Witold Władysław Rajkowski – Traveller and SOAS alumnus

Witold Rajkowski - SOAS alumni

Witold Władysław Rajkowski (1910-1957?) was, in the words of his biographer Dr Antoni Kosowski:

‘…at the time one of the most distinguished and, most certainly, distinctive Polish Orientalists.’

He was a tireless traveller, whose preferred means of transport was the bicycle.

Witold Rajkowski on a bicycle
Witold Rajkowski

During extensive wanderings (…) in the Middle East I used various methods of transport, ranging from my own legs to an aeroplane. Of them all I considered the cycle perhaps the most pleasant and useful. It enabled me to travel fairly fast, but not too rapidly to prevent me looking about or making contact with the people. Moreover, I was not compelled to stick to the main roads.  

(Witold Rajkowski, With a Bicycle in Babylonia, Wide World Magazine II 1954, p. 308)

Rajkowski’s interest in the Middle East was shaped as a Polish student in pre-war Cairo, where he was a press correspondent for Polish newspapers. In 1939, he was employed at the Consulate General of the Republic of Poland in Jerusalem.  In 1941 – operating under the codename ‘Omar’; his underground work took him to Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine and Syria. From 1942-1945, he worked in the Diplomatic Legation of the Republic of Poland in Baghdad, as a press officer, and conducted intelligence work there, too.

During the 1940s, he published three books (in Polish, transl.):

  • Iraq: Minarets, Oil, Dates (Jerusalem, 1943)
  • Under the Sign of the Crescent:  A Brief Outline of the History, Institutions and Branches of Islam (Jerusalem, 1946)
  • The Heart of the East Beats Over the Nile: Impressions and Images from Life in Cairo (Jerusalem, 1947)

    Witold Rajkowski in the desert
    Witold Rajkowski 

Post-war, he studied at SOAS University of London, obtaining his PhD thesis on Early Shi’ism in Iraq (1955).  In 1956, he became a Research Fellow at what is now Durham University.

He wrote more than 70 articles in Polish and English, including:

  • With a Bicycle in Babylonia, Wide World Magazine, February 1954, pp 308-312.
  • A Visit to Southern Kurdistan, The Geographical Journal, 1946, volume 107, no. 3-4, pp 128-34.

Rajkowski is believed to have died in 1957 of heat exhaustion in the Libyan desert, while on a scientific exhibition to research the Toubou or Tubu people.

Dr Antoni Przemysław Kosowski has been researching the life and work of Witold Rajkowski for several years:

During my research related to Polish-Egyptian relations, I found his story particularly interesting; a young Polish man, who in 1936 settled in Egypt in order to learn the Arabic language and travel from there, get to know, in his words, ‘the Islamic East’. This was, and deserves to be noted, a private initiative of his, and a well-conceived plan. He intended to work afterwards in the Polish diplomatic service.


It was a long and at times challenging process-project. In Poland, Witold Rajkowski, apart from a few short biographical notes (containing also incorrect information) and excerpts in scientific monographs, remains in fact a virtually unknown figure. I conducted research in a number of Polish archives and libraries. I reviewed the content of the Polish and foreign press, books, and memories of other people, looking for articles, photographs and references, even minor, about him.  Subsequently I found and established contact with the Rajkowski’s family,  who entrusted me with additional essential documents and photographs.

Various institutions assisted Dr Kosowski in his research, including staff at SOAS, who ‘actively and with great interest and care assisted me (by sharing scans of documents)’.

Dr Kosowski’s aim, as an author, biographer, and historian, is to introduce the detailed story of Rajkowski’s life, work and achievements for the first time, as well as to popularize it to the public and a wider audience.

I would like to find out more about his numerous travels (probably there are travel articles by him, which I have not yet discovered); tasks he conducted in the 1940s, especially of an intelligence nature (only some are known; for that time and access to the archives is needed), as well as his humble beginnings in England after WWII and his research work, especially on the Toubou or Tubu people.

Further information

Photographic exhibition:  ‘Middle East and North Africa Through the Lens of Witold Władysław Rajkowski:  photographs from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s’ at the Regional Public Library, Kraków (Cracow), Poland, 27 March – 26 April 2018.

A lecture by Dr Antoni Przemysław Kosowski, his biographer, opens the exhibition on 27 March 2018.


Location:  Wojewódzka Biblioteka Publiczna, Kraków (Cracow, Rajska 1, Poland),

Witold W. Rajkowski, Early Shi’ism in Iraq (SOAS PhD, 1955) – PhD supervisors Professor A. Guillaume and Dr R.B. Serjeant.

Dr Antoni Przemysław Kosowski is a researcher-historian, specializing in the Polish-Egyptian relations (PhD thesis) and the history of Polish-Lithuanian Tatars (Lipka) in the United States.

  • Participant in the documentation and research project of the Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Cairo, concerning the history of Polish-Egyptian relations (2011).

Author of two books (in Polish, transl.):

Forthcoming in 2018:  Dr Kosowski’s third book (in Polish) about the life and achievements of Witold Rajkowski, financed by the City of Bydgoszcz (Poland) and Polonia Aid Foundation Trust (London): transl. Witold Władysław Rajkowski. Orientalist and Traveler. Selection of Works, Introduction and Comments Antoni Przemysław Kosowski. Research supervision: Professor (dr hab.) Hieronim Kaczmarek (University of Szczecin), author of a number of books (among others, in Polish), transl. Poles in Egypt Until 1914 (Szczecin, 2008).

Share this post