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Volume 44, Number 4July/August 1993

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A Lifelong Journey

"Risk is the salt and sugar of life"  —Freya Stark

Written by John Lawton

In the week last May when the first British woman conquered Everest, the death of an English woman adventurer of a vanished age might well have been eclipsed. But not that of Dame Freya Stark, who died May ninth at the age of 100 after a lifelong journey through Arabia and the Middle East.

The Times of London devoted a three-column news story, a half-page obituary, four photographs and an editorial to this remarkable lady, whom Britain's Independent Television Network, in an hour-long tribute, described as "one of the greatest travelers of the century."

For although "Dame Freya never got around to making an attempt on Everest," said The Times, "she spent half of her life penetrating to places that few European men had ever seen." She also wrote distinguished books, some of which are deservedly popular even half a century after publication.

Stark followed in the tradition of such figures as Lady Hester Stanhope (See Aramco World, September-October 1970) and Gertrude Bell - intrepid solitary English women exploring the far corners of the East. These pioneer woman travelers crossed conventions as well as frontiers. And because most had little money - grants for exploration were usually reserved for the more conventional sex - they wrote for their livings.

What was rare about Stark, said historian John Julius Norwich, was that she would have probably been a writer even if she had never traveled farther than her front door. For although travel provided her with material for most of her books, she wrote more when she grew older and traveled less, finding memory to be an even more productive vein than novelty.

A woman who traveled the hard way in male lands, Stark wrote some 30 books, including four volumes of autobiography and six of letters. At least two of her pre-war books - The Valleys of the Assassins (1934) and The Southern Gates of Arabia (1936) - are acknowledged classics. "They are not so much chronicles of explorations," wrote Malise Ruthven, "as highly readable and engaging accounts of encounters with people and places."

A specialist on the Middle East, Stark began writing in the 1930's with Baghdad Sketches and her much acclaimed The Valleys of the Assassins. Her last pure travel book was The Minaret of Djam, on a journey into Afghanistan, published in 1970. In old age she achieved celebrity through television, which showed her undertaking a three-week pony trek through the Nepalese Himalayas, and another trip down the Euphrates by raft.

Her explorations were less significant and her excursions into archeology less professional than those of Gertrude Bell, her distinguished female predecessor in Arabia and Iraq. But as an ethnographer she was brilliant.

Freya Stark denned her craft of travel and observation thus: "To travel properly you have to ignore external inconvenience and surrender yourself entirely to the experience. You must blend into your surroundings and accept what comes. In this way, you become part of the land, and that is where the reward comes."

Stark had no money or worldly advantages; she had a constitution which, although fundamentally tough, was continually letting her down at critical moments, so that on more than one of her journeys she very nearly died. But a will of iron, infinite patience and remarkable powers of persuasion overcame all obstacles. Once, within 26 kilometers (16 miles) of the River Oxus,then off-limits, she so impressed an obstructive Russian official by quoting Matthew Arnold that he bundled her into his car and drove her to the riverbank himself.

Stark was born in Paris, where her parents - both artists - were briefly resident. Her cradle was highly mobile: At the age of three she was carried across the Dolomites in a basket. "My parents," she wrote later, "treated Europe as a place to run around in." She grew up multi-lingual, exposed to all sorts of people and to a life close to nature. Her childhood years were divided between the hill towns of northern Italy and the moors of southwest England. And although her roots remained in England, it was Italy that was to become her home.

When Stark was eight, her half-Genoese mother took a house at Asolo, a small fortress town some 65 kilometers (40 miles) north-west of Venice. This lovely little town in the foothills of the Dolomites remained her home, in the intervals between her wanderings, for the rest of her life. She never tired of explaining how it had also been the last retreat of Caterina Cornaro, queen of Cyprus, whose friend Cardinal Bembo had invented the verb "asolare" to describe "the purposeless, leisurely, agreeable passing of time" - a concept dear to Stark's own heart. "It doesn't matter if you arrive today or tomorrow," she once told an interviewer.

Stark had no regular schooling, but haphazard early learning was put right by a gifted governess, and by the age of 10 she spoke English, Italian, German and French. It was not until she was 19 and entered Bedford College, London, that her formal education began, and two years later the outbreak of war brought it to an end. During the First World War, Stark trained as a nurse and served with a hospital unit on the Italian front.

Peace brought years of poverty, family problems and increasing ill-health. After the war, Robert Stark emigrated to Canada, and her parents' eventual separation was desperately hard on Stark. Yet it was apparently the need to communicate with them that led her to write. In a series of remarkable early travel letters, it is easy to trace the outlines of the many books she later produced.

In Italy, Freya built up a modestly profitable market garden business. Some of the hard-earned money went to Arabic lessons that she took from an Italian monk. And by 1927, a course in Arabic and Persian at the London School of Oriental Studies behind her, her "traveler's prelude," as she called it, was complete.

In a sort of chain reaction, the new languages she learned sent her off on her explorations, the explorations in turn resulted in her first books, arid publication of her first writings brought grants from the Royal Geographical Society and, eventually, such honors as the title of dame, the equivalent of a knighthood for a woman.

Freya Stark first set foot in Asia in November 1927. She settled for the winter at Brummana in Lebanon, spent some time in Damascus and, with a friend, completed her first proper expedition, through the then unsettled Jabal Druze country. However, the literary product of this period - Letters from Syria - was not published until 1942.

In 1929 she was in Lebanon again, on her way to Baghdad. There she established herself in the house of a shoemaker overlooking the Tigris, much to the disgust of the British community, which considered such behavior "a flouting of national prestige." Her spell in Baghdad resulted in her first book, Baghdad Sketches (1933).

Stark used Baghdad as a base for three tough solo journeys into Iran between 1929 and 1931: two in Luristan and one in the mountains of Mazanderan, south of the Caspian Sea. Out of these journeys came The Valleys of the Assassins, the book which made her name as a writer.

The first truly Arabian journey, though, came in the winter of 1934-35. Stark was only the third European woman to travel into the Arabian interior, and the first to go there alone - an eccentricity which caused the government of the time such concern that it provided her with a male servant as a protector. Her goal was to be the first European to reach Shabwa, the abandoned site of the original capital city of the kingdom of Hadramaut.

She traveled from Mukalla on the coast, northward to Shibam and Sayun, with their elaborate decorated multi-storied mud houses that tower over the plains like primitive skyscrapers (See Aramco World, May-June 1986). But the episode ended with her rescue by the Royal Air Force, operating from Aden, after she contracted measles en route and carried on before she was properly recovered. Her heart was strained - and very nearly stopped altogether.

Stark's disappointment at the aborted venture must have been rendered less bitter by the testimonial given her by friends in the Hadramaut: "This is a certificate to Miss Freya Stark, English traveler, that she is conversant with laws and guided by religion, and of an honorable house, and is the first woman to travel from England to Hadramaut alone - and is mistress of endurance and fortitude in travel and the suffering of terrors and danger."

After a long recovery, she took on Arabia once more, again starting from Mukalla, in winter 1937-38, this time ending in dengue fever but no RAF rescue. These journeys were recorded in The Southern Gates of Arabia (1936), Seen in the Hadramaut (1938) and A Winter in Arabia (1940).

Asked later by an interviewer if she experienced any difficulties traveling as a single woman in Arabia, Stark replied, "No. I was sincerely out for knowledge and that is a respected thing in the East." Of her conversations with Arab women she said, "They were very interested in clothes, and very anxious to have news of the affairs of Prince Edward and Mrs. Simpson."

During the Second World War Stark was commissioned by the British Government to help counteract German influence among the Arabs. She went on a diplomatic mission to the Yemen, and in Cairo helped to found the Arab Brotherhood of Freedom - a network of Allied sympathizers aimed at convincing the Egyptian people that they were better off with the British devil they knew than with the Axis monster they did not. Later, she was also sent on missions to Canada and India.

Toward the end of the war Stark was also sent to the United States to counter Zionist propaganda against the British government in Palestine. Although her task was a hopeless one, she performed it with characteristic panache and good humor.

In 1947 Freya Stark contracted a short-lived marriage to Stewart Perowne, a distinguished Orientalist and British colonial administrator, whom she accompanied to posts in Barbados and Cyrenaica. The marriage was dissolved in 1952.

She was now writing her autobiography, three volumes of which appeared in swift succession: Traveler's Prelude (1950), Beyond the Euphrates (1951) and The Coast of Incense (1953). A fourth volume, Dust in the Lion's Paw, dealing with the war years, came out in 1961.

Now 60, she looked for new worlds to conquer, and found them in Anatolia and its history. She learned Turkish with the aid of Turkish detective stories and made several arduous journeys, often on horseback, in the remoter parts of Turkey. Out of these came Ionia: A Quest (1954), The Lycian Shore (1956), Alexander's Path (1958), Riding to the Tigris (1959) and finally, the product of three years' concentrated labor, Rome on the Euphrates (1966), a scholarly study of Rome's eastern limits.

There was more traveling, well on into her late 80's - on horseback in Nepal and the Pamirs, down the Euphrates on a raft. Later in the 1980s, for the first time in her life, she traveled as a tourist, to the legendary caravan cities of Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent, and at the age of 89 she returned to the Middle East to visit Jerusalem.

Stark was created a Dame of the British Empire in 1972. Her many geographical awards included the Burton Medal from the Royal Asiatic Society in 1933, the Founder's Medal from the Royal Geographical Society in 1942, and the Percy Sykes Memorial Medal from the Royal Central Asian Society in 1951.

"But it is... as the writer of beautiful, measured prose," wrote the British newspaper The Independent, "rather than as a traveler or as an exotic 'character' who wore Dior in the wilder reaches of Asia and Arabian dress in London, that Freya Stark will ultimately be remembered."

Contributing editor John Lawton is working on reports from Mongolia and Africa for future issues of Aramco World.

This article appeared on pages 2-7 of the July/August 1993 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1993 images.