Europe's Scientific Curiosity

Carsten Niebuhr was the sole survivor of the "Royal Danish Arabia Expedition." The German mathematician and cartographer is today regarded as the first scientific research explorer of modern times. By Friedhelm Hartwig

Historic painting of Carsten Niebuhr (photo:
Sole survivor of Europe's first scientific expedition - Carsten Niebuhr (1733-1815)

​​It is questionable as to whether the six men of the "Royal Danish Arabia Expedition" were fully aware of the dangers of the voyage as they set out in January 1761 on a Danish warship.

Their instructions were to travel to Cairo via Istanbul and Alexandria. They were to subsequently explore the Sinai Peninsula and, after a stopover in Yemen that was to last a few years, they were to travel back via the Persian Gulf and the Levant. Seven years later, Carsten Niebuhr returned – the sole survivor of the expedition.

Pioneer of research expeditions

According to Dieter Lohmeier, the voyage can properly be regarded as "the first modern research expedition in European history." Its initiator, the Göttingen orientalist Johann David Michaelis (1717–1791), originally intended that there should be only one person on the expedition when he suggested his idea to the Danish Minister Count von Bernstorff in 1756. Yet the generous sponsorship of the Danish King Friedrich V (who reigned from 1746 to 1766) permitted him to assemble a group of specialists.

Only a few years after Niebuhr began studies in Göttingen, he was summoned to join the team of research explorers. His assignment was to conduct astronomical and geographical observations.

The Danish orientalist Frederik Christian von Haven (1727–1763) was responsible for work on theological-philological matters. The Swedish botanist Peter Forsskål (1732–1763) was to focus on the natural sciences. Georg Wilhelm Baurenfeind (1782–1763), a copperplate engraver from Nuremberg, was entrusted with the graphic documentation of the voyage.

This trip differed substantially from the many previous voyages to the orient – it was characterized by an overall plan, more than two years of specialist research preparations, a division of labor, a catalogue of matters to investigate, and a travel itinerary. Furthermore, the expedition was intended to be a purely Danish operation. Scholars from all over Europe, however, were invited to submit questions.

Networks, helpers, and risks

The primary destination of the trip was Yemen, which they reached in December 1762. Little was known about Yemen in Europe, although numerous European ships had already docked in the Yemeni port of Al-Mokha throughout the previous century to purchase much sought-after coffee beans.

Carsten Niebuhr in traditional Arabian garb; historic drawing (photo:
Historic drawing of Carsten Niebuhr in traditional Arabian garb, probably by Georg Wilhelm Baurenfeind

​​In planning their voyage, the researchers turned to Indian and Jewish traders, who allowed them to travel along their trading network. Letters of recommendation to the respective agents on this network made possible accommodations, transport, and financial transactions.

Although the expedition usually found support from various rulers on route, local authorities typically expressed a high degree of suspicion. In Al-Mokha, for instance, officials breached the cargo hold and a considerable amount of equipment was destroyed.

The stopover in Yemen strikingly highlighted the dangers of a research trip. Within only a few weeks, all members of the team, except for Niebuhr, came down with malaria. The map of Yemen drawn up by Niebuhr, however, remained a standard work for the next 200 years.

After a ten-month stay in India, Niebuhr continued on the voyage along the planned route. More than two years would pass before the journey was completed. In order to travel unhindered, Niebuhr began to wear local garb – and this proved to be effective.

Learning from travel

Niebuhr's publications clearly show a new perspective on things foreign. In his observations, he avoided prejudices about the Islamic world that were prevalent in his time. "I was pleased to find that the Arabs were just as cultured as the inhabitants of other civilized nations," Niebuhr noted.

The Muslim rejection of church bells, explained Niebuhr, was not due to a lack of tolerance, but rather that the sound bears a similarity to the bells hung around the necks of their donkeys and camels.

On the other hand, Niebuhr was mistaken in his assessment of scientific achievements in Yemen. "The Arab sovereigns do not devote as much attention to the sciences as do those in Europe, and for this reason, there are very few individuals in the orient who truly deserve to be called scholars," he wrote in his notes.

In all probability, Niebuhr would have altered his judgment and held a more generous view had he spent more time in Sanaa and experienced the lively scholarly life enjoyed by the Yemeni upper class with its strong links to the wider Islamic world. The city's imam invited him for an audience, but Niebuhr turned down the offer due to the poor state of his health at the time. As a result, an opportunity was missed to engage in scholarly discourse with the then Islamic world.

After his return, he spent almost ten years publishing the results. Not until 1772 did his "Description of Arabia" appear in print. In addition, Niebuhr also analyzed and later published the results of his research colleagues. Reaction to his publications, however, remained subdued for many years. Only in the 1780s did a far-reaching correspondence develop with the oriental scholars Oluf Gerhard Tychsen (1734–1815) and Silvestre de Sacy (1758–1838).

Later, at the turn of the century, using Carsten Niebuhr exact copies, the German language scholar Georg Friedrich Grotefend made the first major breakthrough in the decipherment of ancient Persian cuneiform script.

Niebuhr died on April 26, 1815 at the age of 82. The renowned Scandinavian Institute of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Copenhagen bears his name.

Friedhelm Hartwig

© 2006

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

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