Wilfred Thesiger

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Sir Wilfred Thesiger
ویلفرد تزیجر
Born (1910-06-03)3 June 1910
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Died 24 August 2003(2003-08-24) (aged 93)
Croydon, London, England, UK
Nationality British
Alma mater Magdalen College, Oxford
Known for Exploration, Writing, Photography
Notable work(s) Arabian sands
The Marsh Arabs
Military career
Allegiance  United Kingdom
Service/branch British Army
Years of service 1940-1943
Rank Major
Unit Sudan Defence Force
Gideon Force
Special Air Service
Battles/wars World War II

Major Sir Wilfred Patrick Thesiger, CBE, DSO, FRAS, FRGS, also known as Mubarak bin London (Arabic for "the blessed one from London")[1][2] (3 June 1910 – 24 August 2003) was a British explorer and travel writer.

Early life[edit]

Thesiger was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the son of diplomat Wilfred Gilbert Thesiger, British consul-general and minister to Addis Ababa from 1909 to 1919. Thesiger's grandfather was Lord Chelmsford. Viscount Chelmsford, future Viceroy of India was an uncle, and the actor Ernest Thesiger was a cousin.

Thesiger was educated at Eton College, Berkshire, followed by Magdalen College at the University of Oxford, where he took a Third in History. Between 1930 and 1933, Thesiger represented Oxford at boxing and later (in 1933) became captain of the Oxford boxing team. He was awarded a boxing Blue for each of the four years that he was at Oxford.


Wilfred Thesiger in 1930

In 1930, Thesiger returned to Africa, having received a personal invitation from Emperor Haile Selassie to attend his coronation. He returned again in 1933 as the leader of an expedition, funded in part by the Royal Geographical Society, to explore the course of the Awash River. During this expedition, he became the first European to enter the Aussa Sultanate and visit Lake Abbe.

Between 1935 and 1940, Thesiger served with the Sudan Political Service stationed in Darfur and the Upper Nile.

Second World War[edit]

At the outbreak of war, Thesiger joined the Sudan Defence Force, helping to organise the Abyssianian resistance to the occupying Italians. He was awarded the DSO[3] for capturing Agibar and its garrison of 2,500 Italian soldiers.

He later served with the Special Operations Executive in Syria and the Special Air Service during the North African Campaign, attaining the rank of Major. From 1943 to 1945 he acted as political adviser to the Abyssinian Crown Prince.


In 1945, Thesiger worked in Arabia with the Desert Locusts Research Organisation. Meanwhile, from 1945 to 1949, he explored the southern regions of the Arabian peninsula and twice crossed the Empty Quarter. His travels later also took him to Iraq, Iran, Kurdistan, French West Africa and Pakistan. He would live for many years in northern Kenya. He returned to England in the 1990s and was knighted in 1995.

Thesiger is best known for two travel books: Arabian Sands (1959) recounts his travels in the Empty Quarter of Arabia between 1945 and 1950 and describes the vanishing way of life of the Bedouins. The Marsh Arabs (1964) is an account of the Madan, the indigenous people of the marshlands of southern Iraq. The latter journey is also covered by his travelling companion, Gavin Maxwell, in A Reed Shaken by the Wind – a Journey through the Unexplored Marshlands of Iraq (Longman, 1959).

Thesiger took many photographs during his travels and donated his vast collection of 23,000 negatives to the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford. His books were analysed, from a collector's point of view, in Book and Magazine Collector magazine, No.65, August 1989, and again in 2008, Issue No.295.


  • Master of Arts, MA, Oxon
  • Third Class Star of Ethiopia 1930
  • Companion of the Distinguished Service Order, DSO 1941
  • Founder's Medal, Royal Geographical Society, RGS 1948
  • Lawrence of Arabia Medal, Royal Central Asian Society, RCAS 1955
  • Livingstone Medal, Royal Scottish Geographical Society, RSGS 1962
  • W.H.Heinemann Award 1964
  • Royal Society of Literature, RSL 1965
  • Burton Memorial Medal, Royal Asiatic Society, RAS 1966
  • Honorary Dlitt Leicester 1967
  • Commander of the Order of the British Empire, CBE 1968
  • Fellow Royal Society of Literature, FRSL 1982
  • Honorary Fellow British Academy, FBA 1982;
  • Honorary DLitt, University of Bath, 1992[4]


  • The Danakil Diary: Journeys through Abyssinia, 1930-4 Hammersmith, 1996, ISBN 0-00-638775-6 His account of exploring the Awash valley, and encounters with the Afar people.
  • Among the Mountains: Travels Through Asia Harper Collins, (1998); ISBN 0-00-255898-X. This account presents edited portions of journal entries written during trips to remote mountain areas of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Kurdistan between 1952 and 1965, as well as numerous black-and-white photographs that he took at the time. There is little detail since the book is based on his diary entries. For a better account, read The Life of My Choice.
  • Crossing the Sands Motivate Pub Ltd (2000) 176 pp; ISBN 1-86063-028-6. About his journeys in the Empty Quarter and the Arabian Peninsula during the late forties, with photographs.

In popular culture[edit]

In the film version of Gavin Maxwell's Ring of Bright Water, Bill Travers uses a copy of Thesiger's The Marsh Arabs to covertly spy on his soon-to-be close companion, Mijbil the otter.

In 2008, Majid Abdulrazak (a film director from the United Arab Emirates) produced a film version of Arabian Sands which was self-funded and employed actors from the UAE and Oman in most of the major roles.


Notes and sources[edit]

  1. ^ Byrnes, Sholto (12 July 2010). "Wilfred Thesiger in Africa, by Christopher Morton and Philip N Grover". New Statesman. Retrieved 2013-08-13. 
  2. ^ Langham, Eric; Goaman-Dodson, Toby; Rogers, Lyn (2008). Mubarak Bin London: Wilfred Thesiger and the Freedom of the Desert. Abu Dhabi: United Arab Emirates Authority for Culture and Heritage. Retrieved 2013-08-13. 
  3. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 35396. p. 7333. 26 December 1941. Retrieved 23 June 2008.
  4. ^ "Honorary Graduates 1989 to present". bath.ac.uk. University of Bath. Retrieved 18 February 2012. 

External links[edit]

Photographs by Thesiger

Obituaries and Profiles (mostly August 2003)