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TITLE: Desert, Marsh and Mountain.
The World of a Nomad
BY: Wilfred Thesiger
PUBLISHED: 1979, Collins, London
SIZE: 276×215 mm
PHOTOGRAPHS: 226 b&w

Desert, Marsh and Mountain : The World of a Nomad

A compilation of the travels in the harshest environments of Arabia, and South West and South Asia by the last of the great eccentric British explorers.

Wilfred Thesiger was born in 1910 into the savage splendour of feudal Abyssinia where his father was minister at the British Legation in Adis Ababa (his uncle was Viceroy of India). Hardened by a formal education at a brutal English boarding school followed by Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford, Thesiger rejected what he saw as the weakness of Western Civilisation and at the first opportunity reverted to the tribal, the remote and the inexpensive.

His first expedition, at the age of 20, was into the murderous Danakil country of Abyssinia : “as the telegraph poles along the railway dropped out of sight I knew I was now on my own, that if things went wrong I would get no help. I would not have had it otherwise”.

Half a life time of exploration passed before Thesiger began to put his travels into book form. But when Arabian Sands which describes his five year exploration of the Arabian desert, including two crossings of the inhospitable Empty Quarter, was published in 1959 it became an instant classic. Comparisons were made to Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

The Marsh Arabs recounting six years living amongst the Marsh Arabs of Iraq followed in 1964.

Both books were illustrated with black and white images from the huge photographic archive Thesiger was building up. With photography – as with desert crossing and mountaineering – he was pretty much self taught.

Desert, Marsh and Mountain is a larger volume than the previous publications and is illustrated throughout. It brings the highlights of these books together with further recollections and images of expeditions to Iraqi Kurdistan, Iran, the Yemen, and the mountains of the Hindu Kush and the Karakorams.

For his travels Thesiger, like Lawrence, chose to dress, eat and live as a local tribesman, his Leica cameras, film, notebooks and medicines being his only concessions to modernity.

But even for an unsentimental man it was important to document what he knew to be unique, and to be threatened by progress, and by the end of Desert, Marsh and Mountain he laments the changes that vast oil wealth had brought to the Arabian peninsular, the land he was always closest to.

Wilfred Thesiger believed the Desert Arab was a nomad who’s character was forged in the wide emptiness of the desert sands, where humanity was small in the landscape of nature. These Arabs had dignity, courage and a sense of fellowship which helped to bind them in an adversity that defined them.

Thesiger had traversed the deserts of Arabia between 1945 and 1950 “just in time to know the spirit of the land and the greatness of the Arabs”. He notes that until the discovery of oil they were happy and free, but once they were among the economic masters of the world he feared that many Arabs “would find unendurable the boredom of their wealth”.

In 1977 he returned to Saudi Arabia and met with the youths with whom he had crossed the desert thirty years earlier. Bin Kabina and bin Ghabaisha (bin means “son of”) now had grown sons of their own who were not drawn to the austere desert harshness but to the cities and subsidised comfort. Thesiger laments “The life of the Bedu has now disappeared from Arabia, vanished in the course of a decade or two as utterly as the life of the prairie Indian in North America.”

Beneath the book’s dedication the author bares his responsibility for the change by quoting Wilde’s “Yet each man kills the thing he loves”. The dedication itself is made to the Englishman who taught Thesiger to appreciate the desert when he was a young man in the years leading up to the Second World War – Guy Moore, MC, District Commissioner, Northern Darfur “who taught me to appreciate the desert, its people and their ways”.

Photography for Thesiger was a useful means of recording his exploits. In the Empty Quarter he would take bearings and photographs. But he also had a fine eye for composing tribal man in his environment.

The prints reproduced are often grainy and flat with dust specks obviously retouched by brush. He thanks K.B.Fleming, for over 30 years his printer and developer who we cannot blame.

Now new methods of reproduction will lessen these minor faults, and let us see clearly the noble life recorded in the unspoilt tribal lands around the Middle East as they stood on the brink before vanishing for ever. The author was not so much a photographer as an extraordinary explorer with a good eye. As a document of what our planet has lost Wilfred Thesiger’s photographs will be a unique and priceless resource for generations to come.


• Sir Wilfred Thesiger’s archive of 38,000 negatives, 75 albums of prints and several thousand loose prints were given to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford on permanent loan in 1993, and bequeathed to the museum on Thesiger’s death in 2003. In 2005 the Pitt Rivers Museum launched the Wilfred Thesiger Web Gallery.

On Meeting Sir Wilfred Thesiger by Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert on Plus Four Four.

• Thesiger in Africa: original reports by Wilfred Thesiger for The Times were available online, may now require further research.


Text copyright © 2007 Graham Harrison.

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