The Royal Geographical Society was founded in 1830. Its home for over 100 years has been the prestigious Lowther Lodge, situated in Kensington not far from South Kensington Tube Station in London. From its inception, the society’s purpose has been the “advancement of geographical science” and it has counted among its members the likes of Sir Edmund Hillary, Ernest Shackleton, Robert Falcon Scott, David Livingstone, and Henry Morton Stanley. It served as something of a home away from home for many of the early British explorers of Arabia, including Harry St. John Philby.
On the evening of 16 October 2023, the Society hosted an evening celebrating not only Philby’s 1917 east/west crossing of the Arabian Peninsula, but also the completion of The Heart of Arabia Expedition, the fascinating recreation of Philby’s journey completed earlier this year by explorer Mark Evans MBE, Reem Philby (granddaughter of H. St. J. Philby), photographer Ana-Maria Pavalache, and logistics expert Alan Morrissey.
© Matthew Tompkinson. All rights reserved.
The Ondaatje Lecture Theatre was filled with an audience of some 750, including members and fellows of the Society, dignitaries, diplomats, and representatives of the two Philby families from both Arabia and England. Many had flown in from abroad to share in the culmination of the Heart of Arabia journey, which was launched a year ago at the Society by its patron Anne, Princess Royal, and HRH Saudi Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Prince Khalid bin Bandar Al Saud.
Prior to the formal presentation, Ana-Maria Pavalache and Alan Morrissey were on hand to give a pre-talk walk through the Gallery Exhibition showcasing Ana-Maria’s photographs of The Heart of Arabia Expedition’s journey. Complementing the photographs were a bust of Philby, his notes, maps, the theodolite he carried with him and a coffee pot, along with other memorabilia. Ana-Maria’s photographs truly captured the sensual beauty of the Kingdom on this journey across Arabia.
Then, following introductions by Nigel Clifford, President of the Society, Mark and Reem shared the podium for most of the evening, recounting significant moments of the journey: the scientific observations recorded concerning the psychological effects of isolation, stone tool discoveries, bats, and videos of animal life captured by Reem’s night cameras. Photos taken by Philby of various sites were compared to photos taken by The Heart of Arabia team when they reached the identical spots.
Particularly poignant was one of a lone Acacia tree where Reem’s grandfather prayed 105 years ago on his own journey. Reem said it was the most profound moment of the trip for her, where she felt the greatest connection to her grandfather. The two branches of the Philby families from Saudi Arabia and the UK had been united for the first time in Riyadh at the halfway point of the trip last January and many more of the UK Philby family were present whom Reem had not yet met on this day. Reem’s daughter was in attendance and spoke to me of how proud she was of her mother.
It’s an understatement to say the audience was captivated. Enthralled is a better word. Mark’s poised, calm delivery and dry wit made even his references to Philby’s conspicuous note taking and dour appearance most entertaining. Mark looked dapper, sporting a soft green tweed jacket having traded in his desert khakis for the evening. I was delighted to see photos of some of my old stomping grounds around Riyadh, such as the Tuwaiq escarpment and Graffiti Rock. Following the presentations, HRH Saudi Ambassador, Prince Khalid bin Bandar Al Saud, hosted a reception upstairs which was a most befitting end to the evening.
© Matthew Tompkinson. All rights reserved.
The presentations certainly served to underscore the importance of Harry St. John Philby amongst the world’s great Arabian explorers. He became a lifelong friend of King Abdulaziz, also known as Ibn Saud, founder of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It was Harry St. John Philby who had the ear of King Abdulaziz when oil was found in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, leading to the development of Western oil interest in the region.
But it must be noted also that Mark himself is an explorer with few equals. He has completed an impressive array of extraordinary journeys, particularly in Arabia, including his recreation of Bertram Thomas’ 1930 Rub al Khali crossing from Salalah, in the Sultanate of Oman to Doha in Qatar in 2016 by camel and on foot, accompanied by two Omani team members. His comments on the shelf life of an expedition such as this, from inception through planning, fundraising, and execution were particularly enlightening. In fact, it is incorrect to say the event at the Royal Geographical Society was the ‘conclusion’ of the Heart of Arabia Expedition as plans are already afoot to move the exhibition to other venues.
Mark ended his talk with a tantalizing glimpse at what’s next. The Darb Zubaydah is one of the seven major pilgrimage routes on the Arabian Peninsula. It dates back over 1,000 years to the time of the Abbasid Caliphate. Some 1,300 km long, it connected Kufa in Iraq to Mecca and included some 27 major stations, most of which are in northern Saudi Arabia. Mark is planning a new expedition documenting the Zubaydah and I, for one, can hardly wait to see the results.
For those who are passing through London in the near future, this exhibition is worth the visit and is free to the public until November 7, 2023, between 10am and 5pm daily. And if you missed the opportunity to follow along on the expedition’s podcasts, you can scan the QR code below and listen back at your leisure to this extraordinary expedition.