In 1876 the young Charles Doughty set out to cross the interior of the Arabian Peninsula. His goal was the "lost" city of Madain Saleh and several years were spent in what were later called his "wanderings": explorations of a terrain little known to Europeans, the discovery of the remains of the sought-for city and detailed accounts of what he discovered there, with particular attention paid to the local geology.

Doughty's other passion, besides exploration and geology, was the study of early poetry. Much dissatisfied with the state of Victorian English, he was determined to record his findings in a style proper to his subject. As Barnaby Rogerson says in his foreword, Doughty wanted somehow to "catch the beauty of the Arabic language and to record the humor, delight and poetry."

Just as the author prepared himself for his journeys by allowing himself to eat only local foods and by testing his stamina through long trips intended to improve his camel handling, he also talked to every Arab he met in order to make himself entirely proficient in the tongue he proposed to import.