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Grolier Club Exhibitions

Wilfred Thesiger's Influences

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Richard F. Burton.
Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to El-Medinah and Meccah, 3 vols
London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1855.

A classic of nineteenth-century travel literature, this book documents the journey of Richard Burton to the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Wilfred Thesiger appreciated Burton’s journeys and read his books. Burton’s connections with Harar and Zanzibar and of course the pilgrimage to Medina and Mecca were of particular interest.

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T. E. Lawrence.
Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph.
London: Jonathan Cape, 1935.

Wilfred Thesiger read this autobiographical account of the experiences of British army colonel T. E. Lawrence, known as Lawrence of Arabia, who served as a military advisor to Bedouin forces during the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks, 1916–18, as soon as the trade edition appeared. In 1964, he bought the 1926 subscribers’ edition, which in his words became “the jewel” of his library.

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Charles Montagu Doughty.
Travels in Arabia Deserta, 2 vols.
London: Jonathan Cape, 1936.

Charles Montagu Doughty (1843–1926) was an English poet, writer, and traveler who sojourned in the Middle East and lived with the Bedouins in the 1870s. Travels in Arabia Deserta was the first book to be written, in any language, about wide tracts of the Arabian Peninsula. Out of his remote and lonely wanderings, Doughty fashioned a lyrical evocation of the desert and its peoples. T. E. Lawrence and Doughty were largely responsible for Wilfred Thesiger’s early fascination with Arabia.

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Bertram Thomas.
Alarms and Excursions in Arabia.
Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1931.

English diplomat and explorer Bertram Thomas (1892–1950) became the first documented Westerner to cross the Empty Quarter, a desert encompassing some 650,000 km² on the Arabian Peninsula, one of the hottest places on earth, in 1930–31. Thomas undertook a number of expeditions into the desert, many of which are recounted in this book. He was a great influence on Wilfred Thesiger, who achieved the third crossing of the Empty Quarter fifteen years later.

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Bertram Thomas.
Arabia Felix: Across the Empty Quarter of Arabia.
London: Jonathan Cape, 1932.

To traverse the Empty Quarter, Bertram Thomas set off with fifteen camels loaded with provisions, and traveled from well to well. Thomas’s friend and travel companion Sheikh Saleh bin Kalut negotiated their safe passage, and he was the only person, other than Thomas, to complete the entire journey.

The news of their crossing was a global sensation; telegrams of congratulations poured in from Sultan Taimour and King George in London, and the news made the front page of the Times in London and New York.

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Harry Saint John Bridger Philby.
The Empty Quarter: Being a Description of the Great South Desert of Arabia known as Rub’ al Khali.
London: Constable and Company, 1933.

Harry Saint John Bridger Philby (1885−1960) was a British adventurer, political counselor, and one of the most celebrated early modern travelers in Arabia. Philby’s exploration of the Rub’ al Khali, one year after Bertram Thomas’s crossing, made significant scientific and geographical contributions to the Western understanding of the Empty Quarter. Years later, when Philby worked for the Saudi government, he intervened on Wilfred Thesiger’s behalf after Thesiger was detained for entering Saudi Arabia without permission during his crossing of the Empty Quarter. He was released after he spent a night in custody.