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Volume 61, Number 1January/February 2010

In This Issue

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The origin of the term “Empty Quarter” is almost as mysterious as the place itself. The name is a direct translation from the Arabic Rub’ al-Khali, but where that expression comes from is not clear. Some say it’s from a book by the Arabian seafarer Ibn Majid. Others say that the name came from early European explorers who probed the area over many centuries, or because its sands cover a quarter of the Arabian Peninsula. This vast sea of sand, covering more than 650,000 square kilometers (250,000 sq mi), is bigger than France, Belgium and Holland combined. It’s also the hottest place on Earth, with summer temperatures over 61 degrees Celsius (142° F) in the shade, and aside from the polar ice caps, one of the most forbidding environments on the planet. In the late 1990’s, I had begun a project to photograph all of the world’s deserts from the air. To accomplish this, I had learned how to fly a motorized paraglider, which allowed me to access remote landscapes, many of which had never been seen or photographed. My project had already led me to the Sahara in Africa, the Gobi in China, and the Atacama in Chile. But after five years, I was finally ready for what Wilfred Thesiger had simply called “the sands.”

Tom Verde Empty Quarter George Steinmetz (www.GeorgeSteinmetz.com) has been a regular contributor to National Geographic and GEO magazines for more than 20 years. He has won numerous awards for photography, including two first prizes from World Press Photo.


This article appeared on pages 16-33 of the January/February 2010 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 2010 images.