Lost in Arabia

Gyldendal/denstoredanske.dk
Detail of a copper engraving by Georg Wilhelm Baurenfeind, a member of the Danish expedition to Arabia, showing headwear from Cairo, 1761-1767

During the eighteenth century, an age filled with colonial conquest, a parallel surge of expeditions was undertaken by Europeans in search of scientific knowledge. A later age has sometimes impugned these ventures, but the specimens they accumulated, and the records they left behind, are often the fruits of disinterested passion and long hardship. Their participants ranged from the obsessively curious to the lively amateur and the dull careerist, and their results were similarly uneven: magnificent, surprising, or erroneous.

One of the first such ventures was a tragically ambitious voyage destined for Arabia, and it originated not in imperial Britain or France but in the small kingdom of Denmark. Its motives were mixed. It was charged both with scientific investigation and cartography and with the discovery of such fabled phenomena as the inscriptions left by the Israelites as they fled out of Egypt and the tidal fluctuations of the Red Sea. The success of the venture, of course, would redound above all to the glory of Denmark and of Frederick V, its patron-king.

From the moment of the expedition’s departure in January 1761 the governments and universities of Europe followed its progress with fascination, but as the years went by and its intermittent dispatches dwindled, the interest of its sponsors turned to foreboding, and they at last became inured to a fateful silence. By the voyage’s end in 1767, when its only survivor stumbled home, the venture was all but forgotten. Frederick V was dead. His teenage heir was more interested in prostitutes than in culture, and the expedition’s depleted but important findings, when they at last reached Denmark, were stacked up to rot in lumber rooms.

The groundbreaking account of this extraordinary journey, published in Danish as Det lykkelige Arabien in 1962, was the work of a writer obsessed by travel and exploration. Thorkild Hansen, who died in the Caribbean at the age of sixty-two, became noted in his country for a trilogy of books on Denmark’s complicity in the West Indian slave trade. His working method combined the diligent examination of original documents with a discreet imaginative license in recreating the episodes they recorded.

Forlaget Vandkunsten
Details from a scroll showing a Shiite pilgrimage, purchased by cartographer Carsten Niebuhr in Karbala, Iraq, 1761-1767; from Niebuhr’s Museum: Artefacts and Souvenirs from the Royal Danish Expedition to Arabia 1761-1767 by Anne Haslund Hansen

In researching his book on the Danish expedition to Arabia—a venture then little known even in his own country—he delved into the Danish State Archives to read the letters, reports, and even financial accounts of the journey’s members, and created from them and from published diaries a near-scholarly work, with a novelist’s feel for pace and character. His vivid account, Arabia Felix, was published in English in 1964 in the lucid translation of James and Kathleen McFarlane. It was only then that the full drama and strangeness of the expedition was widely revealed.

Its destination was Arabia Felix—today’s Yemen—the legendary country of spices, myrrh, and frankincense of which contemporary Europe knew almost nothing. And it was in the malarial obscurity of this so-called Happy Arabia that one by one the explorers began to perish. “Perhaps it is only in evil times that men dream of voyaging to Arabia Felix,” Hansen writes.

There they were, all six of them, on their way at last to the country with one of those magic names we give to places that only our yearnings know. The land of incense, myrrh and balsam…. Only one of the six men ever returned to Denmark.

From the start they met fluctuating fortunes. The man-o’-war in which they sailed from Copenhagen was driven northward before a ferocious gale almost to Iceland. Then the Mediterranean brought respite as they sailed east with gentle southerly winds. Their warship outfaced hostile British privateers before arriving at Tenedos off the coast of Asia Minor, where an over-rigged Turkish ship carried the travelers with painful slowness to Constantinople, and from there they made their way at last to Alexandria.

Forlaget Vandkunsten
Drachma in the Sasanian style, minted in Tabaristan by the Caspian Sea, eighth century AD, collected by Niebuhr, 1761-1767; from Niebuhr’s Museum

A year in Egypt followed—a year filled with successes and frustrations, with the purchase of Hebrew and Arabic manuscripts, with the collection of many previously unknown flowers and seeds, the mapping of the Nile delta, the copying of ancient hieroglyphs, and even the measuring of the pyramids. But there were constant threats from robbers and a suspicious local populace, and bitter failures at sites of biblical significance. And Arabia still awaited them, virtually unknown.

In retrospect, the expedition seems to have been doomed from the start. Even before they sailed, its members were bitterly divided: by class, by temperament, by nation. The voyage had been proposed to the Danish foreign minister by the German orientalist Johann David Michaelis, who suggested its objectives and even specified a hundred questions it might answer. But because of differences among the expedition’s members, no leader was appointed. They were expected to harmonize into a traveling democracy.

Of these six participants, the three most prominent were a vain and indolent Danish philologist named Friedrich Christian von Haven, the clever but belligerent Swedish natural scientist Peter Forsskål—their mutual dislike soon turned to open loathing—and Carsten Niebuhr, a modest, hardheaded German cartographer who felt insulted by both of them. The remaining three were a German artist charged with sketching the scientific finds, a Danish physician (humiliated by Forsskål from the start), and an ex-hussar orderly from Sweden.

By the time they reached Turkey the tension among the group was such that after von Haven covertly purchased parcels of arsenic, the others in the party panicked when they found out. “We can imagine only the most horrible of intentions behind his buying these two packets,” wrote three of them to the Danish ambassador in Constantinople. “We can see that in a country where plague is so often rife it would be the easiest thing in the world to lay the blame for a number of sudden and simultaneous deaths on this disease.” It was under this threat that they eked out their year in Egypt.

To the reader it may seem unlikely that von Haven contemplated murder. He appears to be a self-pampered coward. To Europeans the highlight of the expedition might have been the transcription of ancient rock carvings, believed to have been inscribed by the Israelites on a remote hill in the Sinai desert. But von Haven was too frightened, or too lazy, to remain there and copy them. (It was Niebuhr who did so, revealing no more than an early Egyptian graveyard.) Even the desert monastery of Saint Catherine, where von Haven, the party’s philologist, might have studied a unique library of 3,500 manuscripts, eluded him because he had neglected to secure a permit in Cairo. It is astonishing to think that the oldest complete New Testament in the world, the Codex Sinaiticus, lay undetected within these monastery walls for another century.

Engraving of Niebuhr in Arab costume from his Reisebeschreibung nach Arabien, 1774

The party’s ultimate goal held a promise of different discoveries. No Western expedition had penetrated Arabia’s hinterland since the Roman legions of Aelius Gallus were decimated there in the first century BC. But initially Arabia Felix fulfilled its name, and the Danish expedition found its inhabitants benign, and even became reconciled to one another. Forsskål and Niebuhr, united now in mutual respect, achieved goals close to both their hearts. Niebuhr, after a series of desert excursions, constructed a map of Yemen that was by far the most detailed and accurate of its day; and Forsskål was able to send his mentor Carl Linnaeus a branch of the tree that the great botanist most coveted: the rare Mecca balsam, which Forsskål stumbled upon in the Tehama foothills.

But with the onset of summer heat, of Arab distrust, and of fatal malaria, there began the long tribulation that is the cruel climax of Hansen’s book:

Everything was sandy and dry; there were no plants, almost no villages, only now and then did they cross the path of a caravan of camels, bound for the mountains and loaded with salt from the mines down by the sea. As before, they spent the night on the mud floors of coffee huts they found on the way. Niebuhr was still fighting the attacks of fever that regularly assailed him…. As they were about to ride into [Mocha] they were told by the watch that Jews and Christians were forbidden to move about the streets on donkeys.

Only Niebuhr lived to return to Denmark, and an extended coda describes the solo journey of this astonishing man as he makes his way, still weak with malaria, via India and the Persian Gulf, through Basra, Baghdad, Mosul, and Aleppo, mapping and amassing information everywhere he goes, astrolabe in hand, even copying the cuneiform inscriptions of Persepolis (which facilitated their eventual decipherment), then moving across Ottoman Turkey to a plague-ridden Bucharest into Christian Poland, before arriving in Copenhagen in November 1767, almost seven years after his departure.

“Today,” wrote Hansen of the voyage’s members, “two hundred years after their expedition, they are almost completely forgotten.” And it is true that Niebuhr returned to a distracted nation that had written off the venture. Not only was the patron-king Frederick dead but the foreign minister who had supported the voyage was soon ignominiously fired.

Forlaget Vandkunsten
Detail from a woodcut of Mount Sinai, purchased by Niebuhr in Cairo, 1762; from Niebuhr’s Museum; click to see whole image

Almost at once Niebuhr completed a sprawling study of Arabia in his native German, but it made no impact. When he published his 1,500-page diary of the expedition in three volumes at his own expense, they too were met with indifference. He turned to the manuscripts of his dead friend Forsskål and paid for their publication, but they were incompetently translated from the Latin by a Swedish hack and all but ignored. Then Niebuhr published the work of the expedition’s artist in a handsome folio of forty-three color-tinted plates. This too he paid for himself.

By the time his own work was seeping into scholarly recognition, Niebuhr was an old man working as a clerk to a remote rural council. He lived to be highly honored. In Arabia Felix, Hansen sometimes doubts the expedition’s influence. But since then its reputation has burgeoned. Despite the losses and decay suffered by its findings, Niebuhr’s maps and his compendious information from a time now remote were a gift to the future, while Forsskål’s studies in zoology and botany—his herbarium is still in use—were precociously accurate and original. Today there are conferences and seminars on the expedition, a Carsten Niebuhr Centre for Multicultural Heritage, and an institute established in his name at Copenhagen University. In 2011, the 250th anniversary of the expedition’s departure was celebrated with pride.

Hansen never lived to witness this proliferation of interest. But it was in part his own book—hugely popular in Denmark—that spurred the recognition of the voyage whose heroism, brilliance, and occasional absurdity he so graphically celebrated.


Adapted from Colin Thubron’s introduction to Thorkild Hansen’s Arabia Felix: The Danish Expedition of 1761-1767, which has just been published in a new edition by New York Review Books. Niebuhr’s Museum: Artefacts and Souvenirs from the Royal Danish Expedition to Arabia 1761-1767 by Anne Haslund Hansen is published by the Forlaget Vandkunsten and the Carsten Niebuhr Biblioteket.