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.”


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