Article first published on the Royal Society of Literature’s Website on 19 March 2019.

Arabian Sands

Wilfred Thesiger

While the world struggled with decolonialism, genocide, revolution and modernity, Wilfred Thesiger walked the world’s largest sand desert – 250,000 square miles – stretching across modern Yemen, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Oman. The landscape is largely barren, there are no monuments to admire, the days are repetitive and, yet, Thesiger turns this confusing and potentially alienating journey into a compelling and unified narrative. His physical endurance makes Arabian Sands a unique and final witness of a particular aspect of Arabic nomadic life.

The Natural History of Aleppo

Alexander and Patrick Russell

This combined work, by the Russell brothers who, between them, spent 31 months in 18th century Aleppo, remains the most comprehensive and compelling account of the city written in any foreign language. Their intellectual ambition is overwhelming – they examine everything – from agricultural techniques to clothing, horse furniture and every step of the massage in the hamam. They acquired their knowledge not in disguise but through long medical practice and, as a result, they describe places and customs rarely witnessed by foreigners.

The Ruin of Britain


Gildas’ rhetoric – deeply marked by classical and biblical references, analogies with the apocalypse, and a sense of being isolated at the edge of the known world – is evocative of a society conscious of its own decline. The author – a sixth century monk – experienced Britain as a crushed, impoverished ex-colony – abandoned by the Romans – and a society with no records or sense of its own past.

The Barburnama: Memoirs of Babur


The author – the founder of the Mughal Empire – tells the story of his journey through Afghanistan on foot with impressive modesty and – though what he did was very dangerous – he doesn’t draw attention to this. Instead he focuses on the people he meets and uses the portraits of these individuals to describe their society as a whole.

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