Wilfred Thesiger was a British explorer and travel writer born in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.
Thesiger was educated at Eton College and Magdalen College, Oxford University where he took a third in history. Between 1930 and 1933, Thesiger represented Oxford at boxing and later (1933) became captain of the Oxford boxing team.
In 1930, Thesiger returned to Africa, having received a personal invitation by Emperor Haile Selassie to attend his coronation. He returned again in 1933 in an expedition, funded in part by the Royal Geographical Society, to explore the course of the Awash River. During this expedition, he became the first European to enter the Aussa Sultanate and visit Lake Abbe.Afterwards, in 1935, Thesiger joined the Sudan Political Service stationed in Darfur and the Upper Nile. He served in several desert campaigns with the Sudan Defence Force (SDF) and the Special Air Service (SAS) with the rank of major.
In World War II, Thesiger fought with Gideon Force in Ethiopia during the East African Campaign. He was awarded the DSO for capturing Agibar and its garrison of 2500 Italian troops. Afterwards, Thesiger served in the Long Range Desert Group during the North African Campaign.
There is a rare wartime photograph of Thesiger in this period. He appears in a well-known photograph usually used to illustrate the badge of the Greek Sacred Squadron. It is usually captioned 'a Greek officer of the Sacred Band briefing British troops'. The officer is recognisably the famous Tsigantes and one of the crowd is recognisably Thesiger. Thesiger is the tall figure with the distinct nasal profile. Characteristically, he is in Arab headdress. Thesiger was the liaison officer to the Greek Squadron.In 1945, Thesiger worked in Arabia with the Desert Locusts Research Organisation. Meanwhile, from 1945 to 1949, he explored the southern regions of the Arabian peninsula and twice crossed the Empty Quarter. His travels also took him to Iraq, Persia (now Iran), Kurdistan, French West Africa, Pakistan and Kenya. He returned to England in the 1990s and was knighted in 1995.
Thesiger is best known for two travel books. Arabian Sands (1959) recounts his travels in the Empty Quarter of Arabia between 1945 and 1950 and describes the vanishing way of life of the Bedouins. The Marsh Arabs (1964) is an account of the Madan, the indigenous people of the marshlands of southern Iraq. The latter journey is also covered by his travelling companion, Gavin Maxwell, in A Reed Shaken by the Wind — a Journey through the Unexplored Marshlands of Iraq (Longman, 1959).
Thesiger took many photographs during his travels and donated his vast collection of 23,000 negatives to the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford.His books were analysed, from a collector's point of view, in Book and Magazine Collector magazine, No.65, August 1989, and again in 2008, Issue No.295.