Carsten Niebuhr Describes the Near East

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Carsten Niebuhr Describes the Near East


The first European scientific expedition to the Near East, dispatched in 1761, was an unlucky one for its crew. One after another they died, until the surveyor, Carsten Niebuhr, was left alone. Niebuhr continued exploring and, upon his return, published several important reports. These included maps that were used for a century, cuneiform inscriptions copied from the ruins at Persepolis, and botanical data gathered by the expedition's lost naturalist.


Carsten Niebuhr was born in Ludingworth, Hanover, Germany, on March 17, 1733, into a farming family. He was orphaned while still an infant, and the family farm was sold, the proceeds being split between Niebuhr and his several brothers and sisters. The boy was set to farming work, but no longer had a farm of his own. Although his prospects seemed quite limited, the resourceful Niebuhr managed to learn surveying and pick up a smattering of a number of scientific and technical trades. Eventually he was admitted to the University of Göttingen to study mathematics.

In 1760 King Frederick V of Denmark, at the urging of the Hebrew scholar Johann David Michaelis of Göttingen, authorized the first European scientific expedition to the Near East. The naturalist on the expedition was to be Pehr Forrskal, a gifted student of the founder of botanical classification, Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778). Forrskal, a Swede whose writings on civil liberty had been confiscated by Linnaeus himself and condemned from Swedish pulpits, jumped at the offer of a lengthy journey financed by the Danish crown. The official in charge of organizing the expedition, Baron von Bernstorff, also had connections at the University of Göttingen, and Niebuhr was invited to participate as a surveyor and engineer.

The expedition was intended to explore the culture and history of the Near East, especially the background of the Bible, as well as the region's flora and fauna. To that end, the party included, besides Niebuhr and Forrskal, the Danish linguist and Orientalist Friedrich Christian von Haven and Christian Carl Kramer, a Danish physician and zoologist. Georg Baurenfeind, an artist from southern Germany, went along to assist in documenting the group's discoveries. A Swedish ex-soldier named Berggren was also included.

The explorers sailed from Copenhagen in January 4, 1761, on the Danish military vessel Groenland. The small expedition was loosely organized, with no official leader. Perhaps this affected the relationships between some of the team members, which were difficult almost from the start, although Niebuhr and Forrskal seemed to get along well. The weather too was stormy, impeding the ship's progress for months. The situation deteriorated to the extent that von Haven actually disembarked and traveled overland to the port of Marseilles, rejoining the group when the ship finally docked there in May.

After a stop at Malta, the travelers continued to Istanbul (then called Constantinople), where they boarded a Turkish ship headed for Egypt's port city of Alexandria. This leg of the voyage was much more pleasant, uneventful but for the opportunity to enjoy the company of a group of Turkish girls in the adjacent cabin. From Alexandria, they traveled up the Nile River to Cairo, and went on to Mt. Sinai and the Suez.

In October 1762, for their journey to the Muslim holy city of Mecca, they disguised themselves as pilgrims. From the Arabian port of Jidda, they traveled south along the eastern shore of the Red Sea in an open boat called a tarrad. Southern Arabia was completely unknown territory to Europeans at that time. An Englishman named John Jordain had visited the Turkish pasha there in 1609. In 1616 the Dutchman Pieter van der Broeke traveled to the Yemini capital of Sana and wrote admiringly of the great pillared mosque. But no group had previously been sent there for purposes of gathering extensive information.

The travelers made frequent landings until they reached the harbor of Luhayyah in northern Yemen on December 29, 1762. They stayed as the guests of the local emir, who became fascinated by their microscope. Next they journeyed over the coastal plains by donkey to Mocha in the southwest.

It was during this part of the trip, in 1763, that disaster began to strike. Niebuhr and von Haven both contracted malaria, and in May von Haven succumbed to the disease. Forrskal also became ill after a journey into the hills to collect herbs. His specimens were confiscated and destroyed by customs authorities in Mocha, and he died in July.

The remaining members of the expedition then traveled to Sana. The imam received them graciously, housing them in a villa and providing them with money and camels for their return to Mocha. The four travelers, all of them sick and feverish, had to be carried onto the English ship bound for Bombay, hoping to find a healthier climate in India. Baurenfeind died onboard on August 29, and Berggren the next day. Kramer followed on February 10, 1764 in Bombay. Niebuhr was the expedition's sole survivor.

Adopting native dress and diet, Niebuhr remained in India for 14 months. He embarked upon his long journey back to Europe with a visit to Muscat in southeastern Arabia, followed by a voyage on a small English warship to Persia. He traveled overland through Shiraz to Persepolis. There he copied many ancient cuneiform inscriptions from the ruins of the palace destroyed by Alexander the Great in 332 b.c. In doing so he provided a tremendous gift to scholars, who had been trying to decipher the cuneiform scripts with very few samples to work from.

Niebuhr went on to Babylon, Baghdad, Mosul, and Aleppo. From the Mediterranean coast he sailed to Cyprus before returning to visit Jerusalem in 1766. He then proceeded up the coast and over Turkey's Taurus mountains to Istanbul.


Upon his return to Copenhagen in 1767, Niebuhr conscientiously began working on an official report from the ill-fated expedition. The result still makes fascinating reading, being filled with colorful details and entertaining anecdotes. As one might expect, Niebuhr's writings also exhibit the ethnocentricity of an eighteenth-century traveler commenting upon the "ignorance and stupidity" of those unfamiliar with the European way of life.

The maps Niebuhr made remained in use for more than 100 years. In fact, his measurements of the Nile Delta were so exact that they were used in building the Suez Canal (1859-69). He was also scrupulous in preserving the work of the unfortunate Forrskal, compiling, editing, and publishing three volumes of his notes: Descriptiones animalium, Flora aegyptiaco-arabica, and Icones rerum naturalium.

Niebuhr was married in 1773; his only son, Barthold Georg Niebuhr, was to become an eminent historian. The family left Copenhagen in 1778, when Niebuhr was offered a position in the civil service in Holstein, and took up residence in Meldorf. Niebuhr died there on April 26, 1815, by which time many European soldiers, scientists, and adventurers, beginning with Napoleon, had established a presence in the Near East.


Further Reading

Bidwell, Robin. Travellers in Arabia. London: Garnet Publishing, 1994.

Hansen, Thorkild. Arabia Felix: The Danish Expedition of 1761-1767. London: St. James, 1964.

Hepper, F. Nigel and I. Friis. The Plants of Pehr Forrskal's Flora Aegyptiaco-Arabica. Kew: Royal Botanical Gardens, 1994.

Niebuhr, Carsten. Reisebeschreibung nach Arabien und andern umliegenden Ländern. 1774. English translation as "Travels through Arabia and Other Countries of the East" by R. Heron, London, 1799. Facsimile edition by Garnet Publishing, London, 1994.

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Carsten Niebuhr Describes the Near East

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