Not that long ago the inland borders between Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Yemen were shown on maps as a fuzzy, obviously arbitrary curve, or not shown at all. The reason for this is the Rub al Khali, or Empty Quarter. I’ve been reading Harry St. John Bridger Philby’s 1933 account of his crossing of the great desert and having a great time with it. St. John Philby was a British administrator who worked for many years in Arabia before realizing his lifelong dream of an expedition to the Empty Quarter. No one was known to have crossed it until Bertram Thomas beat Philby to it by a single year. Philby was philosophical; the privations he underwent and the diligent scientific collection he carried out show that the journey meant more to him than being first.
What does it mean to say first? Philby was accompanied by guides who knew where to find water and could put names to most of the places they visited. They told him, however, that though they went far into the desert in search of pastures and game, they had never heard of anyone going clear across rather than returning to the wells they set out from. It’s clear why this was a dangerous proposition. For the majority of their journey, Philby and his score or so of companions travelled between wells that were no more than a day or two apart. In the desert there was often water, though brackish or worse, no more than a few yards from the surface. Wells might be buried and difficult to locate, even if they had been covered to keep out the sand. Drinking water for the men was less of an issue than water for their camels, and the camels also required pasture, which depended on rain and was more unreliable. To cross the waterless heart of the desert was a journey of more than a week, and they had to be sure of finding food and water on the other side right away.
Everyone agreed that the seven or eight years before the expedition had been an especially harsh drought, on top of a much longer drying trend. Science was well equipped by this time to appreciate very long term changes in climate and geology, but little was known about the Empty Quarter and one of the expedition’s achievements was to fill this in. Gravel beds, freshwater shells, reed casts and flints all pointed to a much wetter Arabia. Philby and his companions also believed that there might be many more wells than met the eye at any one time, and that together they could easily have supported more than the current nomadic users who redug and abandoned them now and again. Led on in the hope of discovering the lost city of Wabar, Philby instead found a group of meteor craters, but it is still hard to avoid speculating on a once more populous Empty Quarter and the possibility that it was crossed by ancient routes.
I know that there are probably more eventful or more literary accounts of desert travel that I might have read. T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom and Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta come to mind. Compared to these, The Empty Quarter is a needlessly detailed, not to say boring, account of a grueling but straightforward journey. Philby recorded every gravel plain and dune range, every hare and lizard and grasshopper that he caught. He searched diligently, however, and it is beautiful to imagine, living as we do amid mountains of anthropocene garbage, what he must have felt when he found a single bronze arrowhead. Or when, after turning back in defeat from his first attempt to cross the truly waterless waste, there was a storm, and it began to rain:
Great black clouds of sand raced before the gale along the summits around us like squadrons of Valkyries, while from the higher dune tops streamed as it were dark pennants in the wind and the desert floor was swept as by driving snow, sheet after sheet of white sand… [the men] all day long paid visits to the surrounding dune tops, from which they shouted out to us in the hollow the news of the weather around us.
Philby himself is an intriguing, though not dazzling character. He was in fact the father of the infamous spy Kim Philby. After his great journey, Philby Sr. played some vague but discreditable part in securing oil leases for American companies in preference to British ones. (In this book there’s practically no mention of oil.) As someone remarked to me, it’s amazing they ever let his son near anything worth spying on.
He (the senior) was also a convert to Islam, and it’s thoroughly weird to glimpse a time when that fact was nothing near the provocation that it would seem today. He owed the entire journey to the first King Saud, and speaks approvingly of a Pax Wahhabi that had settled on the peninsula. (This reminds me that I really need to reread Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, a truly gripping book and a completely different take on some of the same territory.) The everyday aspect of the expedition was strongly influenced by the fact that the guides, otherwise so different from himself, were his coreligionists, and it will be interesting to read other accounts where this is not the case. Philby was one of several who adhered to a slightly more strict observance of the Ramadan fast; their disagreements seem to have been well rehearsed and at the same time marked by great tolerance.
Even after the fast was over, Philby and the others were incredibly abstemious. He claims to have drunk practically no fresh water, but only three pots of tea and a ration of milk every day, and he gave the milk up after a tiff over the shares. They forgot to pack flour, and when water was short they could cook no rice, so they lived on dates and whatever they could catch. Apparently the only time they felt really deprived was when they couldn’t find enough brush for a fire and had to go without coffee.
Nowadays the southern borders of Saudi Arabia are straight, precise lines. It’s staggering to think of the geological changes and the vast realignments of resources being brought about by oil extraction in the once empty places of the world.