Western Travellers’ Encounters with the Syrian Desert and the Euphrates, 1920s–1930s

In the post-WW1 period, a combination of political, technological and entrepreneurial factors led a growing number of travellers from Europe and the United States of America to travel across the Syrian Desert between Damascus and Baghdad and to visit ‹the land between the two rivers›, Mesopotamia. Driven by multiple reasons to visit this region, these travellers were all imbued with an imagination drawn from the Arabian Nights, as were the Arab travellers who first visited Baghdad in the 1920s and 1930s. Less known, however, is how these travellers viewed the landscapes they crossed and visited, particularly the Syrian Desert and the Euphrates.

Through the study of travelogues and guidebooks, this presentation examines the encounters of several European and American travellers with these two ‹natural› landscapes, their observations, feelings and appreciation of them, as well as the knowledge and imaginaries underlying their gaze. It will be shown that their vision of the Syrian Desert and the Euphrates was based on, or responded to, three sets of knowledge and imaginings. First of all, these travellers often compared the Syrian and Iraqi landscapes to similar (but at the same time quite different) landscapes they already knew: the Sahara and the Nile. Secondly, their vision also stemmed from a set of ‹environmental imaginaries› supporting the idea of the decline of the Middle Eastern environment due to poor management of nature by indigenous populations over the centuries. Thirdly, many of these travellers adopted a very romantic attitude, emphasising the beauty, vastness and quasi-religious character of the Middle Eastern ‹wilderness› and lamenting the alleged disenchantment of nature by modern technology.