Arabia Felix: why everyone should read the story of a failure

“On a calm winter morning, on 4th January, 1761, a company of five men, clad for a journey, were rowed out from the Tollbooth into the shipping roads of Copenhagen. […] They were bound for “Happy Arabia”, but none of them seemed particularly happy at the thought”.

This is how Thorkild Hansen starts his book , Arabia Felix. The Danish expedition of 1761-1767. Hansen’s work was published in 1962, roughly two centuries after the Danish expedition took place, and by then, the adventures of the five men, the first European scholars to embark on a scientific expedition to Yemen, was well forgotten. Hansen compiled the book starting from the original documents concerning the expedition – articles, journals, letters, drawings – and combining them with a touch of gentle imagination. The result is an exquisite account. Of a failure.

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Map of Taiz, drawn by Niebhur.

The Danish expedition that left Copenhagen in 1761 was probably bound to fail just from the start. The five men appointed for the expedition by the Danish Foreign Minister Johann Hartwig Ernst von Bernstorff and the German theologian and orientalist Johann David Michaelis could not have been more different, and their five personalities more divergent.

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Niebuhr’s map of Yemen.

The Danish philologist Friedrich Christian von Haven (†Mocha, 24th May 1763), considered a talented young man even if quite arrogant, was, in fact, more prone to laziness than scientific research. Throughout the book, it becomes clear that its major accomplishment in the journey to Arabia Felix was to delay the expedition. But von Haven was not the only arrogant of the group: the Swedish “Physicus and Botanicus” Peter Forsskål († Jerim, 11th June 1763), the pupil of no less than Linnaeus, shared with him a domineering character. The best description of Forsskål was indeed made by Linnaeus himself, that named a plant after him: the Forsskalea, defined “tenacissima, hispida, adharens, uncinata” (stubborn, wild, obstinate, angular). It is a fact, tho, that Forsskål was one of the most indefatigable members of the Danish expedition. His industriousness was surely shared with the German Carsten Niehbur, the only one that managed to return to Denmark. Niebuhr was what we can call a self-made man: shy, gentle, from humble origins and pragmatic, he was appointed cartographer of the expedition, but his natural curiosity led him to undertake also other accomplishments. If his map of Yemen had been for a long period by far the most complete, he was also the first one that carefully copied the cuneiform inscriptions of Persepolis. His painstaking work, that made him literally blind in his old age, was the basis for the first translations of cuneiform ever made.

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Reproduction of cuneiform inscriptions drawn by Niebuhr.

Together with the three main characters, traveled the German artist Georg Wilhelm Baurenfeind († ship between Mocha and Bombay, 29th August 1763), who produced an enormous amount of drawings and sketches of places, plants, and animals (frequently under the direction of Forsskål), and the dull physician Carl Christian Kramer († Bombay, 10th February 1764), also Danish. Of the latter, nothing remains about the expedition, literally. In Hansen’s words “Kramer did not leave behind him a single word. That enigmatic person made the whole of that journey from Copenhagen to Bombay without so much as writing a letter or making a note”.

The expedition was an utter failure in some sense. Even if some of its members carried out ground-breaking works, all the samples and writing that were sent back to Copenhagen were first dismissed and then forgotten. The animal and plant samples rot away, the books published by Niebuhr upon his return were ignored.

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Niebuhr in the Arab costume given to him by the Imam in Sana’a, drawn by Baurenfeind.

It is a story of failure, spotted with wrong decisions, frequently leading to tragic and lethal results. But it is also a story of resilience, curiosity, and perseverance. It is the rare story of a scientific endeavor at a time when the world was still big and unknown, and when finding an answer could well mean losing one’s life. It is the story of pure curiosity and the urge to learn more. It should be read by anyone, to discover again the desire to know.

The members of the expedition never lived to see their discoveries and researches prised. Ironically, Hansen’s book got the same treatment. The diligent and meticulous work Thorkild Hansen carried out to revive this expedition, was quite equally overlooked. Hansen, who like many of the members of the Danish expedition died prematurely during a voyage († the Caribbean, 4th February 1989) never lived to witness the proliferation of interest in the expedition to Arabia Felix. But if in 2011 the 250th anniversary of the expedition’s departure was celebrated with pride in Copenhagen, it is primarily thanks to his work.


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Arabia Felix. The Danish expedition of 1761-1767
Thorkild Hansen (with an introduction by Colin Thuborn)
New York Review Book
New York, 2017
ISBN: 978 1 68137 072 9
The book is for purchase via Amazon.

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Erlend says:

    I think the year of death for the main characters is off by 200 years.

    Like

  2. Hello, I like your blog and your photos and the way whose you manage it. Continue to post beautiful pictures and texts. All my congratulations !
    Best regards.
    Amy from France.

    Like

    1. SquareKufic says:

      Thank you Amy! Glad you like it!

      Like

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