The Cheltenham Literature Festival – 5th to 14th October 2018
Authors on location – Freya Stark
16th August 2018
#AuthorsOnLocation – FREYA STARK
For some writers location is as integral to their story-telling as plot or character. TripFiction takes a look at some of these authors, for whom a sense of place has helped to define their literary output. For the twelfth in the series we have chosen Freya Stark.
Born in 1893, Freya Stark was an Anglo-Italian travel writer and explorer. In an extraordinary life, she wrote more than twenty books about her travels to Afghanistan and the Middle East, as well as autobiographies and essays. She was one of the first non-Arab people to explore the Arabian desert, served with an ambulance unit in WW1, received a special Royal Geographic Society Award in 1933 and died in 1993, a few months after her 100th birthday.
Here are just a few of the books she wrote about her remarkable travel experiences during a long and adventurous life.
A Winter in Arabia: A Journey through Yemen – travelogue set in Yemen
Freya Stark is most famous for her travels in Arabia at a time when very few men, let alone women, had fully explored its vast hinterlands.
In 1934, she made her first journey to the Hadhramaut in what is now Yemen – the first woman to do so alone. Even though that journey ended in disappointment, sickness and a forced rescue, Stark, undeterred, returned to Yemen two years later.
Starting in Mukalla and skirting the fringes of the legendary and unexplored Empty Quarter, she spent the winter searching for Shabwa – ancient capital of the Hadhramaut and a holy grail for generations of explorers.
From within Stark’s beautifully-crafted and deeply knowledgeable narrative emerges a rare and exquisitely-rendered portrait of the customs and cultures of the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula.
Baghdad Sketches – travelogue set in Iraq
Freya Stark first journeyed to Iraq in 1927. Seven years after the establishment of the British Mandate, the modern state was in its infancy and worlds apart from the country it has since become.
During her many years in Iraq, Freya Stark was witness to the rise and fall of the British involvement in the country as well as the early years of independence. Typically – and controversially – she chose to live outside the close-knit western expatriate scene and immersed herself in the way of life of ordinary Iraqis – living in the ‘native’ quarter of the city and spending time with its tribal sheikhs and leaders.
Venturing out of Baghdad, she travelled to Mosul, Nineveh, Tikrit and Najaf, where she perceptively describes the millennia-old tensions between Sunni and Shi’a, time not having dissipated their hatred. In the 1940s she returned again, this time travelling south, to the Marsh Arabs, whose way of life has now all but disappeared; north into Kurdistan and later, Kuwait, in the days before the oil boom.
Painting a portrait of both the political and social preoccupations of the day as exquisitely as she does the people and landscapes of Iraq, Baghdad Sketches is a remarkable portrait of the country as it once was.
The Minaret of Djam – autobiography/memoirs & travelogue set in Afghanistan
The 12th century minaret of Djam is one of Afghanistan’s most celebrated treasures, a magnificent symbol of the powerful Ghorid Empire that once stretched from Iran to India. The second tallest brick minaret in the world, Djam lies in the heart of central Afghanistan’s wild Ghor Province. Surrounded by 2,000 metre-high mountains and by the remains of what many believe to have been the lost city of Turquoise Mountain – one of the greatest cities of the Middle Ages – Djam is, even today, one of the most inaccessible and remote places in Afghanistan.
When Freya Stark travelled there, few people in the world had ever laid eyes on it or managed to reach the desolate valley in which it lies. Her journey from Kabul to Kandahar and Herat was difficult and often dangerous but her account shines with humour and is adorned with beautiful descriptions of the land she journeyed through and the people she encountered.
A celebrated portrait of Afghanistan and its history, ‘The Minaret of Djam’ is a poignant reminder that this was once far more than just a country ravaged by war and the political games of the world’s superpowers. ‘It is as the writer of beautiful, measured prose rather than as a traveller or as an exotic ‘character’ who wore Dior in the wilder reaches of Asia and Arabian dress in London, that Freya Stark will ultimately be remembered.’
Ionia: A Quest – travelogue set in Turkey
When Freya Stark travelled along the western coast of Turkey in 1952 she met only one other tourist. Today, this region is the most popular and well-travelled in the country, but to travel with Stark – whose aim was to ‘create a guide-book in time’ – is to experience Turkey in a richer and more inspiring way than any modern guide or history can provide.
In the ruins and vanished cities of Ionia lay the record of human history – of what, Stark believed, made us what we are today. Her longing to know more, to unearth the living from the wreckage of the past and to discover the ingredients that shaped the ancient world drove her forward.
With Herodotus as her travelling companion, she began her quest in Smyrna and traced a route through the ancient cities of Asia Minor, which were haunted by echoes of Odysseus and Alexander the Great and by the poets and philosophers, musicians and mathematicians who flourished in this world.
Wandering beyond the boundaries of travel, Stark entered into the soul of ancient Ionia, examining the ever-present tension between East and West and the elements of religion, society and commerce that forged the culture of a civilisation.
A journey through the ancient world that resonates in the modern, Freya Stark’s ‘Ionia’ is travel writing at its most elegant and history at its most dynamic – a powerful and beautifully-rendered classic of twentieth-century literature.
The Lycian Shore – travelogue set in Turkey
‘There are not so many places left where magic reigns without interruption and of all those I know, the coast of Lycia was the most magical.’
Lycia, on the southwestern coast of Turkey, is an ancient land steeped in mystery, myth and legend. Home to the fiery chimera and to the great heroes Sarpedon and Penderus; heartland of worship for the goddess Leto and her children Apollo and Artemis; old ally of Troy, lure to conquering Cyrus and Alexander and to centuries of travellers, artists and writers – Lycia, part of the ‘Turquoise Coast’ now attracts more tourists to her glimmering shores than any other part of Turkey.
In the early 1950s, following the trail of ancient Persian and Greek traders, Freya Stark set out by boat to explore the Lycian coast. She was guided by the traces of Lycia’s rich history and cultural heritage.
For all those who now follow in her wake, there can be no better, more evocative or knowledgeable guide to this, Turkey’s most enchanting coast.
Andrew for the TripFiction team
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