Introduction

Fold-out included in The Empty Quarter

A digital photograph of a fold out map made by the Royal Geographic Society of St John Philby's journey featured in The Empty Quarter [photo: R Pittam].

Our project about the eccentric orientalist St John Philby began with a map of a journey found in a copy of The Empty Quarter in our university archives. The prospect of making a digital exhibit that mapped this man's exploration of the Arabian peninsula intrigued us. As we began to study the markers of location on the Royal Geographic Society's map and to read Philby's text closely, we realized how wide the gap between text and map really was. 

The Empty Quarter (in Arabic known as the Rub' al-Khali) is the largest continuous sand mass in the world, and even though Philby's text is full of descriptions of it, few of them correspond to localizable places. Our exhibit might be seen as a corrective to the overconfident cartography of the edition's map insert, by exploring three different aspects of the quarter's shifting spaces described in his text: his approach to landscape, to the flora and fauna of Arabia, and to his (understandable) repetition of the theme of water. His distinctly naturalist orientation in The Empty Quarter, we discovered, was nonetheless infused with a general prospecting attitude towards the region. 

Given the undocumented nature of the region in the domain of public domain, we have assembled a number of visual items in our exhibit moving from cues within the text itself to the creative commons. We have even commissioned some original drawings inspired by the textual descriptions that evoke what Philby might have seen. Creating this exhibit has convinced us of the importance of assembling more open, cultural data about Arabia.

Since any exhibit about the history of the Arabian Gulf in the early twentieth century lacking the larger geopolitical context would be remiss, we have included a spatio-temporal narrative of St John Philby's life. Indeed, Philby's work in creating Saudi Aramco, the largest company ever assembled, would irreversibly change the region. His writings form a core narrative providing a Western perspective on the region in an era before oil. 

This project is the collective work of a class offered at NYU Abu Dhabi in the Fall 2017 semester, Digital Curation, CADT-UH 1018. It has been assembled intentionally with materials known to fall in the public domain. 

Introduction