Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Book Review - Arabian travellers by Richard Trench

Arabian travellers by Richard Trench

London: Macmillan, 1986                ISBN 0333428897

There is no doubt that the Arabian peninsula held a continuing fascination for Europeans from the Enlightenment through to the Twentieth Century. The ancient European knowledge of the Peninsula was gradually lost in the Middle Ages, and from then on it was a land shrouded in mystery, partly due to religious differences, and partly due to the lack of trade between the two areas.

This book, in an attractively presented and lavishly illustrated format, gives a quick overview of the major European journeys and explorations in Arabia from about 1500, ending with Wilfred Thesiger's traversal of the Empty Quarter (Thesiger wrote the forward to this book). As such it is a useful introduction to the major players in Europe's interaction with the Peninsula and the people.

And what a strage cast the players are in this work. From those who were escaping their own lives, or a Europe that they couldn't get on with, to those hoping for fortune, those seeking God and those just seeking the desert, a more mixed bunch of men and women would be hard to find.

The first inspiration to travel to Arabia was to attempt to reach the forbidden city of Mecca, which was the driving force behind many of the travellers, including Burkhardt and Burton. There were also more or less succssful expeditions sponsored by European powers to try and increase trade opportunities.

These travellers were superceded by those with a more romantic bent, who saw in the lifestyle of the Bedouin something akin to what they imagined to be man's natural noble state. The reality, as they were to find, was somewhat different, even though to some, like the Blunts, the reality didn't shake their convictions in that regard.

Blunt was the inspiration of many of the later travellers and warriors such as Shakespear, Gertrude Bell, Lawrence, Philby and Bertam Thomas. By this time travels in the Peninsula became part of the "Great Game", with many of the former names belonging to agents of the British Government in one form or another, with designs on the loyalty of the people and the sovreignity of the land.

Trench covers all this in a brief but entertaining fashion, letting the travellers speak for themselves when appropriate (for most produced books and pictures on their travels, sometimes at danger to their wellbeing).

Each chapter covers a certain time-period and several travellers, with the exception of Doughty, who gets a chapter to himself. The inspiration for Lawrence's activities in Arabia, Doughty was truly a unique individual, unshakeable in his beliefs, who refused to disguise himself as Moslem, which almost led to his death on more than one occasion. He is without doubt one of history's strangest characters, and while it could be said that all his travels resulted in was a long and impenetrable book, the fact that he was the inspiration for Lawrence means that  his travels led in a round-about way to the current division of Arabia at the end of WWI, which has led to such angst and bloodshed ever since.

The illustrations in this edition are wonderful, the maps are good if a little crowded, and there is a useful bibliography and index. As an introduction to an interesting subject and and overview of an interesting intersection in history, this book is recommended.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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