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Grolier Club Exhibitions

Wilfred Thesiger

Wilfred Thesiger (1910–2003) was the twentieth century’s greatest traveler and one of its greatest explorers. His journeys on foot, accompanied by local tribesmen and baggage animals, covered more than one hundred thousand miles in some of the remotest areas of Africa, Arabia, the Middle East, and Western Asia. Thesiger’s books about these voyages—notably Arabian Sands, The Marsh Arabs, and The Life of My Choice—are widely acclaimed as classics of modern travel literature.

Best known for his writing, Thesiger was also an avid photographer, whose images were informed visual statements, narrative works of art, and self-defining visions of his distant worlds. In perhaps his greatest feat, Thesiger crossed the Empty Quarter in 1946–47 and again in 1947–48; journeys involving immense hardship that spanned the Arabian Desert from south to north. From 1951 to 1958, he lived for most of the year with the Ma’dan, or Marsh Arabs, of southern Iraq, a people whose way of life had remained unchanged for six thousand years since the Sumerians. Their silent world of lagoons and waterways was a veritable paradise for the camera. In Arabian Sands, Thesiger gave insight into his motivation:

For me, exploration was a personal venture. I did not go to the Arabian desert to collect plants nor to make a map; such things were incidental. At heart I knew that to write or even to talk of my travels was to tarnish the achievement. I went there to find peace in the hardship of desert travel and the company of desert peoples. I set myself a goal on these journeys, and, although the goal itself was unimportant, its attainment had to be worth every effort and sacrifice. . . . No, it is not the goal but the way there that matters, and the harder the way the more worthwhile the journey.
Wilfred Thesiger Leaning against a Mud Wall

Unknown photographer
Wilfred Thesiger Leaning against a Mud Wall, April 6–9, 1949
Film negative, 35mm
Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford University (2004.130.22799.1)

The Empty Quarter from Traverses by W. Thesiger

The Empty Quarter from Traverses by W. Thesiger.
Compiled by the Royal Geographic Society, 1945–50.