Freya Madeline Stark was born on January 31, 1893 at Paris, France, the eldest daughter of Robert and Flora Stark. Flora was Italian born,and it was there, two years later that Freya’s younger sister, Vera, was born. Her childhood years were divided between the hill towns of northern Italy and the moors of southwest England. (Mother and daughters can be found at Chagford, Devon in the 1901 census).
Although her roots remained in England, it was Italy that was to become her home. When Freya was eight, her mother took a house at Asolo, a small fortress town north-west of Venice. This little town in the foothills of the Dolomites remained her home, in the intervals between her travels, for the rest of her life.
Freya had no formal schooling, but haphazard early learning was put right by a gifted governess, and by the age of 10 she spoke English, Italian, German and French. It was not until she was 19 and entered Bedford College, London, that her formal education began, but two years later the outbreak of war brought it to an end.
During the First World War, she trained as a nurse and served with a hospital unit on the Italian front. Peace brought years of poverty, family problems and increasing ill-health. After the war, Robert Stark emigrated to Canada, and her parents’ eventually separated. In Italy, Freya built up a modestly profitable market garden business. Some of the hard-earned money went to Arabic lessons that she took from an Italian monk. And by 1927, a course in Arabic and Persian at the London School of Oriental Studies behind her, her “traveler’s prelude,” as she called it, was complete.
Freya’s first Middle Eastern trip started in November 1927. She spent the winter at Brummana in Lebanon, some time in Damascus and, with a friend, completed her first proper expedition, through the then Jabal Druze country. However, her book on this expedition – Letters from Syria – was not published until 1942.
In 1928 Freya visited the United States. She sailed from Glasgow, Scotland aboard the SS Athenia on October 19, 1928 to the Canadian city of Quebec, crossing the border into the United States on October 28 as a tourist with a 14 day visa, which had been issued in Glasgow on October 14. It is worth noting that the Athenia was the first British ship to be sunk by Germany in World War II.
In 1929 she was in Lebanon again, on her way to Baghdad. There she established herself in the house of a shoemaker overlooking the Tigris, much to the disgust of the British community, which considered such behavior “a flouting of national prestige.” Her spell in Baghdad resulted in her first book, Baghdad Sketches (1933). She used Baghdad as a base for three tough solo journeys into Iran between 1929 and 1931: two in Luristan and one in the mountains of Mazanderan, south of the Caspian Sea. Out of these journeys came The Valleys of the Assassins, the book which made her name as a writer.
The first truly Arabian journey came in the winter of 1934-35. Stark was only the third European woman to travel into the Arabian interior, and the first to go there alone. Her goal was to be the first European to reach Shabwa, the abandoned site of the original capital city of the kingdom of Hadhramaut. She traveled from Mukalla on the coast, northward to Shibam and Sayun. But the expedition ended with her rescue by the Royal Air Force, operating from Aden, after she contracted measles en route and carried on before she was properly recovered. After a long recovery, she took on Arabia once more, again starting from Mukalla, in winter 1937-38, this time ending in dengue fever. These journeys were recorded in The Southern Gates of Arabia (1936), Seen in the Hadramaut (1938) and A Winter in Arabia (1940).
During the Second World War Freya was commissioned by the British Government to help counteract German influence among the Arabs. She went on a diplomatic mission to the Yemen, and in Cairo helped to found the Arab Brotherhood of Freedom. Later, she was also sent on missions to Canada and India. Toward the end of the war She was also sent to the United States to counter Zionist propaganda against the British government in Palestine.
In 1947, despite being told by friends that he was homosexual, Freya married Stewart Henry Perowne, a distinguished Orientalist and British colonial administrator, the grandson of Bishop John James Stewart Perowne, whom she accompanied to posts in Barbados and Cyrenaica. The marriage was short lived and was dissolved in 1952. At the time she was writing her autobiography, three volumes appeared in swift succession: Traveler’s Prelude (1950), Beyond the Euphrates (1951) and The Coast of Incense (1953). A fourth volume, Dust in the Lion’s Paw, dealing with the war years, came out in 1961.
Now in her 60′s, Freya was still she looking for new worlds to conquer, and found them in Anatolia and its history. She learned Turkish with the aid of Turkish detective stories and made several arduous journeys, often on horseback, in the remoter parts of Turkey. Out of these came Ionia: A Quest (1954), The Lycian Shore (1956), Alexander’s Path (1958), Riding to the Tigris (1959) and finally, the product of three years’ concentrated labor, Rome on the Euphrates (1966), a scholarly study of Rome’s eastern limits.
Freya continued traveling, well on into her late 80′s – on horseback in Nepal and the Pamirs, down the Euphrates on a raft. Later in the 1980s, for the first time in her life, she traveled as a tourist, to the legendary caravan cities of Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent, and at the age of 89 she returned to the Middle East to visit Jerusalem.
In 1972 Freya Madeline Stark was created a Dame of the British Empire.
On May 9, 1993, at the age of 100, Dame Freya Madeline Stark died in Asolo, the village in the foothills of the Dolomites that she had made her home