Wilfed Patrick Thesiger and the Empty Quarter of Arabia

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Thesiger was a great man who spent a large part of his life exploring, photographing and finding out about the people who lived in the Middle East.

By the mid-20th century very few areas of the globe remained to be explored, and so the exploits of men such as Thesiger can be seen as much as journeys of personal achievement as of discovery.

Sir Wilfred Patrick Thesiger 1910 – 2003

Thesiger was born 3rd June 1910 at the British Embassy in Addis Ababa. Whilst his early childhood was in Africa, like most children of diplomats Thesiger was sent back to England for his formal education. He was educated at Eton College and later Oxford University where he became captain of the Oxford boxing team in 1933 (goodreads).

After returning to Africa Thesiger, was based in Darfur and the Upper Nile whilst serving with the Sudan Political Service during 1935. Following this, after serving in numerous campaigns with the Sudan Defence Force, Thesiger took up a life of travel so that he could experience freedom from the constraints of normal life.

The Challenge of the Empty Quarter

First in Ethiopia and later in the Sudan, he explored little-known pockets of tribal territories. Between 1945 and 1949 he made two remarkable crossings of the “Empty Quarter”, the desert barrens of Arabia, an area of burning sands which even the Bedouin were reluctant to enter. His travels were a severe test of human character and endurance, of his own discipline and dedication. Thesiger needed the courage to ignore those men who described his plans as impossible. Once he had started on his trek, he had to summon up the self-discipline to continue on his march even though the desert sand scorched his feet so badly that deep cracks opened up in the skin, making every step very painful.

The Travel Books of Thesiger

His travels also took him to Iraq, Kurdistan, French West Africa and Kenya. Thesiger is perhaps best known for two spectacular travel books, “Arabian Sands (1959) recounts his travels in the Empty Quarter of Arabia and describes the vanishing way of life of the Bedouins. The Marsh Arabs (1964) is an account of the Madan, the indigenous people of the marshlands of southern Iraq” (goodreads), where Thesiger lived for some time. These books are illustrated with some of Thesiger’s own photographs of the tribes that he encountered, the way of life and living conditions in the desert, and the spectacular mountain scenery of Asia.

Sir Wilfred Thesiger was a great hero of Ethiopia’s struggle against Fascist occupation and an admirer of Ethiopian culture (Imperial Ethiopia). He returned to England in the 1990s and was knighted in 1995.

Sources:

  • goodreads. Information retrieved 28th February 2011
  • Imperial Ethiopia Memoriam. Information retrieved 28th February 2011
  • Thesiger, W (2000) Among the Mountains: Travels Through Asia. Flamingo; New Ed edition

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