Q&A with Mark Evans: Journey in the Footsteps of Harry St John Philby


April 29 2024

Mark Evans is an explorer, writer, and speaker who recently gave an insightful talk at the British Omani Society about the 28-day journey of British explorer Harry St John Philby across the Heart of Arabia.

Philby's service in Baghdad and Basra led him to be dispatched south on a mission to meet Ibn Saud in Riyadh, a mission that would see him cross Arabia and be awarded the Royal Geographical Society Founders Medal. Mark's talk explored this journey through his own expedition that followed in his footsteps.

We had the opportunity to ask Mark a few questions about Philby, his remarkable journey and what it meant to him.

What was the relationship like between Philby and Ibn Saud?

It was long and very fruitful, and it was really based on mutual respect. There was clearly, and many people have written this, a great chemistry between the two men when they first met. Their first discussions went on for hour after hour after hour, and what was supposed to be a short stay turned into a stay of at least a week before Philby moved on and pressed on west towards Jeddah. And that relationship endured for decades. Philby became a trusted confidant of Ibn Saud.

Like any relationship, they had their moments and challenges. But really, it was a very strong relationship that was very much based on mutual trust and respect. Ibn Saud respected Philby's ability to speak Arabic and dress as an Arab.

You mentioned in your lecture how Philby was very meticulous in documenting all aspects of his travels. Why do you think this was so important to him? 

I think partly because he was a pure academic and he had an incredible curiosity. Part of me thinks that, in some way, it was just instinctive. It was what he did. It was the way he operated. And he did that all the time. In those days, he was a political officer, so his job was to gather and record information. What he did was considerably above and beyond, but he had a brain the size of Jupiter and an incredible curiosity.

I think the Royal Geographical Society was very important to him. I think the RGS at the time employed more than a couple of dozen cartographers, just waiting for people like Philby to come back from Arabia. So, with his field notes, he knew that there was a value to what he was doing and that the RGS would take what he gathered and convert them into maps and update the existing maps.

Philby’s granddaughter Reem Philby joined you on your journey. Can you tell us more about her and how she viewed the experience?

Reem Philby was an absolute gem. She works at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, just north of Jeddah. She's quite an explorer. I think she'd been up Kilimanjaro before. She'd been trekking in South America when we tracked her down. She loves taking her children to the desert. She really is a chip off the old block. Very fit, incredibly determined and smart, as well as great company. And I think she knew a lot about her grandfather, but she knew a heck of a lot more at the end of the expedition and felt much more connected to him.

And I just sensed with Reem an incredible pride. Everywhere we went, everyone spoke about Philby and I’m sure that, for her, it was lovely that a lot of people were speaking with great pride about her grandfather. And that's the way he is regarded in Saudi Arabia.

Were there parts of the journey that you found particularly meaningful or memorable? Did you learn more about Philby through the experience?

It was really the point when we were exactly standing where Philby was. I think that was a real connection there. When we got the old photographs and aligned them with the landscape and the shape of the hill or the wadi, we knew we were pretty much there. Those moments were truly special.

As was being in the Empty quarter, that was the time when we had no visitors at all, very remote. So just the team being together and being able to walk away from the fire into total darkness and seeing stars come down to the horizon all around you, 360 degrees. It was quite fantastic. And equally, whilst the highlight was being alone, a highlight was also being together. Great teammates, great traveling companions, but also amazing hospitality from everyone that we met en route, which was expected. But nonetheless always incredibly pleasant.

You talked a bit about the great hospitality you experienced with the locals on your journey. Can you tell us more about that? What did they think of your journey?

The hospitality was often coffee, it was food, it was conversation. It was people wanting to give us tours of old buildings being renovated, people just taking great pride in Saudi Arabia is doing under MBS. There's an incredible energy and traction and inertia. Young people, in particular, giving up jobs in the private sector to go work for the government because they want to be part of the change. They want to play their part in the evolution of their own country, which is fantastic to hear.

And I think everyone was very proud of the journey. Everyone was very impressed with what we were doing. Everybody knows Philby above a certain age, because he's the man whose advice and friendship helped Ibn Saud shape a nation. He really was pivotal in the evolution of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, so they were very proud of the journey.

They were especially surprised when we had Reem with us and a Saudi girl doing it on her own. And it was great for Reem to be able to challenge us, challenge people's perceptions and misperceptions of that. But overall, it was very, very positive.

What would you like people to take away from your talk about Philby? What was it that made him unique as an Arabist and explorer?

I would say just say his incredible curiosity for pretty much everything. We've lost that curiosity today. I think it's very easy for us to wander around and not see much of what we're going past. I mean, Philby would just turn in his grave if he saw life today. He was at home in the desert. He was controversial politically, he disagreed with people, he wasn't a great team player. But he found peace and tranquillity and himself in the desert.

And I think he's much misunderstood. Much of people's opinion of him is affected by the behaviour of his son. So, I hope our talk really puts a spotlight on an incredible individual who, on his own, was an extraordinary geographer. I would say, without doubt, what Kim scratched on his grave in Beirut, “the greatest of all Arabian explorers,” is absolutely true.

And I think if there's one thing that I remember from the project, it's a comment from when the Saudi members of the family came to London and I overheard someone saying, “what happened to all the money?” Since John Philby was a confidant to one of the richest people on the planet for decades. “Where did all the money go?” And the family historian at the UK end said, “you know what? There never was any money.”

Ibn Saud, out of his natural generosity, frequently offered Philby money to thank him for his friendship, but Philby refused to accept it. And he said, “No, if I accept that money, Your Majesty, I will never be able to challenge you again.” I just find that approach incredibly refreshing in the snake pit of politics that we have today, the sort of air of suspicion and the lack of trust that we put in leaders today. He is exactly the kind of person that I would like to go to dinner with.

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