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Improbable Women: Five Who Explored the Middle East by William Woods Cotterman: A Book Review

Improbable Women: Five Who Explored the Middle East
Author: William Woods Cotterman
Genre: Nonfiction, Biography, History
Publisher: Syracuse University Press
Release Date: October 16th, 2013
Pages: 312
Source: NetGalley/Publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Synopsis: Zenobia was the third-century Syrian queen who rebelled against Roman rule. Before Emperor Aurelian prevailed against her forces, she had seized almost one-third of the Roman Empire. Today, her legend attracts thousands of visitors to her capital, Palmyra, one of the great ruined cities of the ancient world. 

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, during the time of Ottoman rule, travel to the Middle East was almost impossible for Westerners. That did not stop five daring women from abandoning their conventional lives and venturing into the heart of this inhospitable region. Improbable Women explores the lives of Hester Stanhope, Jane Digby, Isabel Burton, Gertrude Bell, and Freya Stark, narrating the story of each woman’s pilgrimage to Palmyra to pay homage to the warrior queen. Although the women lived in different time periods, ranging from the eighteenth century to the mid–twentieth century, they all came from middle to upper-class British backgrounds and overcame great societal pressures to pursue their independence. 


Cotterman situates their lives against a backdrop of the Middle Eastern history that was the setting for their adventures. Divided into six sections, one devoted to Zenobia and one focused on each of the five women, Improbable Women is a fascinating glimpse into the experiences and characters of these intelligent, open-minded, and free-spirited explorers.


     My Review: What do these five women - Hester Stanhope, Jane Digby, Isabel Burton, Gertrude Bell, and Freya Stark-have in common? According to Improbable Women, each of them were fascinated by Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra. Each of them have braved the dangers of the Middle Eastern desert to visit and pay homage to Zenobia’s Palmyra, a once great city that was destroyed by the Romans. Therefore, this book is a chronicle of these five women’s pilgrimage to the ancient ruined city of Palmyra.

     Palmyra was once a city that prospered from trade around both Arabia, the Far East, and Rome. The good water supply and its strategic location helped make Palmyra an affluent city. The city was once built by the Arameans, but Alexander the Great conquered the city and named it Palmyra for date-palms. In late third century, the city was ruled by King Odenath. Zenobia was the daughter of a great Palmyrenes general, and she became King Odenath’s second wife. They later had a son. After the murder of her husband, Zenobia became regent for her son. She then went to Rome and demanded that they would give her more lands to control. When they refused, Zenobia declared war. She was eventually captured by the Romans and forced to surrender. Since then she was given a reputation of the warrior queen. A woman who these five women felt that they could relate to.

     These five women each had their own adventures journeying to Palmyra. While they were flawed women, each of their biographies seems as if they were heroes in romantic tales. Each of them, like Zenobia, made their mark of the Middle East and made many accomplishments. This book is not only a biography of these six women, rather it is also a geopolitical book that studies the Middle East.

     Overall, this book is about the accomplishments and contributions these six remarkable women made. This book is filled with adventure and romance. They have captured the imaginations to the people of their time. It is also an in-depth study of the geopolitics of the Middle East. This book is about how these British women have made contact with the Middle East. I recommend this book to anyone interested in British history, and how the British interacted with Middle Easterners.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars


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