Cultural Explorations of the Near East
Wilfred Thesiger and Richard Burton were explorers and anthropologists who introduced Middle Eastern culture to Europe. Their writings altered the perception of Arabic culture in ways that are still evident today. Ironically they also witnessed the cultural erosion caused by the encroachment of a fundamentally Western modernity.
With the global spread of communications and the wealth of information that is freely available the world can appear a small place, one in which the notion of cultural exploration and translation appear outmoded and archaic. This notion of exploration is epitomised by audacious and inquisitive individuals such as Richard Francis Burton and Wilfred Thesiger, who explored not only the landscapes but the cultures of North Africa and the Middle East in a time when such expeditions were still extremely perilous. Their observations of Arabic culture have continued, for better or worse, to shape Western perceptions of the region for decades to come. Whilst they lived in an era in which relations, and hostilities, between Europe and the Middle East were longstanding, they were able to unravel some of the cultural myths perpetuated about Arab culture and widen the parochial European conception of the ‘Near East’.
Burton is perhaps the more influential of the pair; his explorations began much earlier than those of Thesiger and had the larger impact on European perceptions of North Africa and the Middle East. He also had the more varied career, being at one time a translator, geographer, writer, orientalist, cartographer, ethnologist, spy, linguist, soldier, poet, fencer and diplomat. He is best remembered for his accomplishments as an explorer and ‘Orientalist’, as well as his abilities as a translator. He was the first Westerner to travel to Mecca on the Hajj, disguising himself as an Arab to do so, and recorded this adventure for European audiences. He was also the first to translate One Thousand and One Nights; a translation which is still considered definitive by many scholars. Sir Richard Burton's Travels in Arabia and Africa is a series of lectures Burton gave about his travels; these lectures were influential in shaping a collective European perspective about the Arab world. Whilst Burton has been dismissed by some as a Victorian Orientalist whose explorations merely served to reinforce Western dominance over the Near East, his own record of travels shows a far more nuanced perspective than this critique would suggest.
Wilfred Thesiger’s explorations on the other hand were through a terrain that was both more delimited and more transparent to Westerners; he is an archetype of the modern travel writer who reveals compelling new things about cultures and societies which seem opaque. He initially explored the Middle East and North Africa as a soldier with the British colonial forces and, very much in the mould of Lawrence of Arabia, led African troops into battle in the North African theatre of World War II. Following 1945 he explored the Rub’ al Khali desert, also known as the Empty Quarter, in the southern third of the Arabian Peninsula. The book he published about his travels, Arabian Sands, gives a still pertinent insight into the way in which modernisation can corrode traditional ways of life. It looks at the Bedouin tribes who traversed this vast and largely uninhabited region and shows how their thousand year old way of life was seemingly coming to an end, as the encroaching forces of modernity approached. As these forces of modernity irrevocably altered the Arabian landscape and Bedouin way of life, Thesiger’s role as cultural observer is also eroded; his elegy for the Bedouin way of life is also partly an elegy for his own, which just a few decades on would be no longer be possible.