Why you should care
Because Freya Stark kept pushing geographical boundaries.
It sounds like something out of an Indiana Jones movie, but it really happened. In 1930, an intrepid explorer named Freya Stark crossed the mountainous frontier into northwest Iran accompanied only by sketchy maps and quinine pills, seeking a legendary place lost to Western maps. Called the Rock of Alamut, or the Citadel of the Assassins, it was the headquarters of a medieval prince who sent killers to murder his religious and political enemies.
She eventually found a guide and mule drivers and started ascending a 10,000-foot pass until her group was stopped by a frontier policeman. Suspicious of Stark’s camera and notebook jottings, he suspected he’d intercepted a spy. Stark managed to charm her way past the border guard by following a signature strategy in a remarkable life of adventure, and soon after stumbled upon the ruined castle atop a nearly perpendicular alpine peak.
The remote, mountainous region proved irresistible to a woman seeking to live out her atlas-inspired daydreams.
Rediscovering the citadel and filling in blanks on the Iranian map made the 37-year-old Englishwoman a sensation in the worlds of archeology and exploration. Stark received the Royal Geographical Society’s Back Award in 1933, and the following year published the first of her 25 books, The Valleys of the Assassins, which was followed by The Southern Gates of Arabia (1936), about her travels in what’s now Yemen, and A Winter in Arabia (1940).
Born in 1893 to English parents, Freya Stark grew up in northern Italy, where her eccentric mother operated a small textile mill after she split from Freya’s father. The company struggled, and Freya had to take care of the family household as well as work in the mill. She enjoyed school but spent only a few hours there each day. At age 13, her life became even more confined after she nearly died when her long hair caught in the mill’s machinery. The accident left her temple badly scarred (afterward, she carefully draped her hair over the side and wore big hats). Bedbound, escape came in the form of a beloved atlas and romantic daydreams of Arabian nights and desert ruins.
Two things then happened to put her on the path to eventual freedom. First, though largely self-educated, she escaped to the University of London where her curiosity and aptitude for literature and languages emerged. Then, when World War I erupted, she volunteered as a nurse and learned about the world’s bloodier realities.
After the war, Stark returned to Italy and her aging mother — trapped again. Yet, as Stark’s chief biographer, Jane Fletcher Geniesse, author of Passionate Nomad: The Life of Freya Stark, notes, “Freya had been counting the days for a chance to spring loose from her powerful mother’s grasp.” And when Stark’s sister died at age 33 without ever having lived a life of her own, Freya realized she had one last chance to break free. In 1928, at age 35, she struck out for Beirut, unsure what she meant to do with her life beyond studying Arabic and Persian.
She soon found a destination worthy of her wanderlust. Southeast of Beirut, in French-occupied Syria, was the homeland of the Druze, a people who periodically battled their European overlords for independence and who kept much of their monotheistic religion’s doctrine and rituals hidden to outsiders. The remote, mountainous region proved irresistible to a woman seeking to live out her atlas-inspired daydreams.
Setting off into this tense territory with a young Druze guide, Stark was stopped by a French patrol. She presented herself as a respectable Englishwoman out for a bit of a jaunt. And while she wasn’t haughty, she did demand courtesy and respect. It worked. The French treated her like a dinner guest, saying they were only ending her tour for the sake of her own safety. And when the colonial police released her, she found the brief detention had elevated her status in the eyes of the Druze: Stark became trustworthy, a fellow victim of the hated French.
Stark discovered this tactic of using her “respectable womanhood” was “crucial to her ambitions,” according to Geniesse. And Stark deployed it to her advantage time and again in the years of exploration — and war — that followed. It came in particularly handy following a pro-Axis coup in Iraq in April 1941. Stark rushed back from Tehran to help her friends and other expats who had sought refuge in the British embassy in Baghdad. Taken into custody at the border, she asked for tea and proceeded to charm the guards, who put her on a train to the capital, where she made it into the embassy just as the final sandbags and barbwire encircled the compound.
Throughout the war, she ranged across the region as a diplomat-spy-propagandist for the British Ministry of Information, working with pro-Allied groups in Arab countries. A chief tactic was to get herself invited into the homes of influential men by arranging tea with their wives. At those teas, she gently helped her hosts see that resisting the Axis was in the spirit of multicultural Islam. The wives, Stark knew, passed the message on to their husbands. Stark’s intelligence handlers rated her a success.
By 1950, Freya Stark was a world-famous explorer and writer, her books global best-sellers. And she did it all in a dress and under a parasol and wide-brimmed hat. Yet a friend saw through it all to Stark’s true core: “I suspect you of being a born pirate,” she wrote, “of being a born smuggler too, if life had cast you into a different century.”