The Cultural Travel Company

The Great Expedition

A Danish-German survey sought to unearth the roots of the Hebrew Bible in Arabia. It became the first to comprehend a new Islamic ideology, which now threatens the West. Mark Ronan

Biblical studies aroused huge interest among scholars in 18th-century Germany and inspired a bold idea in a young professor at the newly founded University of Göttingen. Johann David Michaelis set out to raise funds to send a researcher to the east coast of the Red Sea to trace the origins of the early Hebrew Bible.

Finding the money would be tricky, since a Göttingen colleague had recently organised a three-year botanical expedition that went nowhere. He had frittered away nearly half the money having fun in London, rather than on sober study at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew. To make things worse, Hanover, the state in which Göttingen was located, had entered the Seven Years War. But Michaelis had a Danish student who could undertake the trip, so he applied to Copenhagen for funds in May 1756. He was delighted with the response.

The government of the Danish king, Frederick V, was in the hands of German advisers, notably the Hanoverian statesman Johann von Bernstorff, who, with great skill, kept Denmark out of the conflict and whose scholarly interests were informed by correspondence with pastors and theologians. In his hands, the expedition took on additional aims: a naturalist was recruited to elucidate biblical names for plants and animals and a mathematician to deal with navigation and maps. Unfortunately, Michaelis’ original choice backed out, so they settled on another Dane, the philologist Frederik Christian von Haven. Bernstorff made efforts to find other young men, though was often frustrated: ‘Those capable were afraid and those not afraid were not capable’, he wrote.

Eventually he found the Swedish naturalist, Peter Forsskål, a former student of Linnaeus, and a Göttingen mathematics student, Carsten Niebuhr, who was keen as mustard. The team was completed by a physician, Christian Carl Kramer, an artist, Georg Bauernfeind, and Lars Berggren, who would serve as the expedition’s orderly. They hoped to reach Yemen, whose relative isolation at the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula seemed likely to have preserved flora, fauna and a way of life closest to that of biblical times. As Forsskål wrote in his diary: ‘The more secluded and withdrawn it was, the more they believed things new and unknown to them must be hidden there. Ancient customs, the surviving traces of old towns, the uncorrupted purity of the language, the contents of old libraries and unusual species of animals and plants.’

On 4 January 1761 they set off with 300 sailors aboard a 50-gun Danish warship bound for Mediterranean convoy duty. After a gentle start, they rounded the cape at Helsingør (Hamlet’s Elsinor) and hit horrendous storms. Seasickness and the death of seven sailors was more than enough for Haven, who was given permission to travel by land to Marseille. There he rejoined the others, but soon fell out with Forsskål. After they arrived in Istanbul, Haven became impossible and, alarmingly, purchased a package of arsenic. Although the others wanted him out, he remained with the party.

By the time they reached Cairo, Niebuhr had honed his navigational skills. He constructed superb maps, accurately measured the height of the pyramids and produced the finest copies of hieroglyphs to date. By contrast, Haven, the expedition’s philologist, showed little interest in Egyptian hieroglyphs and his lack of preparation made a fiasco of the visit to St Catherine’s monastery on the Sinai Peninsula – the site where Moses supposedly saw the Angel of God in the Burning Bush (Exodus 3:2). Haven and Niebuhr had the task of copying inscriptions reported by a previous traveller. Haven, having not read the reports properly, chose the wrong mountain and his arrogance towards the locals led to them feeding him false information. All was not lost and, with Niebuhr’s help, the party arrived at St Catherine’s. Its ancient books were to be the focus but, despite carrying a letter of introduction from the patriarch in Istanbul, the monks turned them away. St Catherine’s answered to the Patriarch of Sinai, as Haven knew, having met him twice in Cairo; but he never asked for a letter of introduction. To make the best of a bad job, Niebuhr ascended nearby Mount Sinai and, on the way back to Suez, copied Nabataean inscriptions. Copenhagen, however, viewed the journey as a failure.

Back in Suez the whole party prepared to sail to Jeddah on the west coast of the Arabian peninsula, hoping for a more productive trip. Forsskål, with great skill and persistence, became the first biologist to systematically investigate the Red Sea, providing Bauernfeind with material for his fine drawings. Niebuhr’s chart of the Red Sea set the navigational standard for the next 70 years.

The Apadana Palace, Persepolis, Iran, 2008.

Finally came Yemen itself, which did not enjoy the political and cultural isolation Michaelis had envisaged, although there was no meaningful Ottoman presence and the locals were friendlier than in Egypt. Although officially accepted as scholars rather than merchants, one difficult customs officer opened Forsskål’s specimens in his absence, dumping numerous fish preserved in alcohol and rousing accusations of sorcery. Forsskål wrote in his diary: ‘All of this tested our patience’. But he and Niebuhr made important side trips, travelling by day in order to see as much as possible, rather than in the cool of the night like the locals. Forsskål discovered the famed Balsam tree (the balm of Gilead, as described in Genesis 37:25), but, returning to base after a lengthy trip of 350km Haven became ill. A month and a half later, rambling deliriously in Arabic, French, Italian, German and Danish, he died on 25 May 1763.It made matters easier for everyone, but created anxiety within the remaining five.

Forsskål himself became ill and died on 11 July. It was a major blow to Niebuhr, who had worked well with him and was also suffering intermittent sickness. The remaining four decided to sail for India before undertaking the second part of the expedition in Mesopotamia. But, after waiting nearly three weeks for a ship to Bombay, everyone became sick. Only Niebuhr could board without assistance and, while Kramer improved on the sea journey, Bauernfeind died on 29 August and Berggren followed him the next day.

In India the surviving members, Niebuhr and Kramer, set about consolidating their findings. Niebuhr wrote to Bernstorff in Copenhagen, summarising their achievements and added a personal postscript. He worried that, if Forsskål’s nominal assistant Kramer, who still insisted on being addressed as Herr Dr Kramer, was the only survivor, then Forsskål might not get proper credit. He also requested that Haven’s journal be inspected for plagiarism and asked to pull out of the secondary trip to Basra and Aleppo. ‘I really want to forget riding a donkey with a piece of coarse bread and some hard boiled eggs on one side, and a water bottle on the other.’ This was Niebuhr’s lowest point, yet his lasting achievements in cartography, his detailed measurements and copying of inscriptions at archaeological sites and his navigation and determination of longitude had been outstanding.

Longitude for ships at sea was a serious problem and, following the loss of four warships and over 1,500 lives off the Scilly Isles in 1707, the British Admiralty offered a series of prizes – embodied in a Government Act of 1714 – for a reliable method of determining it. The trick was to differentiate between local time and Greenwich Mean Time and there were two competing methods: one, to build a clock that would function accurately on board ship; the other, to use the moon’s position among the ‘fixed’ stars. The lunar method required precise measurement, calculation and reliable tables, such as those recently produced by Professor Tobias Mayer at Göttingen. He instructed Niebuhr, whose success won Mayer a prize from the Admiralty.

Niebuhr’s extraordinary work, complemented by his appointment as treasurer and (secretly) as mediator in the dispute between Forsskål and Haven, did not stop there. No sooner had he requested to pull out, than Kramer died and, by the time Niebuhr left Bombay, he was fully engaged in completing the expedition. Having questioned members of the Persian community in India about the ruins at Persepolis in Iran, he was keen to visit them on the way up the Persian Gulf. This was not part of the original plan, but alighting on the Persian coast he attached himself to a caravan going inland, describing it, with characteristic detail, as composed of Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, Armenians, Georgians, a Catholic and several Jews, plus himself, a Protestant. It reached Shiraz, where he set off on the 70-mile trek to a village near Persepolis, accompanied by an interpreter.

Working at the site almost every day from 8am to 5pm, he made a scaled plan, copied bas-reliefs and cuneiform inscriptions, agreeing with reports of an earlier traveller – Pietro della Valle, who visited the site in 1621 – that they were written from left to right. He then extended his analysis to show they represented three different writing systems, which later turned out to be scripts for Old Persian, Babylonian and Elamite, an ancient language of south-west Iran. Niebuhr’s superb copies of these inscriptions became a vital source for the later decipherment of cuneiform and formed the most lasting achievement of the second half of the expedition.

Cuneiform inscription copied at Persepolis by Niebuhr, published in 1837.
Cuneiform inscription copied at Persepolis by Niebuhr, published in 1837. © Carsten Niehbuhr, Reisebeschreibung

In the meantime, Bernstorff, unaware of Niebuhr’s renewed enthusiasm, had resigned himself to thinking the expedition had come to an end. Yet Niebuhr continued as planned, producing the finest chart yet made of the Persian Gulf and the first to mention Kuwait by name, before going on to southern Iraq, where he became the first European to visit the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf, the holiest site of Shi’ite Islam. The Göttingen student had now become an explorer, dressing as a Janissary officer of the Ottoman Empire to ward off attack and skilfully dealing with Kurdish tribesmen in northern Iraq. There, he visited the cities of Kirkuk, Erbil and Mosul, before moving eastwards through Syria and southern Turkey, copying inscriptions, creating maps and site plans and even writing a balanced account of the beliefs of the Yazidi community. When joining a large caravan from Mosul, he adopted the Arabic name Abdallah (servant of God) to avoid questions about the meaning of his own name. By the time he reached Aleppo he enjoyed a well-deserved rest at the Dutch consul’s residence, speaking High German, Low German, Dutch, English, French and Arabic. After reaching Istanbul in November 1766 he had measured distances and correlated almost all the places on Xenophon’s March of the Ten Thousand in 401-399 bc; so well, in fact, that, as Lawrence J. Baack has written in his 2014 book, Undying Curiosity, ‘his analysis corresponds almost exactly with conclusions of scholars today’.

Niebuhr’s peerless accuracy and attention to detail made him a model, as did his ability to listen and record. Visiting Basra in southern Iraq, he met a local Arabian ruler, Muhammad Ibn Saud, and learned of a new Islamic sect promoted by Sheikh Ibn al-Wahhabi. Niebuhr’s report is by far the earliest reference to Wahhabism, the creed now dominant in Saudi Arabia. The 20th-century explorer Harry St John Philby (father of Kim) described Niebuhr’s assessment of the ascendancy of Wahhabi Islam as ‘almost prophetic in its exactness’. After six years away, Niebuhr headed home, leaving the Ottoman Empire for good on 17 July 1767. 

In the following century Napoleon’s scientists considered Niebuhr’s work the gold standard and, towards the end of his life, he was regarded as one of the greatest navigators of his age. Astronomers were astonished at the accuracy of his longitude calculations and the lunar method that he employed remained in use for the next 40 years, before John Harrison’s remarkable marine chronometers became widespread.

Baack writes: ‘[Niebuhr’s] curiosity, determination, humanity and, yes, courage, proved to be the greatest asset of the … expedition … the only [one] of the century that was university driven … the first of its kind historically.’ Unfortunately, in January 1766, while Niebuhr was still abroad, Frederick V died, German influence at court declined and, in 1770, Bernstorff was dismissed in a palace coup. This left Niebuhr high and dry when it came to the matter of publication, of his own results and Forsskål’s, to which he devoted ten years (1768-78), paying most of the costs himself.

In the end the Danish expedition to Arabia was a stunning success. Niebuhr’s response to Michaelis’ proposal was the perfect example of carpe diem, an adage applying equally to his side trip to Persepolis, where the cuneiform copies he made led to the decipherment of a script that had lain dormant for the best part of two millennia. 

Mark Ronan is Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The Great Expedition

The History Today Newsletter

Sign up for our free weekly email

X