Titans Of Arabian Exploration

(To find the book, click on the image above)

This week I will consider one of the titans of Arabian exploration, Wilfred Thesiger. You can click here to read the article.  Wilfred Thesiger (1910-2003) may be considered the last of the great English adventurer-explorers of the Orient in the tradition of many such characters from that unique island.  Besides his travels in the Arabian desert, Thesiger also lived for many years among the Madan (“marsh Arabs”) of southern Iraq.  He also traveled extensively in the Sudan, Syria, Kenya, and Ethiopia.

I have read Thesiger’s books Arabian Sands and The Marsh Arabs, and found them both to be excellent travel books.  It is not easy to write a good travel book; they are among the rarest of literary products.  Too often, the travel account descends into a boring itinerary, or trite contemplations of cultural differences.  Thesiger’s books are decidedly different.  They are clear, direct, and bursting with action.  I would also recommend Alexander Maitland’s biography, Wilfred Thesiger:  The Life of the Great Explorer.  This work provides the kind of detail needed to explain a life so complex and difficult.

(To find the books, click on the cover images above)

But Thesiger walked in the footsteps of others.  Johann Ludwig Burckhardt (1784-1817) was a Swiss explorer who studied Arabic intensely in Cambridge, England, and then embarked on an incredible series of explorations in the Levant and Arabia.  His knowledge of Arabic and Islamic law was so thorough that he could easily pass himself off as a doctor of Islamic jurisprudence.  But he knew the colloquial dialects as well:  his book Arabic Proverbs is a gem, providing an interesting collection of sayings and commentary on Egyptian colloquial proverbs.

He is credited with bringing the ruins of the ancient city of Petra (in Jordan) to the attention of Europeans.  He was probably also the first non-Muslim to have made the pilgrimage to Mecca.  He died of dysentery in Egypt at far too young an age.

Richard Burton (1821-1890) has no equal in the history of exploration.  Volumes have been written about him, and yet he still intrigues us.  He possessed an incredible ability to master foreign languages, and by some accounts he knew over twenty languages and dialects.  He was able to disguise himself as a native (at various times, as a Persian, Arab, Afghan, and Indian), and move about freely in native societies.  He repeated Burkhardt’s feat of the pilgrimage to Mecca, but left us a more detailed account of the journey than did his predecessor.

Burton was a headstrong, difficult man, with no patience for fools.  His incredible ethnological and linguistic talents were largely wasted in the government and military service that occupied his life.

All of these men shared the same approach to exploration:  to gain knowledge, risks had to be taken.  None of them showed any squeamishness about throwing themselves in the thick of the action, often enduring incredible hardships.  The lesson for us is clear.  If you seek knowledge, be prepared to take risks.

As the Brethren of Purity tell us (Beirut ed. p.272),

و اعلم ايها الاخ ان الشاكّ فيما ذكرناه, و الرادّ فيما وصفناه معروفٌ في ذالك لانه جاهل لا علم له و لا معرفة عنده,  فهو لاه في سكرته, تاءىه في  ضلالته

Which I translate as, “And know, O my brother, that doubt lies in what we have warned, and the answer in what we have mentioned and is known; the ignorant does not know it, and has no understanding of it, for he is heedless in his drunkenness, and lost in his ignorance.”


Read More:  On Conflict

7 thoughts on “Titans Of Arabian Exploration

  1. I pulled up the book of Arabic proverbs you mentioned. (As an aside, how amazing is that? 2 minutes after learning about a book written by a man I’d never heard of over 125 years ago. Even 15 years ago it might’ve taken weeks, if I could’ve done it at all.)

    It’s interesting how some of their proverbs are very different than ours. One says, “Gain upon dirt, rather than loss upon musk.” meaning, according to Mr. Thesiger, that it’s better to gain money doing small things than lose in great ones. Americans say, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”
    Most of the proverbs I’m familiar with are essentially timeless. The wisdom in the book of proverbs or in Ben Franklin’s writings is applicable to almost anyone, of any station. But this is very different.

    I wonder if it’s because a failure for an American will almost never have any real consequences. We can (almost) always find another job, or start another company, if our big plan goes bust. If you follow your dreams of going to the west coast to be an actor, you might not become the next Johnny Depp but you’re not likely to starve in the streets. But I would imagine that in 19th century Egypt, a major failure could lead to serious consequences for you and your entire family.


    • I bought that book many years ago and have valued it highly. Among many great sayings, I like “the sword inspires dread even in is scabbard” and “The sultan teaches, but it not taught.”


    • Yes, I’ve studied it for a long time. My speaking these days is very rusty since I have been focusing on a couple other languages in recent years. But I try to maintain my reading and listening by regular exposure to the Arabic media. There’s enough stored in my long-term memory such that reactivation would be a straightforward matter.


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