Saudi Arabia: travel books to read before you go


This excerpt from Lonely Planet’s archives provides a selection of travel literature to get you in the mood for your trip.

The Arabian peninsula, the lands of Islam, have held a rare fascination for Western explorers for centuries. This fact is reflected in the rich variety of travel narratives available, many of which are well worth reading before you set out.

Arabian SandsArabian Sands, by Wilfred Thesiger, is one of the finest pieces of travel literature ever written and a classic of desert exploration; Thesiger spent years living and travelling with the Bedouin.

Arabia and the BedouinsArabia of the Bedouins, by Marcel Kurpershoek, is a nuanced and fascinating account of a Dutch diplomat’s search for the magic of poetry among Bedouin nomads while learning their language. Highly recommended.

Personal NarrativePersonal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah, by Richard Burton, is a rare (and politically incorrect) Western insight into the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Another classic.

Hashish: Smuggling Under Sail in the Red Sea, by Henri de Montfried, has everything: Red Sea drug smugglers, fascinating observations about 1920s Arabia, and a lively writing style. It may even be true.

The AdventuresThe Adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim Traveller of the 14th Century, by Ross Dunn, brings the 14th century ‘Arab Marco Polo’ to life, including Ibn Battuta’s time in Mecca as a pilgrim.

Crossing BordersCrossing Borders: An American Woman in the Middle East, by Judith Caesar, chronicles the author’s expat days in Saudi Arabia and handles deftly the complexities faced by women in the region.

At the Drop of a VeilAt the Drop of a Veil, by Marianne Alireza, is a portrait of Saudi Arabia through the eyes of an American woman who married a Jeddah merchant and lived there in the 1940s and 1950s.

Travelling the Sands: Sagas of Exploration in the Arabian Peninsula, by Andrew Taylor, provides fascinating descriptions of journeys undertaken by haj pilgrims and Western adventurers through the centuries.

SandstormsSandstorms: Days and Nights in Arabia, by Peter Theroux, describes the life of the (male) American expat (the author was based in Riyadh); it’s a mass-market paperback but contains some interesting observations.

More travel literature reading lists for other destinations can be found here.