Recently I’ve been reading a biography of Freya Stark (Passionate Nomad, by Jane Fletcher Geniesse), born in 1903, an explorer who became renowned when she explored the mountainous territory of the mysterious “Assassins” of Persia, who were connected with the feared Druze, the most “effective terrorist group in history.” These Assassins had occupied fortress castles in Syria that they had been forced out of in 1273, but were still resident in the mountains at the time of Stark’s exploration. Scholars suggest that there are parallels between the Assassins and modern day sects such as the military wing of Hamas in Israel or Osama bin Laden’s Afghani terrorists.
Stark became the first woman to explore Luristan in western Iran. She also followed ancient frankincense routes to locate a lost Arabian city. Throughout her life, she greatly extended geographical knowledge of remote regions of the Middle East, and won the Royal Geographical Society’s Back Grant for her cartographic accomplishments, among other honors, and provided a valuable resource for Allied Intelligence during World War II.
Not limiting herself to geography, Stark learned multiple Middle Eastern languages and customs of the regions she visited, which helped the military and diplomatic corps and markedly influenced foreign policy.
Stark wrote thirty books on her adventures in the Middle East and captured a time when huge changes were taking place in that region. She became one of Britain’s outstanding authorities on the Middle East.
So here is one of the first volunteer geographic information (VGI) sources – following on heels of such explorers as Sir Richard Francis Burton and Richard Speke who discovered Lake Tanganyika, Sir Lawrence of Arabia, and others of that general time period.
Although Stark’s maps depict land divisions that are no longer relevant, their accuracy and clarity show us the Middle East as it once was, and helps to deepen our understanding of the history of land and culture that still exist today.
Perhaps their relevancy is as a layer, to be compared with how we collect data today.