Best historical travel books

Uggla finalThe best historical travel book is Isabelle Eberhardt’s In the Shadow of Islam. Eberhardt travelled north Africa in the early 20th century with an acute sense of detail and a wonderful way with words.

Eberhardt dared to go where few else did, visiting and living in Islamic centres of learning. Her stories from southern Algeria are vibrant, moody and perceptive. She wrote about people, landscape and all sorts of moral, political and esthetical issues getting in her way.

Though not historical travel as such, Eberhardt’s work is history in itself by now and an important window to seldom described aspects of early 20th century life. The manuscript for this, her last book, was found in the house in which she died from a mudslide.

The original, French title of the book should actually translate as “In the warm shadow of Islam” and Eberhardt felt very welcome in north-African Islamic culture, even being one of very few foreigners accepted by the Sufi order Qadiriyya. Isabelle frequently dressed and behaved as contemporary men and also converted to Islam.

Shadows and hearts of Asia
Colin Thubron is another great writer travelling the past while moving along in the present. His Shadow of the Silk Road describes an epic journey from east to west, rich in stories and history.

Thubron has a brilliant way of painting the big, deep historical picture and relating events and people in the present to it, creating thick meaning. The visit to the grave of the yellow emperor at the start of this book, introducing the Silk Road theme, is one of the best literary scenes ever. Thubrons The Lost Heart of Asia is another classic and you should also try To a mountain i Tibet.

In the footsteps
I can’t help liking Tim Severin’s long series of books in which he follows in the footsteps of historical travellers such as the argonauts, Marco Polo, Sindbad the sailor, the first crusade and Genghis Khan, or tracing the historical backgrounds to stories such as those of Moby Dick and Robinson Crusoe. Is there an historical traveller he hasn’t followed?

Severin’s stories of tracking Marco Polo on motorbike in the 1960s or riding across Europe on the equivalent of a Medieval warhorse, tracing and telling history simultaneously are most inspiring.

In the Elburz
Freya Starks The Valleys of the Assassins is an underrated classic to my mind, in which we get to follow her 1930s explorations in the Elburz mountains of Iran. Stark explores the ruined castles of the odd medieval Assassins sect – not as murderous as legend has it, though not innocent either – and this is an epic account of it. Stark has a rough time in the Iranian mountains describing it very well.

To Oxiana
Some say The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron is the best travel book ever and there might be a grain of truth to this. Byron writes really well in a personal, diary-style way about a strange overland trip from Venice to British India visiting and evaluating most historical monuments en route. He takes on a somewhat superior art-historical gaze and attitude though, aging less well, though his prose and wonderful descriptions are timeless. There are few better places to meet the architecture of the Timurids than with Byron.

Finding wanderlust
Then, finally, there is Rebecca Solnit. Wanderlust, A history of walking and A field guide to getting lost blends history with all sorts of inspiring and game-changing reflections, not the least regarding travelling, and so does “The Atlas trilogy” about San Francisco, New Orleans and New York. I’m not entirely sure these are historical travel books, but they are certainly required reading for the historical traveller.

To travel in history

Guest blog by authors Ted Hesselbom and Anna Lihammer

Uggla finalAt last I am here in the land of the Sweons and Geats!” Chester exclaimed and clutched the white-painted bulwark so hard his hands hurt.

The gangplank slowly came into place in front of his feet, soon secured with chains and ropes. The rusty metal and the salt stale ropes whined. Long before the gangplank was secured Chester was on his way. The heels of his shoes smattered at the thick planks when he ran…

Your heart pounds hard! You are in a hurry and yet up for adventure! You are on your way into something unknown!

Chester from our book ”Med dig vågar jag allt” is eager to start his new life far away from home. He has travelled dangerous seas to escape Victorian England. Now convinced that he has it all planned, his life becomes something entirely different from what he anticipated. Travelling works in the same way – however well you plan your travels you never know exactly what will happen and maybe that is a part of the thrill?

We write historical fiction together. Through our writing process we travel in history and maybe, to some extent, history travels with us. History was the reason we started writing together. On a hot summer evening – in a bar in a museum – we started talking about history.


We talked about why history is almost always portrayed as a place where everybody is more or less the same. Where people think, live and act the same way if they are living in the same century or epoque. There and then we decided to do something different. To try to make history come alive, to write about less stereotypical individuals doing the unexpected and differing from each other.

Humans are not always rational. They do stupid things they regret or heroic things that they didn’t expect to do. They love, cheat, lie and have sex, they might be jealous, dramatic, stoic or happy. In short, in the past as well as today, people are heterogeneous and individualistic and that is the sort of histories we write.

Making people come alive in different ages and circumstances is a way of travelling too. It takes meticulous research which expands our understanding of past lives in the epochs we write about. But the research also makes us humble and very curious. The more you read the more you discover and behind what seems known and ordinary you might find the unexpected.

History may seem safe and unchangeable. But if you poke at it, and take a look at what hides underneath, it becomes just as exciting, unexpected and changeable as a trip can be. Anything might happen!