Dame Freya Stark (1893-1993) was not your typical candidate to be a grand adventurer. Not because her family was not financially capable of supporting her – that they certainly were. Nor was it for a lack of travel. By the time she was 10 she had lived in Paris, the English countryside, London, and northern Italy. But, around this age she was left scarred for life after an unfortunate run-in with a machine at her mother’s factory, which caused grievous injury to her scalp and right ear. She was to spend a great deal of time as a child ill or recovering.
While these early setbacks may have been highly unpleasant at the time, one thing they did ensure is that Freya had much time for reading. The 1001 Arabian Nights and Dumas’ French adventure novels were her particular favourites, but she also kept herself busy with language and was an autodidact in Latin. Despite never having formally been schooled, her efforts eventually won her a place at Bedford College studying Arabic and Persian. This education was interrupted by WWI, and she took a break from her studies to become a nurse at the Italian front.
It was after the war that her solo travels began. Travelling to Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq without an escort, Stark was breaking many of the social conventions of her day. She famously said:
‘One can only really travel if one lets oneself go and takes what every place brings without trying to turn it into a healthy private pattern of one’s own and I suppose that is the difference between travel and tourism’.
During her own travels she definitely lived by these rules. Stark spent much of her time learning regional dialects and about local cultures by interacting with the communities in the areas she traveled. In doing this she strongly diverged from the expectations of the social code of the time, and incurred the disapproval of her more prominent colonial associates. Her sociability, however, allowed her to gain a better understanding of local life, inspiring the captivating accounts of her travels that were so well received.
In 1930 she set out for Persia, the ultimate goal of her travels. She planned to find and map the Valley of the Assassins, the fabled base of the 11th century Islamic sect of Nizari warriors. Despite being plagued by malaria, dengue fever, and dysentery, Stark never gave up, earning the reputation of a seasoned explorer. Her research was disrupted by the outbreak of WWII, where she also contributed as an advocate for the British cause, working to dissuade the Arabs from joining the Central forces. Stark never stopped travelling, also visiting Turkey, Yemen, Afghanistan, India, Egypt, and Kurdistan. She once said that she was able to do so much, during such politically fraught times, not in spite of, but because of, her sex:
“The great and almost only comfort about being a woman is that one can always pretend to be more stupid than one is and no one is surprised.”
With additional training in geographical and archaeological methods, Stark made some more formal studies of the lands, peoples and customs she came across. She surveyed the areas she visited, and unlike many early archaeological teams, she fully documented and published her findings, albeit in narrative prose. Though she was well regarded as a cultural geographer, her reliance on her personality and social relationships to obtain her objectives made her a very different traveler than say, Gertrude Caton Thompson, with whom she once joined forces in an expedition to the Hadhramaut in Yemen. The meticulous scientist Caton Thompson expressed a clear distrust for Stark’s more flamboyant methods, while Stark’s account of her scientist companion describe her as pedantic and insensitive to the local people. Stark’s methods may seem more recognizable to modern practices combining a high level of professionalism and a relationship of mutual respect with the local community.
Stark never stopped traveling and even after the war she returned to the Middle East, visiting new places and sharing her discoveries with the public through her written work and public lectures. Freya Stark ultimately lived a long and eventful life, dying in Asolo at the age of 100. Her courage and dedication have secured her a place among the great explorers of the 20th century. Not only did she break gender stereotypes, she was also willing to flout colonial conventions, choosing instead to rely on her own experience.
Geniesse, F. 2001. Passionate Nomad: The Life of Freya Stark. Random House.
Izzard, A. 1992. A Marvellous Bright Eye: Freya Stark. Cornucopia 2.
Sorensen, M.L.S. 2013. Rescue and Recovery, in Excavating Women. Routledge.
Written by Annelies Van de Ven @archaeoa1