Freya Stark

Freya Stark
Dame Freya Madeline Stark (1923).jpg
Born(1893-01-31)31 January 1893
Paris, France
Died9 May 1993(1993-05-09) (aged 100)
Asolo, Italy
NationalityBritish, Italian
OccupationExplorer, travel writer

Dame Freya Madeline Stark DBE (31 January 1893 – 9 May 1993), was an Anglo-Italian explorer and travel writer. Her father was British.She wrote more than two dozen books on her travels in the Middle East and Afghanistan as well as several autobiographical works and essays. She was one of the first non-Arabs to travel through the southern Arabian Desert.

Early life and studies

Stark was born on 31 January 1893 in Paris,[1] where her parents were studying art. Her mother, Flora, was an Italian of Polish-German descent; her father, Robert, an English painter from Devon.[2] Stark spent much of her childhood in northern Italy, helped by the fact that Pen Browning, a friend of her father, had bought three houses in Asolo. Her maternal grandmother lived in Genoa.[3]

Her parents' marriage was unhappy from the outset, and they separated early in Freya's childhood. Stark's biographer, Jane Fletcher Geniesse—quoting Freya's cousin, Nora Stanton Blatch Barney—claimed that Freya's biological father was "a well-to-do young man from a prominent family in New Orleans" named Obediah Dyer. There is no known corroboration of this account, and it is not known if Stark herself was aware of it; she did not make any reference to it in any of her writings, including her autobiography.[4]

For her ninth birthday, Freya received a copy of One Thousand and One Nights, and became fascinated with the Orient. She was often ill while young and confined to the house, so she found an outlet in reading. She delighted in reading French, in particular Dumas, and taught herself Latin. When she was 13 she had an accident in a factory in Italy, when her hair got caught in a machine. Her scalp was torn and her right ear was ripped off.[5] She had to spend four months getting skin grafts in hospital, which left her face disfigured.[6] For the rest of her life, she would wear hats or bonnets, which were often flamboyant, to cover her scars.[5]

When she was thirty years old, Freya chose to study languages in university. She hoped to escape her difficult life as a flower farmer in northern Italy. Her professor suggested that she studied Icelandic[5], but she chose to study Arabic and later Persian. She studied at Bedford College, London and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), both part of the University of London.

Travels and writings

During World War I, Stark trained as a VAD and served initially with G. M. Trevelyan's British Red Cross ambulance unit, based at the Villa Trento near Udine.[8] Her mother had remained in Italy and taken a share in a business; her sister Vera married the co-owner. In 1926, Vera died after a miscarriage. In her writings, Freya explained that Vera was not able to live life on her own terms, and she would not do the same. Shortly afterward, she began her travels.[5]

In November 1927, she visited Asolo for the first time in years. Later that month she boarded a ship for Beirut, where her travels in the East began.[9] She stayed first at the home of James Elroy Flecker in Lebanon, then in Baghdad, Iraq (then a British protectorate), where she met the British high commissioner.[9] During that trip, she secretly traveled by donkey with a Druze guide and an English woman. She kept the journey secret as Syria and Lebanon were under French control, also known as Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon. This was a repressive government system that did not allow travel within the region. The group traveled by night and took remote, countryside routes. However, they were still caught by French Army officers. The women were thought to be spies, but were released three days later. After her trip, Freya wrote about the repressive French regime and the abuse inflicted on the Syrian people in an English magazine.[5]

By 1931, she had completed three dangerous treks into the wilderness of western Iran, parts of which no Westerner had ever visited, and had located the long-fabled Valleys of the Assassins (Hashshashins).[10] She described these explorations in The Valleys of the Assassins (1934). She received the Royal Geographical Society's Back Award in 1933.[11]

In 1934, Freya sailed down the Red Sea to Aden to begin a new adventure. She hoped to trace the frankincense route of the Hadhramaut, the hinterland of southern Arabia.[12] Only a handful of Western explorers had previously ventured into the region, but never as far or as widely as she went.[13] Her goal was to reach the ancient city of Shabwa, which was rumored to have been the capital of the Queen of Sheba. However, she fell seriously ill on the trip. After contracting measles from a child in a harem, as well as dysentery, she had to be airlifted to a British hospital in Aden.[5] Though she never reached Shabwa, she was able to travel extensively and recount many experiences. Freya also returned to the region for additional trips. During these journeys, she encountered slavery, which caused a "moral predicament", according to a New Yorker profile. Freya reasoned that slavery seemed to decline in societies that were less religious, and thus she felt that slavery would decline in Arabia as it evolved.[5] She published her account of the region in three books, The Southern Gates of Arabia: A Journey in the Hadhramaut (1936), Seen In The Hadhramaut (1938) and A Winter in Arabia (1940). For her travels and accounts, she received the Founder's Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society.[14]

During World War II, Stark joined the British Ministry of Information, and contributed to the creation of the propaganda network Ikhwan al Hurriya (Brotherhood of Freedom) aimed at persuading Arabs to support the Allies or at least remain neutral.[15] The Brotherhood included all strata of society, and by the middle of the war, it had tens of thousands of members.[5] These wartime experiences were described in her Letters from Syria (1942) and East is West (1945).[16]

In 1943, Freya went on an official tour of British Mandate of Palestine. She gave speeches that called for quotas on Jewish migration to Palestine, which angered the global Jewish community. However, Freya felt that she was not at all anti-Jewish; she simply felt that Arab consent should be considered before mass migration took place. These speeches are thought to be her most controversial work during WWII.[5]

In 1947, at the age of 54, she married Stewart Perowne, a British administrator, Arabist, and historian.[17] Perowne was homosexual, which Freya did not know when they first married, although most of his friends did. Their marriage had many troubles, and Freya did not adjust well to being the wife of a civil servant.[5] The couple had no children, and separated in 1952 (but did not divorce). During these years she wrote nothing on travel and exploration, but published a volume of miscellaneous essays, Perseus in the Wind (1948) and three volumes of autobiography, Traveller's Prelude (1950), Beyond Euphrates. Autobiography 1928–1933 (1951) and The Coast of Incense. Autobiography 1933–1939 (1953). Stewart Perowne died in 1989.[18]

Stark's first extensive travels after the war were in Turkey, which were the basis of her books Ionia a Quest (1954), The Lycian Shore (1956), Alexander's Path (1958) and Riding to the Tigris (1959). After this she continued her memoirs with Dust in the Lion's Paw. Autobiography 1939–1946 (1961), and published a history of Rome on the Euphrates: The Story of a Frontier (1966) and another collection of essays, The Zodiac Arch (1968).

The last expedition was to Afghanistan in 1968, when she was 75 years old. She traveled to visit the 12th century Minaret of Jam.[5] In 1970, she published The Minaret of Djam: An Excursion into Afghanistan. In her retirement at Asolo, apart from a short survey, Turkey: A Sketch of Turkish History (1971), she busied herself by putting together a new collection of essays, A Peak in Darien (1976), and preparing selections of her Letters (8 volumes, 1974–82; one volume, Over the rim of the world: selected letters, 1982) and of her travel writings, The Journey's Echo (1988).

She was appointed a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 1972 New Year's Honours.[19] She died at Asolo on 9 May 1993, a few months after her hundredth birthday.[20]


  • Baghdad Sketches. (1932) Free to read
  • The Valleys of the Assassins and Other Persian Travels. (1934) Free to read
  • The Southern Gates of Arabia A Journey in the Hadhramaut. (1936)
  • Seen in the Hadhramaut (1938)
  • A Winter in Arabia.(1940) Free to read
  • Letters from Syria.(1942) Free to read
  • East is West.(1945), published in US as Arab Island: The Middle East, 1939–1943. Free to read
  • Perseus in the Wind.(1948) Free to read
  • Traveller's Prelude: Autobiography 1893–1927. (1950) Free to read Registration required.
  • Beyond Euphrates: Autobiography 1928–1933.(1951) Free to read
  • The Coast of Incense: Autobiography 1933–1939. (1953) Free to read Registration required.
  • Ionia, A Quest.(1954) Free to read
  • The Lycian Shore.(1956) Free to read
  • Alexander's Path: From Caria to Cilicia. (1958) Free to read
  • Riding to the Tigris. (1959)
  • Dust in the Lion's Paw. Autobiography 1939–1946. (1961) Free to read
  • Rome on the Euphrates: The Story of a Frontier. (1966)
  • The Zodiac Arch. (1968)
  • Space, Time and Movement in Landscape. (1969)
  • The Minaret of Djam: An Excursion into Afghanistan. (1970)
  • Turkey: A Sketch of Turkish History. (1971)
  • Letters. (1974–82)
  • Letters. (1974–82)
  • A Peak in Darien. (1976)
  • The Journey's Echo: Selected Travel Writings. (1988)
  • Over the Rim of the World: selected letters. (1988)

See also


  1. ^ Freya Stark obituary, independent.co.uk; accessed 13 April 2016.
  2. ^ Stark (1950), pp. 2–4
  3. ^ Stark (1950), pp. 30–64
  4. ^ Geniesse, JF. Passionate Nomad: The Life of Freya Stark. Modern Library (2001), pp. 363–69; ISBN 0375757465
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Pierpont, Claudia Roth (11 April 2011). "East Is West". ISSN 0028-792X. Retrieved 18 May 2019.
  6. ^ Stark (1950), p. 84
  7. ^ Cited in Molly Izzard, A Marvellous Eye, Cornucopia Issue 2
  8. ^ Anne Powell, Women in the War Zone
  9. ^ a b Stark (1950), p. 333
  10. ^ Salak, Kira. "National Geographic article about Iran and Freya Stark". National Geographic Adventure.
  11. ^ Geniesse, Jane Fletcher (2010). Passionate Nomad: The Life of Freya Stark. Random House Publishing Group. p. 152. ISBN 9780307756855.
  12. ^ "The Southern Gates of Arabia". www.goodreads.com. Retrieved 18 May 2019.
  13. ^ The Southern Gates of Arabia (London, 1936)
  14. ^ "List of Past Gold Medal Winners" (PDF). Royal Geographical Society. Archived from the original (PDF) on 27 September 2011. Retrieved 24 August 2015.
  15. ^ James R. Vaughan, "The failure of American and British Propaganda in the Middle East, 1945–57. Unconquerable Minds", Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, p. 27.
  16. ^ Flint, Peter B. (11 May 1993). "Dame Freya Stark, Travel Writer, Is Dead at 100". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 24 May 2017.
  17. ^ "Stewart Perowne, 87, Diplomat and author". New York Times. 16 May 1989. Retrieved 27 October 2012.
  18. ^ "Obituary: Stuart Perowne". New York Times. 16 May 1989. Retrieved 31 March 2014.
  19. ^ Notice of Stark's damehood in London Gazette
  20. ^ Ruthven, Malise (11 May 1993). "Obituary: Dame Freya Stark". The Independent. Retrieved 31 March 2014.


  • J. F. Geniesse, Passionate Nomad: The Life of Freya Stark (2001. Random House)
  • P. H. Hansen, 'Stark, Dame Freya Madeline (1893–1993)', in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004. Oxford University Press)
  • M. Izzard 'A Marvellous Bright Eye: Freya Stark', in Cornucopia Issue 2 (1992)
  • M. Izzard, Freya Stark: A Biography (1993)
  • C. Moorehead, Freya Stark (1985. Penguin) ISBN 0-14-008108-9
  • R. Knott, 'Posted in Wartime' (2017, Pen & Sword) – features inter alia the wartime correspondence of Freya Stark.

Further reading

  • Duncan, Joyce (2010). Ahead of Their Time : a Biographical Dictionary of Risk-Taking Women. Portsmouth: Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 9781280908699.

External links

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