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Cover of Jane Fletcher Geniesse's biography of Freya Stark

Dame Freya Madeline Stark (Mrs Stewart Perowne), DBE[1] (born 31 January 1893 in Paris, France; died 9 May 1993 in Asolo, Italy) was a British explorer and travel writer. She wrote more than two dozen books on her travels in the Middle East and Afghanistan, as well as several autobiographic works and essays. She was one of the first non-Arabians to travel through the southern Arabian deserts.

Early life and studies

Freya Madeline Stark was born on 31 January 1893 in Paris, 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] For her ninth birthday she 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, and she had to spend four months getting skin grafts in hospital, which left her face slightly disfigured.[4]

During her childhood her parents separated.

She later learned Arabic and Persian, and studied history in London.

Travels and writings

One can only really travel if one lets oneself go and takes what every place brings without trying to turn it into a healthy private pattern of one's own and I suppose that is the difference between travel and tourism.[5]

—Freya Stark

During World War I, she trained as a VAD and served initially with G. M. Trevelyan's British Red Cross ambulance unit, based at the Villa Trento near Udine.[6] Her mother had remained in Italy and taken a share in a business; her sister Vera married the co-owner. 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.[7] 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.[7]

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).[8] She described these explorations in The Valleys of the Assassins (1934).

In 1935 she travelled to the Hadhramaut, the hinterland of southern Arabia, where only a handful of Western explorers had previously ventured, never as far or as widely as she went.[9] 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).

During World War II she 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.[10] These wartime experiences were described in her Letters from Syria (1942) and East is West (1945).

In 1947, at the age of 54, she married Stewart Perowne, a British administrator and historian.[11] The couple did not have 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.

Her 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 of her old age was to Afghanistan; and 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 died at Asolo on 9 May 1993, a few months after her hundredth birthday.


(Almost all her books were first published by John Murray in London.)

  • Baghdad Sketches (1932. The Times Press Ltd, Baghdad) (first London edition 1937)
  • The Valleys of the Assassins and Other Persian Travels (1934) [On Mazandaran, Iran]
  • The Southern Gates of Arabia A Journey in the Hadhramaut (1936)
  • Seen in the Hadhramaut (1938)
  • A Winter in Arabia (1940) [On Hadhramaut]
  • Letters from Syria (1942)
  • East is West (1945) [On World War II in the Middle East]
  • Perseus in the Wind (1948). [Essays on philosophy and literature]
  • Traveller's Prelude (1950) [Autobiography]
  • Beyond Euphrates. Autobiography 1928-1933 (1951)
  • The Coast of Incense: autobiography 1933-1939 (1953)
  • Ionia, A Quest (1954)
  • The Lycian Shore (1956) [On Turkey]
  • Alexander's Path: From Caria to Cilicia (1958) [On Turkey]
  • Riding to the Tigris (1959) [On Turkey]
  • Dust in the Lion's Paw. Autobiography 1939-1946 (1961)
  • Rome on the Euphrates: The Story of a Frontier (1966)
  • The Zodiac Arch (1968) [Miscellaneous essays]
  • Space, Time and Movement in Landscape (1969) [chiefly images of the Middle East]
  • The Minaret of Djam: An Excursion into Afghanistan (1970)
  • Turkey A Sketch of Turkish History (1971)
  • Letters, ed. L. Moorehead (8 vols, 1974–82)
  • A Peak in Darien (1976) [Miscellaneous essays]
  • The Journey's Echo: Selected Travel Writings (1988. Ecco) ISBN 0-88001-218-8
  • Over the Rim of the World: selected letters, ed. C. Moorehead (1988)

See also

  • List of female adventurers


  1. Notice of Stark's damehood in London Gazette
  2. Stark (1950), pp. 2-4
  3. Stark (1950), pp. 30-64
  4. Stark (1950), p. 84
  5. Cited in Molly Izzard, A Marvellous Eye, Cornucopia Issue 2
  6. Women in the War Zone By Anne Powell
  7. 7.0 7.1 Stark (1950), p. 333
  8. Salak, Kira. "National Geographic article about Iran and Freya Stark". National Geographic Adventure. 
  9. The Southern Gates of Arabia (London, 1936)
  10. James R. Vaughan, "The failure of American and British Propaganda in the Middle East, 1945-57. Unconquerable Minds", Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, p.27.
  11. "Stewart Perowne, 87, Diplomat and Author". 16 May 1989. Retrieved 27 October 2012. 


  • 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

External links

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