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Volume 18, Number 5September/October 1967

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Shaikh Burckhardt: Explorer

Beyond the silence and shadows of a narrow canyon: the discovery of a lifetime.

Written by Trevor L. Christie
Photographed by T. F. Walters

About noon on September 11, 1809, a portly young man dressed in the flowing garb of a Muslim merchant from India rapped on the door of the British Consulate in Aleppo in northern Syria and presented papers identifying himself as "Shaikh Ibrahim ibn Abdullah." The consul, John Barker, who doubled as agent for the East India Company in its trading operation in the Orient, accepted the papers with a smile. For Mr. Barker knew that "Shaikh Ibrahim" was really someone else: Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, a young Swiss aristocrat en route to Africa to explore the Niger River and locate Timbuctoo, then one of the most mysterious cities in the world.

Mr. Barker greeted the "shaikh" warmly, led him to a comfortable room in the huge ramshackle khan that housed the consulate and left him there—to ponder, probably, the twists of fate that had led him, reluctantly, to Syria, and had committed him to eight years of struggle, privation and danger...

Johann Burckhardt was then 25 years old, the son of a controversial army colonel who had been exiled from Switzerland for opposing French rule during the Napoleonic Wars. Johann thus grew up in Germany—where he was recognized as a brilliant scholar. In the summer of 1806, however, as his family's fortunes dwindled, he emigrated to England in hopes of finding some way to help England oppose the French Revolution. England, however, was not interested and for two years he tramped the streets of London seeking employment. Then, nearly destitute, he was introduced to Sir Joseph Banks, a noted explorer and president of the Royal Society.

Sir Joseph and the African Association were just then looking for explorers—more specifically, explorers to explore Arabic-speaking North Africa. Like the rest of the great powers in the 19th century, England was then obsessed with the Dark Continent, to a degree equaled only by today's frenzy over the exploration of space. The African Association, in fact, had fed at least six poorly-prepared, poorly-equipped young men into Africa's maw already—none of whom had ever returned. Now it was to be the turn of Johann Burckhardt; as with many successful men his profession had been thrust upon him.

No one knows if young Burckhardt was aware of the fate of his predecessors or whether his sponsors simply decided that it would be more sensible to train one man properly before sending him into Africa. Whichever it was, Burckhardt's agreement with the society suggests a measure of prudence and foresight. He signed on for eight years at half-a-guinea per day (about $2.60) for the first three years and a guinea a day for the last five years, plus a clothing allowance and passage. Before departing, however, he was sent to Cambridge to take some short courses in Arabic, chemistry, astronomy, mineralogy, medicine and surgery. Furthermore, he was to spend two full years in the Middle East perfecting his Arabic and steeping himself in the religious and social customs of the Arab world. His first stop was Aleppo.

In Aleppo, still a great caravan center throbbing with the movement and dialects of a cosmopolitan population from all over the Levant, "Shaikh Ibrahim" quickly got down to business. By the following spring, in fact, he was able to report to the African Association that "I am now so far advanced in the knowledge of Arabic that I understand almost everything that is said in common conversation and am able to make myself understood on most subjects ..." As an example of his progress he attached a copy of his adaptation of Robinson Crusoe into an Arabian tale, to which he had given the title, "Pearl of the Seas."

Within nine months of his arrival Burkhardt felt confident enough to venture into the countryside to study the Bedouins and gather material on their culture. He went under the formal protection of a shaikh called Duehy ibn Ryeiben, whom he described as the "mightiest chief of all the Arabs between Aleppo, Damascus and Baghdad." He was also, as Burckhardt admitted, a "famous robber," but because he apparently subscribed to the sacred code of the desert, Burckhardt decided to trust him. It was a disastrous decision. No sooner had his "protector" assigned him a guide and left than an enemy tribe attacked them and stripped them of all their possessions. Furious, Burckhardt rode for 36 hours through the desert to catch up with his protector—only to be told that the shaikh could not honor his contract. It was too dangerous, the shaikh said. In answer to Burckhardt's protests, the shaikh finally did assign another guide to take him to the ruins of Palmyra, the ancient stronghold of Queen Zenobia. Unfortunately, at Palmyra, he did not have enough money to meet the local shaikh's demands, so the shaikh confiscated his saddle. Then his guide abandoned him in the middle of nowhere and he had to follow a salt caravan to get to Damascus. The final indignity occurred a few days later. The "famous robber" showed up in the capital and forced the angry Burckhardt to pay the full amount of the contract.

To many men such experiences would have been the end. But Burckhardt apparently didn't give up easily. A short while after, he set out again—this time to Baalbek, the Roman Heliopolis or "City of the Sun" where he jotted down an interesting observation. "The entire view of the ruins of Palmyra when seen at a certain distance," he wrote "is infinitely more striking than that of Baalbec but there is not any one spot in the ruins of Tadmor so imposing as the interior view of the Temple of Baalbec (Jupiter). The architecture of Baalbec is richer than that of Tadmor."

Later, he climbed Mount Lebanon and visited the celebrated cedars. He counted a dozen of the "oldest and best looking" trees, 25 large ones, about 50 of medium size and more than 300 smaller and younger ones—some pockmarked with the names of tourists dating back to the 17th century.

Late in 1810 "Shaikh Ibrahim" set forth on a journey to the Plain of Hauran, the Biblical Bashan, and the wild Jabal Druz area. This time he donned the Bedouin headdress and threw a sheepskin over his shoulder. For 26 days he explored this region and then sent back to London some valuable observations on the habits and activities of its little-known inhabitants. "At every step I found vestiges of ancient cities," he recorded in his journal. "I saw the remains of many temples, public edifices and Greek churches."

Returning to his base in Aleppo, Burckhardt stayed put for some months and resumed his studies of Arabic and Islam. To the Association he wrote at this point: "I have completed the perusal of several of the best Arabic authors in prose as well as poetry. I have read over the Koran twice and have got by heart several of its chapters and many of its sentences."

Meanwhile, he had asked that his employers extend his prescribed stay of two years in Syria by six months to enable him to perfect his disguise. Like many a student before and since, he was also forced to notify them that his remittances had not reached him and that he was broke. "I am at last under the disagreeable necessity of telling you that, notwithstanding every economy in expense, I have spent my last farthing," he wrote. "I performed my travels throughout in the garb of a pauper, yet some expenses in feeding myself and my horse, together with some occasional presents were unavoidable." He calculated that he had lived for 19 months on the equivalent of about $1.50 a day. Toward the end of 1811 Burckhardt set out—on a long-planned exploration of Deir in the remote desert northeast of Aleppo on the Euphrates River. He had delayed this for some time because warring tribes supposedly made the area extremely dangerous. But at length he entrusted his safety to the powerful Shaikh of Sokhne and set out—only to learn for the second time that the "protection" of a powerful shaikh was a small guarantee in those times. Although Burckhardt himself never wrote about it, Consul Barker reported that he had been attacked, stripped to the skin and driven back to Sokhne, his naked body "blistered with the rays of the sun." Barker added that at one point Burckhardt even had to "struggle with an Arab lady who took a fancy to the only garment which the delicacy or compassion of the men had left him."

Again, however, Burckhardt refused to quit. Early in 1812, after a few months of recuperation, he gamely struck out for the south again, this time through the valley of the Orontes and across Mount Lebanon to Tripoli, then a silk center on the Mediterranean coast. On his return to Damascus, he made one more excursion into the Hauran. On this occasion he visited Jerash (Gerasa), once one of the principal cities of the Greek Decapolis and the Roman Province of Syria, and found it to be strewn for several miles with the ruins of fallen temples, theaters and aqueducts.

By the summer of 1812, after nearly three years in Syria, Burckhardt decided that his apprenticeship was over. Confident that he could not only talk like an Arab but pass for one, he decided that it was time to go to Cairo and prepare for his trip to the Niger and Timbuctoo. To put his abilities to one more test he decided to proceed to Cairo by way of Arabia Petrea, a wild region east of the Dead Sea, instead of by the shorter and safer route through Jerusalem and Gaza. It was dangerous, he knew, but he set out anyway and at first all went well. He crossed the River Jordan and paid fleeting visits to the town and lake of Tiberias (Galilee) and to Mount Tabor and Nazareth. Crossing back he proceeded down the Valley of the Ghor and the Wadi Araba, skirting the Dead Sea, to Amman (Philadelphia of the Decapolis), Mount Nebo and its traditional tomb of Moses and at last to the Crusader stronghold of Kerak.

Before leaving Damascus, Burckhardt had tried to anticipate trouble. "Knowing that my intended way led through a diversity of Bedouin tribes," he wrote in his journal, "I thought it advisable to equip myself in the simplest manner. I assumed the most common Bedouin dress, took no baggage with me and mounted a mare that was not likely to excite... cupidity ..."

In view of his past two experiences it was a sound idea. Unfortunately in Kerak he learned that cupidity is a relative thing. For there, for the third time, he placed himself under the protection of a shaikh—the Shaikh of Kerak—and for the third time was betrayed. Although he swore on the head of his son to protect Burckhardt, the shaikh promptly robbed him of most of his funds and turned him over to a guide who made off with the rest and then abandoned him. Again he was stranded in the desert without either money or a guide.

At that point—a low point, surely—Burckhardt's fortunes began to change. Although he didn't know it then, his persistence and courage were about to pay off—and transform a seemingly gullible young traveler into one of the more famous explorers of the Middle East.

He found an encampment, and somehow persuading one of the Bedouins to accompany him, set out again for Cairo. But having heard that there were some interesting ruins nearby—this was in the Wadi Mousa, the Valley of Moses—he asked his guide to take him there so that he could sacrifice a goat at the tomb of Aaron, the brother of Moses. The guide, although suspicious, agreed and led him into a valley in which ran a small stream. The stream in turn led into a gorge that grew steadily narrower. "The precipices on either side of the torrent," he wrote, "are about eighty feet in height; in many places the opening between them at the top is less than at the bottom and the sky is not visible from below."

For nearly a half hour Burckhardt and his guide rode through the gorge, Burckhardt growing more excited by the minute. Finally they emerged into the sunlight and through dazzled eyes Burckhardt stared with amazement at what lay before him: a towering mausoleum some 90 feet high carved into the face of an enormous sandstone cliff. Continuing down the chasm he found other such sepulchers, then a theater, "cut entirely out of the rock with all its benches." The theater, he wrote, "... may be capable of containing about three thousand spectators; its area is now filled up with gravel which the torrents bring down." Further along, he noted, "The ground is covered with heaps of hewn stones, foundations of buildings, fragments of columns and vestiges of paved streets, all clearly indicating that a large city once existed here."

The city was Petra, the capital of the once-great Nabatean civilization that had collapsed toward the end of the first century. The city had faded in importance, had been deserted and then forgotten until this day in 1812 when Johann Burckhardt rode through the silence and shadows of a narrow canyon to rediscover it for the Western world.

At the time Burckhardt was not entirely sure what he had found. He thought it was the fabulous Petra but although his blood raced with excitement he dared not show too much; his guide was already suspicious. In fact as they approached the end of the valley his guide faced him and said: "I see clearly that you are an infidel who has some particular business among the ruins of the city... But depend on it that we shall not suffer you to take out a single coin of all the treasures hidden therein for they are in our territory and belong to us."

At this challenge Burckhardt hastily ended his inspection and, fearful for his safety and the loss of his journal, climbed at once to a high plateau called "Szetouch Haroun", or Aaron's Terrace, and sacrificed the goat at sunset while his guide prayed: "O, Haroun, be content with our good intentions for it is but a lean goat. O, Haroun, smooth our paths and praise be to the Lord of all creatures."

Later, however, when the guide slept, Burckhardt returned to his speculations and wrote, with rare prescience, that in the future "the antiquities of Wadi Mousa will be found to rank amongst the most curious remains of ancient art." Ten days later he arrived in Cairo to announce to an excited world what he had found.

In the next five years Johann Burckhardt became the explorer that he had, however accidentally, set out to become. He ascended the Nile several times—the last time getting as far as Shendy in the Sudan about 1,500 miles from Cairo. He rediscovered the twin temples of Abu Simbel in Nubia. He crossed the Red Sea to Jiddah in Arabia and—40 years before the famous Richard Burton did it—passed three months in the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina posing as a beggar. Not once during his travels was he unmasked as an impostor, so perfect was his knowledge of the language, the religion and the customs of the people. And all the while he continued to plan his trip to the Niger. But despite all that, Johann Burckhardt is only remembered by most people today as the man who found Petra. Had he lived—and explored the Niger—he might have ranked with Burton, Doughty and Lawrence as one of the great Arabists. But on October 15, 1817, only 33 years old, he succumbed to dysentery and died, leaving behind the memory of a man who became an explorer by accident yet left an indelible mark on the map of the Middle East.

Trevor L, Christie is the author of Legacy of a Pharaoh, the story of the United Nations' efforts to save the monuments at Abu Simbel, and Antiquities in Peril, both published by Lippincott.

This article appeared on pages 15-17 of the September/October 1967 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1967 images.