Heart of Arabia expedition sets off across the desert towards Jeddah

A team of explorers is retracing the 1,300km trek made by British explorer Harry St John Philby in 1917

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The Heart of Arabia expedition began the second leg of its 1,300km trek across Saudi Arabia this week in rain that caused heavy floods across the kingdom.

British explorer Mark Evans is leading an expedition in the footsteps of Harry St John Philby, who crossed the Arabian Peninsula by foot and camel in 1917.

The team — which includes Philby’s granddaughter Reem Philby, photographer Ana-Maria Pavalache and logistics lead Alan Morrissey — completed the first leg from the port of Al Uqair to Riyadh in November.

On Monday, they set off from the Unesco World Heritage centre of At-Turaif in Al Diriyah district on the outskirts of Riyadh.

They will travel west across the vast deserts that separate Riyadh from the western Hijaz mountains and on to the Red Sea, aiming to reach the city of Jeddah by January 30.

Wet and cold weather in the desert

After a dry and windy first leg, the expedition must deal with wet weather and new terrain.

They left Al Diriyah along the Wadi Hanifa valley and reached Jabal Tuwaiq — an imposing 600-metre-high limestone ridge that cuts through the region — under blue skies.

However, rain started, and the team has had to navigate muddy terrain.

Winter rains in Saudi Arabia often cause flooding, and several people have been killed in the Makkah region this season.

Despite the risk, Mr Evans told The National the weather would not affect their plans.

Philby recorded difficult weather in his 1922 account of his trip, Heart of Arabia, and lows of 5°C.

“It was the coldest day I experienced in all my sojourn in Arabia,” Philby wrote from the same spot close to Jabal Tuwaiq, where the 2023 expedition camped on Tuesday.

Following Philby’s mission

Philby travelled to Riyadh on an official British mission, but the second leg was a journey he was not supposed to make.

In 1917, Philby was a 32-year-old civil servant stationed in Iraq, where he was employed to help the British Empire in its struggle against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War.

Along with two other British officials, Philby was sent to Riyadh to ask if Ibn Saud would put more pressure on the Ottomans.

While British officials disputed the mission's scope, Philby considered himself as having the authority to offer Ibn Saud military and financial support for an attack on the Al Rashid family, who were allied with the Ottomans.

The first leg of his trip went to plan, and he met Ibn Saud in Riyadh on November 30, 1917.

After 10 days of negotiations, the two officials who had accompanied Philby returned to Iraq.

Philby was expected to follow, but he had other plans.

He asked for a private audience with Ibn Saud, aiming to convince the leader to allow him to continue travelling west.

According to Philby, he persuaded Ibn Saud that the trip would prove the Saudis could provide safe passage in the western deserts of his realm.

This would strengthen Ibn Saud's claim over areas contested by his rival, King Hussein, who ruled the Hijaz region.

Philby later admitted his motives “were of a mixed character, and not wholly based on the requirements of the situation”. As an avid adventurer, he wanted to join the ranks of the few Europeans to have crossed the peninsula and the trek would enhance his prestige.

Ibn Saud allowed Philby to make the journey with an escort and the team set off on December 9, 1917.

He took meticulous notes along the way that were published in his 1922 book — the inspiration for today’s expedition.

Philby family lines meet

The expedition launch brought together two lines of Philby's family for the first time.

Philby had two wives. He had four children with his first wife, British citizen Dora Johnson, whom he married in India in 1910.

Dora and their children settled in England after Philby travelled to Arabia, where he spent much of the rest of his life as a close friend and adviser of Ibn Saud.

In Arabia, Philby converted to Islam, taking the name Abdullah, and he married a Saudi woman called Rozy, with whom he had several children.

Saudi explorer Reem Philby is from this line of the family.

At the expedition's launch, Ms Philby met Michael Engelbach, Philby's British grandson, for the first time.

This week, Mr Engelbach and his cousin Mandy Oates made their first visit to the kingdom to see the expedition off.

“Having read many of his letters and his books giving the account of his travels and his love of Arabia, we are very excited to be finally viewing the country and the people first hand,” said Mr Engelbach.

Ms Philby described the reunion as a “special” celebration of the late explorer's “life and legacy in his second home”.

The trip has the support of the Royal Geographical Society and Saudi authorities. As well as following Philby’s footsteps, the team are collecting data for three scientific projects and aiming to encourage people to explore Saudi Arabia.

Heart of Arabia expedition stage one — in pictures:

Updated: January 18, 2023, 8:30 AM