Harry St John Bridger Philby (Biographical details)

Harry St John Bridger Philby (official; author/poet; British; Male; 3 April 1885 - 30 September 1960)

Also known as

Philby, Harry St John Bridger; Shaikh Abdallah


Arabist and father of the spy H.A. ("Kim") Philby. Born in Ceylon and educated at Westminster and Trinity College, Cambridge, Philby began his career as a British civil servant in India, arriving in Bombay in December 1908; he later joined the staff of Chief Political Officer, Sir Percy Cox (1914); following the Arab Revolt in June 1916, he was deputed in 1917 to join Ibn Saud, the first king of Saudi Arabia; he became an unofficial adviser to Lord Passfield, Colonial Secretary before the Second World War; Philby was an enthusiastic Arabist who converted to Islam in 1930 and was widely known as "Shaikh Abdallah", lived in Iraq (Baghdad), Jordan (where he succeeded T.E. Lawrence, q.v., as Chief British Representative in Transjordan), and from 1925 onwards mostly in Saudi Arabia (Jedda) where he formed a small trading company and where he famously gave his address at Mecca in the DNB. He explored, mapped and recorded more of the Arabian peninsula than any other European traveller and was the second westerner to cross the Rub al-Khali or "Empty Quarter" in 1932. In 1950 he travelled more than 3,000 miles to explore the legendary land of Midian, and in the following year he led the Ryckmans expedition during which over 12,000 inscriptions were recorded. Nevertheless, he earned an MI5 file during WWII as "a man to be watched". Honours included the Companionship of the Indian Empire and the Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society, London, in recognition of his Arabian travels. He was buried by his son in the Bashura cemetery in Beirut which bears the inscription "Greatest of Arabian explorers".

Books include: 'The Heart of Arabia' (2 vols. London 1922, transl. into German 1925); 'Arabia of the Wahhabis' (London 1928); 'Arabia' (London/New York 1930, The Modern World Series); 'The Empty Quarter' (London 1933); 'Harun al Rashid' (London: Davies, 1933; American ed. 1934); 'Sheba's Daughters, being a Record of Travel in Southern Arabia' (London: Methuen, 1939; review by Sir John Squire in 'Illustrated London News', 13 May 1939); 'A Pilgrim in Arabia' (London 1943/46); 'The Background of Islam' (Alexandria 1947); 'Arabian Days: An Autobiography' (London 1948); 'Arabian Highlands' (Ithaca, New York, 1952); 'Arabian Jubilee' (London 1952); 'Sa'udi Arabia' (London 1955); 'The Land of Midian' (London: Benn, 1957); 'Forty Years in the Wilderness' (London 1959); 'Arabian oil ventures' (Washington D.C. 1964); 'The Queen of Sheba' (posthumously published, 1981), plus numerous articles on Arabia (references listed in the Naval Intelligence Division Geographical Handbook to 'Western Arabia and the Red Sea' (London 1946), p. 623, and by G. Ryckmans op cit. p. 23).

Articles of specifically archaeological interest include: "Two notes from Central Arabia", 'The Geographical Journal' (June 1949), pp. 86-94; "The lost ruins of Quraiya", 'The Geographical Journal' (December 1951), pp. 448-58 & pls.

Philby presented collections of antiquities, stone tools and pottery from Jordan (1923-25), Southern Arabia (1937) and Saudi Arabia (1937, 1939), as well as ethnographic items from Saudi Arabia (acquired in 1971), to The British Museum. In 1948 he also deposited a number of miscellaneous items, including some potsherds from Quraiya which he presented to the British Museum (WAA Deposit-book entry 236, dated 4/8/48).

Archive relating to Philby is held as part of the Bertram Thomas Papers in the Oriental Institute in Cambridge.


H. St J. Philby, 'Arabian Days: An Autobiography' (London: Robert Hale, 1948); G. Ryckmans, 'H. Saint John B. Philby, Le "Sheikh 'Abdallah", 3 avril 1885 - 30 Septembre 1960' (Istanbul: Nederlands Historisch-Archaeologisch Instituut in het Nabije Oosten, 1961); Robin Bidwell, 'Travellers in Arabia' (London: Hamlyn, 1976), pp. 96-115; 'The Times' 28/11/02.