The Arabian Journey 1761-1767

Author: Stig T. Rasmussen

 (الرحلة العربية 1761-1767 )


Premises and Preparations

Throughout the 17th and quite far into the 18th century, the increased European knowledge of distant lands and cultures came about quite simply as a result of the maritime nations and their efforts to find new trade routes and markets. The works of Adam Olearius (travelled to Russia and Persia 1633-1639) and Frederik Ludvig Norden (sailed up the Nile 1737-1738 drawing maps of the river and its surroundings) are clear illustrations of this, as are the numerous travel accounts published by English, Dutch and French travellers. During the 18th century, however, there was an increasing demand for theoretical knowledge rather than a purely utilitarian knowledge of the world, and the randomly selective and colourful personal travel accounts gave way to rational research and systematic description.

By the middle of the 18th century, Frederik V and his ministers enjoyed a reputation in Europe of being patrons of the arts. It was with this in mind that a professor at Göttingen, Germany, Johann David Michaëlis suggested to the head of the Tydske Kancelli (the Foreign Ministry), Johann Hartwig Ernst von Bernstorff, that the king send an expedition to those unknown lands, ostensibly known since ancient times as Arabia Felix - 'Pleasant Arabia'. Michaëlis substantiated his proposal by looking at things from the point of view of the Bible: "The nature of this land is rich with a potential which is unknown to us: It's history goes back to the earliest of times; it's dialect is different from that of Western Arabia with which we are familiar, and knowing that it is this form of Arabic, which we learned, that has been the most important tool to date in understanding the Hebrew language, what illumination can we not expect to be cast over the Bible, the most important book of ancient times, by learning the Eastern Arabian dialects as well as we know the Western?"

The original proposal was to send a single man to Yemen from Tranquebar in India, then a Danish colony. Within four years, however, the project had grown into a five man scientific expedition which drew the attention of the entire European world of learning. Questions to be answered along with suggestions for observations to be undertaken, began to flow in. Michaëlis prepared a list of scientific questions that the expedition was to try and answer, and published it as Fragen an eine Gesellschaft gelehrter Männer, die auf Befehl Ihro Majestät des Königs von Dännemark nach Arabien reisen, Frankfurt a.M 1762. This description contained an extensive series of quite varied questions which covered history, natural science and philology (it also provides us with a splendid catalogue of what was not known at the time).

Members of the Expedition

Six people took part in the expedition:

  •  The Swedish natural scientist Peter Forsskål, a student of Carl von Linné; one of the main tasks of his investigations was to find supporting evidence for a number of Linné's accounts.
  • The philologist Frederik Christian von Haven, whose job was to purchase oriental manuscripts for the Royal Library in Copenhagen and to transcribe any inscriptions he came across along the way. In addition he was to make observations on the use of the Arabic language - bearing in mind the idea of shedding light on some of the more obscure passages of the Holy Scriptures.
  • The cartographer Carsten Niebuhr, who was to carry out observation s and take measurements for the purpose of mapping what were poorly or entirely unexplored areas geographically.
  • The physician Christian Carl Kramer, who was to research a number of medical questions, both on the scientific and also on a more practical level, among the people of Arabia.
  • The artist and painter Georg Wilhelm Baurenfeind, who was to sketch the finds of the others, in particular such botanica and zoologica of Forsskål’s as might otherwise perish and not be recorded.
  • And finally there was a Swedish dragoon by the name of Lars Berggren who was to act as orderly.

The Royal Orders

Professors at the university in Copenhagen produced an outline of the instructions with which Frederik V was to send the expedition on its way on the 15th of December 1760:

"lnstructions by which We, Frederik the Fifth, King, by the grace of God, of Denmark, Norway, the Wends and Goths, Duke of Schleswig and Holstein, Great Marne and the Ditmarshes, Countof Oldenborg and Delmenhorst etc, the most gracious, wish that on Our command and account [the members of the expedition are mentioned here by name] should travel to Arabia Felix, most humble subjects, there to attend to the following:

All the above mentioned travellers should make their way to Arabia Felix and remaining together, as set forward by Our most gracious selves, have the purpose in mind of making as many discoveries for science as is possible."

In its 43 paragraphs the instructions contain detailed descriptions of the tasks to be undertaken by the expedition. Articles ii-ix detail the route the expedition was to take, the internal organisation of the members (a new measure was that the members were to be equal to one another) and the recording of reports in the form of diaries.

Article x. gives an explicit directive on how the members of the expedition were to approach Islam:
"All members of the company shall show the greatest courtesy to the inhabitants of Arabia. They are not to raise any objections towards their religion, more than that, they shall give no indication - not even indirectly - that they despise it; they shall refrain from that which is the abomination of the inhabitants of Arabia. And also, as necessary in the course of their tasks, should proceed in such a manner as to draw the least attention as possible, shrouding anything which might arouse the suspicion among the ignorant Muhamedans that they were searching for treasure, practicing sorcery, or spying with the intention of harming the country. They must never awaken the Arabs' insatiable jealousy or vengeance through bestowing European liberties upon women, or embarking upon intrigues of a similar nature. So far as it is the intention of these instructions to remind them of the simple demands of morality, it is thus forbidden for them to cast attention s of any kind of love upon such persons, married or unmarried which might arouse the oriental desire for revenge. They must never, no matter how severely provoked, exclaim in terms of abuse, or when under the protection of public authorities, defend themselves by physical means. Experience shows how dangerous it can be in countries where the Muhammedan religion rules and where the insult of a Musselman is avenged by the death of the slanderer. And since such an event might bring unpleasantness upon the other travellers, We do not simply gravely warn against them, but indeed forbid such rash acts outright. He who acts in contradiction to these directions, and thereby brings upon himself such misfortune, can We do nothing for but leave him to his fate, and We do not oblige the other members of the company to take such steps on his account as to put themselves at risk."

Articles xi and xii deal with the purchase of manuscripts and the transcription of inscriptions in the Sinai.

Article xiii recommends that the expedition remain together. Article xiv stresses the obligation of the members to do their utmost to find the answers to questions put by J.D. Michaëlis and other scholars; those that they were to take with them and those to be sent on after them.

Article xv is a reminder that all material finds should be sent home immediately to the Lord Chamberlain's Department: replies that were to be sent on to other destinations in Europe were to be noted first in Copenhagen.

Articles xiv-xxii outline the framework for the natural science investigations and include within their foundations what is apparently the first known plan for scientific marine biological research (provided by C.G. Kratzenstein, professor at Copenhagen).

Articles xxiii-xxvi describe the duties of the physician in matters of pure research and in general practice; the latter applied as much to distinguished Arabs as to members of the expedition itself.

Articles xxvii-xxxiv laid down the parameters for mathematical tasks regarding geographic location and surveying, along with climate and population conditions (this included polygamy and its possible relationship to a prospective statistical imbalance between the sexes).

Articles xxxv-xxxxii describe the philological-historical projects, and the concluding article xxxxiii deals with the painter's duties: first and foremost to support the natural history work with drawings of plants and animals which could not survive the journey back, and thereafter to assist the others.

The instructions end with the appeal to the scientists to draw on the painter’s abilities with tolerance and in agreement.

The Expedition

On January the 4th, 1761 the expedition set out. Their route look them via Constantinople and Alexandria to Cairo and then further, down the Red Sea to Yemen. They remained in Yemen from December 1762 until the end of August 1763. Two members of the company died in Yemen (von Haven and Forsskål), apparently of malaria. The four remaining members sailed to Bombay. Two
more of them, however, died during the voyage (Baurenfeind and Berggren). In Bombay the fifth fatality (Kramer) occurred leaving Niebuhr as the only survivor. He continued, via Oman to Persia and then through Iraq and Syria to Palestine, with a small detour to Cyprus. From Jerusalem, his route took him to Constantinople and then on through Eastern Europe to Copenhagen where he arrived on November the 20th, 1767.
The dramatic events of the expedition resulted, nevertheless, in the acquisition of significant collections. These included plants and animals, observations and maps, sketches and oriental manuscripts. To a large extent these collections remain to this day. They are still being used, and can be found at the Botanical Museum (Forsskål-herbarium with around 1800 specimens); in the Zoological Museum (99 fish in "Forsskål's Fish Herbarium" - so called because Forsskål mounted the fish without their entrails, with the one side only, and pressed in the same method used for plants), and the National Museum (the Antiquities, Ethnographic, Coin and Medallion collections) and the Royal Library (Department of Orientalia and Judaica).

Diaries and Travel Accounts

As mentioned above, the instructions for the members of the expeditions stress, in article viii, that they keep a diary of events. Forsskål, von Haven and Niebuhr all carried this through and they provide us with a good knowledge of them.

- P. Forsskål
There was some talk in the 1770's of publishing Forsskål's diary. However, this never actually came about until1950. The diary is short, but illustrative. (In Alexandria):
"Alongside these (historical) excursions, my botanical ones were the best; and I observed the immortal flora still flourishing in the same species and forms which could be found three or four thousand years ago. The botany in this country provides the naturalist with plenty of work; despite the fact that the number of plants is not so great as in European regions. On the day that I arrived in Alexandria I paid a visit to the nearest gardens. And had I not had the interest, or even any particular wish to take a look at this new world and its flora, the quite unusual nature of it would nevertheless have drawn the attention of a stranger, no matter how unsusceptible he might be. The garden walls were high but the palm trees rise above them like a thick forest. From the moment in which I entered, I was gripped with excitement by these trees which nature had created as the most wonderful colonnade; and to complete the picture they are in the habit of building a low wall around the trunk for stability; thus one does not even mourn the lack of a pedestal for these pillars. They are planted in rows, along the length and breadth; eight alen (1 alen equals two rfeet) between each tree."
Forsskål's most prominent characteristic was a quite unique persistence - a feature that is certainly an advantage as a driving force in the undertaking of scientific work under difficult conditions, but can of course have awkward consequences with regard to other people. It was hardly a coincidence that Linné named a nettle after Forsskål and described it as "Pertenacissime Adhærens" (lit. Pertinaciously Preserving).

- F.C. von Haven
F.C. von Haven's diary is kept in the Royal Library’s Manuscript Department and consists of two large folios. One of these is the actual description of the journey and the other contains passages from relevant documents and reference works for use on the journey: a catalogue of the acquired manuscripts, sketches of inscriptions and several Arabic-Danish and particularly Arabic-Italian vocabularies (Prior to the expedition, von Haven had spent two years in Rome among the Arab Maronites). The diary contains numerous lively episodes which have von Haven as their main character. He was - as was common for the aristocracy at the time - very preoccupied with himself and conceited to the point of quarrelsome recklessness.

[F.C. von Havens diary (vol. 1): has subsequently been published: Min Sundheds Forliis. Frederik Christian von Havens Rejsejournal fra Den Arabiske Rejse 1760-1763 / udgivet af Anne Haslund Hansen og Stig T. Rasmussen ; kortene ved indledningen er tegnet af Mads Berg. Kbh.: Vandkunsten, 2005.]

- C. Niebuhr
Niebuhr often found himself in the position of mediator. His job was not made any easier by the fact that both Forsskål and von Haven had sought, without success, the role of expedition leader.
It was in fact because of the conflict between these two that no leader was appointed. Niebuhr, however, was appointed treasurer of the expedition.
In his introduction to Beschreibung von Arabien, Niebuhr sets out his thoughts on the matter of what went wrong with the expedition:
"I rather think that we were the cause of our own disease, and that such a situation can be avoided by others. Our company was too large for us to have established ourselves and settled down to live alongside the inhabitants of the country. For several months at a time we were unable to procure the spirits which we were accustomed to drinking and, despite it being regarded as an unhealthy practise in hot climates, we consumed large amounts of meat. The cool evening air was so pleasant to us that after many a hot day we were over-indulgent. We ought also to have been more attentive to the differences in temperature between the mountainous regions and the low lying plains. We made too much of a haste of our journey to ever come to know the inner parts of the country.

We had considerable difficulties on the road and encountered a good deal of trouble with the inhabitants there, which might perhaps indicate that we did not have sufficient knowledge of the country and its people, and that we often, perhaps without just cause, believed we had reason to complain, forgetting that even in Europe one does not always travel in comfort. I myself, while my companions were still alive, fell gravely ill, because I wished, as they did, to live the European way. But since that time, I lived exclusively among the Easterners, and I learned how one is to conduct oneself in these lands. Consequently I travelled in Persia, and from Basra overland to Copenhagen without once being sick and without too much trouble with the local inhabitants."

Perspectives and Results of the Expedition

Quite a number of the discoveries made on this expedition turned out to be epoch-making:
- Niebuhr's contribution to cartography which, among other things, made it possible for European ships to sail up the Red Sea as far as Suez; the transcript ion of cuneiform inscriptions which paved the way for their being deciphered in 1802; and the publication of two of the most important 18th century orientalist works.
- Forsskål's work in zoology, which included pioneering work in the field of marine biology and in the study of migratory birds; also in botany, where he - aside from gathering around 1800 plant samples for a herbarium which still exists and is in use today - was one of the frontrunners in the field of plant biology and the geography of plants. Sadly, the notes and descriptions that he left behind were prepared for publication by a somewhat less competent (and anonymous) botanist. The result being that much of the originality and wealth of ideas present in Forsskål's work were not given the credit they deserved; several of his discoveries had to wait to be made again by the succeeding generation.
- Baurenfeind's drawings provided faithful reproductians of hitherto unknown plants and animals. These were released in a volume of illustrations which accompanied Forsskål's zoological and botanical descriptions; his drawings of jellyfish are among the finest of their kind. He provided drawings showing all aspects of life in Egypt and Yemen to illustrate Niebuhr's books.
- Von Haven's acquisitions formed a new core in the Royal Library's collection of manuscripts from the Near East; prior to this the collection consisted of quite random presents and purchases.

The King's instructions reflect the basic scientific view of the Enlightenment: the conviction that the world could be classified and exhaustively described in one, all encompassing work - significantly, the central project of the era was known as The Great Encyclopedia. The results produced by the expedition are due to a successful application of this rational principle to the methodical reality of research: the mathematically precise observations, the systematic collection and processing of material, the priority given to first hand accounts and a keen critical approach to second-hand information. At the same time, this was combined with a humanistic respect and an unprejudiced open-mindedness towards everything that was new, along with a respect for other ways of thinking. It is here that the age of Enlightenment separates itself quite markedly from the 17th century and lays down the fundamental objectivity for modern day science.

Excerpts from the article  “Journeys in Persia and Arabia in the 17th and 18th centuries - tracing the Scientific Exploration of the Islamic World”, published in The Arabian Journey: Danish connections with the Islamic world over a thousand years, Moesgård, 1996.

For a version in Arabic, click here.


Arabiske Rejse. 2 pk i Rigsarkivet, København: Tyske Kancellis udenrigske afdeling.

Baurenfeind, Georg Wilhelm: 3 letters in Universitetsbiblioteket, Erlangen.

Dahl, Svend: Det kongelige Biblioteks orientalske Haandskriftsamling. Copenhagen, 1945. Særtryk af: Øst og Vest.

Forsskaal, Peter: Resa till lycklige Arabien. Petrus Forsskåls dagbok 1761-1763. Utg. av A. Hj. Uggla. Uppsala, 1950.

Friis, Ib & F. N. Hepper: The plants of Pehr Forskål's 'Flora Aegyptiaco-Arabica': Collected on the Royal Danish Expedition to Egypt and Yemen 1761-1763. Kew,1994.

Haven, Frederik Christian von: Reisejournal. 2 vols. Det kgl. Bibliotek, Copenhagen.

Kirketerp-Møller, H.: "Fra København til Konstantinopel. På grundlag af F.C. von Havens dagbog". Fund og Forskning 17, 1970, p. 79-94.

Kirketerp-Møller, H.: "Arsenik og gamle håndskrifter. En dansk forskningsekspeditions ophold i Ægypten 1761-62. På grundlag af F.C. von Havens efterladte papirer". Fund og Forskning 24, 1979, p. 119-140.

Kromann, Anne: "Mønter fra Carsten Niebuhrs rejser". Nationalmuseets Arbejdsmark, 1976, pp 123-135.

Michaëlis, Johann David: Fragen an eine Gesellschaft Gelehrter Männer, die auf Befehl lhro Majestät des Königes von Dännemark nach Arabien reisen. Frankfurt a.M., 1762.

Niebuhr, Carsten: Beschreibung von Arabien. Aus eigenen Beobachtungen und im Lande selbst gesammleten Nachrichten abgefasset. Copenhagen, 1772.

Niebuhr, Carsten: Reisebeschreibung nach Arabien und andern umliegenden Ländern. Vol. 1-2. Copenhagen, 1774-1778. Vol. 3: C. Niebuhr's Reisen durch Syrien und Palästina, nach Cypern und durch Kleinasien und die Türkey nach Deutschland und Dänemark. Mit Niebuhr's astronomischen Beobachtungen und einigen kleineren Abhandlungen. J. N. Gloyer und J.Olshausen. Hamburg, 1837.

Norden, Frederik Ludvig: Voyage d’Egypte et de Nubie ; ouvrage enrichi de cartes og de figures dessinées sur les lieux, par l’auteur même. Copenhague 1755.  
Olearius, Adam: Offt begehrte Beschreibung der newen orientalischen Rejse, so durch Gelegenheit einer Holsteinischen Legation an d. König in Persien geschehen. Schleswig 1647. - 2. forøgede udgave 1656: Vermehrte Newe Beschreibung der Muscowitischen und Persischen Reyse, so durch gelegenheit einer Holsteinischern Gesandschafft an den russischen Zaar und König in Persien geschehen . - Genoptryk med kommentar ved D. Lohmeier, Tübingen1971.

Rasmussen, Stig T.: Carsten Niebuhr und die Arabische Reise 1761-1767 : Ausstellung der Königlichen Bibliothek Kopenhagen in der Schleswig-Holsteinischen Landesbibliothek Kiel November 1986-Februar 1987 / Konzeption und Katalog: Stig Rasmussen. - Heide in Holstein : Westholsteinische Verlagsanstalt Boyens & Co., 1986. - 132 s. : ill. - (Schriften der Schleswig-Holsteinischen Landesbibliothek ; Band 1). ISBN 3-8042-0381-9.

Rasmussen, Stig T.: Den Arabiske Rejse 1761-1767 - en dansk ekspedition set i videnskabshistorisk perspektiv / red. Stig T. Rasmussen. - København : Munksgaard, 1990. - 413 s. : ill., kort. - ISBN 87-16-10541-9. - Forfattere af de enkelte afsnit: Ib Friis, Egon Keck, Ib Rønne Kejlbo, Jørgen Læssøe, Arne Noe-Nygaard, Stig T. Rasmussen, Torben Wolff.

Catalogue of Arabic Manuscripts in the The Royal Library, Copenhagen : Codices Arabici Additamenta & Codices Simonseniani Arabici /.Ali Abd Alhussein Alhaidary, Stig T. Rasmussen. - Copenhagen : The Royal Library, Munksgaard, 1995. - 55, 409 s. : ill. - Catalogue of Oriental Manuscripts, Xylographs etc. in Danish Collections ; vol. 5.1. – List of Arabic manuscripts acquired during the Arabian voyage p. 10-15 in the Arabic introduction.

Winterfeldt, Jørgen Baltazar: Journal holden paa Reysen med Orlog-Skibet Grönland, fra Kiöbenhavn til Marseille, tvende Gange derfra ind ad Levanten og tilbage, til Salee og til Kiöbenhavn igien; saa og til Slutning en Extract af det Mærkværdigste begyndt den 3die Decembris 1760 og endt den 20de Augusti 1762 af Jørgen Baltazar Winterfeldt Premier-Lieutnant ved Söe-Etaten. Marinens Bibliotek, Copenhagen.

Wolff, Torben: Danske ekspeditioner pd verdenshavene = Danish expeditions on the seven seas. Copenhagen, 1967.

Wolff, Torben: "I Carsten Niebuhrs fodspor. - 1: Sinai og Djedda". Naturens Verden, 1977 p. 388-398. - "2: Jemen - Det lykkelige Arabien". Naturens Verden 1978 p. 1-10.