an intense period of seclusion in Copenhagen, which he found to be a necessary aid to concentration. The book has a vigorous and unadorned prose style, and is illustrated with photographs taken by Thesiger himself. It remains a classic of its genre.
Thesiger was an outspoken opponent of petroleum exploration in the region, rightly believing that its attendant riches would corrupt both holder and recipient. An ardent traditionalist and romantic, he was a nineteenth century figure profoundly out of place in the postwar twentieth century world.
The remainder of his life would be occupied by travel and writing. He lived for a number of years among the so-called “marsh Arabs” (the Madan) of southern Iraq in the late 1950s, gaining their trust and learning their ways. These experiences were recounted in The Marsh Arabs (1964), a precious travel record in its own right.
Further travels followed to other regions of Africa and the Middle East, too numerous to mention here. He was knighted in 1995, and surprised himself by living into the new century. His extensive collection of photographs, numbering over twenty three thousand, show a remarkable eye for artistic composition and attention to detail. They are housed in a special gallery at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.
Thesiger was perhaps the last of the great British Middle Eastern explorers in the traditional mold. His place in the history of travel is assured, although we cannot quite rank him with Burton or Johann Burkhardt. Thesiger never traveled in disguise, like his predecessors, and never presented himself to be anything else than what he was.
Burton, however, was a far better linguist and ethnographer, and took greater risks; and Burkhardt was the original pioneer who blazed the way for both of them.
Yet Thesiger was perhaps the more accessibly human of the two; he is frank, self-effacing, and not without a wicked sense of humor. He is a gentleman, with a nobility of spirit that shines through in his obvious affection for the local peoples to whom he never condescends.
In him we feel the pulse of a man compelled to test himself relentlessly against the extremities of travail, to push the boundaries of his zone of comfort, and to seek the churning unknown inside himself. By navigating the wilds of the desert, with its desiccated features and ghastly expanses, he sought and found his own soul.
Read More: Into The Wild