Freya Stark is an RSGS Mungo Park Medallist. The below article was written by, RSGS Writer in Residence, Jo Woolf.
“Surely, of all the wonders of the world, the horizon is the greatest.”
Freya Stark was only four years old when she ran away from home. With careful forethought, she packed a mackintosh, a toothbrush and a couple of pennies before setting off in the direction of Plymouth. Luckily, the postman was walking up to her family’s Devonshire home at that moment, and after politely taking stock of her supplies he persuaded her that she needed more cash. Freya reluctantly agreed, and was returned to her parents; but her wanderlust never went away.
The daughter of two independent-minded artists who moved home almost as often as they changed their canvas, Freya grew up with a wide-eyed awareness of the world and a lifelong hunger to learn more. For her, an itinerant lifestyle was perhaps the only path she ever saw, but she was determined to experience the world on her own terms. Her uncompromising attitude was perhaps inherited from her father, whose free-thinking nature that made no judgements and saw only truth:
“I have never known anyone with less ”˜class-consciousness’… he never thought of people except as individuals, and had the same manner exactly towards all.”
What was it that first led Freya’s footsteps towards the Middle East? Perhaps it was her childhood passion for Sinbad the Sailor, or the powerful spell cast by One Thousand and One Arabian Nights; whatever it was, she learned Arabic and immersed herself in the culture of the desert lands. In 1927 she travelled to Damascus, and within minutes of leaving civilisation behind, she was captivated:
“Camels appeared on our left hand: first a few here and there, then more and more, till the whole herd came browsing along, five hundred or more… rolling gently over the landscape like a brown wave just a little browner than the desert that carried it. Their huge legs rose up all around me like columns… I stood in a kind of ecstasy among them. I never imagined that my first sight of the desert would come with such a shock of beauty and enslave me right away.”
Exploration, in the 1920s and 30s, was a fashionable indulgence that was largely the preserve of the rich. What made Freya so shockingly different from her peers was her disregard of class. She met everyone as an equal, a fellow human being worthy of respect and interest; she shared their food, slept under their roofs, heard their stories and offered them kindness. In return, she received friendship and even protection.
It is likely that Freya was a natural healer, because when she worked as a wartime nurse in Italy she discovered that her ”˜magnetic hand’ could relieve the pain of wounded soldiers. She saw more than her share of the Great War, and when hostilities broke out again in 1940 she was drafted into the Middle East by Britain’s Ministry of Information, trusted with spreading Allied propaganda; needless to say, she did it extremely well.
Freya’s ultimate joy was to travel alone, accompanied only by locally hired porters, into the uncharted territory represented by blank spaces on a map. She had a natural charm which she used throughout her life to her advantage, turning would-be aggressors into anxiously caring hosts with her smilingly persuasive manner; but her apparent vulnerability hid a strong will and an unshakeable instinct for survival. In 1941 she drove her Austin ”˜Standard Eight’ 1,200 miles from Cairo to Baghdad via Jerusalem, stopping overnight in villages and eventually pulling up at an RAF station where the servicemen regarded her in open-mouthed wonder: unknown to Freya, a visiting colonel had just sent a telegraph to request an armoured car.
If danger registered in Freya’s consciousness, she did not let it trouble her plans. Flying in the face of all sensible advice, she and a female friend trekked into the desert to visit the Bedouin Shammar tribe, who had once held the explorer Gertrude Bell captive. They were received like old friends, and Freya was in her element:
“We have a big tent to ourselves with white mattresses and purple cushions spread in it, and all the tents of the Sheikh’s family and slaves spread around, with horses, donkeys, camels, and small foals and children all out enjoying the short delicious season. I can’t tell you what a scene of peace and loveliness it is: the women sit out with their tents open on the sunny or shady side according to the time of day, and show us their old barbaric jewels and magic beads.”
Freya’s other great gift was her prose. In her lifetime she became a celebrated travel writer, beguiling her readers with titles such as ”˜Perseus in the Wind’ and ”˜A Winter in Arabia’. Her marriage to the distinguished Orientalist Stewart Perowne was short-lived and perhaps ill-advised, and she had no children; but she counted some of the world’s great leaders among her friends, and even in her eighties she had not lost the appetite for travel. She wrote that everything in life was an adventure – even death itself – and it isn’t hard to see why people loved her.
Visiting the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in 1936, Freya Stark spoke of her journey through the Valleys of the Assassins, whose name comes from ”˜hashishin’, the hemp which was traditionally grown there.
“We left Kazvin on a fine May morning to climb over the long ridge that divided us from the hidden world of the Elburz. The Persian flower-carpet lay on the ground – scabious and white convolvulus, vetches, borage, periwinkles and forget-me-nots, cornflowers and poppies in the patches of cornland, lilies and delphiniums and an infinite variety of small and brilliant blossoms in the waste stretches now glowing in their swift and transitory spring… It would be difficult, I think, to find a greater variety of flora anywhere in the world, in so small a compass of the earth’s surface.”
She also gave a glimpse of the immediate and widespread impact that her charm could have on a Persian community:
“…in a short time I seemed to have most of the notables of the city dropping in to my hotel with gossip, advice and quotations from the poets. The idea of a pilgrimage to the citadel of the Old Man [Hasan-i-Sabbah] whose history is still remembered in his own country, was so popular that the military and police, who were not enthusiastic about my project, were silenced simply by the strength of public opinion.”
In 1935 Freya Stark was awarded the Mungo Park medal of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society “for her explorations in northern Persia.”
– – – –
Article for RSGS by Jo Woolf, September 2015
Freya Stark (1937) ”˜The Valleys of the Assassins to the Caspian Sea’, Scottish Geographical Magazine, 53:3, 155-166
”˜Over the Rim of the World: Selected Letters of Freya Stark’ by Caroline Moorhead
”˜Baghdad Sketches’ by Freya Stark
”˜Traveller’s Prelude’ by Freya Stark