Stark, Freya (1893–1993)

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Stark, Freya (1893–1993)

British explorer and author who made several journeys to remote areas of the Middle East and whose knowledge of the people and the area proved invaluable to the Allied cause during World War II. Name variations: Dame Freya Stark. Born Freya Madeline Stark on January 31, 1893, in Paris, France; died on May 9, 1993, in Asolo, Italy; daughter of Robert Stark (a sculptor) and Flora Stark (an artist); educated by governesses; attended the University of London and the School of Oriental and African Studies; married Stewart Perowne, in 1947.

Due to travels between England and Italy, became fluent in English, Italian, German, and French; learned Arabic and made three long journeys into the interior of the Middle East; aided the Allies during World War II; continued to travel and write throughout her long life; awarded Triennial Burton Memorial Medal, Royal Asiatic Society (1934); Mungo Park Medal, Royal Scottish Geographical Society (1936); Founders Medal, Royal Geographical Society (1942); Percy Sykes Memorial Medal, Royal Central Asiatic Society (1951); Cross of the British Empire (1953); and made Dame of the British Empire (1972).

In the country of Northwest Luristan, Freya Stark and her guide picked their way across the rough terrain. She had crossed the Persian border illegally, as her guide had no passport. After becoming separated, the two had regrouped in the area of low hills and scraggly oak trees where the Lurs tended their flocks. Stark was searching for a hoard of gold ornaments, daggers, coins, and idols said to be hidden in a cave. Soon after locating some early Muslim graves, the pair ran into a group of mounted police and were promptly delivered to the district governor in Husainabad, the capital. The governor, who was amused to find a captured Englishwoman before him, wanted to know how she had survived in a wilderness notorious for its bandits. When Stark returned to Tehran, she learned her capture by the Persian police had been quite fortunate. Murderers had been stalking her footsteps, determined to kill the woman wandering about Luristan and opening graves. Amused, Freya Stark, adventurer and explorer, planned her next foray.

Freya Madeline Stark was born in Paris on January 31, 1893, in the Montmartre studio of her parents, artists Robert and Flora Stark , who were first cousins. Freya's travels began at age two-and-a-half when she and her younger sister Vera Stark were carried across the Alps in a basket to Cortina, Italy. Her mother had grown up in Italy, while her father was from the Devonshire moors, so Freya's was a cosmopolitan upbringing. From childhood, Stark was fluent in English, Italian, German, and French. She also taught herself Latin. But her parents' marriage was not happy—her mother hated the damp cold of the moors—and in 1901, they separated. While her mother settled in Asolo, a village in the foothills of the Dolomites, her father moved to Canada.

It was in Italy that Stark had her first brush with death. In a factory run by her mother, Freya's hair was caught by machinery, with the resulting loss of part of her scalp and the mutilation of an ear. A young doctor in Turin, who had pioneered a new method of skin grafting, was credited with saving the young girl's life. That life was made more complicated by a family relationship with the factory manager, Count Mario di Roascio, whom Freya detested and who was with her during the accident. He seemed to have a strange power over her mother. When Freya grew up, the count asked for her hand in marriage. Turned down, he married her younger sister Vera, becoming a permanent family member whom Freya never accepted.

No wonder that yours is a powerful nation. Your women do what our men are afraid to attempt.

—District governor of Luristan to Freya Stark

Though Stark was largely educated by governesses, at age 19 she entered Bedford College in London where she remained for two years before the outbreak of World War I. She then began nurses' training at a clinic in Bologna where she was courted by a bacteriologist, Guido Ruata, nearly 20 years her senior. When Stark contracted typhoid and became desperately ill, Ruata obtained a new post, broke off their engagement, and married a woman with whom he had had a long-standing liaison. It was at this time that Stark began to think of learning Arabic and traveling to the Middle East. In 1916, she returned to Asolo for the rest of the war where she received another proposal from Gabriel de Bottinis de Ste Agnes. But by this time, Stark's sights were set on distant horizons.

First she built up a modestly profitable market-garden business, using the money for Arabic lessons. She also took a course in Arabic and Persian at the London School of Oriental and African Studies. Stark first set foot in Asia in November 1927 when she settled for the winter in Brummana in Lebanon as well as in Damascus. She returned to Lebanon in 1929 and 1931 to undertake three solo journeys—two in Luristan and one in Mazanderan, south of the Caspian Sea. Out of these travels came the book which established her name as a writer, The Valley of the Assassins.

In the winter of 1934–35, Stark traveled into the Arabic interior—only the fifth European woman to undertake such a journey (The others were Gertrude Bell , Jane Digby el Mesrab , Hester Stanhope , and Anne Blunt .) Her style of wandering was quite different from that of previous European explorers. She was fluent in Arabic and understood local customs as well as the language. Stark preferred to travel alone if possible, though she often had one male guide. She did not travel as a wealthy European, but rather as a wayfarer dependent on the goodwill of her hosts. She was especially sensitive about European slights to locals and felt strongly that such superior attitudes destroyed communication. Stark often stayed in harems where she learned a great deal. She had, however, the advantage of also being able to fraternize with Arabic men. Her unmarried state was a great advantage in the Middle East, as many Arabic cultures venerate women who never marry.

Traveling from Mukalla on the Arabian coast, Freya Stark was soon staying in elaborately decorated multi-storied mud houses that towered over the plains of the interior. As always, she chose to go to the most isolated, inaccessible places. This journey brought another dance with death when she contracted measles and became extremely ill with a dilated heart. The good care she received at the hands of her Arab hosts as well as her rescue by the Royal Air Force (RAF) operating from Aden saved her life. After a long recovery, she began a second journey from Mukalla in the winter of 1937–38. Here she contracted dengue fever and suffered greatly. This time there was no RAF rescue and only the devoted care of her hosts restored her health. Her adventures were recorded in The Southern Gates of Arabia (1936) for which she received the Royal Scottish Geographical Society's Mungo Park Medal. Asked if she faced difficulties traveling alone as a woman, she replied, "No. I was sincerely out for knowledge and that is a respected thing in the East." Although the fact that she was a woman no doubt played a role in the many close relationships Stark formed, her genuine love of the people in the area was probably an even greater factor.

As the 1930s drew to a close, Stark was forced to make a painful choice. Her ties to Italy were very close—she had four Italian nieces and nephews after Vera's marriage. But Fascist Italy allied itself with Hitler's Germany, so Stark had to choose between her English and Italian identities. In early 1939, she offered her services to the British Foreign Office. A month after World War II began on September 1, 1939, she was posted to Aden as an Arabist attached to the Ministry of Information. Her mother and much of her family remained in Italy, while she chose to serve Great Britain. Here she met Stewart Perowne who became a friend and whom she would later marry disastrously. Soon the war in the desert was raging as German General Erwin Rommel, the "Desert Fox," fought brilliantly in North Africa. The British feared the Germans and Italians would influence Arabs in Egypt and throughout the Middle East and form a fifth column which would destroy their tenuous hold on the area. Maintaining a grip on this petroleum-rich area was vital. Germany had few oil reserves and was intent on acquiring this critical resource. It was during this time that Freya Stark devised an effective strategy to counter German influence.

Traveling into the interior to shore up Anglo-Arab ties, Stark arrived in San'a in Yemen in February 1940 after a tortuous six-day journey by truck over what "nobody in England would call a road." As an employee of the British Ministry of Information, she presented herself to the foreign minister. She then decided her efforts must be directed to another important person in the town, the foreign minister's wife. Soon, Stark was attending tea parties where her fluent Arabic was obviously a trump card. Her ultimate goal was to show movies demonstrating Great Britain's power. This, however, was no easy task, as movies and recordings were forbidden on religious grounds as inventions by infidels. At first, Stark described the movie to the minister's wife saying she would never dream of showing it unless the woman's husband agreed. In no time at all, a projector was set up in the harem where a show of Britain's "ruling the waves" made a tremendous impression. Shortly after the women had viewed the film, Stark heard the projector whirring in another part of the house. Peeping in, she saw the minister and his colleagues deeply engrossed in the film. The Arabian women demanded more and more films which found their way to the men. The Italians and Germans were furious about this public-relations coup, which was repeated throughout the Middle East.

In Cairo, Stark used a similar technique when she launched the Brotherhood of Freedom, an organization created to fight fascism. While the group was never overtly pro-British, members met for discussions and briefings. Stark used this ever-expanding organization to spread positive rumors about Britain at a time when, in actual fact, Hitler's armies were winning everywhere. She insisted, for example, on forecasting the demise of the Nazis when the loss of Allied-occupied Tobruk was imminent. Her instincts were rewarded, however, when the victories of El Alamein and Stalingrad proved a turning point for the Allies. In 1943, Stark was sent on a tour of the United States by the British government, which hoped she would be able to influence American politicians to oppose the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. (While she was not anti-Semitic, she was firmly against the Zionist cause, believing that the removal of Arabs who already lived in the land would sow the seeds for violent conflict in the future.) Stark was already a well-known writer, a decorated explorer, and a

respected linguist, and her efforts in the war only increased her fame.

When the war ended, Stark returned to her home in Asolo. Fortunately, her family had been well cared for by the villagers who had also done all in their power to guard her house. As always, Stark's empathy with others transcended national boundaries and temporary human conflicts. In September 1947, she married Stewart Perowne, a marriage which lasted only six months. Perowne, whose orientation was not heterosexual, saw the marriage as one of convenience between friends, while Stark wanted matrimony in the fullest sense. With the breakup of this brief alliance, she became interested in history and began visiting classical sites in Persia and the coast of Western Turkey. The books Ionia: A Quest, The Lycian Shore and Alexander's Path were written as a result. She then explored Roman frontiers in Asia and recorded her adventures in Riding to the Tigris. Although Stark was almost 70, her desire for adventure was as strong as ever.

At the age of 77, Dame Freya Stark, who had been made Dame of the British Empire for her service to England, embarked on the first of three mounted treks into the Himalayan foothills. She also ventured to the great Cambodian temples of Angkor Wat before going on to China. In 1968, she was in Afghanistan, traveling by Land Rover. Soviet Central Asia soon beckoned as well. In her 90s, Stark's trips became less arduous, and she confined herself mostly to Europe. Many of these travels led to books enabling her to live comfortably off her royalties.

Stark embarked on her final journey at age 100 on May 9, 1993. She had traveled and recorded much in her long life. Photos inevitably show a smiling, happy person who shrugged off illness and discomfort in order to explore. Her view of the world did not depend on national or geographical boundaries, which she felt were completely arbitrary. Ever open, she placed herself completely in her hosts' hands and was never betrayed by this instinct.


Brent, Peter. Far Arabia. Explorers of the Myth. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1977.

"British Agent," in Newsweek. January 17, 1944, p. 51.

"Dame Freya Stark," in The Times [London]. May 11, 1993, p. 17.

Flint, Peter B. "Dame Freya Stark, Travel Writer, Is Dead at 100," in The New York Times. May 11, 1993.

"Freya Stark of Arabia," in Newsweek. November 2, 1953, pp. 92–93.

"Freya Stark's Journey," in The New York Times. May 12, 1993, p. A18.

Fussell, Paul. Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars. NY: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Geniesse, Jane Fletcher. Passionate Nomad: The Life of Freya Stark. NY: Random House, 1999.

Kiernan, R.H. The Unveiling of Arabia: The Story of Arabian Travel and Discovery. London: Harrap, 1937.

Lawton, John. "A Lifelong Journey," in Aramco World. Vol. 44, no. 4. July–August 1993, pp. 2–7.

Moorehead, Caroline. Freya Stark. NY: Penguin, 1985.

Ruthven, Malise. Traveller Through Time: A Photographic Journey with Freya Stark. NY: Viking, 1986.

Sackville-West, Vita . "Stark, Freya," in A Library of Literary Criticism. Vol. III. Edited by Ruth Z. Tempe and Martin Tucker. NY: Frederick Ungar, pp. 178–179.

Tidrick, Kathryn. Heart-beguiling Araby. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia