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Travel Writing and the Desert

posted on 2023-05-24, 04:52 authored by Roslynn HaynesRoslynn Haynes

The European stereotype of the desert as a flat, sandy waste derived from images of the Sahara and the Arabian Desert, the two deserts most familiar in the West. Yet deserts are found in every continent except Europe, and this geographic spread produces an immense variation in desert locations (coastal, inland), landscapes (sandy, salt, clay pan, rocky, mountainous, glaciated), rainfall (from zero recorded in the Atacama Desert to erratic flooding in the Australian deserts), stability (deserts have appeared and disappeared over time), and climate (hot, temperate, cold and ice-bound Antarctica – the most extensive of all deserts).

Irrespective of this physical diversity, the very word ‘desert’ involves powerful emotional and cultural associations. Derived from the Latin desertum, meaning ‘abandoned’, it suggests alienation and foreboding, connotations echoed in the word for desert in many languages. The numerous accounts of travellers struggling through extremes of heat or cold, facing starvation, thirst, disorientation, and loneliness, reinforce this image, while the sense of immensity, of visual emptiness, the lack of temporal references in a seemingly changeless landscape, and the characteristic silence of deserts present a further psychological challenge, raising profound questions about identity and meaning.

However, these same qualities that many travellers find threatening have proved alluring for others. Precisely because of its visual desolation, its lack of material comforts and distractions, the desert may also engender a sense of the numinous, promoting inner reflection, spiritual inquiry, purification, and visionary enlightenment. Conceivably, a desert landscape beneath a vast monochromatic sky may suggest a unified cosmos, created by one deity, rather than a diversity of gods or spirits and, significantly, the three major monotheistic faiths, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, originated in the deserts of the Middle East.

For these reasons, desert travel writing is rarely confined to physical description. Overtly it may seem to be concerned with destinations, details, and difficulties but, as in mountaineering, the principal narrative more often concerns an inner journey involving encounters with landscape, race, culture, religion, or the physical and mental challenges involved. The various travel writers considered in this chapter include religious pilgrims, adventurers, explorers, missionaries, scientists, and those who feel the need to undertake extreme hardship. For some the desert has explicitly religious significance; for others, its stark landscape, whether perceived as beautiful or terrifying, is a personal challenge to survive and to be the first to reach a destination; for others still, it is a place of desolation, horror, and death. In most cases these diverse reactions arise from the writers’ motives and temperament, their ability to be absorbed in their surroundings, and their psychological state. Because of their number (twenty-two major deserts) and variety,4 as well as the diversity of travellers, this essay focuses on only three desert areas: those of the Middle East, Central Asia, and Australia.


Publication title

The Cambridge History of Travel Writing


N Das and T Young






School of Humanities


Cambridge University Press

Place of publication

United Kingdom



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Copyright 2019 Cambridge University Press

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