With Bidwell in Arabia

Bidwell, Robin, Travellers in Arabia. London: Garnet Publishing Ltd. 1994.

Reviewed by Thomas B. Stevenson

Yemen Update 37(1995):35

Garnet Publishing has issued a paperback edition of Robin Bidwell's Travellers in Arabia (Hamlyn,1976). Bidwell is well known for his contributions to the scholarship on Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula as well as his coeditorship of Arabian Studies.

In this volume, directed more to a general than an academic audience, Bidwell presents the stories of those intrepid souls drawn to explore the vast expanse of Arabia. This phase in Peninsula history fascinates Bidwell. The book allows him to highlight the deeds, daring-do, foibles and faults of those Europeans in search of knowledge, fame, or fortune who were bold enough to risk the hardship and danger of traveling in a harsh environment whose inhabitants were either extremely hospitable or apparently hostile.

The early chapters focus on those whose travels were most impressive or contributed most to Western understanding of Arabia. The accounts are presented chronologically. Later chapters are devoted to regions of the Peninsula.

To students of Yemen, the 1761 Danish Expedition that included Carsten Niebuhr is well known and is given a justifiably prominent place. As he does for other travellers to whom an entire chapter is devoted, Bidwell presents the backgrounds of the team members, their objectives, the details and itinerary of the trip, and some of the high and low points. For example, we learn of the expedition's travails and particularly of the death of all members except Niebuhr, who saw to the publishing of the results of his own and his companions' work.

Bidwell devotes chapters to the travels of the famous including Richard Burton, Johann Burckhardt, H. St. John Philby, and Charles Doughty as well as the less well-known William Palgrave, Joseph Pitts, and Ali Bey, whose true identity is a mystery. Other travellers whose scopes were less broad, writings were less extensive, contributions less significant, or trips more recent are grouped in regional chapters. For Southwest Arabia the list includes the Rabbi Joseph Halévy, Walter Harris, Hugh Scott, Hermann von Wissman, Harold Ingrams, and Wyman Bury.

Readers and scholars might quibble about who receives detailed attention or why they were chosen. I have a personal affinity for Wilfred Theisiger's journeys in the Hadramaut, Oman and the Empty Quarter but these are barely mentioned. Two travellers, Christian Snouck Hurgronje and Alois Musil, each made important anthropological contributions but receive limited attention. Carl Rathjens, who traveled in parts of Yemen in the1930s, is not included. But as Bidwell warns in the introduction, "I could only put in what seemed to me interesting, amusing, or important and hope that the reader will agree with my choice" (p.6).

Several things emerge from these accounts. First are the mental and physical hardiness of those men and women who traveled in Arabia and lived to write about their travels. Female travellers such as Lady Anne Blunt, who also did extensive traveling in Sudan, and Freya Stark, the author of many works on South Arabia, added to western knowledge of Arabia. Second, a few of the travellers, especially Niebuhr, Burckhardt, and the immensely prolific Burton, made extensive scholarly contributions. Third is the recklessness of some travellers in their attempts to enter and observe Islam's holy sites. Some, like John Keane, felt sneaking into the sacred shrines demonstrated their mettle. Others, especially devout Christians like Doughty, assumed elaborate disguises to gain entry to Mecca yet were unwilling or unable to dissemble when questioned about their religion or belief. Fourth, Bidwell points to those, especially Palgrave, who may have fabricated parts of their accounts.

The text is brief and the style engaging. Bidwell does not belabor the subject matter. He provides a thorough sketch of the traveller and leaves readers to pursue their interests. In addition to the travellers' writing cited in the text, a short bibliography of other studies is included. The accounts are supplemented with 57 drawings, 81 photographs and 2 maps. Other than16 color plates apparently for this book, the rest are reproductions from earlier, often the original sources. A map of the peninsula is inside the front and back cover.

As Bidwell makes clear in the introduction, his interests in writing this book are largely personal. "I have written this mainly to please myself and can only hope that my enjoyment will be communicated to others" (p. 6). There are occasions when Bidwell indulges his interests, for example, quotations that reflect 16th and 17th century spelling. Nevertheless, the treatment is generally comprehensive and Bidwell highlights the travellers' contributions to Western scholarship.

The popular format and style are deceptive. The book is filled with information that researchers may have overlooked or forgotten. Bidwell conveys to readers the pleasure he had in writing the volume. It is nice to be reminded of these points and in such a pleasant manner.

Search Site

Search Library Collection