By Mark Evans, Outward Bound Oman

The society has been holding talks by inspiring people for over 100 years, but members back in March 1928 would have been doubly disappointed when a planned lecture was postponed for the second time. The events programme read;

Travels in Arabia by H St John B Philby CMG

Mr Philby hopes to fulfil this engagement which was cancelled owing to his having to return to Arabia. As political officer accompanying the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force, Mr. Philby has made excellent use of his opportunities of exploring Arabia and adjacent countries. He is considered one of the greatest authorities on these little-known lands.

RSGS 1928 Lecture Programme

Seven years earlier Philby had been presented with The Royal Geographical Society’s Founders Medal, the highest award the society could bestow, an award that had to be personally approved by King George. The medal was awarded to Philby as a result of his 1917 journey across Arabia, from east coast to west, an expedition that helped shape a nation, led to the biggest oil deal in the history of the planet and that added exceptional detail and understanding to the existing knowledge of Arabia.

Go to a bookshop in Scotland and ask for a book on desert exploration and you’ll probably be given Arabian Sands, a beautiful book written by explorer Wilfred Thesiger, immensely talented with both the pen and a black and white camera. For his two extraordinary journeys through the enormous Empty Quarter desert Thesiger may well be the most well known of all desert explorers, but he was not the first to travel in the sands, and he was only there for a relatively short period of time. What sets Philby apart from explorers such as Thesiger, and Bertram Thomas is that after arriving in Arabia in 1917 he devoted his entire life to its exploration, undertaking multiple expeditions, converting to Islam and meticulously recording everything that he observed; the cartographers at the RGS in London sharpened their pencils in eager anticipation of any visit.

With two Omani companions, in 2016 I was fortunate to secure approval to cross the Empty Quarter from Salalah in southern Oman, to Doha, the capital of Qatar. This 49-day journey, on foot and by camel, was the first time that route had been followed in 85 years since Bertram Thomas became the first European to cross the sands (considered by The Explorers Club to be the greatest expanse of unexplored territory outside of Antarctica). Part of the research preparation for that expedition took me to Cambridge, where Thomas’s papers had been stored after his death. In a box was a telegram written by Philby in March 1932 on hearing of Thomas’s successful crossing. It said just two words …. ‘Heartiest Congratulations’. Reputedly, on hearing the news of Thomas’s success Philby locked himself in a room and refused to come out for a week, muttering obscenities as he pondered his future. His dream of becoming the first to cross the sands was shattered, undone by asking for permission in Riyadh the previous year, a request that was declined. Thomas, based in Oman, undertook his crossing in complete secrecy.

Inspired to learn more about Philby I eventually picked up a copy of the book that he wrote about his award-winning journey of 1917. In great detail, The Heart of Arabia tells the story of his east to west journey across Arabia, from the Arabian Gulf to the Red Sea. Sent south from Baghdad under the instruction of people such as Gertrude Bell, the purpose of Philby’s journey was to travel into the interior of the desert to meet someone who it was felt had the ability to unite the squabbling tribes and so stop supplies reaching the Ottoman army. In 1917 the first world war was still raging and the future of Arabia was uncertain. To the west TE Lawrance (of Arabia) was doing his swashbuckling best to make life difficult for the Turks by blowing up trains and tracks, but still arms were getting through, and Philby’s job was to travel inland by camel and meet Abdulaziz Ibn Saud and strike up an agreement. On reaching Riyadh, and after extensive discussions with Ibn Saud it quickly became apparent that a continuation of his journey to the west coast would make sense, and on December 31st 1917 Philby and his team safely arrived in Jeddah.

So the Heart of Arabia expedition (see was born, to follow in Philby’s footsteps some 105 years later. On September 27th 2022 RSGS Deputy CEO Ross McKenzie was one of several VIPs greeting expedition patron Her Royal Highness Anne when she arrived at the RGS in London to formally launch the project. Ross wasn’t the only Scottish connection present at the launch; expedition leader Mark Evans is based in Beauly, outside of Inverness, expedition website designer Hayley Muir of Capercaillie Communications is based in Kirkhill, and Dan Holland and Pennie Latin who produced the Adventurous Audio expedition podcasts are based in Ullapool and in the Great Glen overlooking Loch Ness respectively.

On November 16th, exactly the same day that Philby came ashore in 1917 the expedition team arrived in the abandoned coastal port of Al Uqair and spent the next 14 days travelling inland by foot, camel and 4WD using Philby’s 1917 notes, book and images as guides. In so doing our journey took us to ancient mosques and forts, meteorite craters, vital waterholes and bustling, modern space age cities. Like Philby, on reaching Riyadh the team took a short break before commencing the second leg of the journey from Riyadh to Jeddah. Each day Reem Philby, Saudi grand-daughter of the great explorer and I would leave camp just after sunrise to cover as much ground as we could on foot before things got too hot. In the late morning the support vehicles-expertly led by Riyadh based expedition logistician Alan Morrissey would catch us up and we would use the heat of the day to cover the vast distances using the 4x4s, travelling, especially in leg two, through ever changing, spectacular and remote landscapes, all of which were expertly captured by expedition photographer Ana Maria Pavalache.

Mark Evans and Reeb Philby on the fringe of the Dahna Dunes © Ana Maria Pavalache

Approaching the descent of the Tuwaiq Escarpment © Ana Maria Pavalache

In Philby's footsteps at Qasr Ibrahim, Al Hofuf © Ana Maria Pavalache

For Philby leg 2 was a time of great caution. Here he was travelling in a potentially hostile area where the allegiance of the tribes was uncertain and raids were highly likely. Thankfully such tensions are long gone, and the expedition team enjoyed the legendary Arabian hospitality from start to end. Ten days into leg 2 we found ourselves shivering amongst a light frost at 6,600ft in the mountains above Taif, within sight of the holy city of Mecca and close to journeys end in old Jeddah, where, like Philby 105 years before, our 28-day journey across Arabia came to an end.

The 1917 journey was one of countless expeditions Philby undertook in Arabia throughout the remainder of his life. One of the last known photographs of him alive shows him standing outside his beloved Athenaeum Club in Piccadilly in London. It was 1960, and he was 75 years old. Several days later, whilst driving from London to Riyadh he stopped off in Beirut to see his son Kim, became unwell and passed away but not before sitting up in his bed to declare he was bored. Having converted to Islam many years earlier he was quickly buried in the El Bouchara graveyard, where his son scratched onto the tombstone ‘the greatest of all Arabian explorers’.

His passing was mourned by many within the geographical establishment. Thesiger wrote ‘when St John Philby died suddenly at the age of 75 in Beirut on September 30th 1960 on his way back to Arabia from London, the Royal Geographical Society lost one of its most distinguished explorers and a man of remarkable character’. The RGS secretary in 1960 was Laurence Kirwan, who wrote ‘During these long and often solitary desert journeys Philby was able to free himself from the political and moral controversies into which he so hotly plunged in more civilized surroundings. All attention was concentrated, without thought of personal comfort or advantage, on the scrupulously careful collection of scientific observations of all kinds. These formed the foundations of our knowledge of Arabia’.              

RSGS members who want to hear more about The Heart of Arabia expedition can listen to the expedition podcasts at Journey with Purpose - Heart of Arabia Expedition | Podcast on Spotify, and will be able to listen to Mark speak later in 2023 as part of the societies Inspiring People lecture programme. Hopefully he won’t be called back to Arabia, like Philby …..