I met a traveller from an antique land

Who said:  ’Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert.  Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:

And on the pedestal these words appear:

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Nothing beside remains.  Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ozymandias

Written in 1818, Shelley’s famous poem was inspired by the imminent arrival at the British Museum of an important relic from Egypt - a piece of a gigantic statue depicting the pharaoh Ramesses II.  With this in mind, I’m looking at some travellers in ‘antique lands’ who encountered their own desert mysteries…

In December 1930, as he made his way across the desert of the Rub’ al Khali or Empty Quarter in southern Arabia, Bertram Thomas’s attention was drawn to a well-worn track in the stony landscape.  His guides informed him that it led to Ubar.  ’It was a great city,’ they told him, ‘…rich in treasure, with date gardens and a fort of red silver.  It now lies buried beneath the sands in the Ramlat Shu’ait, some few days to the north.’


Bertram Thomas (RSGS Collections)


Thomas had read about the lost city of Ubar in the writings of earlier travellers and archaeologists.  Known as ‘the Atlantis of the Sands’, it was the subject of much local tradition and folklore.  One story warned that it was inhabited by jinn, malevolent spirits who destroyed anyone attempting to reach it.  Archaeologists had speculated that Ubar may have been abandoned after its water supply dried up, and it was eventually engulfed by sand.  May’yuf, one of Thomas’s companions, revealed that, as a boy, he had come across sherds of coloured pottery and two carved blocks of stone so big that they would have taken two men to lift them. 

Although he was intrigued, Thomas decided against going to look for Ubar.  He wrote:  ’It would have been suicidal for me… to have turned aside into that arid pasture-less waste:  moreover our water was scarcely sufficient to carry us along to the next water-hole.’  He did, however, wonder whether Ubar was the equivalent of Ophir, a place mentioned in the Bible as being rich in gold.  Then he turned his attention back to the real purpose of his expedition:  a daring bid to cross the still-uncharted Empty Quarter, which he completed in February 1931. 

Other explorers, including T E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), Harry St John Philby, Wilfred Thesiger and Sir Ranulph Fiennes, have been fascinated by the puzzle of Ubar.  Excavations in the 1990s, led by archaeologist Nicholas Clapp, unearthed ancient towers at Shisr in Oman, which were claimed to be the remains of Ubar;  however, some scholars have contested this conclusion.


Ruins at Shisr

It was another Arabian city, one called Shabwa, that captured the imagination of Freya Stark.  Unlike Bertram Thomas, however, she had every intention of finding it.  Mentioned in the writings of Pliny the Elder in the 1st century AD, Shabwa was said to lie on an ancient frankincense route, and there were stories of fabulous treasure buried in its ruins.  Many European travellers had searched for Shabwa in vain.  Freya wrote to a friend:  ‘If I do succeed, it will lift the veil off quite a big little corner of historical geography.’


Freya Stark

In January 1935, Freya departed from the sea port of Mukallah on the Arabian Sea, and headed north into the region of Hadhramaut with a small party of Bedouin guides and four donkeys.  Along the wadis, she was fascinated to visit mud-walled towns that had been built on watering-stations, and she noticed that the roofs of houses had been decorated with ibex horns in an age-old tradition.  But some way into her journey, she stayed in a settlement where measles was rife, and caught it herself.  Making a partial recovery, she struggled on, but eventually her health broke down and she had to be airlifted from the town of Shibam by the RAF.

Freya’s quest for Shabwa was at an end.  The following year, it fell to the British diplomat Harry St John Philby to become the first western visitor to Shabwa and make a thorough examination of the city’s ruins.  Freya described her journey in her book, The Southern Gates of Arabia.  Only in her dreams, she wrote, had she trodden the emptiness of Shabwa’s imperial road.  It was a huge disappointment.  ‘But,’ she added, ‘the valleys of Hadhramaut which lead up to it… still tempt one by the strangeness of their beauty.’



Nearly 3,000 miles to the east, maybe a decade before Freya’s quest for Shabwa, three women were riding mules beneath the scorching sun of the Gobi Desert.  Mildred Cable and her two friends, Eva and Francesca French, were on their way to visit the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas.  

Mildred, Eva and Francesca were no strangers to the desert.  As Christian missionaries, they had spent many years following old trade routes and caravan tracks to visit far-flung communities in western China and Tibet.  In Dunhuang, an oasis city on the Silk Road, local people assured them that the Caves were worth seeing, so they headed off on a sightseeing expedition that was also something of a pilgrimage.


Mildred Cable, Eva and Francesca French

Overnight accommodation was available in a nearby guest house whose proprietor, Wang Yuanlu, was the caretaker of the Caves.  ’Early next morning,’ wrote Mildred, ‘standing at the foot of the cliff, we looked up at the great facade, pierced with innumerable openings, each one of which was the entrance to a temple or shrine.’  Inside, flickering candlelight revealed an astonishing wealth of paintings and carvings.  


Painting inside the Mogao Caves (Caves of the Thousand Buddhas)

Mildred, Eva and Francesca were seldom in one place for very long.  Their desert journeys, made in the cool of the night, took them past ruined settlements and walled fortresses whose crumbling walls were lit by a million stars.  ‘With the rising of the moon,’ wrote Mildred, ‘the desert takes on its most captivating appearance... she is a mistress of magic and with one touch can turn the wilderness into a dream world.’

But did anyone go and look for the rest of Ozymandias, decaying magnificently amid the ‘lone and level sands’?  Firstly, Shelley was using some poetic licence:  the statue came from the Ramesseum, a memorial temple at Thebes on the west bank of the Nile.  It was certainly within a desert environment, but by the early 1800s it was also a well-known destination on the trail of early tourists.  


 Emily Anne Beaufort, later Viscountess Strangford

In 1859, Emily Anne Beaufort and her sister, Rosamund, took a boat trip up the Nile, and Emily kept a journal of their experiences.  Emily and Rosamund were the daughters of Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort, Hydrographer to the British Navy and creator of the Beaufort Scale.  While they were obviously conscious of the rules governing women’s appearance, these sisters didn’t let restrictive clothing get in the way of their sightseeing.  

‘Leave your crinoline in Cairo,’ was Emily’s advice to other women who might want to try ascending the Great Pyramid.  She and Rosamund achieved this by being passed bodily from one guide to the next until they reached the top.  The Ramesseum drew her attention for its ‘splendid statues, the head of one of which is now in the British Museum.’  At the Great Temple of Abu Simbel, where the entrance was almost completely blocked by sand, Emily and Rosamund took turns to be pulled through into the interior by their feet.  Here, too, huge sculptures of Ramesses II lined the facade, and on their faces Emily saw expressions of ‘majestic sweetness.’  Shelley’s Ozymandias might have been secretly embarrassed.


Abu Simbel by David Roberts, c.1840

One thing that these desert travellers had in common was their curiosity, and they were willing to endure uncomfortable conditions in order to satisfy it.  The rewards were extraordinary.  ’Here was more than beauty,’ wrote Freya Stark.  ‘We were remote, as in a place closed by high barriers from the world.  No map had yet printed its name for the eyes of strangers.  A sense of quiet life, unchanging, centuries old and forgotten, held our pilgrim souls in its peace.’ 

‘Deserts’ is the theme of our next Discovery Day, which will be held at the Fair Maid’s House in Perth on 1st June. Tickets

Quotes and reference:

Bertram Thomas, Arabia Felix (1932)

Freya Stark, The Southern Gates of Arabia (1936)

Freya Stark, A Winter in Arabia (1972)

Freya Stark, The Valleys of the Assassins (1934)

Mildred Cable and Francesca French, The Gobi Desert (1942)

Emily Anne Beaufort, Egyptian Sepulchres and Syrian Shrines (1862)