The Southern Gates of Arabia

by Freya Stark

In 1935, the author set out to explore the wild, desert mountains, the palaces and cities of Hadramaut and travelled the Incense Route inland from the southern shores of Arabia. Along the way she encountered Sultans and Bedouin tribespeople, the harem women of Do’an and the Mansab of Meshed. This is the story of her travels. The author also wrote “Dust in the Lion’s Paw” and “The Coast of Incence”.

Amazon Review

In 1934, a 42-year-old Englishwoman named Freya Stark arrived in the British-governed Protectorate of Aden on a singular mission: to locate the fabled, long-lost city of Shabwa. The Southern Gates of Arabia is her story.Located on the high Hadramawt plateau in what is now Yemen, Shabwa was renowned in antiquity as the source of frankincense. Little visited even then, it was also thought to be a particularly forbidding place; Genesis mentions it as the “enclosure of death”, and the Roman geographer Pliny reported that it contained 60 great temples and wealth beyond measure. That was good enough for Stark, who, having not long made a difficult passage across the badlands of Iran, thrived on improbable adventures; and so, by burro and whatever mechanical conveyances she could find, she ascended the high mountains into a world that was sometimes perilous, but that also sometimes approached fairy-tale dimensions, as when, climbing the Hadramawt she writes: “The path kept high and open, until gradually the valley clefts narrowed again upon us, and shut us in walls whose luxuriant green made a romantic landscape of the kind usually only invented in pictures.”

Stark never reached Shabwa; laid low by the measles, she had to be evacuated from territory overrun in any event by warring religious factions and gangs of bandits. Though cut short, her time in the Yemeni highlands yielded this superb travel narrative, full of uncommon vistas and milieus–harems, bazaars and Bedouin camps among them). Anyone who values tales of adventure well told will find Stark’s body of work–and this book in particular–to be full of treasures. –Gregory McNamee –This text refers to the Paperbackedition.


‘It’s hard to think of a writer in the travel game who most closely demonstrates the merits of Flaubert’s three rules for good writing: clarity, clarity and finally clarity. Re-reading her now, her restrained powers of description shine as brightly as they ever did, and they will continue to shine until the next Ice Age… Her books are more relevant than ever. Besides sheer enjoyment, one should read her for a fresh perspective on the intractable issues dogging Christian-Muslim relations. She was able to see both sides and what she found was similarity, not difference. The greatest woman traveller of the 20th century? I think so.’ –Sara Wheeler, The Times

‘This book recaptures all the romance, beauty and primitive atmosphere of that still unspoilt Arabia of spices … and the high-walled cities and little-known desert stretches.’ –Irish Times

‘Extraordinarily rich and authoritative … a book to treasure’ –New York Times –This text refers to the Paperback edition.