Carsten Niebuhr, the scientist who crossed the Middle East disguised as an Arab as the only survivor of the Royal Danish Expedition

Scientific travel became widespread among European countries from the mid-18th century following the establishment of the Enlightenment. And although the most famous were led by the great powers of the time (United Kingdom, France, Spain …), there were other nations that joined the trend. One of them was Denmark, which in 1761 organized an expedition with a rather singular goal: to find the origin of the Bible. And on that journey there was a name that went down in the history of the adventure with golden letters: Carsten Niebuhr.

Johann Friedrich Struensee (Jens Juel) / Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

By the middle of that century, Denmark was one step below its neighbours in cultural development as a result of the wars it was forced to wage to secure its independence. In fact, it would be the policy of neutrality that it would adopt from that moment onwards that would give it a period of peace conducive to the entrenchment of the Enlightenment. To be exact, the moment of the take-off itself took place during the reign of Christian VII, a schizophrenic monarch with a licentious life who, however, thanks to his moments of lucidity, favoured the reform work undertaken during the so-called Struensee Period.

But that was from 1768, when Johann Struensee, his personal physician, entered the court and managed to take control of the government to apply the enlightened ideas that would change the face of the country. Before that, of course, there were some timid attempts, even if some remained attached to religion. This is what happened, for example, with Johann David Michaelis, an orientalist and Prussian biblical teacher whose philosophical erudition and his desire for scientific knowledge in multiple fields (mathematics, geography, botany, history, medicine…) made him fit poorly with the established order, even though he remained within it.

Frederick V of Denmark (Carl Gustav Pilo) / Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Michaelis obtained a teaching post at the University of Göttingen but was always limited in his speciality by the lack of first-hand literature and documentation, so around 1753 he began to advocate the organisation of an expedition to the Near and Middle East to fill these material gaps. The Danish delay caused the project to be delayed for eight years but finally, in 1761, it took shape and was launched. Frederick V (father of the future Christian VII) reigned at that time, and since he ascended to the throne in 1747 he promoted the aforementioned policy of neutrality, thus favouring the entry of the first enlightened ideas into Denmark.

Frederick embraced the idea of the scientific journey with interest, which led to the crown being linked to him by naming it Den Arabiske Rejse, the Royal Danish Arabian Expedition. It was named this way because the objective was to gather materials in the same way as to verify or corroborate in situ the original historical episodes that the Bible reviewed. Initially, Michaelis planned to send missionaries from the Danish colony of Tranquebar, a city in southern India, but later he chose to select a cast of prestigious scientists, following the fashion of his time.

Johann David Michaelis / Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

The first was Christian von Haven, a Danish philologist and theologian who, upon learning of the project in 1759, ran to Rome to study Arabic with some Syrian monks. The second, the Finnish Peter Forsskål, was an orientalist and naturalist, a student of the famous Linnaeus, who was in trouble with the authorities because of a pamphlet he had published in favour of civil liberties. The third, Christian Carl Cramer, would be in charge of the health of the expedition. A fourth member, the artist Georg Wilhelm Bauernfeind, was appointed to do the paintings and drawings.

There was a fifth one left, who would also take over: Carsten Niebuhr. Born in Lower Saxony in 1733, he was the son of a well-to-do farmer who gave him and his sister a careful upbringing. Carsten studied mathematics at the University of Göttingen, where he caught Michaelis’ eye with his brilliance when he graduated as an engineer in 1760. When he was selected for the trip, he was instructed in subjects that could be useful, such as cartography, astronomy and navigation.

After deciding not to wait for Haven, in January 1761 they embarked in Copenhagen on board the warship Grønland bound for Constantinople, although an infection in the water they were carrying forced them to return and have to start again later. They arrived in Marseille in May, where Haven was waiting for them, determined to take command in the face of opposition from the rest. His sour character would cause tensions and an academic discussion with Forsskål made things worse, to the point that his purchase of a package of arsenic led the others to think that he wanted to poison them. They asked the Danish consul in the Ottoman capital to have him removed, without success.

Peter Forsskål / Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

In September 1762 they landed in Alexandria, going up the Nile to Suez, again in the midst of serious discussions. They spent a year in Egypt, which they took advantage of to try to visit the Monastery of Saint Catherine in Sinai, famous for its great ancient library. However, the monks did not let them in and returned to Cairo, where Niebuhr drew up a plan and measured the pyramids of Giza while Haven bought more than a hundred valuable Hebrew manuscripts that today make up the collections of the Danish Royal Library.

They then decided to move to the Arabian Peninsula, crossing the Red Sea and passing through Jeddah and Luhayya to reach Moca (Yemen) in early 1763. They visited the ruins of Bayt al-Faqih and Niebuhr drew up a map of the country that was used almost until the 20th century, but there was little else they could do because they fell ill with what they thought was a cold. It turned out to be malaria. An irony of fate meant that the two who got along worst, Haven and Forsskål, died within two months; the others spent the rest of the year in Sana’a, recovering.

Map of Yemen drawn by Niebuhr / Image: Oksana Yurchyshyn-Smith on Wikimedia Commons

The only one who kept his health was Niebuhr, perhaps because he adapted perfectly to the local customs, dressing and eating like them. The case is that the expedition embarked in Moca to Bombay and two other members died at sea: the artist Georg Wilhelm Baurenfeind and the orderly Lars Berggren, whose bodies were thrown into the Indian Ocean. Niebuhr and the surgeon, Cramer, also had problems and in India they had to stay convalescent in the house of an English doctor. Cramer didn’t make it, dying in February 1764.

Carsten Niebuhr dressed in Yemeni style / Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Niebuhr was left alone and still had to recover for fourteen months, after which he decided to return home. But he ruled out doing so by sea, perhaps because of the bad experience, perhaps because the trip gave him the opportunity to see places in the Middle East that he longed for. Thus, he passed through Muscat, Persepolis (where he spent three months taking note of everything he saw, including the famous inscription of Behistun), Babylon, Baghdad, Mosul, Cyprus, Damascus, Aleppo and Jerusalem, later jumping to Brussa (Anatolia) and reaching Constantinople in February 1767.

For most of this long journey he disguised himself as an Arab, calling himself Abdallah and carrying out alone not only the tasks he had been given but also those that his unfortunate companions would have had to carry out: measurements, cartography, descriptions of botany and customs, illustrations, ethnological data… Among other things, he produced the greatest cartographic production of the eighteenth century on that part of the world, including twenty-eight city maps, as well as collections of plants and animals or the aforementioned bibliographic collection.

After crossing Central Europe and setting foot in Copenhagen again in November, putting an end to six intense years of travel, he went to the University of Göttingen to report to the promoter, Michaelis. However, he was not satisfied with the work because the question of the Bible had been relegated and the origins of the holy book remained uncertain. On the other hand, for the scientific world, the books in which Niebuhr related his experience were of great value because the copies of the Behistun inscription served the Assyriologists to decipher the cuneiform writing.

The first of these books was entitled Beschreibung von Arabien (Description of Arabia) and was published in 1772, followed two years later by the first volume of Reisebeschreibung nach Arabien und andern umliegender Ländern (Description of the Journey to Arabia and Other Surrounding Countries), of which there was a second in 1778. The third would not arrive until 1837, at the expense of Niebuhr’s son.

Because in 1773 he had married Christiane Sophia Blumenberg, the daughter of the royal physician (Struensee’s successor, who was accused of treason and brutally executed after a coup d’état), henceforth leading a civil service career. Covered with distinctions, including the Order of Dannebrogel and admission to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, he expired in Meldorf (city of the then Danish Holstein, where he was stationed) in 1815.


The Arabian Journey 1761-1767 (Stig T. Rasmussen en DET KGL Bibliotek) / Undying curiosity. Carsten Niebuhr and the Royal Danish Expedition to Arabia (Lawrence J. Baack) / Niebuhr in Egypt: European Science in a Biblical World (Roger H. Guichard, Jr) / Carsten Niebuhr and the Danish Expedition to Arabia (Paul G. Chamberlain en AramcoWorld) / Wikipedia.