THESIGER, Sir Wilfred Patrick. Arabian Sands. London: Spottiswoode, Ballantyne and Co Ltd for Longmans, Green and Co Ltd, 1959.    

Octavo (220 x 148mm), pp. xvi, 326, [2 (blank)]. Photographic frontispiece and 23 plates bearing 68 photographic illustrations recto-and-verso after Thesiger, 8 maps in the text after K.C. Jordan, 5 full-page, and one colour-printed folding map ‘The Empty Quarter from Traverses by W. Thesiger Compiled by The Royal Geographical Society 1945-50’ after K.C. Jordan, loose as issued in pocket on lower pastedown. (A few light spots, ll. 3/7-8 with very small chip at upper margin, very light creasing on lower margin of a few ll. in quire 22, folding map slightly creased.) Original cream boards, spine lettered in gilt and black, dustwrapper illustrated with photographs by Thesiger, retaining price. (Extremities lightly bumped, spine slightly leant, dustwrapper lightly rubbed, creased at edges, faded on spine and with small losses and short tears.) A very good copy. Provenance: early ownership signature on front free endpaper.

First edition. Arabian Sands was Thesiger’s first book – and, in his opinion, ‘his finest’ (ODNB) – and recounts his travels with the Bedu through the Empty Quarter between 1945 and 1950: ‘The empty quarter or Rub’ al-Khali had been crossed by Bertram Thomas in 1931 and by Harry St John Philby in 1932. Understandably Thomas had followed the easiest route. Philby’s journey, on the other hand, involved a trek of 400 miles between wells, which Thesiger regarded as an epic of desert exploration. Despite such important journeys, vast areas of the empty quarter still remained unexplored. Thesiger first crossed the empty quarter in 1946-7, a journey of 2000 miles that began and ended at Salala, on Arabia’s south coast. In February 1947 he met Salim bin Kabina, a sixteen-year-old Bedu of the Rashid tribe, who, together with Salim bin Ghabaisha, also of the Rashid, became Thesiger’s inseparable companion during his years in Arabia. Bin Kabina and bin Ghabaisha accompanied his second crossing of the empty quarter, in 1947-8, and his later journeys, in 1949 and 1950, in Oman’ (op. cit.).

Due to strikes by the printers and binders, Arabian Sands was not published until October 1959, but, once available, it was ‘immediately successful, acclaimed enthusiastically by readers and reviewers alike’ (A. Maitland, Wilfred Thesiger. The Life of the Great Explorer (London, 2006), p. 379). Particularly noteworthy were the reactions of Sir John Glubb and Philby: the former ‘praised Thesiger in The Times as “perhaps the last, and certainly one of the greatest, of the British travellers among the Arabs”, while […] Philby asserted that “The crowning touches have been placed on this exploratory activity in Arabia by Wilfred Thesiger, who is probably the greatest of all the explorers”’ (loc. cit.). Sales did, however, slow after the initial enthusiasm, and in July 1964 a fire at one of Longmans warehouses destroyed the remaining stock ofArabian Sands; the copies of the first edition which had sold before the fire have become increasingly scarce on the market (cf. Maitland, p. 401). P.N. Grover, ‘Bibliography of Works by Sir Wilfred Thesiger’, p. 271.


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