The most prominent stories of orientalists in Saudi Arabia from centuries ago

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Dozens of orientalists travelled to Saudi Arabia at different historical times, bringing their camera lenses to document life and civilization. They did not come with great arrogance. Instead, they melted into social life. Some of them lived the lives of the Bedouin, dressing like them and eating like them.

Although many of the inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula didn’t tolerate these Orientalists who came from abroad, their journey now constitute an important part of history that is documented and used as a reference study by many researchers.

The most photographed sites

Makkah and Madinah are among the most photographed sites of the orientalist explorers. The sites of the Holy Places and buildings, and the depiction of the Great Mosque of Mecca and Al Masjid al Nabawi Mosque from 150 years ago show a lot of clarity and purity.

العقيد محمد صادق مصور موهوب
العقيد محمد صادق مصور موهوب

Although he was not an Orientalist, we owe the first and most famous images of the Great Mosque of Mecca to Colonel Mohammed Sadiq. He took famous photographs of the two great mosques in 1880 and visited Saudi Arabia three times between 1860 and 1880.

The majority of the old pictures of the two holy mosques hold the signature of Mohammed Sadek Bey who took more than 6,000 old photos of Saudi Arabia in which he illustrated all the sites of the pilgrimage starting from the Islamic port of Jeddah.

Most Orientalists settled in the north of Saudi Arabia and lived with the tribes that moved there with camels and sheep.

Riyadh, Ha’il and al Qassim also received a good share of documentation from Orientalists travelers through photographs which depicted mud houses, farms, markets and daily life in those sites.

Harry St John Bridger Philby

Harry St John Bridger Philby is considered one of the most famous photographers who moved to Saudi Arabia about 88 years ago. He converted to Islam and changed his name to Abdullah Philby. He is famous for the outstanding work he has left behind and is credited with documenting and recording many of the landmarks of Saudi Arabia.

هاري سان جون فيلبي
هاري سان جون فيلبي

Philby travelled a lot with King Abdul Aziz and he is the eye behind the early photographs of the founding king.

Philby studied photography in Basra during the First World War. Furthermore, he was one of the few men who crossed the Empty Quarter in 1932.

Philby was not just a photographer. He is also the author of numerous travel books which included photographs of his travels.

Wilfred Thesiger

He was one of the last explorers of the Arabian Peninsula. He crossed the Empty Quarter more than once and made many trips to Najd and Assir during his stay in Saudi Arabia between 1936 and 1950.

Thesiger, also called Mubarak bin London emerged from the Empty Quarter with a book in which he documented the important pictures about the life of the tribes. His book entitled “The sands of Arabiya” is considered an important reference in his field of study.

وليم ثيسغر
وليم ثيسغر

William Thesiger was not the only one to be given an Arab name. The Roula tribe named the Czech orientalist Alois Musil Sheikh Moussa al Rouili in reference to his long stay with them. Alois wrote a lot about the heritage of the East and what he witnessed during his stay. He is famed for his portrait wearing Bedouin clothing, in which he truly looks like a local.

The British Princess Lady Ann Blunt is one of the most famous oriental women who have traveled to Saudi Arabia, where she was accompanied by her husband and moved a lot in the Saudi north. She is famous for changing the breed of the Arabian horse and setting up a stallion of purebred Arabian horses.

She settled in the Najd area and moved with several tribes in the north. She also witnessed a war between two tribes who were fighting over pastures and was the mediator who reconciled between them. Ann Blunt was not the only woman to cross the Arabian Peninsula, she was in fact preceded by Gertrude Bell who managed to travel to Ha’il and document its history and buildings during that period.

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