Harry St John Philby (father of the spy Kim Philby)

Paul Lunde wrote in Saudi Aramco World: A number of “European travelers and missionaries took advantage of the pax mongolica to travel to the Far East in the early 14th century. Several of them, including Odoric of Pordenone, Fray Jordan Catalán de Sévérac and Fray Pascual de Vitoria, sailed home through the Indian Ocean. They wrote short accounts of their travels that supplement, but do not eclipse, Marco Polo’s.” (Marco Polo, See Below”[Source: Paul Lunde, Saudi Aramco World, July-August 2005 |:|]

In 1510, a Bolognese traveler named Ludovico di Varthema returned to Italy after a six year trip in the East. He was the first European to visit the holy places of Islam. Several Englishmen such as Mungo Park (1795-97, 1805-06) and Hugh Clapperton (1822-27) and Frenchman René Caillié (1827-28) and German Heinrich Barth (1850-56), backed by the British, were attracted by the tale of Timbuktu and crossed the Sahara to explore the Niger Basin. Mungo Park had been recommended by Sir Joseph Banks, who accompanied Captain Cook on his voyage around the world,. Following the writings of Ibn Battuta, Park set out to find the Niger. On his second expedition he drowned.

European explorers began probing the interior of southern Arabia in the 18th century. Many had little success. A Danish expedition returned in 1779 with only one survivor. In the early 20th century, European explorers rose the challenge of trying to cross the Empty Quarter of Arabia and find the lost city of Ubar. Among these were T.E. Lawrence and Harry St. John Philby (father of the spy Kim Philby)

Islamic History: Islamic History Resources ; Internet Islamic History Sourcebook ; Islamic History ; Islamic Civilization ; Muslim Heritage ; Brief history of Islam ; Chronological history of Islam

Marco Polo In the Middle East and Arabia

From Turkey, Marco Polo and his father and uncle entered northwest Iran and traveled through Tabriz to Saveh near the Caspian Sea and then headed southeast toward Minab (Hormuz) on the Persian Gulf, passing through the towns of Yazd, Kerman, Bam and Qamadi. The Polos traveled much of the way by horseback, using horses, Marco Polo wrote, were "directly descended from Alexander's horse Bucephalus out of mares that had conceived from him with a horn on the forehead." [Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, May 2001, June 2001, July 2001 **]

After leaving Saveh, Marco Polo is believed to have joined a caravan for protection against bandits. He wrote that in this part of Persia there were "many cruel people and murderers." The Polos probably traveled about 25 miles a day to cover the 310 mile distance between Saveh and Yazd. There isn't much between the two towns, except high desert with very little water. Yazd is an oasis fed by qanats. Marco Polo wrote about "many clothes of silk which are called lasdi are made, which the merchants carry them to many parts to make their profit." **

Marco Polo

The Polos arrived at the port of Hormuz and described the goods he saw on sale there: “precious stones and pearls and cloth of silk and gold and elephant tusks ad many other wares." The plan was to take a boat to India, then to Zaiton or Quinsai in China. In the end the Polos changed their mind and traveled on the overland route, perhaps because of the condition of the ships. Marco Polo wrote, "Their ships are very bad, and many of them are lost because they are not nailed with iron pins" but instead used "thread which is made of the husks of nuts of Indie." “It is a great danger to sail in those ships." Ships fitting Marco Polo's description were used in the area until a few decades ago. **

Paul Lunde wrote in Saudi Aramco World: Marco Polo traveled “to Aden, “the port to which all the ships from India come.” He describes how ships transfer their cargoes to smaller boats in the harbor, “sail for seven days along a river” (presumably the Red Sea), and then transfer the goods to camel-back and send them overland on a 30-day trip to the Nile and thence to Alexandria and the Mediterranean. “He describes three other flourishing Arabian ports—Shihr, Dhufar and Qalhat, all exporting fine horses to India; Shihr and Dhufar also exported frankincense. He then crossed the Gulf to Hormuz, not the “New Hormuz” that Ibn Battuta saw on the island of Jarun, but the mainland town. Marco describes the system of ventilators (badgir) that funneled cool air into the interior of the houses and made life bearable.” [Source: Paul Lunde, Saudi Aramco World, July-August 2005]

From Minab (Hormuz) on the Persian Gulf, the Polos backtracked and passed through Qamadin, Bam and Kerman again and entered Afghanistan from northeast Iran. In Kerman they probably joined a camel caravan for the journey across the Dash-e-Lut, the Desert of Emptiness. They had to carry great quantities of water in goat skin for the springs are either too salty or contain toxic chemicals. In the Dash-e-Lot, Marco Polo wrote of bandits that "make the whole day become dark by their enchantments" and "they kill all the old, and the young they take and sell them for serf or for slaves." **

See Separate articles on Marco Polo Under Silk Road Explorers Under Asian Topics

Muslims Discovered America, Says Turkish President

In 2014, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the leader of Turkey, claimed that Muslim sailors reached the American continent in 1178 – exactly 314 years before Columbus. Associated Press reported: “Speaking at a gathering of Muslim leaders from Latin America, Erdogan said contact between Islam and Latin America dated back to the 12th century. “It is alleged that the American continent was discovered by Columbus in 1492,” Erdogan said. “In fact, Muslim sailors reached the American continent 314 years before Columbus, in 1178...In his memoirs, Christopher Columbus mentions the existence of a mosque atop a hill on the coast of Cuba,” adding that he’d like to see a mosque built on the hilltop today. [Source: Associated Press, 16 November 2014]

Scholars have disputed the claim in Columbus’s writings, saying there is no archaeological evidence of Muslims having lived in the Americas before Columbus, an Italian, made his expedition in 1492 on behalf of the Spanish crown. Who discovered the Americas has long been a controversial issue with various scholars and historians claiming that others arrived before Columbus.”

European Expeditions

In 1906, British explorer Hanns Vischer crossed the heart of the Sahara desert from Tripoli, Libya to Lake Chad through Ottoman, French and British lands in present-day Libya, Niger and Nigeria. Following the “Deadly Road,” Vischer’s team of 40 men and women, 40 camels and two horses made the 1,581-mile journey in 5½ months. Vischer described his hardhsip,s attacks by hostile trines and marauding Tuaregs in his 1910 book “Across the Sahara”. On the Sahara, he wrote: “i had entered it frivolously, like a fool. I left it as one stunned, crushed by the deadly majesty I had seen too closely.” Amazingly Vischer’s team mad the journey without any loss of life.

Vischer’s journey was retraced in the early 2000s by British explorer John Hare. His team of 12 men traversed 1,462 miles in 3½ months with 25 camels. He laost two camels to hunger and esxhusion.

Georges-Marie Haardt, leader of the Citroën Central Africa Expedition of 1924 was the first to cross the African continent by automobile. The eight trucks in the expedition traveled 15,000 miles. After finding three parched dead bodies in the Sahara, Haardt wrote in National Geographic, "How long did these victims of thirst fall by the wayside? Their clothes, mere frayed-out tatters, still remain; from an open bag grain s of corn lie spilled, and on this caused soil are unable to take root. We pass on in silence.

Haardt's team driver 330 miles without finding water in the Tanezrouft region. "Any breeze there is becomes a torrent. We are suffocated, saturated with dust; we could almost believe ourselves to be like men turned into red brick." [Source: National Geographic, June 1926]

Sir Richard Burton

Arguably, the most colorful explorer since the time of Pizarro and Cortés was a Victoria-era Englishman named Richard Burton (1821-1890). The most famous explorer of his time, he was a pioneering anthropologist who spoke 25 languages and 15 dialects, including the Afghan dialect of Jataki, and filled 43 volumes with observations about customs and natural phenomena and his adventures. [Source: Michael Kernan, Smithsonian]

Sir Richard Burton

Ben MacIntyre wrote in the New York Times: “In the heyday of Victorian expansionism, a certain sort of Englishman believed he could do anything, go anywhere, discover everything, rule every―where. None believed in that credo more passionately than Sir Richard Francis Burton: adventurer, linguist, soldier, archaeologist, poet, spy, mystic, fencer, diplomat, pederast (possibly), sexual explorer (certainly), translator, controversialist and master of disguise. Indestructible, charismatic and extravagantly scarred (the legacy of a Somali spear that passed through both cheeks), Burton was also irascible, domineering, unquenchably curious and slightly unhinged.” [Source: Ben MacIntyre, New York Times, May 10, 2009]

Burton was the first non-Muslim European to enter Mecca and write about the experience. He also participated in an expedition that discovered Lake Victoria in eastern Africa and for all intents and purposes discovered the source of the Nile. He translated the classic “Thousand and One Nights”, also known as “Arabian Nights”, and scandalized London by privately publishing an unexpurgated translation of the Kama Sutra, the Hindu treatise on sexuality. In his 16-volume translation of “The Arabian Nights”, Burton provided footnoted information on female circumcision, homosexuality and bestiality. The English version of the” Scented Garden Men's Hearts to Gladden”, he wrote, would be "a marvelous repository of eastern wisdom: how eunuchs are made and married...female circumcision, the fellahs copulating with crocodiles."

Books: “Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton” by Edward Burton; “The Collector of Worlds” by Iliya Troyanov, a fictional account of Burton’s life, translated by William Hobson (Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers), 2009] .

Burton's Earl Life, Appearance and Character

Burton was born in Torquay, Devon in March 1821. His father was an Irish-born British army officer of Anglo-Irish extraction. His mother was the daughter and co-heiress of a wealthy English squire. Burton's family travelled considerably during his childhood. In 1825, they moved to Tours, France. Burton's early education was provided by various tutors employed by his parents. He first began a formal education in 1829 at a preparatory school on Richmond Green in Richmond, Surrey. [Source: Wikipedia]


Over the next few years, his family travelled between England, France, and Italy. Burton showed an early gift for languages and quickly learned French, Italian, Neapolitan, and Latin, as well as several dialects. During his youth, he was rumored to have carried on an affair with a young Roma (Gypsy) woman, learning the rudiments of her language, Romani. The peregrinations of his youth may have encouraged Burton to regard himself as an outsider for much of his life. As he put it, "Do what thy manhood bids thee do, from none but self expect applause".

Burton was expelled from Oxford and became a captain in the Bombay Native Infantry. He first made a mark for himself in Karachi where he was the only person who spoke Sindi, the local language. He was hired by the governor of the Sind to investigate a homosexual red light district and make sure no British soldiers where were corrupted. He disguised himself and hung out at the brothels. He filed an extensive report on sexual activity among Indians and the brothel's were shut down.

Burton was about six-feet-tall and powerfully built. His wife Isabel once wrote that what attracted her was his "gypsy yes" and "fierce, proud, melancholy expression" beneath his "clearly defined, sagacious eyebrows." Others said he had "questing panther eyes," "eyes like a wild beast," and "a look of unspeakable horror which gave him at times an almost unearthly appearance."

Burton was a superb swordsman and expert at playing blindfolded chess. He enjoyed drinking bhang (a beverage made from hashish) and had a pipeful of opium now and again. The origins of gunpowder, cannibalism, Sinbad's legendary giant bird, snake bad breath, Arab wines and handshakes, and sexual relations between older English men and young foreign boys are among the thousands of subjects he wrote about. Unfortunately his translation of the “Scented Garden”, a "15th century piece of Arab erotica,” was destroyed by his wife after his death along with his private journals.

His disguises were so convincing that once on the streets of Cairo he brushed against a friend who told his companion "Dama that nigger's impudence! If he does that again I'll kick him." Burton turned around and scolded "That's a nice way to welcome a fellow after two year's absence. "By God," the friend bellowed, "it's Ruffian Dick."

Burton and Isabel Arunell

Lady Isabel Burton

When Burton was 39 he married Isabel Arunell who was ten years younger than him. The couple first spied each in Paris and before they were even introduced a 19-year-old Isabel whispered to her sister, "This man will marry me." The next day she made sure to be walking at the same place at the same time and Burton wrote "May I speak to You" on a wall with some chalk, and she replied "No, mother will be angry."

Years before a gypsy named Hagar told Isabel that she would marry a man bearing the name of his tribe and take her to strange lands. Burton and Arunell didn't meet again until several years later at a dance in Boulogne, when they began seriously courting and she told him she had read all his books said if she were a man she might have done all the things he did. Their engagement lasted five years.

When Burton asked her to marry him she replied, "I would rather have a tent and a crust with you than be queen of all the world. And so I say now: Yes, yes, yes.” Her mother was not so enthralled and opposed the marriage. Isabel tried fruitlessly to convert her husband to Catholicism but failed. She once described her life as a routine of "pay, pack and follow" with months of waiting for her husband to return thrown in.

Burton in Mecca

Sir Richard Burton was one of the first westerners to witness the Hajj. He donned Arab robes, stained his skin with walnut juice and pretended he was a Pathan doctor, treating his patients with "magic nostrums, incantations, aphrodisiacs and hypnosis." He contracted syphilis and his three volume chronicle of his experiences was a bestseller.

Burton’s account of his pilgrimage to Mecca made him famous. Ben MacIntyre wrote in the New York Times: “He adopted Muslim customs and Islamic ritual so perfectly that he was able to complete the pilgrimage to Mecca in 1853 undetected, having completed his disguise by the radical precaution of having himself circumcised.” [Source: Ben MacIntyre, New York Times, May 10, 2009]

Burton in Arab clothes

At the Kaaba he wrote: "What a scene of contrasts! Here stalked the Badawi woman, in her long black robe like a nun's serge, and poppy-coloured face-veil, pierced to show two fiercely flashing orbs. There an Indian woman, with her semi-Tartar features, nakedly hideous, and her thin legs, encased in wrinkled tights...Every now and then a corpse, borne upon its wooden shell, circuited the shrine by means of four bearers...In another, some poor wretch with arms thrown on high, so every part of his person might touch the Ka'abah, was clinging to the curtain and sobbing as though his heart would break." Had he been identified he would have been killed.

Burton and the Search for the Nile

Burton teamed up with explorer John Hanning Speke (1827-1864) in 1858 to find the source of the Nile. Speke discovered Lake Victoria, which is almost the source and produced the beautifully illustrated “Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile”.

Burton's 1857-59 Africa expedition to find the source of the Nile was made into the film “Mountains of the Moon”. Speke was a young blue-blooded adventurer. Speke. On their first penetration into the interior they tried to reach the Nile from the Somali coast but where attacked by Somali tribesmen. Burton was stabbed in the face but managed to keep fighting even though he had javelin sticking through both cheeks.

They tried again, this from the coast of present-day Tanzania. Their party of 132 reached an Arab trading post on Lake Tanganika where they traded fishhooks, bottles of chardanay, umbrellas, brass, wire, barometers and beads for food and advice on how to reach their goal. Later Spekes said he wanted to head north and look for a lake the Arab traders had described. Burton decided that he wanted to work on his notes and told Spekes to go ahead on his own.

Spekes spent a month working his way through the bush until he came across a huge lake which he christened "Lake Victoria." During a second expedition in 1860 and 63, Spekes and followed the Nile from Lake Victoria with an officer named James Grant. Spekes showed that Lake Victoria emptied into the Nile but he failed to show whether or not the lake was fed by other lakes. Burton argued that Lake Tanganika emptied into Lake Victoria and challenged Speke to debate at the Royal Geographical Society. Even though he was closer to truth than Burton (the source is actually a spring in Burundi), Spekes committed suicide before the debate. One of the reasons Henry Stanley — of Stanley and Livingston fame — went to Africa was to see if Burton's conjecture was correct. He circumnavigated Lake Tanganikya and showed that it didn't empty into Lake Victoria.

In 1860, Burton met Brigham Young, the founder of the Mormon Church, in Salt Lake City. Burton went to America to fight Indians and investigate the polygamy of the Mormons. He and Young talked for about an hour and Burton was impressed by how calm and young-looking Young was. They talked about Utah, livestock and Young's collection of guns.

Burton himself died in October 1890 at the age of 69 from a bad heart. During the last 30 years of his life he held several government positions in South America and the Middle East and compiled and edited his notes

Isabella Bird

Isabella Bird

Isabella Bird, also known under her married surname of Bishop (1831-1904), was British traveler in western Iran and Kurdistan during the late Victorian period. According to Encyclopædia Iranica: “Coming from a line of Warwickshire gentry with strong links with the East India Company and the Anglican Church, Isabella inherited a firm Evangelical Christian faith plus a strong humanitarian strain, doubtless strengthened by her family’s links with the Wilberforce family, which had been active in the agitation against the slave trade in early 19th-century Britain. Her early years were spent in semi-invalidism, but from the 1860s, she acquired a new lease on life as a world-wide traveler, including to North America, Hawaii, Japan, and Malaya, marrying in 1881 the physician Dr. John Bishop. [Source: Encyclopædia Iranica]

In 1889 she traveled to India, where she had a special interest in medical missions, and returned via the Middle East, virtually the whole of 1890 being taken up by a trip from Basra to Baghdad and Tehran and thence to Isfahan. From there she resolved to traverse Luristan and then passed through Borujerd and Hamadan northwards through Persian Kurdistan to Urmia, finally making her way through eastern Turkey to Trebizond and home. Her book Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan, Including a Summer in the Upper Karun Region and a Visit to the Nestorian Rayahs was published in two volumes at London in 1891 (repr. 1988-89). It describes her dogged endurance of hardships, through mountainous and difficult terrain, with extremes of climate and tribal regions where the Ba?tiari chiefs, at that time involved in much family strife and rivalry, were not always able to restrain the predatory instincts of their followers, and where the writ of local Qajar governors barely ran. Her topographical observations regarding the orography of the high Ba?tiari country are valuable, and she was the first to note that the Karun river rose, not from the foot of the Zardakuh, but further north in the Kuh-e Rang. The whole journey was a tour-de-force for a woman of nearly 60. It earned her membership of the Royal Geographical Society in London in 1893, the pioneer woman honorary member. Her last years were spent in further travels to the Far East and in the Atlas mountains of Morocco.

Gertrude Bell

Gertrude Bell is another adventurous Englishwoman who eloquently wrote about her adventures in the Middle East. She embarked on a journey in 1905 with no male companions from Jerusalem and made her way through Damascus, Hama and Aleppo. ''Until I speak, the people here think I am a man,'' Bell wrote to her father. ''You mustn't think I haven't got a most elegant and decent divided skirt, however, but as all men wear skirts of sorts, that doesn't serve to distinguish me.'' Her books include “Desert and the Sown”.

Gertrude Bell in Iraq in 1909 at age 41

On sharing a tent beside the Dead Sea with gypsies and a belly dancer Bell wrote: "[T]he fire of dry thorns flickered up -- faded and flickered again. . . . The men played a drum and a discordant fife and sang a monotonous song and clapped their hands and gradually she came nearer and nearer to me, twisting her slender body till she dropped down on the heap of brushwood at my feet, and kneeling, her body still danced and her arms swayed and twisted round the mask like face."

Oxford-educated Bell was an eminent archaeologist who founded the Baghdad Museum and helped found modern Iraq. ''I do know these people, the Arabs,'' Bell wrote to her brother when she joined the British High Commission in Baghdad in 1916. ''I have been in contact with them in a way which is possible for no official, and it is that intimacy and friendship which makes me useful.'' [Source: Alan Riding, New York Times, August 19, 2004]

Ron Grossman wrote in the Chicago Tribune, Gertrude Bell was one of those rare figures for whom the expression "larger than life" is too small...A real-life Indiana Jones, she made important archeological discoveries in an era when the methodology involved bribing local nabobs and packing a gun lest the natives not be friendly. A linguistic polymath, she translated the love lyrics of medieval Persian poet Hafiz. [Source: Ron Grossman, Chicago Tribune, May 19, 2007 \~/]

“She ran Iraq when Britain, which won World War I, cobbled together that country out of bits and pieces of the Turkish Empire, which lost the war. A daughter of the English industrial class, she fell in love with the parched landscapes of the Middle East and went native, albeit loading her caravans with fine china and formal gowns. She so mastered the language and culture of the Bedouins that members of the Beni Sakhr, a tribe not well-disposed toward outsiders, saluted her as one of their own. “'Mashallah! Bint Arab,' they declared -- 'As God has willed it: a daughter of the desert,' “Georgina Howell writes in "Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations." \~/

“When World War I ended with the Turkish Empire's defeat, Bell lobbied tirelessly for its Arab inhabitants to be given their independence. It was probably her achievement, though credit is usually given to T.E. Lawrence, perhaps better known as Lawrence of Arabia. (Such is the benefit of being played in a movie by Peter O'Toole.) But it was certainly Bell who successfully argued for Iraq to be one part Kurdish, another Shiite, a third Sunni -- a formula whose inherent problems plague us still. She baby-sat her creation, serving as chief adviser to Iraq's first King Faisal, until taking an overdose of sleeping pills in 1926.” \~/

Wilfred Thesiger

Wilfred Thesiger in 1934

In 1947, Sir Wilfred Thesinger (died 2003) was the first Westerner to cross the Empty Quarter. He crossed it from present-day southern Oman to Abu Dhabi in the present day United Arab Emirates with Omani guides and companions. He described the experience in “Arabian Sands”. The fete was not replicated until the early 2000s.

Wilfred Thesiger is regarded as the last of the great gentlemen explorer-adventurers. The great explorer-adventurer wrote ‘Arabian Sands,’ ‘The Marsh Arabs’ and an autobiography called ‘The Life of my Choice’.

Toby Green wrote in The Independent, “Thesiger's life was nothing if not well-travelled. For most of it, he spent at least three-quarters of each year in regions such as the marshes of Iraq (subsequently destroyed by Saddam Hussein), the Arabian deserts, the Darfur region of Sudan (where he served as a colonial officer), the mountains of Afghanistan and Iran, and the highlands of East Africa. He would usually travel by camel or on foot, disdaining all motorised transport, before at some point returning to London. Here he would meet friends at his club, and every year or two spend time travelling with his mother in Iberia, Italy, Morocco and the Near East. [Source: Toby Green, The Independent, 17 February 2006]

Book: Wilfred Thesiger: The Life of the Great Explorer by Alexander Maitland, HarperCollins, 2006

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.