About Philby

An Extraordinary Life

@Middle East Centre Oxford

Explorer and Arabist Harry St John Bridger (Abdullah) Philby was educated at Westminster School and Trinity College Cambridge. Joining the Indian Civil Service, where he acquired Urdu, Punjabi, Baluchi, Persian and eventually Arabic, in 1915 Philby was recruited to Mesopotamia by Percy Cox.  Service in Bagdhad and Basra led him to be dispatched south on a mission to meet Ibn Saud in Riyadh, a mission that would see him cross Arabia and be awarded The Royal Geographical Society Founders Medal. 

From that very first meeting Philby was entranced with the magnetic personality and charismatic presence of Ibn Saud, who in turn was intrigued by the irascible Englishman before him. A friendship was formed that lasted for 36 years. Business, writing and attending Ibn Saud’s councils were to become the pattern of his life, but Philby’s true interest was in exploration.

Over thirty years he made a series of extraordinary journeys, of which the greatest is considered his crossing of the Empty Quarter in 1932, when waterholes were sometimes several hundred miles apart, and were they not under order from the King himself, his companions would likely have mutinied. 

On these journeys he travelled by camel, and later by Land Rover. By day he collected place names, temperatures, compass bearings, barometric pressures, rocks, fossils, flora, fauna and ancient inscriptions. At night he wrote up his meticulous field notes, squatting in the shadows and hiding his work and instruments from his suspicious escort.

These journeys, and the many books, articles and lectures that followed are a monument to his scholarship, industry and endurance, and won Philby high honour with The Royal Geographical Society, the British Museum, Kew Gardens and academic societies all over the world. As a member of Ibn Saud’s circle of advisors, the King enjoyed Philby’s company and valued his knowledge of the outside world, as well as his candid opinions. His conversion to Islam in 1930 brought him even closer to Ibn Saud, and Philby was given the name Sheikh Abdullah.

On October 1st 1960 whilst meeting his son Kim in Beirut en-route from London to Riyadh, Philby complained of feeling unwell. After sitting up briefly in hospital to declare ‘God I’m bored’ he passed away and was buried in the Muslim graveyard at El Bouchara in central Beirut, where his grave is now buried under those who perished in the civil war. His son Kim scratched upon the grave ‘the greatest of Arabian explorers’.

Philby and Ibn Saud

Philby Gallery

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