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Volume 25, Number 1January/February 1974

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Into the Highlands


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

Philby had recovered his taste for exploration. On his way back through Riyadh with Dora, he learned with delight that the King, 'my King,' wanted a service of him that would carry him back into the blue.

In 1934, Ibn Sa'ud had won a quick victory over his southern neighbor the Imam of Yemen, thereby consolidating a disputed frontier. He explained that boundary marks had been set up, but that he needed them mapped. Philby was delighted to accept the job. He had never seen 'Asir province or the Najran valley, a round trip to both of which would be at royal expense and with royal introductions to help him on his way.

Before he set out he conceived an idea that caused him to pay for his own transport and use his own car. He read in the Royal Geographical Society's Journal Freya Stark's account of her journey to the Hadhramaut in 1935. She had tried to follow the incense route farther west, but, through illness, had failed to get to Shabwa—the first toll-point outside the wadi. Shabwa was for Philby 'the romantic land of Sheba.' Sir Percy Cox, taking the chair at Miss Stark's lecture, had remarked that the stretch of the incense route from the Hadhramaut to Najran was 'about the only piece of the Arabian Peninsula that is entirely unexplored.' This was enough for Philby. If the omens at Najran looked propitious, he must make a dash for Shabwa and supply the missing link.

Without a word of this to anyone, he set out in May 1936 on the longest of his Arabian journeys, whether judged by time, distance or the tens of thousands of feet he climbed. In order to map new ground from start to finish, he took a chauffeur and made for the 'Asir by a route inland of that which he had traveled on his way back from the Rub' al-Khali. He started through the dreary, uninspiring lava fields south of Turaba, and climbed to Bisha through wadis where no car had been before, and where the going was execrable. The compensation was a wealth of new geological specimens, and of birds in the bushes that snagged the car. They were full of shrikes, larks, chats, wagtails, flycatchers, hoopoes and ravens; he found a new brand of owl (Otus scops Pamelae) for dispatch to the British Museum, renewed acquaintance with 'my own woodpecker' (Desertipicus Dorae) and saw sunbirds for the first time. (Most of his birds, like most of his books, were dedicated to women he admired.)

Bisha is the last outpost of Najd. Thereafter 'Asir Province begins, and is another world by comparison with the rest of Arabia—felix instead of deserta. At Khamis Mushait, there are fields of grain and no more palms; women go unveiled and square towers with whitewashed tops are a foretaste of Yemeni architecture. Owing to its inaccessibility, 'Asir was largely untouched by Wahhabism and so indulged in frivolities such as gay ink patterns on the inside walls of its houses. Its people are jaunty, and Philby was pleased to see their children playing a game 'not unlike cricket without runs,' using a slate wicket and a stone ball. Though its capital, Abha, was in 1936 still only a set of villages, it had become one of Ibn Sa'ud's pivot-points and was run by an amir from Najd; it had a Saudi garrison, and possessed the only doctor—an Indian—between Najran and the Red Sea. Its native inhabitants were mountain men, ready to climb with Philby or show him rain-fed fields, and juniper forests under which grew thyme, mint and lavender. The doctor, to his excitement, took him to see some rock drawings and inscriptions, and told him that there were plenty more on the softer pink rocks north of Najran. He counted his stay in this agreeable society 'my first real taste of the Happy Arabia of the ancients.'

It was June. Time was no object. He saw little reason to take the ordinary motor track to Najran. He picked up a guide who knew the whole district because he had helped to survey the line for a road, and set out on a detour north. He wanted to map the maze of sands and ridges at the upper end of the Wadi Tathlith, and to find those inscribed rocks. He made for Najran in a great curve that passed through several, of the sandstone outcrops that the Indian doctor had described. Sure enough, here were quantities of inscriptions and 'veritable picture galleries of ancient man.' He could see that they were pre-Islamic, but could not read the script and so was unaware that 'he had stumbled on a discovery of importance to historians of Arabia. Full of excitement, he set about copying all he could with his stubby pencil, but for lack of experience did so faultily. He mistook cracks in the rock for letters, and, copying from left to right inscriptions that had been written from right to left, made mistakes of sequence. When he showed his copies to experts—A. F. L. Beeston at Oxford, and, later, Monseigneur Gonzague Ryckmans at Louvain—they saw at once that he had found in South Arabia a script till then believed to occur only in the north, but his crude copies set them to guessing games.

In such a wilderness of outcrops, finding the inscribed rocks, or even the right side of a rock or ridge, is largely a matter of luck. Philby's bag on this first of his searches was large because his main guide picked up at Abha was keen and knew much of the ground from making road surveys. The rest of his team was often less satisfactory and caused the outbursts of rage for which he has a name to this day. Shortcomings that struck his escort as trifles caused him to strike one man, dismiss another and inflict such 'moral bruises' on a third that the man gave up and walked home. Plenty of desert travelers lose their temper with their men and feel like slapping them, but few adopt Philby's retaliatory technique of refusing food for days in order to mark displeasure and cause consternation. But guides have tempers too; men still tell how they withheld information about sites for which Philby was hunting, so compensating themselves for the insults that they had had to bear. They also remember the sudden generosity with which Philby rewarded a guide whom he had found informative by the high standards that his mapping demanded.

After the barren wilds of Philby's route south from the upper end of Tathlith, the Wadi Najran looked a paradise—green, peopled, prosperous. He was back on a motor track manned by soldiers and police, and was expected. Fortunately for his private plans, the Amir of Najran, Ibrahim al Nashmi, was an educated man—a former merchant from Qasim who had distinguished himself in Ibn Sa'ud's wars. He was interested in everything in the wadi—its farming, its defenses and, to Philby's surprise, its antiquities. He accompanied Philby round its settlements; he encouraged a visit to its small Jewish community—a relic of the sixth century of our era, when South Arabia was ruled by a Judaising king; he went with him to investigate its chief piece of evidence of ancient greatness, the ruined city of Ukhdud.

In the course of these excursions, Philby broached his Shabwa project. He did so diffidently, as the military post at Najran was in daily wireless communication with the King and he feared that Ibn Sa'ud would forbid it. Maybe the Amir said nothing; at all events, he furthered Philby's end. He lent baggage camels and promised a small escort of Saudi troops. The only bar to starting at once was that Najran had run out of gasoline. During the detour via Tathlith, Philby's three vehicles—his car, a pickup and a lorry—had between them averaged only 7½ miles per gallon on their way across country. He meant to take the first two on to Shabwa, where the going might be rougher still. There was nothing for it but to await enough fuel to get them there and back. He had to wait a month for oil lorries to turn up from Mecca.

The party that the Amir waved off from Najran at the end of July consisted of Philby's own chauffeur and servants, a dozen Najrani camel men and eight Saudi soldiers from Najd. Philby was uneasy because it had no guide or rafiq from farther south, but the Amir said that he had fixed up a chain of men to meet it at each well, and to Philby's surprise, all the promised guides turned up. Also to his surprise, the way was marked. It did not, as he had expected, cut across the corner of the Rub' al-Khali, but left this to its east and went along the foothills of Yemen. It had been a route for generations; near each well was a symbol carved on some rock—a sign like a bucket, with dots denoting the number of paces to the water. When they turned their backs to the mountains and struck east on a long run across the desert, cairns appeared, marking a onetime pilgrim route. Thus guided, the party reached hills and the seemingly inexhaustible wells of al-Abr, where thousands of goats were being watered, and herdsmen offered them a good meat meal. While his men slept this off, Philby climbed the hill above the well, and from it saw a sight that quickened his ambition. An array of cliffs and headlands stretched southeast from where he stood; he could see that in the distance they formed the north bank of the Wadi Hadhramaut.

But Shabwa was his first goal, and the view south towards it was more daunting. Below him lay the great sandbelt called the Ramlat Sabatain. Not only was it uninviting; it was a no-man's-land, counted by the Yemenis as Yemen and by the British at Aden as the fringe of the protectorates that they were trying to pacify. His arrival with some Saudi soldiers was bound to give the impression that it was also being claimed by Ibn Sa'ud.

Tales of journeys that are known to have ended safely read so smoothly that their hazards are difficult to assess. On this plunge into the unknown, even Philby felt a qualm:

The physical exertion of desert travel is as nothing compared with the nervous strain—especially in the desert borderlands where tribal loyalties can never be taken for granted. In fact, we met with nothing but friendliness—a striking tribute to the desert's fear of the desert King—but each day's success had to be paid for by the anxieties of the night before.

Striking across the Ramlat Sabatain, the party spent in its sand wilderness one of the most uncomfortable nights that he could remember. The wind howled; dust devils danced around them; flying sand made eating impossible; the cars were half buried by morning. They got them out by brute force, and his own car, forging ahead, reached Shabwa by afternoon. The place looked so melancholy as to be hardly worth the trouble.

Among fallen walls and the crumbled remains of temples and dikes stood a line of villagers, squalid, silent and bristling with rifles. There were only seven men in the Philby car and 'I confess that I felt distinctly nervous.' The line of men stood motionless until Philby, unarmed, went forward to greet them. Then a leader, without a word, pressed him back towards his companions. Still in silence, the whole line wheeled and passed before them, greeting them palm to palm and 'kissing the intervening air with an audible intake of breath.' To their astonishment, they had passed muster.

Shabwa's inhabitants lived, they told him, in a state of feud with all their neighbors. No one had visited them or invited their allegiance. With one eye on the Saudi soldiers, they went on to ask questions that were only to be expected. How secure was the peace farther north? Did Philby think that Ibn Sa'ud would come and bring them protection? (After a dose of occupation by Yemeni troops, they said much the same about British protection to a British officer, Colonel R. A. B. Hamilton, when he arrived with a tribal force to clear the Yemenis out in 1938.) Philby confirmed that the King was great, but otherwise promised nothing; saying that he was a private traveler, he puzzled them by his pastimes. For three days in early August he inspected their ruins and bought bits of their rubble. He visited their only asset—some salt mines that Arab historians mention as being worked in medieval times. Then, leaving behind his camel men, who would go no farther, and two of his Saudi soldiers to guard a dump of his belongings, he made a dash along the south side of the Ramlat Sabatain, bent on seeing the Wadi Hadhramaut while in its neighborhood.

Once there, his jaunt became a holiday. Predecessors, among them van der Meulen, his companion von Wissman, and more lately Freya Stark, had photographed and mapped the wadi and described it in books for the common reader. He need only sight-see. In 1936, though claimed by the British as a protectorate, it was not yet pacified by the officials who arrived soon after Philby's escapade, and its society was an odd mixture of ancient and modern. Some parts were riddled with blood feuds, and rifle fire resounded between house and house; elsewhere great towns flourished—their houses small skyscrapers, the richest of which had been built by local merchants who had made fortunes in Java. Down side alleys lived their cousins, as often as not still in loincloths. Once Philby had paid a few formal calls, he was passed from family to family, and enjoyed luxuries such as libraries, beds with mattresses, iced water and delicious Javanese rijstafel. He counted himself welcome everywhere, and was made so for the variety and entertainment of his talk. He himself thought that his chief asset was the evidence he provided that the Pilgrimage could be safely made by car. When questioned, he always denied that he was Ibn Sa'ud's emissary, but his praise of all that was happening in Saudi Arabia suggested the opposite, and his escort of six armed Saudi troopers was thought to prove it. Stories of his visit that his hosts later retailed to British officials show that they took him for a spy. He puzzled them on many counts: 'Who was this Christian who prayed like a Muslim?' they asked.

He enjoyed himself in their company but for two disappointing discoveries. One was that he had been forestalled at Shabwa. One host showed him a book by a German photographer, Hans Helfritz, who had got there a year before him; he consoled himself with the thought that Helfritz and his camera had been chased out after only half a day. The other discovery was that he had a rival. In Shibam he met a fellow-explorer called Norman Pearn, who was bound for Shabwa and other ruins on the incense route of the ancients, armed with all sorts of permits and introductions from Aden. For weeks Philby was plagued with anxiety lest Pearn would forestall him in the British press. In fact, Pearn never got to Shabwa. Speaking no Arabic, and abandoned by his guides in mid-desert, he nearly died of thirst on his lone walk back into the Wadi Hadhramaut.

Philby meant to turn back from the easternmost of the great towns, Tarim, regain Shabwa before the end of August, and thence to make straight for Najran to tackle the frontier mapping job for the King. He had undertaken to his men to be back at Mecca in time for the Pilgrimage, so had to finish it before February. Through ill-luck his immediate plan miscarried. When the two cars turned about and set off westwards, the pickup, overloaded with men and Hadhramauti wares, first fell behind and then broke its back axle. Philby, summoned back, hunted the wadi for a replacement, but without success. What was he to do? A single car could not tackle the desert route back. Either he must plod to Najran by camel, or else get to the nearest telegraph office, which was at Mukalla on the coast, and cable to Aden for a new axle. He made up his mind at once, for he had thought of a consolation prize. If he motored to the coast, he would be the first European to cross Arabia from north to south by car. The main snag to this solution was that leaving Saudi Bedouins on their own in a strange town would be bound to make them restless, and quite likely a nuisance.

He dismissed this anxiety and, taking only his chauffeur and a servant, turned his car towards the sea. From Tarim, a track of sorts climbed the steep side of the wadi; beyond, the local family that had built it had bribed the tribes along its way to let traffic through. Unfortunately for Philby's record-breaking aim, it was not complete. He had to walk 10 miles through a rocky gorge full of tropical trees and pick up a hired car for the last few miles. But he had as good as performed another unique feat. He reached Mukalla on the last day of August in a complacent frame of mind. He cabled to Aden for the spares, and got an answer that jarred him. The spare part would be sent by the first available boat, cabled the acting Resident, Colonel M. C. Lake, but what was he doing in British territory without permission and with an escort of 'a party from a foreign government'? A week later Lake, obviously after consulting his bosses in India and telling London, cabled more peremptorily:

I am instructed by His Majesty's Government to request you to withdraw your Saudi armed party from the Aden Protectorate.

The content of this telegram, which was sent clear [uncoded], was soon known all over Mukalla. Philby's temper rose. His welcome there had from the start been lukewarm, both because the Sultan was away and his underlings feared to take responsibility for a stranger, and because boat owners saw his propaganda for Pilgrimage by car as a threat to their seaborne traffic. Once the town knew that the British were not pleased, merchants refused to cash his drafts for money. Since he was a prisoner till the axle came, he answered Lake's telegrams gratefully and politely; he even mentioned that he hoped to go back through areas south of Shabwa. But he waited in mounting dudgeon. He was always short-tempered when bored, and at Mukalla he had nothing to do but scribble articles to send to Dora to be placed 'before Pearn spoils our market.' At last the spares arrived, accompanied by a warning that he must leave forthwith and on no account venture into more British-protected areas. He set off north at once, but when thanking Lake for his help could not resist venting pent-up annoyance by adding a quip:

Leaving today for advanced G.H.Q. to superintend evacuation of occupied territory.

Naturally, Lake was infuriated. Not only had his authority been flouted; it was being mocked by a man who had been an Indian Civil Servant and knew the rules. The gibe also came ill from a man who was a byword for furthering Ibn Sa'ud's cause and attacking the British Empire. Telegrams flew between Aden, India, London and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis were able to say that Philby was paying for his own trip, and to disclaim responsibility; nevertheless, Ibn Sa'ud was annoyed about the incident, which embarrassed him in the course of other negotiations with Britain.

Philby, out of reach and oblivious of the fuss, had the axle fitted and left the Wadi Hadhramaut at once. Though he was by now in a hurry, he was so annoyed with Lake that, when he got back to Shabwa and found that desert gossip had spread news of his visit and that shaikhs farther south had invited him to call, he determined to do so. He was bent on showing Lake that he could travel with impunity in territory that the British might claim, but did not control, so set off into forbidden territory.

In his dudgeon, he here spoke much more freely of Ibn Sa'ud's virtues than before; he also took it upon himself to promise his hosts exemption from dues at the next year's Pilgrimage. This deliberate trespass southwards was the worst of his offenses. But he always counted it a triumph because in its course he made one of the major epigraphical discoveries of his career. Within 10 miles of Shabwa, he was shown the Uqla rocks, which are covered with formal inscriptions celebrating a royal ceremony at ancient Shabwa, till then unknown. He was well pleased with himself when he rejoined his party and set off for Najran.

A return trip dotted with familiar landmarks is never as exciting as the journey out. Philby, to vary the trip and add to his map, took a line most of which lay to the south and west of his outward course, and, so doing, traveled closer to the Yemen mountains. When he turned north along their flank, he passed between ridges crowned with ruins—pillbox forts, graveyards, paving stones along crests that he took to be sacred ways. These he guessed must belong to the great Sabaean civilisation that had its capital at Marib in Yemen. If only he could inspect Marib, his cup would be full. His chances of examining it closely were nil; the Imam of Yemen forbade all visitors; in any case the pickup had by now finally collapsed, and his car and the camels were both in poor condition. Yet a devil drove him to try to see it. Telling his men to take a rest while he hunted gazelle, he left them at a well called Masuda, and taking only two men whom he thought that he could trust to hold their tongues, he struck into Yemen in his shaky car. They were in luck; they met no one and the car held together. They reached a ridge from which they could look down on Marib's ruins and its once-fertile plain, and Philby sat there for two hours, wishing that he dared to inspect it at closer quarters. For once, prudence set in; to the relief of his men, he contented himself with the peep, and scurried back to Masuda and on to Najran.

The desert is a sounding box. Some one talked; the Imam of Yemen found out, and once more angry telegrams flew from Foreign Office to Foreign Office, this time from Yemen also. Philby would have much to answer for to Ibn Sa'ud by the time he got back. In the King's eyes, he made some amends for his misdemeanors by the excellence of his frontier maps. The British and the Imam had no such compensation, and both put black marks against his name.

The journeys along Saudi Arabia's southern frontier that Philby made in the King's name between October 1936 and February 1937 were as arduous as any he undertook. His letters describing their trials match the perils listed by St. Paul to the Corinthians. His car was useless in such country, and he had to take to muleback and to his legs. Winter had set in. Climbing up and down between 5,000 and 8,000 ft., he was bruised by rocks and tortured by chilblains. He got boils and bouts of fever. Lower down, this turned to malaria; he was lamed when he impaled his foot on a hidden stake in a streambed, and caked in salt when he had to wade from marker to marker in the coastal salt-marshes. Yet he persevered. He could not rest, or he would break his promise about the Pilgrimage. He was 50, and driving himself at this pace told on his physique.

By one means or another he contrived to visit every boundary post except for two long gaps in the highest mountains: in one, the knife edges were too sharp to tackle; in the other, tribesmen took his party for government officials out to collect fines and vanished, leaving him in hostile country without hope of picking up a guide. Each of these gaps he conscientiously filled as best he could by rejoining the boundary and traveling back along it till he could see the lie of the land between him and his last checkpoint. He knew that he needed to justify himself to the King.

In parts, the route had charm, or at least was novel. As he trekked down to the coastal plain at Jaizan, which he made his headquarters for his three final assaults on the foothill frontier, he came across scenes and human types never met with in the rest of his Arabian experience:

The garden of Eden must be very like this valley [he wrote to Dora from the Wadi Baish] and the human beings one meets from time to time might have stepped straight out of Genesis, naked except for a loin-cloth and sometimes a rifle, and with very fuzzy greased hair. All prefer walking to riding... and drink from the brook whenever they are thirsty. When tending goats on the hillside they sit so still... that one doesn't notice them unless they move or speak.

He heard shepherds piping their thin tunes and was reminded of Greece; some of the birds that he saw were so new to him that he bestirred himself to catch them. Down in the plain, he met men more like Africans than Arabians—living in beehive huts, tilling in pointed straw hats, and walking with a stick across their shoulders and their wrists hooked over either end of it, as do the Danakils across the Red Sea to keep arms away from body for the sake of coolness. He tried chewing their qat, the drug that Ethiopians also chew for comfort, but got no pleasure out of it.

Jaizan is a sad place. It lies seaward of a salt-marsh and is ugly, mosquito-ridden and humid. He sped in and out of it with no zest for anything but getting his arduous assignment finished. Though seldom lonely when traveling, his eight months spent almost entirely without educated company seemed for once to make him so. When two cases of home mail and newspapers caught up with him on an exacting stretch of foothill frontier, he noted that:

For that afternoon and night I was not in Arabia. The joy of such an occurrence cannot be imagined by anyone who has not experienced it.

To add to his sense of isolation, his wireless batteries were giving out. Before they did so altogether, he picked up the abdication speech of Edward VIII; but he missed his radio less for the world's news than for loss of the accurate time signals that it picked up from Jerusalem or Europe. Without these he could not take star observations or fix his positions; he therefore judged it useless to return via Abha and through the highlands. He must go back by the flat, humid and dreary coast.

From Jaizan to Jiddah is more than 400 miles. There is no road north from Jaizan. He decided to use a donkey, his men and baggage accompanying him on camels. They must cover 30 to 35 miles a day if they were to arrive on time, and Philby's fatigue was the greater because this humdrum end to his toils was an anticlimax. Sometimes he was feverish; sometimes his spine felt as if it would not hold him upright. Each monotonous day, the camel caravan started first, but he rode faster:

As I have no light until it arrives, I generally lie down to rest and sometimes even to sleep . . . dozing, as by the time I get in I am pretty tired with the back-breaking strain of sitting on a trotting donkey . . .

By sheer willpower he got the party home by the promised date, but he personally was never more thankful than to see the King's Rolls Royce parked in a grove at Lith, waiting to whisk him to Mecca.

One of the ironies of Philby's longest journey was its end product in the no-man's-lands that he had proved were what they ought to be—independent and free. He had filled in their blanks on the physical map of Arabia, but had revealed them to be blanks on the political map also. As a direct result of his travel with impunity, neighbors woke up and stepped in. The Imam of Yemen invited their tribes to come under his rule, and, when the Shaikh of Shabwa answered that he had enough visitors, sent men to occupy the place. Similarly the British in 1937, after turning Aden into a crown colony, began to establish order in its hinterland. They sent administrators and levies and airplanes to north and east—Ingrams to the Hadhramaut, Hamilton to eject the Yemenis from Shabwa, squadron leaders to map from the air and pounce on tribesmen out of the blue.

The Saudis saw the connection between cause and effect. Their Deputy Foreign Minister Fuad Hamza mentioned to the British Minister in Jiddah that critics were sometimes of material assistance to the government they criticized; witness the increase of British control in the Aden protectorates following Philby's visit. The British saw it too: 'I think that he [Philby] and his like are good for us,' minuted an official, 'in that they compel us to try to forge armor that will not have any chinks.' But Philby, who never saw any point that he did not wish to see, prepared to lecture his countrymen on unfairness to free Arabs, without pause for thought on the part he had played in triggering Britain's forward policy.

In any case, there was no time for reflection on return to home and office after eight months away. With the Pilgrimage to perform, the King to pacify, quarrels between his office clerks to settle, telegrams from Dora to deal with (one reporting 'funds exhausted'), commissions from the New York Times to accept, and invitations to lecture in England to answer, he did not draw breath. Within days he was rested and cock-a-hoop, brimming with his epigraphical discoveries and sharpening his pen for a brand new onslaught on the British Government for secretly cheating remote Arabs of their birthright.

Harry St. John Philby spent 45 years studying, exploring, mapping and writing about the Arab world. He is probably the most famous of the hardy band of that eras Arabian explorers. During that time he also became a Muslim and a trusted adviser to King Abd al-'Aziz, founder of Saudi Arabia.

Elizabeth Monroe, author of Philby of Arabia, from which this chapter is taken, is a Fellow Emeritus of St. Antony's College, Oxford, a former correspondent of The Economist and author of several books on the Middle East.

This article appeared on pages 2-7 of the January/February 1974 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1974 images.