A Rare Book Find: The Bedouins of the Euphrates

Once in awhile there’s a book you’ve longed to add to your personal library, but for one reason or another, have not diligently pursued ways or means to obtain it.  Then one day, the book suddenly finds you.   That, my friends, is the beautiful serendipity of browsing in used and rare book shops!  And it is why I couldn’t pass up this book that came into my hands during our recent book-scouting adventure.  I was surprised and delighted to discover this First American Edition sitting on a shelf at Central Street Books in Knoxville, Tennessee.

The Bedouins of the Euphrates, by Lady Anne Blunt (New York: 1879; Harper & Brothers)

From my youth I’ve associated with Arabian horses, and have been familiar with this superb book by Lady Anne Blunt, one of the most eloquently written travel narratives of the 19th Century.  Now I finally own a copy of this classic work.

Edited, with a Preface and “Some Account of the Arabs and Their Horses” by her husband and fellow traveler Wilfrid, it is the day by day story of her and Wilfrid’s 19th century expedition to Arabia and their growing interest in the fine Arabian horses among the Bedouin tribes.  Thirteen illustrations and a map are the work of Lady Anne, who was an accomplished artist.

“Ruins of of Palace of El Haddr” (sketch by Lady Anne Blunt)

Together the couple set out on the 20th of November, 1877, without escort or interpreters, to travel through the Syrian desert by horseback, foot and camel.  At the end of this extensive 5-month journey, they sailed home with six Arabian mares; these horses became the foundation stock of the famous Crabbet Park Arabian Stud Farm.

The book is a riveting tale of adventure, replete with all the dangers and mishaps of travel in a vast and rugged land.  As in any good journey, serendipity and chance play a large role in making the trip a success.  Most of the book is written in journal style, with each day’s happenings recounted in detail,  laced with charm and wit.  Here is an excerpt telling of their crossing the Khabur River, a tributary of the Euphrates:

“A camel forced to swim is a very ridiculous object.  He hates the water sincerely, and roars and moans piteously when he is obliged to face it.  Ours were, of course, unloaded, and then brought one by one to the river bank.  A man on the back, and half a dozen others to push behind, were needed to get them down the bank, a steep slide of mud, down which the camels went, with all their legs together, souse into the water.  The men, who were stripped, then jumped in after them, and, shouting and splashing water in their faces, forced them on, till at last they were out of their depth, and everything had disappeared except the camels’ noses.  Then they seemed to resign themselves, and swam steadily but slowly to the opposite shore, where, fortunately, there was a better landing place.” 

Near the front of the book, there is a fold-out map, “A Map of the Euphrates District giving the Limits of Cultivation and the position of the Various Bedouin Tribes in Their Summer Quarters.”  It also shows the route that Lady Anne and Wilfrid traveled.

Fold-out map in “The Bedouins of the Euphrates”

Replete with first hand insight into the life and culture of the Bedouin tribes, Lady Anne shares  personal encounters and friendships developed with the nomads as they made their way across the desert.  Revealed in the book is the culture of the tribes, including their religion, politics, morals, music and warfare.  The Bedouin system of breeding and training their Arabian horses and a description of the horses they found among the tribes are discussed in detail, and at the rear of the book is an extensive fold-out genealogical table of the descent of the Arabian horse.

          Fold-out pedigree showing the genealogical  origins of the Arabian Horse

Wilfrid and Lady Anne traveled extensively in Arabia and the Middle East, buying Arabian horses not only from Bedouins, but later from Ali Pasha Sherif in Egypt. In a second book, A Pilgrimage to Nejd (London, 1881; J. Murray), Lady Anne Blunt details another horse-seeking expedition, when the couple traveled to northern Arabia and the Nejd.  A rugged, nearly inaccessible region, sacred to the Syrian Bedouins, Lady Anne was the first European woman to set foot in that territory.

Lady Anne Blunt  (Anne Isabella Noel Blunt),  was born September 27, 1837 into the British aristocracy.  She was the granddaughter of the poet Lord Byron and married Sir Wilfred Blunt when she was 29 years old.  Fluent in French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Arabic, she was also a skilled violinist, artist and horsewoman.  She shared with her husband a love of the Orient and horses, and although they encountered marital difficulties which eventually led to their separation (Wilfred was quite the philanderer), they enjoyed many desert journeys together and in 1878 co-founded Crabbet Park Stud in England, an enterprise which had a profound and lasting influence on horse breeding throughout the world.

The couple came to love the desert.  Eventually they purchased a 32 acre estate on the outskirts of Cairo, Egypt called Sheykh Obeyd, where Lady Anne lived out much of her life, while Wilfrid later resided separately in England.  Lady Anne Blunt died in Cairo on December 15, 1917 and is buried in a small desert cemetery.

I mentioned that Lady Anne Blunt was an accomplished musician.  Her beloved violin, called the “Lady Blunt Stradivarius,” was sold at auction in Japan in 2011 for a world record high of 15.9 million U.S. Dollars.  Read more on the history of this beautiful instrument first owned by Lady Anne Blunt HERE.

Finally, a documentary film is being made (by Fortnight Productions) about Lady Anne Blunt, with its Premiere being timed to coincide with the London Olympics.  Read more about the film and see a trailer HERE.

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