On 3 January 1765, the young German astronomer Carsten Niebuhr watched ‘whole armies’ of dolphins as he entered the port of Muscat aboard an English warship belonging to the East India Company and moored alongside Arab dhows ‘loaded to the rails with dates’.
Sadly, Carsten was alone: the sole surviving member of an ill-fated six strong Danish Expedition to southwest Arabia that had left Copenhagen some four years earlier. Niebuhr was on his way home via Persepolis, Basra, Mosul and Aleppo to write their story.
Six young plucky scholars from Germany, Sweden and Denmark were on a mission for King Frederick V of Denmark with instructions ‘to leave for Constantinople with the warship Greenland and proceed from there through Egypt to Arabia Felix, to make whatever observations are possible,’ while answering a hundred questions set by Orientalist Professor Johann Michaelis.
Destined to contribute to a better understanding of Turkey, Sinai, Egypt and Yemen, Niebuhr’s massive description of their journey and the demise of his five diseased and bad mannered companions fell on deaf ears, lying dormant in dusty archives. As did their anthropological and archaeological insights. A tragic story, lost because the King wasn’t alive when Niebuhr returned to his homeland.
There they might have stayed had it not been for the Danish novelist Thorkild Hansen in 1962 who drew on the journals and letters of Carsten and those who perished to write Arabia Felix: The Danish Expedition 1761-1767. This illuminating record of the first scientific expedition to be sent to Arabia has been republished by New York Review Books with the original maps and delightful line drawings, alongside the chaotic shenanigans of the team. Saved and accessible, we now have the absorbing story, stranger than fiction, offering a review of Carsten Niebuhr ’s landmark voyage and Europe’s obsessive curiosity of the Middle East, 250 years ago.
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