Off the Dusty Bookshelf: Freya Stark’s Ionic Pilgrimage

John Kuhner |

Classical Landscape in the Eyes of One of the Twentieth Century’s Greatest Travellers

 “Paysage Odysseen,” by Emilie Mediz-Pelikan (1861–1908) (source).
“Paysage Odysseen,” by Emilie Mediz-Pelikan (1861–1908) (source).

If you wish not a computer screen but the lone and level sands: if you think of solitude not as emptiness but the audience-chamber of the Mystery: if you long to go on foot, or on a horse: if you think of risk not as terror but as “the salt and sugar of life,” then you have a friend in Freya Stark, “the last of the Romantic Travellers.” Stark was born in 1893 and spent the first part of her life running a flower farm in Italy, before deciding to learn Arabic and Persian and take to the road. She moved to Baghdad in the late 1920s, visiting Leonard Woolley and his excavations at Ur, traveling past a closed border into Syria (where she was ultimately apprehended by the French authorities), and writing about her travels for the Baghdad Times. She decided to travel on her own to find the “Valleys of the Assassins” (or Hashish-Eaters), along the border between Iraq and Persia into the Elburz Mountains and quondam Hyrcania (where there were still tigers in her day). Her journey took her off the maps in the possession of the British Foreign Service. When she wrote up the account of her journey, in 1931, she became a sensation, earning worldwide fame and a decoration from the Royal Geographical Society.

 Freya Stark (source).
Freya Stark (source).

In truth she never stopped after that. Freya (apparently pronounced Fray-a not Fry-a) gained a reputation for being a woman willing to “boldly go where no man has gone before.” She did solo trips through Yemen and southern Saudi Arabia; worked for British Intelligence during World War II, attempting to keep Middle Eastern nations from joining the Nazi cause; took the Silk Road into Afghanistan; attempted to follow the journeys of Alexander the Great; wrote some twenty-five volumes, including multiple autobiographical tomes; at age 84 she decided to go down the Euphrates on a raft; 88 saw her riding a pony across Nepal with a television crew (the documentary is well worth watching and captures some of her remarkable reflections on life). She died, in 1993, at the age of 100. In her public life she bore continual witness to the value of freedom, travel, solitude, adventure, curiosity, and risk, which she described as “the salt and sugar of life.”

It was her love of these things which led her to Ionia (the formerly Greek cities of what is now Turkey, within a triangle roughly delineated by Pergamum, Didyma, and Hierapolis (Pamukkale); she omits Halicarnassus as being too Carian). It is generally believed that this land gave the world Homer, which would be cultural inheritance enough, but it also produced very nearly the whole of Presocratic philosophy (Thales, Heraclitus, Anaximander, Anaximenes, and many more all hailed from here), much glorious architecture (now represented by the eponymous Ionic column, still particularly associated with learning and culture), and it brought the coinage invented by its neighbor Lydia into wider Mediterranean circulation. What we know of Ionia — much of it coming to us from Herodotus (who takes first place in the acknowledgements of the book!) — suggests that the things Stark loved were components of Ionian life. Those glorious passages in Homer about the nitid joys of Telemachus setting sail could have been inscribed on her tombstone. And so her travels to Ionia were not just travels. The book really is the record of a pilgrimage, where Stark salutes the people she considers her friends — and something more than that, as well.

Elsewhere Stark writes about what makes for good travel — an openness, a “leisurely and blank mind.”

To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world. You are surrounded by adventure. You have no idea of what is in store for you, but you will, if you are wise and know the art of travel, let yourself go on the stream of the unknown and accept whatever comes in the spirit in which the gods may offer it. For this reason your customary thoughts, all except the rarest of your friends, even most of your luggage — everything, in fact, which belongs to your everyday life, is merely a hindrance.

But she does not adopt this attitude in Ionia. She comes armed with all the facts she knows about the place from books, aiming for deeper understanding of them. She is on a quest. And so, for instance, when she comes to Pitane, she is not there merely to muse on the Genoese castle there or its guns, still in place (and stamped with the arms of George III). She was interested in Pitane because it was the home of Arcesilaus, head of the Academy around 250 B.C. Why was he so important to her? There is nothing tangible on the ground to call such a man to mind. But according to the Greeks, Arcesilaus was “the first to argue both sides of a question.” Stark is interested in what could have produced so tolerant a mind — and so the chapter on Pitane is subtitled “Toleration and Truth,” and how toleration demands not only flexibility but also, perhaps paradoxically, commitment to the truth. Teos, home of Anacreon, gives us an essay “Anacreon and the Poetry of Living.” Colophon is “The Position of Women,” about culture being continued by women, while men come and go (“the female stands aside from the fighting and goes off with the conqueror”). Gryneium is “Solitude and Patriotism” (“the distance of these towns one from another, and the loneliness then as now of the hills between them, explain the love of the Greek for his city” — Stark believed one could not truly love without solitude). Priene is “Greatness in Art” (a “rich austerity… a tender thankfulness for a benefit received and a forgetfulness of self in the interest of another). In each of these essays — twenty-four in all — Stark makes good the promise she makes in the introduction:

All these ingredients, and doubtless many others, are found in the fragments that are left us of Ionia: and the reader himself, if he has the patience to follow my rebuilding of cities, will decide which of them are valid and practicable today.

In other words, for her Ionia is a landscape with meaning, meaning and relevance for today; and her geographical meditations on what created the commerce of Ionia or the passionate gloom of Heraclitus or the relativistic genius of Xenophanes make as much sense out of these things as one can. For if the record is mostly obliterated and the topics too great for our grasp, still we can say that there are causes for human culture as for anything else, and that some of them can be known.

Stark does not say what causes led her to this particular work, but it is probable that her quest to find the sources of freedom and toleration was motivated by the spectacle of totalitarianism, which in her day had closed borders from Franco’s Spain to Stalin’s Vladivostok, turned her Italian home (she lived in Asolo, north of Padua) into hostile ground, and burned through the lives of tens of millions in just the few years prior. One of the interesting insights of the book is that uncertainty is one of the ingredients of toleration, not only in the sense of remembering that your ignorance is far greater than your knowledge (“education tells us always all the things that are known. Perhaps… it would be safer to ponder only about what is not known”). Uncertainty when it comes to one’s own life and property — some kind of danger — seems to be an ingredient as well. The Ionians lived in great uncertainty politically — there were constant dangers, from other Greeks, from Persians, from Lydians and Lycians and Carians and others. “So much is supposed to have happened here,” says Stark of the few stones that make up Pitane, “that ‘I am Pitane’ was made into a proverb to describe people who suffered the ups and downs of fortune.” The same could be said of Ionia as a whole. Recurrent disaster seems to be the rule more than settled prosperity. But clearly this is not enough — such uncertainty can also produce the conditions for persecution — and Stark ponders what combination might actually work.

Stark’s essays contain the sort of thoughts one might find in poems of Shelley or Byron, written among the lone and level sands. This is something in itself; and what is more, her journeys are the record of another era. She notes that she met, in all fifty-five ruinous cities she visited, one other tourist (and her list includes Ephesus!). She saw Ionia alone, in solitude, before its relics were fenced and had opening and closing hours. She comes to Laodicea to find a farmer breaking up the marbles with the sledge-end of an axe; when she had remonstrated elsewhere, she got the reply that he must have building stone from somewhere.

Two shepherds leaned idly against the scattered pedestals; the ruins were everywhere and nowhere — in hillocks whence the corner-stones of foundations pushed through — in boulders that looked natural until one saw traces of chiselling, weather grey — in fragments of alien marble, shapeless on the ground. Many years ago, on the height where the palaces of Nimrud are now being excavated, I once watched the Beduin shepherd pasture his flocks where the stone wing of an Assyrian bull stood half out of the grass: and the same pastoral appeasement soothes the expanses of Laodicea. In the silence, among the browsing cattle, with the peasant in the distance cracking up the ruins as if he were Time incarnate, it as as if all the voices of these crossroads were audible together: the voices of the Lydians, setting their boundary stones on the trade route; the Persian armies, vanishing with a flicker in the north; the voices of Laodicea, first known under Pergamene kings in 220 B.C.; the Roman city where, as in Ephesus, the tax-farmers had their bank and gladiatorial shows were first performed in Asia; Mithridates and the massacre of the Romans; the oppressions of the Republic; the enormous debt of Asia, unpayable, rising from 20,000 to 120,000 talents in thirteen years, until Lucullus reduced it and was never forgiven by the business men of Rome; the billeting of troops on the householders, with sixteen drachmas a day and two sets of clothing for each soldier, and his friends to be entertained as well; the rifling of the treasures by Verres and the shocking trial of Philodamus in Laodicea, where justice showed herself a toy in the Roman hand; the city’s resistance to the Parthians, with Zeno — a teacher of oratory — as captain in 40 B.C.; the fairminded coming of Cicero; the gradual return of prosperity when the Empire cared for all; the decadence and profusion. The rich and coarsened material world had travelled far from that Ionia where “to have a plenty of everything” was “no pleasure to mortal men.”

This is writing in the richest Romantic tradition, where whole sweeps of history can take up residence among a few words on a page. It makes me want to put on my pack and get away from this computer for a good long while; and I’m sure that love of turning the lock in one’s own door and setting one’s foot on the road is the homage that Freya’s shade wants most of all.

John Byron Kuhner is editor of In Medias Res. He is working on a biography of Fr. Reginald Foster.


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John Kuhner

John Byron Kuhner is the former president of SALVI, the North American Institute of Living Latin Studies, and editor of In Medias Res.


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