Johann Ludwig Burckhardt

views updated May 23 2018

Johann Ludwig Burckhardt


Swiss Explorer

Johann Ludwig Burckhardt was the first European in modern times to visit the ancient city of Petra in what is now Jordan, and the great temples of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II at Abu Simbel.

Burckhardt was born in 1784 in Lausanne, Switzerland. In 1806 he went to England, where he studied at Cambridge University. He traveled to the Middle East in 1809 under the auspices of an English organization called the Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa.

As did other great nineteenth-century explorers of the Middle East, Burckhardt adopted many local ways. He became fluent in Arabic, and learned in Islamic doctrine. He often wore Muslim garb, and even took an Arabic name, Ibrahim ibn Abdullah.

After he had spent almost three years in Aleppo, Syria, Burckhardt set off for Cairo with the goal of joining a caravan across the Sahara to Timbuktu. His route took him through southern Jordan, where he rediscovered the ruins of Petra.

Petra was an ancient trading city of reddish stone, with houses and temples cut into the surrounding cliffs. It was settled by an Arabian people called the Nabataeans by 500 B.C., and conquered by the Romans in 106 A.D. Eventually other nearby cities took over Petra's economic role, and it became primarily a religious center. A Christian city around the year 300, it was controlled by the Muslims in the 600s, and taken by the Franks during the Crusades. It was abandoned by the thirteenth century, and fell into ruins. While biblical and Roman accounts of Petra kept its memory alive in the West, its location was forgotten until Burckhardt's 1812 visit.

When he arrived in Cairo, Burckhardt found no suitable caravan forming, so he decided to approach the interior of Africa by traveling up the Nile. South of Aswan, in the ancient Nubian region of southern Egypt, he became the first European to see the 3,000-year-old temples of Ramses II at Abu Simbel.

The two temples of Abu Simbel were carved into the side of a sandstone cliff. The larger, dedicated to the chief gods of the cities Heliopolis, Memphis, and Thebes, has become famous for the four huge stone statues of a seated Ramses II on its facade. Each is over 65 feet (20 m) tall. The smaller temple is dedicated to Ramses's queen, Nefertari.

Next, Burckhardt planned a pilgrimage to the Arabian city of Mecca, the holiest site in Islam. Non-Muslims are not allowed into Mecca. However, he was assisted by the viceroy of Egypt, who knew of his reputation and was able to arrange for him to be admitted by having him declared a Muslim. As Burckhardt was probably the only non-Muslim ever to travel openly to Mecca, his published account is still notable for its unique point of view.

After his journey through Arabia, Burckhardt returned to Cairo. He died of dysentery before his 33rd birthday, still waiting to join a caravan to Timbuktu. His five travel journals were published posthumously: Travels in Nubia (1819), Travels in Syria and the Holy Land (1822), Travels in Arabia (1829), Notes on the Bedouin and Wahabys (1830), and Arabic Proverbs (1830).


Johann Ludwig Burckhardt

views updated Jun 11 2018

Johann Ludwig Burckhardt

Johann Ludwig Burckhardt (1784-1817) was a Swiss-born, British-sponsored explorer of the Near East and Africa who anticipated the great explorers of the 19th century.

Johann Ludwig Burckhardt was born in Lausanne and grew up in his ancestral city, Basel. After study at the universities of Leipzig and Göttingen, he went to England in 1806. A letter from the anthropologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach introduced him to Sir Joseph Banks, the moving spirit in the Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa.

Failing to find other employment, Burckhardt offered his services to the "African Association" for an attempt to penetrate the Moslem-dominated central and western Sudan, and he was accepted. To prepare himself, Burckhardt went to Cambridge, where he studied Arabic, attended lectures on science and medicine, and adopted Arabian costume.

Burckhardt left England for Aleppo, Syria, in 1809. At a safe distance from the intended scene of his endeavors, he perfected himself in Arabic and in Moslem customs. As a test of his disguise, he made three journeys, traveling as the poorest of Arabs, sleeping on the ground, and eating with the camel drivers.

His apprenticeship completed, Burckhardt journeyed to Cairo, became the first modern European to visit Petra, and wrote an account of his journeys for the association. As no westbound caravan was available at Cairo, Burckhardt followed the Nile southward, hoping to reach Dongola. After he had traveled over a thousand miles by donkey, insurrectionaries blocked him less than a hundred miles from his goal.

Burckhardt then returned to Isna and decided to follow the caravan route over the Nubian Desert and cross the Red Sea. He crossed from Suakin to Jidda and explored the northeast coast of the Red Sea. His report on the Hejaz and the holy cities of Islam was the fullest and most accurate then available in Europe.

In 1815 Burckhardt returned to Cairo, suffering from the dysentery which had cut short his Arabian explorations. Burckhardt wrote up his later journals, continued to collect manuscripts and antiquities, and, to escape the plague, made a 2-month journey to the Sinai Peninsula, where he took notes on manuscripts at the Mount Sinai monastery. He also traced the Gulf of Aqaba.

In late 1817 Burckhardt's illness recurred. He died at Cairo on October 15 as he was preparing to join a caravan for Timbuktu. "Sheikh Ibrahim," as the Moslems knew him, was buried with Islamic rites.

Further Reading

There is no full-length biography of Burckhardt. Robin Hallett, The Penetration of Africa … to 1830 (1965), contains a chapter on Burckhardt, furnishes an excellent introduction to African exploration, and has an extensive bibliography. □

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