I’ve always loved vintage travelogues. The world was bigger a hundred years ago, its cultures more distinct and isolated. Travel was hard and sometimes dangerous. Accounts of old journeys bring me back to a time when people could go to places like Africa and not be able to text home.
But there’s always been a problem with the genre. The vast majority of the books available in English are from the Western perspective, especially the Anglo perspective. So The Lost Oases, written by Egyptian Ahmed Hassanein Bey and published in 1925, came as a welcome change. It’s an Arab account of discovering two remote oases in the far southwest of Egypt, hundreds of miles from the nearest habitation.
Ahmed Hassanein Bey was a wealthy Egyptian of Bedouin stock who was educated at Oxford, so he is good at explaining his own culture to the Western reader and yet remains enough of an outsider that we can enjoy watching his learning curve as he visits his country cousins.
He was already an experienced desert traveler when he set out on this mission, and we’re carried through a detailed description of his preparations and planning. When all is ready, he goes to his father for a moving scene where the old man blesses him and the baggage for a safe journey.
After skirting the coastline, the caravan heads south along the Egyptian/Libyan border. At this point in history, Egypt was administered by the British Empire and Libya by Italy. The main group along the border, then and now, is called the Senussi. I mainly knew of them from their attempt to invade Egypt during the First World War at the urging of the Germans and Ottomans.
One of Ponting’s iconic images from the expedition is the Terra Nova stuck in ice. The crew had to cut away the ice immediately around the ship every day so that it wouldn’t crush the ship, a fate suffered by several other Polar expeditions.
When I’m in London I love to catch the shows at the big galleries, but I also like to check out the auction houses. Although I can’t afford to buy anything, places like Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Bonhams often have free exhibitions of great art that, because it’s in private hands, you’ve never seen before and will probably never see again.
They sometimes have more traditional exhibitions of art that isn’t for sale. One such show this season is Visions of the Great White South at Bonhams. This brings together photography and paintings made on Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated Terra Nova expedition to Antarctica from 1910 to 1913. While Scott and his forward team made it to the South Pole, they were narrowly beaten by Roald Amundsen and his Norwegian team. As they tried to return to base camp, the men were caught in a blizzard and Scott and the entire forward team perished.
While the expedition could be considered a failure, it accomplished some important scientific research as well as some magnificent artistic achievements. With the expedition were two artists. Dr. Edward Wilson was a physician, naturalist, and painter who sadly died with Scott. Herbert Ponting was a photographer. Both made some gripping images of the Antarctic that form the centerpieces of the show.
This week I intended on doing part two of my history of Somalia, but I haven’t had time to do the research. I got bogged down in finishing an archaeology booklet I was contracted to write, as well as dealing with National Novel Writing Month (22,332 words and counting!). So we’ll talk about the medieval empires of Somalia next week. This week I want to share some photos I took at the Museo Naval here in Madrid.
As the world marks the centennial of World War One, it’s in danger of forgetting that the year 1914 saw the beginning of one of the most ambitious Antarctic expeditions ever launched, the Endurance expedition led by Ernest Shackleton. A complex and driven man, Shackleton’s accomplishments were overshadowed by personal failures and a global war.
There hasn’t been a full biography of Shackleton since 1985, so to mark the centennial, Polar exploration expert Michael Smith has come out with Shackleton: By Endurance We Conquer. This detailed, 440-page study traces Shackleton’s life from his Anglo-Irish roots through his early years at sea and his first Antarctic expedition as a member of Scott’s Discovery expedition.