Dame Freya Stark is legendary for her daring and unorthodox travel throughout the Middle East. She was an observant and prolific writer who became an accomplished cartographer mapping previously uncharted territory in the deserts of Southern Arabia in the 1930’s.
During a career of travel and exploration that spanned much of the 20th century, Freya Stark produced an extensive bibliography of travelogues and philosophical reflections. If today there are questions about the accuracy of some of her claims, there is no doubt that the proven facts of her life are as amazing as those of another romantic self-mythologizer, T.E. Lawrence.
Born in Paris in 1893 to an Italian mother and English father, Freya Stark died in Asolo, Italy just after her 100th birthday. Early in life she showed an aptitude for languages. Her interest in the Middle East – possibly sparked by reading One Thousand and One Nights as a child – led to studies of Arabic and Persian at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies followed by exploratory travel through Lebanon, Iraq, Persia (modern-day Iran) and Egypt.
In 1931 Freya Stark located the Valley of the Assassins in what is now western Iran.By then she had taught herself to be a cartographer and on her return to Britain, the Royal Geographical Society made much of her work. In 1933 she received the society‘s Back Award.
The trip to the Valley of the Assassins was both risky and physically gruelling. She rode a donkey, slept in a camp cot and endured malaria, dengue fever and dysentery. Yet she managed to record her impressions along the way and brought back a remarkable story. Her account of the trip The Valley of the Assassins (1934) sold widely. For the rest of her life she traveled in the same simple style, writing constantly as she went.
Freya was single most of her life, with the exception of a brief marriage to a British diplomat when she was in her fifties. She shocked British colonial society by traveling with local guides and Bedouins. Her extravagant sense of style – bright colours and flowing materials – added to her reputation as a fascinating and unorthodox woman. The obituary in the Independent published in May 1993 quotes her godson Malise Ruthven’s description of her provocative fashion sense in his Traveller Through Time: A Photographic Journey with Freya Stark: “She wore Dior in the wilder reaches of Asia and Arabian dresses in London”.
Ruthven notes too that Freya took full advantage of her sex to overcome resistance from local colonial officials to her travel plans. He cites her dry comment after one of many trying encounters with a male official: “The great and almost only comfort of being a woman, is that one can always pretend to be more stupid than one is and no one is surprised.
Freya Stark was however very much a woman of her time and class. Despite what she thought of colonial authorities’ treatment of women, she agreed with prevailing opinion about local Arabic peoples, seeing them as needing the guidance of the British whom she believed to be superior. During the Second World War she worked for the British Council in Egypt where she founded the Brotherhood of Freedom and produced radio programming to encourage Egyptians to be pro-British rather than nationalistic. There are mixed assessments about the results of her efforts.
Following the war, Freya spent time in India where she met Gandhi and Nehru. In 1972 she was named Dame of the British Empire. At 86 she travelled to the Himalayas, her last major trip.
Dame Freya Stark published a total of 24 travel books and biographies as well as eight volumes of letters. Her work reflected not only the geography of her travels but also her encounters with the people of the countries she visited. She was widely read: her books were reprinted repeatedly. The Valleys of the Assassins (1934) and The Southern Gates of Arabia (1936) are said to be classics.
Though recognized at the time as a scientific explorer, research since then has revealed factual errors and some self-mythologizing. Nonetheless, so much of her story is verifiable that she remains a remarkable figure.
Ruthven writes in his tribute to her: “Writing, like travel, she saw as the pursuit of truth.” Lawrence Durrell called her “a poet of travel” and “one of the most remarkable women of our age.”
If you want to learn more, I recommend reading Passionate Nomad: The Life of Freya Stark by Jane Fletcher Geniesse. Her story captures the free spirit and great sense of observation of this woman whose travels took her to places where few European men dared to go and whose skills as an observer and writer have left a rich legacy of accounts of the history and geography of an area that today is so much in the news.
Written for Sheroes of History by Kristine Greenaway
Find out more…
Freya Stark’s books are still widely available today. See a selection here.
BBC Radio 4’s Great Lives series featured Freya in an episode. You can listen to it here.