Niebuhr, Carsten

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(b. Altendorf, Holstein, 17 March 1733; d. Meldorf, Holstein, 26 April 1815).

cartography, exploration.

The son of a farmer, Niebuhr did not attend school until he was eighteen. After inheriting some money he began training to be a surveyor by studying mathematics and astronomoy at the University of Göttingen, but he never obtained a degree. In 1758 he was hired as a cartographer for a Danish expedition to Arabia that lasted from 1761 to 1767. During the expedition he made very exact determinations of longitude and latitude of localities in the eastern Mediterranean, made maps of cities, and mapped the Middle East, especially Arabia and Yemen. These maps were the best available for a long time. All the other members of the expedition died, and after having returned most of the scientific collections by ship from Bombay to Denmark, Niebuhr returned overland through Persia, Palestine, and Constantinople. During this trip he continued his geographic observations and made exact copies of the cunieform inscriptions at Persepolis. The interpretation of the cuneiform alphabet by R. C. Rask and others was based on these copies, which were the best an most complete available. After the expedition Niebuhr declined several offers of high positions and became registrar at Meldorf, near his birthplace. The real value of his contributions was discovered later, partly because of the advance and not always accepted mathematical methods used in his calculations and partly because he shunned publicity. Niebujr’s success as an explorer was based on his ability to make exact observations under highly adverse conditions and his ability to win the acceptance and cooperation of the local population. He preferred to write and speak in low German, published his papers in German, and regarded himself as Danish. (Holstein was then under the Danish crown.)


I. Original Works. Niebuhr’s writings are Beschreibung von Arabien (Copenhagen, 1772), the first, preliminary account of the results of the expedition; Reisbeshreibung nach Arabien und andern umliegenden Ländern, 2 vols, (Copenhagen, 1774–1778). vol. III. edited posthumously by J.N. Gloyer and J. Olshausen (Hamburg, 1837).

II. Secondary Literature. There are few biographical papers on Niebuhr, the most important being a short biography by his son, B. G. Niebuhr, “Carsten Niebuhrs Lebeb,” of Kieler Blätter, 3 (1816), 1–86. A semipopular narrative of the expedition and Niebhur’s life, which became a best seller in Denmark, is Thorkild Hansen, Det lykkelige Arabien (Copennagen, 1962).

Nils Spjeldnaes

Niebuhr, Carsten

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NIEBUHR, CARSTEN (1733–1815), German traveler. In 1760 he was proposed to join the expedition sent out by Frederick V of Denmark on the initiation of J.D. Michaelis, the renowned German biblical scholar, for the scientific exploration of *Egypt, *Arabia, *Syria, and *Persia (1761–67), visiting *Jerusalem in 1766. He was assigned the position of surveyor and geographer. All the members of the expedition died during the trip, except Niebuhr, who saved his life and restored his health by adopting native habits in dress and food. Niebuhr's account of his travels, Reisebeschreibung nach Araxbien und andern umliegenden Laendern (2 vols., 1774–78), are considered classics on the geography, the people, the antiquities, and the archaeology of much of the district of Arabia which he traversed and were accepted with enthusiasm by Western scholars. A third volume, Reisen durch Syrien und Palaestina, was published by J. Olshausen in 1837. His books were translated into Dutch, French, and English. Two recent Arabic books sum up his travel to *Yemen and to *Iraq. His travels and publications are an important landmark for modern Oriental studies in the West in general and especially for the Jews of Yemen.


J. Wiesehöfer and S. Conermann (eds.), Carsten Niebuhr (17331815) und seine Zeit (2002); A. Klein-Franke, in: Pe'amim, 18 (1984), 80–101.

[Yosef Tobi (2nd ed.)]

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Carsten Niebuhr

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