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Volume 24, Number 6November/December 1973

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Across The Rub 'Al-Khali

Written by Elizabeth Monroe
Photographed by Harry St. John Bridger Philby

In spite of Philby's hopes, adoption of Islam and attendance at court did not at once win him the longed-for permission to cross the Rub' al-Khali. He fretted over each week's delay because rumor had it that Bertram Thomas was planning an attempt; Thomas, as Wazir to the Sultan of Muscat, had been probing the South Arabian province of Dhufar for months. Another anxiety was a warning from Rosita Forbes that the Egyptian explorer Ahmed Hassanein also had his eye on the Rub' al-Khali. Philby had by now abandoned all thought of Rosita as a companion, or indeed as a serious contributor to the science of desert exploration. In any case, were the King to be behind him, no question of funds need arise. He was in a position to set out on his own.

But throughout the whole winter of 1930-1, 'tribal unrest' in a new area balked him once again. Ibn Sa'ud had in 1926 declared his protection over the buffer region called the 'Asir that lay between the Hijaz and the lands of his rival the Imam Yahya of Yemen. In 1930, he reduced the 'Asir's ruler to a mere figurehead; frontier clashes with Yemen followed, and included a battle for the great inland oasis of Najran—the key to the route into Arabia for Yemen's coffee trade. The Yemenis at one point captured Najran but the Ikhwan secured it once and for all for Ibn Sa'ud early in 1932. 1931 was therefore not a propitious year in which to ask permission for a southern journey, and on January 11th the King dealt Philby a crushing blow by 'very gently and very nicely breaking to me the news that the Rub' al-Khali trip is off'.

There is nothing to do [he confided to his diary] but drain the dregs of disap­pointment with a bitter heart. I shall be seeing Madina instead, but with me noth­ing counts but the Rub' al-Khali and I can find no peace of mind till that is over and done with. Curse!

Further nagging only annoyed the King. On one occasion he shouted 'Uskut' ('Shut up!') and left the room . . . Philby was in Jiddah ruminating about his disap­pointment and about his failure to collect the large debts owed to his firm when he received the blow of blows. He had been forestalled. In February 1931, Bertram Thomas, without so much as a by-your-leave to Ibn Sa'ud, had crossed the Rub' al-Khali from Salala, in Dhufar on the south coast, to Doha on the Arabian Gulf. The pill was so bitter that Philby shut himself indoors for a whole week.

Damn and blast Thomas [he wrote to his wife Dora in England] ... I have sworn a great oath not to go home until I have crossed the R.K. twice! and left nothing in it for future travellers.

He emerged from seclusion to call on the Dutch explorer Dan van der Meulen, then Netherlands consul at Jiddah, to congratu­late him on an adventurous journey to the Wadi Hadhramaut in South Arabia. Van der Meulen, gratified by the tribute, was un­prepared for the outburst that followed. An Englishman, once his subordinate, Philby began, had snatched from him a wreath long promised by Ibn Sa'ud. But of what value was a journey performed in a straight line and so fast that it amounted to a race with death?

He, Philby, was going to explore the Empty Quarter and tell the world what that part of Arabia was like. 'I am going now and you will not see me for a year, perhaps two years, or you will never see me again. If I come back I shall have explored the Empty Quarter.'

Philby noted that the King did not men­tion the Thomas exploit; performed without permission, it was a slight, and best passed over in silence. He spent the summer and autumn of 1931 in worry and anxiety both over a collapse of business, and over ruminations about the Empty Quarter that he described to Dora as 'this beastly obsession which has so completely side­tracked me for the best years of my life.' In his depression, he went through one of the phases of disenchantment with Arabia and Ibn Sa'ud that beset him whenever idle. At the end of 1931, with nothing to do but collect bad debts, he wrote home that:

The last six months have certainly been a nightmare to me and would be to any genuine admirer of the Arabs. Ibn Sa'ud has disappointed me for the time being, but there is still time for him to save himself from the abyss. At the actual present moment his show is worse than Hussein's, which is enough said. . .

In November 1931, Philby returned to Riyadh, where he waited on the King's pleasure. He soothed his nerves by practicing desert conditions and going for long periods without water. In mid-December, without warning and, as it were, on impulse, the King spoke the longed-for words. He could set out.

By Christmas Day he was in Hofuf, where—as with his Wadi Dawasir jour­ney in 1918—Ibn Jiluwi was to supply him with camels, guides and provisions. He spent a fortnight there, on tenterhooks as to when he could start; exasperated by the wait, he wrote to Dora on January 1st that 'after this trip I shall never want any­thing more from the Arabs.' Suddenly he was told that all was ready; Ibn Jiluwi would provide him with an itinerary as far as the wells of Maqainama that lie at the south end of the Summan, or steppe, that runs south from Hofuf into the great desert. Beyond that, he said, was beyond his knowledge; never­theless, the companions that he had chosen were to take the King's friend wherever he wished to go, to answer for his life with theirs, and to return from the farthest point that he chose. From there, they were to strike west across the Rub' al-Khali to Sulaiyl—the point at which the Wadi Dawasir breaks through the long mountain chain of the Jabal Tuwaiq.

Pausing only to write out a telegram to Dora ('Starting. Love everyone') and to visit Ibn Sa'ud's new radio station in order to check the two chronometer watches that were vital to his mapping, Philby left Hofuf in a dismal fog on January 7, 1932. Ten miles south of the town, he joined the 14 Arabs, 32 camels and provisions for three months that formed his caravan. On the third day out, his exuberance was marred by a fainting fit that reminded him alarmingly of the 'stroke' that he had had at Jiddah 18 months earlier. Luckily, this attack lasted only for an evening. Within a matter of days, and although everyone was observing the Ramadan fast, 'I was gloriously conscious of physical well-being and spiritual contentment as I marched through the desert in a climate that was as nearly perfect as possible.'

Experiences were by Philby's standards seldom great unless they could be counted as of 'first-ever' quality. The line that Philby chose to follow, which lay somewhat to the west of Bertram Thomas's, was therefore zig-zag enough to enable him to pinpoint wells that Thomas had missed, and to establish to his satisfaction that he was crossing a series of great inlets into promontories that are the cliffs of an ancient sea. Quantities of small sea shells confirmed his theory. Collecting these fossils, insects and rock specimens, and cross-checking the observations for a good map kept him content until the cavalcade reached Jabrin.

Thereafter, there was no further com­munication with the world. As they entered the Rub' al-Khali proper, Philby's spirits soared, whereas those of his companions sank. Henceforth, most of their drinking water would come from wells due south, some unknown, some only vaguely heard of, that were likely to be either polluted with camel dung, or have the qualities of Epsom salts, or both.

Philby's first object was to unravel the story that he had heard in 1918 from his then guide, Jabir ibn Farraj, about a group of ruins in the sands, supposed to be the remains of castles in which the legendary King Ad ibn Kinad had stabled his horses and kept his women and eunuchs in a paradise of orgies. Somewhere in the same area was a block of iron 'as big as a camel.' King Ad's fabled city, mentioned in some medieval Arab classics, was called Ubar, or Wabar, and was said to have been destroyed by fire from heaven as punishment for the sins of its king—a fate that is mentioned in the Koran. Was it right to identify it with the burnt-out site of which Philby had been told in 1918, where Bedouins were alleged to have picked up the blackened pearls of the king's ladies? Members of his party con­firmed both stories; Bertram Thomas's men had done likewise; one member of Philby's team even knew a poem about the ancient king.

Setting out from Maqainama wells, Philby struck east in search of the ruins. Jabir's 1918 directions had been wonder­fully accurate; on the strength of them Philby located the site almost exactly where Jabir had indicated. But as soon as he set eyes on it, the legend was shattered:

I looked down not upon the ruins of an ancient city but into the mouth of a volcano, whose twin craters half filled with drifted sand lay side by side surrounded by slag and lava outpoured from the bowels of the earth.

His men picked up round pellets, and found a heavy piece of iron the size not of a camel but of a rabbit, but were discouraged when he gave his verdict. By a coincidence, the number of the Royal Geographical Society's Journal that he was carrying with him because it contained Bertram Thomas's map also contained an article on a sup­posed meteoric crater in West Africa. Philby, little knowing how rare such craters are, jotted in his diary a note that the Wabar craters were 'perhaps depressions created by the fall of meteorites.' This guess was confirmed when the rabbit-sized fragment was later presented by Ibn Sa'ud to the mineral department of the British Museum. Wabar is the result of a shower of large masses of meteoric iron that, on falling, create craters in which kinetic energy generates heat, and leads to violent ex­plosions which throw fragments around; the 'pearls' are grains of silica coated with black in the process. Most of these iron masses still lie as they fell; one handsome piece of immense weight today decorates a forecourt of Riyadh University.

By now the composition of the party had slightly changed. At Jabrin, its men had picked up a dog—a saluki bitch which might, they thought, be useful for hunting hares (Aramco World , March-April 1973). At Wabar they were obliged, much against the will of Ibn Jiluwi's men, to abandon a lame camel. (They learned later that, miraculously, she had made her way back alone to Hofuf.) They went on south­wards for about 100 miles to the well of Naifa, potently briny country. The well lay in a high horseshoe of dunes and here, much to the alarm of Philby's escort, they met with another natural phenomenon: Quite suddenly the great amphitheatre began to boom and drone with a sound not unlike that of a siren or perhaps an aero­plane engine—quite a musical pleasing rhythmic sound of astonishing depth.

Only once before, near Medina, had Philby heard singing sands, and then far off. Now they were near at hand, and were, of course, attributed by his companions to jinns; Philby soon saw that they were caused by a sand-slide set off by one of the men who had climbed the slope. This deduction he confirmed by manipulating the orchestra; while doing so, he plunged downhill and knelt on the singing mass; here he noticed a deep, sucking sound as he pulled hand or knee out of the slope, and felt a 'curious but unmistakable sensation of a pulsing and throbbing below the surface, as in a mild earthquake.'

On they went, always southwards. From Naifa onwards, tension set in between the members of the escort. Some were dis­gruntled because, being born hunters, they had hoped for oryx, but had found only their tracks. Others chafed at Philby's mapping detours. He was determined to get at least as far south as a waterhole called Shanna, which Bertram Thomas had reached from the east, and of which he knew the latitude :

For many days now [he recorded on February 16th], I had endured the con­stant and inevitable friction engendered by the struggle between the insistent urge of my own fixed and unalterable purpose and the solid weight of the innate national inertia thrown into the balance against me by the united body of my companions.

They were 47 days out from home; the voices were fourteen to one, and at Shanna these odds turned the scale. Years later, he learned that his escort had here planned to murder him, but after discussion had decided not to risk the wrath of the King. But they would go no farther, unless along Thomas's track east into Dhufar. He, by contrast, was determined to cross the water­less desert to the west. They demurred; they knew men who had hunted west from Shanna and east from the Wadi Dawasir, but always within reach of their base wells. They had no idea of the width of the gap between these two hunting grounds. At length they agreed to try his plan and so, contrary to his custom, which was to pay all rewards at the end of a journey, he distributed largesse to be shared among them; on February 22, 1932, the party set off west­wards, riding camels, baggage train and all. He had taken bearings at Shanna which showed that the direct distance across to Sulaiyl was 360 miles, or 15 days for laden camels.

But the agreement of his team had been grudging, and trouble began again almost immediately. He wanted to march in a bee-line and fast, they to stop and hunt oryx, of which they spotted many fresh trails. They wanted to march by night, he by day to see the country even if his wish meant discomfort from heat. They complained of his inconsideration, he of their faint­heartedness. By the end of the fifth day out from Shanna their incomprehension of his motive was total, and misunderstand­ing was complete:

Could one be anything but critical and on one's guard [he wrote later] with com­panions who would readily have sacrificed the whole object of our endeavour to their own miserable comfort? . . .

I could not, would not yield. We had come 140 miles [since Shanna]. A third of the journey was behind us and a steady effort would carry us through if only they would play the man. They were of course weak and disheartened with hunger, for we had had nothing but dates since Shanna. I was famished myself and could sympathise with their condition. I felt like Moses in the wilderness when the multi­tude clamoured against him.

But the sands of South Arabia are more relentless than those of Sinai, and there was no rock to strike. Laden camels were collapsing; Philby suggested a plan whereby he and the unladen riding camels should go forward while the baggage train went back. But the party would have none of this; they must stick together. Even the threat of Ibn Sa'ud's wrath would not move their leading spokesmen. Finally, after much argument, he had to agree that the whole party should turn back, and return not to Shanna but farther north, to Naifa of the singing sands:

The Empty Quarter had routed us. . . At last sleep blotted out the nightmare of the day—the worst of the whole journey from beginning to end, and perhaps the most terrible of all my experience.

Even when at the end of his tether owing to  hunger,  thirst  or  exasperation,  Philby was never too tired to take notes and use his instruments to determine where they were; his thumbed notebooks, preserved at the Royal Geographical Society in London, record every change of terrain and shift of direction, each plant observed, each snake or insect seen, each trace of bird or animal. His Bedouins helped him by their inborn capacity for interpreting signs; they could tell by the state of some plant how lately it had rained, and by the prints and dung of a camel how lately it had passed, where and when it had watered, and whether the man riding it was hunting or with a party of raiders. News later picked up at wells always proved them right.

On this retreat towards Naifa there were few pauses for speculation. Philby was too dispirited, and his men were too eager for water and coffee, to do anything but press ahead. The one incident that cheered them all was the birth of a calf to one of the camels—a baby delivered from a flagging mother at the hands of such hungry midwives that Philby feared that it would be born dead, and so be unlawful meat. But no! It lived, and was at once cut up and eaten immediately after a perfunctory roasting on a small fire.

In ordinary circumstances I do not think I could have brought myself to partake of such a meal, but our immediate circum­stances were far from ordinary and I could have eaten anything, cooked or raw.

They here used the last of their water. By nightfall, having done some 30 miles, men and camels were so spent that Philby wanted to stop and cover the last short stretch in daylight. But his men pined for coffee and made him press on, he fearing that they would lose the way, they sure that they could find it. They were right. They struck the summit of the last ridge plumb above the well.

The chief guide, Ali, had surpassed himself. He had a sense of the desert shared only by the very best of his own kind. It was something incredible, altogether inexplicable.

Philby, by now thankful to be alive, for the camels were nine days out from their last proper drink at Shanna and could hardly have done another day without water, himself drank three bowls of the foul briny Naifa water as if it were nectar. He wrote that it was 'the first water I had tasted in 55 days'; if so, what a tribute to his training.

Back at Naifa, everyone cheered up. Storm clouds were around; it might rain. They rested for four days, in the course of which Philby made up his mind that the baggage train must go north, and that he with a picked band of men and unladen camels would once more strike west for Sulaiyl. To win everyone's consent he had to persuade the men to slaughter a camel and dry its meat, for they were by now short of dates, and the fast party could not count on using rice as there would be no spare water in which to cook it. On the third day it rained; damp seemed to stop the sands from singing; with no jinns about, the moment seemed propitious for dividing the party. To his surprise, several of the faint-hearts wanted to come with him. In the end, he sent back only seven men to Hofuf with the baggage and with all his maps, diaries and observation books 'so that these at least should not be lost to the world in the event of our failure to get across the desert.' Finally, on March 5th, strengthened by rest, water and meat, and traveling light on the best of the camels, the desert party set off once more. Over 350 miles without water lay ahead.

So long as a journey is made through dunes and sand there is a chance of find­ing vegetation; the last outposts among plants are too saline for pasture, but they afford fuel, and therefore coffee, or for Philby, tea. For the first four days sparse growths were sometimes to be had, but on the fourth evening Philby was so thirsty that he asked, as well as his tea, for the milk of a camel that Ibn Jiluwi had decreed should be his alone. The result of the request shows the pitch that nerves had reached. The men, instead of bringing him the milk, set out his bowl and theirs in equal halves with their common meal, silently but publicly chal­lenging him to drink a bowl to himself. He, to show his anger, adopted a technique that he used ever after, and shamed them by refusing to drink at all. 'I will drink no milk until we reach Sulaiyl.' Their con­sternation was immediate and immense. They pressed him; they brought the bowl to him privately; they said that they could not drink his share. If they would not, he said, give it to the dog. So the saluki profited from the bickering of men worn out with thirst.

By far the worst physical ordeal of the journey came near its end. When they crossed the last low ridge and passed the last dead bush, they looked out over the wholly flat and featureless gravel plain that is called Abu Bahr—the father of the sea—a dreary phenomenon that stretches south for about 150 miles from the end of the Summan steppe at Maqainama. One of the guides had once crossed this daunting waste, but much farther north, where it was narrower. Here no one knew how wide it was; they therefore set out across it with the certainty of no water, no fuel, and therefore no coffee, till they reached the sands on its far side.

A ride which began at midnight on March 5th went on with short breaks only for prayer until 11 a.m., when they stopped for a drink and a few dates; to keep them going some of the camels had to have water poured into their nostrils—a process called 'snuffing.' On they went, marching through the heat of the day. By 2.30 p.m., when they dismounted for another drink from their skins, Philby was so parched and weary that he sipped his first water since Naifa, 250 miles back. Again they went on without rest. Philby grew irresistibly drowsy; unlike his escort, he was not a born rider and was unable to doze on camel-back. Bedouins always sing as they march—a shanty type of ditty that sounds monotonous to Western ears. Now their voices, grown falsetto, by degrees died away. When the halt for afternoon prayer arrived, Philby had to drink again; his need for sleep was over­whelming; but the guides, bent on fuel and coffee, remounted and went straight on.

Marching now into the sinking sun was as trying an ordeal as one could well imagine. Yet there was no sign among my com­panions of the customary search for a spot to camp in. ... We halted for the sunset prayer and, absolutely dead beat, I heaved a sigh of relief that at last our labours were over for the day. But I was mistaken, for no sooner had we got through the service and had another drink of water all round, than Zayid [the leader] gave the order to mount and continue the march. I was too weary to protest or argue and followed suit meekly enough.

Zayid pressed on, occasionally even making them trot, because he had seen traces of grazing camels—a sure sign that they could not be far from plants and some fuel. But they could see nothing in the black dark, and at 9.15 p.m., after 18 out of 21 hours in the saddle and after cover­ing 70 miles without rest, Philby insisted on stopping, and, coffee-less, Zayid con­sented with an ill grace. They had by now spent six days on the way, three of which had been traveled in a furnace. They had had no food for 48 hours, and had only three skins of water left.

But the worst was over. When they moved off again in the morning twilight, undula­tions in the gravel began, a first range of dunes appeared, and edible vegetation stopped the camels in their tracks. 'Their hunger was terrible to watch.' Lizards and a locust appeared and men who had hunted from Sulaiyl spotted landmarks that they recognised. From one of the higher ridges they sighted in the distance the mountains of the Tuwaiq barrier, and the gap in it where Sulaiyl lies. For one last cloudy night they marched by Philby's compass instead of Jupiter, and for one last day in inter­mittent rainstorms which afforded him the enjoyment of hearing twittering birds in the bushes. They sent two messengers ahead to announce their coming. They passed first through sheep droppings, then through tamarisk clumps, and then past women drawing water; at last they reached the oasis of Sulaiyl and an orgy of food, bread, and meat. The date was March 14th, and they had covered 375 miles in nine days.

Sulaiyl, nowadays a stop on an internal air route, was then remote from the world. In 1932, it had seen no for­eigner since Philby's visit 14 years earlier. Then, he had come in the wake of a huge and welcome flood; now again, he brought storm clouds and propitious weather to break the 12 years of drought that its inhabitants had suffered in between. They were poor beyond belief, not only because of drought but because the seasonal trek of their menfolk to the pearl fisheries of the Gulf was no longer worthwhile; the world no longer demanded real pearls. Nevertheless, they were hospitable. They offered ample meals, and the desert party was smitten with colic to a man.

Everyone rested, but only for two days because, if they were to get to Mecca for the Pilgrimage as Philby had promised, they must push on. The Pilgrimage was on April 15th; they had over 400 miles to go, more than half of it through country unmapped and unknown to any European, and on overstrained camels. Though their suspense was over, Philby's voyage of discovery was incomplete. Fortunately the way was well known, and he picked up with ease a series of local guides and plenty of local provisions; grazing for camels was also plentiful in that rainy spring.

Philby, fortified by good meals and peace of mind, resumed all his habitual practices. He climbed heights to either side of the way in order to get an idea of the lie of the land, and to measure angles for his map. He took sun and star observations and challenged his guides to name every feature that they sighted. He crept about at halts with his butterfly net and killing bottle; he picked up specimens of rock for the British Museum; as they climbed towards the mountains of the 'Asir, he even found time to admire their colors—here the deep dark red of ironstone, there the pinks and purples of sandstone, or the gloomy black of basalt.

On their way, Philby made his first acquaintance with the three great wadis that flow down from the 'Asir. These are the Wadi Tathlith, coming up from the south, and the Wadis Bisha and Ranya, coming more directly from the west. Bisha itself was the point at which they turned north; here Philby noted the town's flourishing entrepôt trade in coffee from Yemen, gums from the 'Asir forests and slaves from the south, and the relative security in which the villagers grazed their herds. He heard none of the 'shouted alarms' recorded by Doughty in the bad old days of tribal feuding.

From Bisha northwards they were on a well-trodden route up and down which conquerors have passed since pre-Islamic times. Other parties travel­ing to Mecca began to join them; Philby spent his 47th birthday, April 3rd, enveloped in a sandstorm, and was tickled when his men, on learning his age, told him that they had thought he was 60. They traveled north so fast that in the end they had time at their disposal, and Philby was able to make a detour, and to find an inscription and rock drawing which Doughty had seen and copied in 1879. This found, he dropped down to Sail, which is a gathering point for all pilgrims from Najd. From there, he was offered and accepted a lift in a lorry to Mecca.

The date was April 5th. For nearly a month he had been back amongst human kind; at Bisha he had even been shown a copy of the Mecca newspaper. But he had been out of communication with the world. The last that Dora in London had heard of him was his parting telegram from Hofuf, followed more slowly by letters telling her that she must borrow from their lawyer, Home, to keep going. She had passed an anxious and desperate spring, at her wit's end for money:

God knows where you are and what you are up to [she wrote into the blue in mid-January] ... I have literally no one I can turn to.

Towards the end of March—that is, about the time that Philby reached Bisha—news that 'Philby has been seen' somehow reached the press. From then on, she was pestered with inquiries that she could not answer, until, on April 6th, the house on Acol Road was plunged into delirious excitement by a telegram from Mecca. The telephone pealed all day:

The relief at hearing your news [she wrote off to Mecca] has completely gone to my head and in addition to this I ordered a bottle of sherry and we have all, even Helena, drunk to your very good health. Kim is wild with excitement. His con­fidence in your success has helped me through the last fortnight. I was on the verge of a breakdown before he arrived [from Cambridge]. Now I could take on a tiger.

Philby's first letter, which crossed hers, showed that he was worn out:

I think [he wrote on April 14th] that I have done with desert exploration for good. It is hard work on short rations of dates and raw dried camel's meat. The skin on my hands is burnt through to the quick.

What was worse: 'I am a pauper.' Sharqieh, of his firm, owed him  500 but there was 'not a bean in the till.' He told Dora to negotiate with his publisher, Consta­ble, for an advance on a book, and with The Times about articles. For the outlook was not wholly bleak; his mind was at rest at last and he was 'bursting with my epic in embryo.' Directly the Pilgrimage was over he set out for home, a hero's welcome, and a summer of scribbling at his record and basking in success.

Philby's notion that he had  done with unexplored desert soon died a natural death. He talked for a while of being ready to retire gracefully, but as soon as he was back in Arabia and court life or salesman­ship palled, he began to make minor journeys. By 1935, when he resumed ex­ploration in earnest, cars in general, and Fords in particular, were penetrating desert and mountain tracks. Dependence on a machine instead of a camel presented travelers with new problems. Whereas a camel could pick up fodder en route, a car needed to be self-supporting in fuel and to carry not only spare parts but someone who understood its engine. For this last purpose, Philby was useless; his daughters used to twit him about his need to ring up before attempting to light a Primus stove. Some­times he ventured to drive alone along a frequented route, but in untracked desert he had to travel in convoy; to do so is still essential unless a driver is equipped with a transmitter and sets out from a base that he can count on to listen for him.

Early in 1935 Philby inaugurated his car-borne mapping with a trip eastwards from Medina to the Qasim towns of Anaiza and Buraida. Later in the year, he scored another 'first ever,' though a tamer one since it never left established routes. He and Dora went on leave, traveling overland by car; he did all the driving, without a mechanic on board and without a hitch apart from a violent bout of fever when staying with the Harold Dicksons in Kuwait (Aramco World , Nov.-Dec. 1972). Dora became the first European woman to cross Arabia from sea to sea.  They took two different routes. Homebound, they traveled to Riyadh, where Ibn Sa'ud presented Dora with elegant Arab clothes; thence they drove to Kuwait, Basra, Baghdad and Damascus and into Europe through Turkey. Returning via Gibraltar in the late autumn, they traveled the length of North Africa, crossing Libya in spite of the Ethiopian War. They caused a sensation in Cairo by describing to everyone from the High Commissioner down how polite the Italians had been all along their way. Their marathon continued through central Sinai where they crossed the Mitla pass—unheard of by most people until the Israelis dropped a paratroop battalion there to threaten the Suez Canal in 1956; then on to Jerusalem and Amman and back into Arabia by the Wadi Sirhan. In Jauf and Hail, Philby resumed Arab dress and Muslim prayer, and enjoyed himself while Dora, alternately bored and enraged, sat in harem, watched by women and slaves to whom she could not talk. She was thankful to get back to Riyadh and Jiddah:

It will probably be a long time [wrote Philby in his autobiography] before any­one else attempts or accomplishes this double journey, which provided us with a delightful, if sometimes strenuous, holiday at the modest cost of £100 a month and occupied five and a half months.

Harry St. John Bridger Philby was born on a tea plantation in Ceylon in 1885 and went to Mesopotamia (now Iraq) as a Political Officer with the Indian Civil Service in 1915. From that time until his death in 1960 at the age of 75, in Beirut, Lebanon, he devoted his life to studying, exploring and writing about the Arab world. He became vocally disillusioned with British policy in the area and resigned his post in 1925. After 1930, when he embraced Islam and settled in Mecca under the name Hajj Abdullah, he became a trusted confidant and adviser to Ibn Sa'ud, a man he admired as much when he first met him as Amir of Najd in 1917, as he did later when he was King of Saudi Arabia, an independent state which the ruler moulded with his deep religious faith and led into a new era of prosperity. With the King's bemused tolerance, and sometime sponsorship, Philby ranged across the Arabian Peninsula mapping and exploring unknown corners where no Westerner had gone before, then emerging to publish a whole series of books including The Heart of Arabia (1923), Forty Years in the Wilderness (1957), and Arabian Oil Ventures (posthumously, in 1964).

Elizabeth Monroe, a Fellow Emeritus of St. Antony's College, Oxford, who this year became a Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George, an award by Queen Elizabeth "for services to Middle Eastern studies," knew Philby from 1938, though never well. She first went to the Middle East in 1937 and has recently traveled extensively in Saudi Arabia, personally visiting many of the areas originally explored by Philby. For 13 years she was Middle East correspondent of The Economist. Miss Monroe is the author of a number of books on Middle East affairs including, in 1972, The Changing Balance of Power in the Persian Gulf, and has now written a biography of Philby. The following article is the first half of the chapter of her new book dealing with the explorer's great journeys in the sand desert of the Empty Quarter and the mountainous frontiers of southern Arabia. The second section will appear in a later issue of the magazine.

This article appeared on pages 6-13 of the November/December 1973 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1973 images.