John Lewis Burckhardt’s Pioneering Explorations And Travels In Arabia

Before Sir Richard Burton, there was John Lewis Burckhardt.  Like many of the great names featured in these pages, he is little known today; but he sacrificed his life in the cause of discovery, and acquired a knowledge of the Arabic language and Islamic customs that has been surpassed by very few–if any–Westerners.  Had he lived longer, his achievements would likely have gotten the recognition that they deserved from posterity.

He was born into a prosperous Swiss mercantile family of Lausanne in 1784.  He received a practical education in Leipzig and Göttingen, but had travel on his mind; he knew the British were always looking for intrepid young men willing to plunge into the unknown, so he traveled to England in 1806 to see if he could find an expedition to join.  It was Africa that first excited his interest; and Burckhardt was soon pounding on the doors of the Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior of Africa.  In those days, as we have previously noted, the geography of the continent was very much a blank slate to Europeans.  Especially mysterious were the exact courses of the major rivers, such as the Nile and the Niger.

Burckhardt, like some others, believed that the most efficient way of exploring the heart of the continent was to take advantage of the existing Muslim caravan routes that had been used for centuries by merchants and travelers.  There were many of these routes, but the ones winding from Egypt and other major cities in North Africa to Timbuktu seemed to offer the most promise.  Yet there was one major problem (from the European perspective) with this plan:  any explorer wishing to undertake it would have to be able to pass himself off as an Arab or Muslim.  Outsiders–then as now–were looked upon with suspicion, and woe unto the infidel who found himself alone in the wilds with a great deal of valuable merchandise.

Burckhardt’s goal was thus to educate himself fluently on the language and customs of the region.  First came a period of intense academic study of Arabic at Cambridge University; then came a period of travel.  He visited Aleppo, Syria in 1809 and honed his language abilities; he also learned how to dress, walk, and talk like a native (we will relate the details of his Syrian travels in a future article).  Like most travelers, he paid his dues:  he fell sick numberless times, was robbed, cheated, and laughed at.  But he was acquiring that most precious commodity for any serious traveler:  experience on the ground.  After two years effort, and extensive travel through Syria, Palestine, and Transjordan, he could nearly pass as a native.

Further travels followed in Nubia and Egypt, which we will discuss in future articles.  In 1814, he conceived the idea of visiting the Islamic holy sites of Mecca and Medina, a feat of true courage.  It had not been attempted in modern times; and had he been discovered as a non-Muslim, there can be little doubt that he would have been killed on the spot.  The first Arabian city he arrived at was Jeddah, which he described as follows in his 1829 memoir Travels in Arabia:

I shall add here some remarks on Djidda and its inhabitants. The town is built upon a slightly rising ground, the lowest side of which is washed by the sea. Along the shore it extends in its greatest length for about fifteen hundred paces, while the breadth is no where more than half that space. It is surrounded on the land-side by a wall, in a tolerable state of repair, but of no strength. It had been constructed only a few years since by the joint labours of the inhabitants themselves, who were sensible that they possessed no protection against the Wahabis in the ancient half-ruined wall…The number of its inhabitants may be estimated, generally, at from twelve to fifteen thousand; but in the months preceding the pilgrimage, and again during the summer months corresponding with the monsoon winds, there is a great influx of strangers, which increases the above number perhaps one-half. [p. 26]

From Jeddah he moved on to Tayf.  From there he undertook the keystone of his Arabian travels, a visit to Mecca itself.  Burckhardt gives us an extremely detailed account of every place he visited and every scene he observed; the writing is not the stuff of escapist fantasy, but makes for fascinating reading for the serious traveler or scholar.  Richard Burton freely acknowledged the debt he owed to Burckhardt’s meticulous recordations.  Here he describes the water of Mecca:

The water is regarded as an infallible cure for all diseases; and the devotees believe that the more they drink of it, the better their health will be, and their prayers the more acceptable to the Deity. I have seen some of them at the well swallowing such a quantity of it as I should hardly have thought possible. A man who lived in the same house with me, and who was ill of an intermittent fever, repaired every evening to Zemzem, and drank of the water till he was almost fainting ; after which he lay for several hours extended upon his back on the pavement near the Kaaba, and then returned to renew his draught. When by this practice he was brought to the verge of death, he declared himself fully convinced that the increase of his illness proceeded wholly from his being unable to swallow a sufficient quantity of the water !

Many hadjys, not content with drinking it merely, strip themselves in the room, and have buckets of it thrown over them, by which they believe that the heart is purified as well as the outer body.  Few pilgrims quit Mekka without carrying away some of this water in copper or tin bottles, either for the purpose of making presents, or for their own use in case of illness, when they drink it, or for ablution after death. I carried away four small bottles, with the intention of offering them as presents to the Mohammedan kings in the Black countries. I have seen it sold at Suez by hadjys returning from Mekka at the rate of one piastre for the quantity that filled a coffee-cup.

Equally interesting his account of the diseases and climate of Mecca, of which he tells us the following:

The climate of Mekka is sultry and unwholesome; the rocks which enclose its narrow valley, intercept the wind, especially that from the north, and reflect the rays of the sun with redoubled heat. In the months of August, September, and October, the heat is excessive: during my residence at Mekka a suffocating ‘hot wind pervaded the atmosphere for five successive days in September. The rainy season usually begins in December; but the rains are not uninterrupted, as in other tropical countries, falling only at intervals of five or six days, but then with great violence. Showers are not unfrequent, even in summer: the Mekkawys say that the clouds coming from the sea-side are those which copiously irrigate the ground; while those which come from the East, or the high mountains, produce only mere showers…

The diseases prevalent in both towns are much the same; and the coast of the Hedjaz is perhaps among the most unhealthy countries of the East. Intermittent fevers are extremely common, as are likewise dysenteries, which usually terminate in swellings of the abdomen, and often prove fatal. Few persons pass a whole year without a slight attack of these disorders; and no stranger settles at Mekka or Djidda, without being obliged to submit, during the first months of his residence, to one of these distempers; a fact, of which ample proof was afforded in the Turkish army, under Mohammed Aly Pacha. Inflammatory fevers are less frequent at Djidda than at Mekka; but the former place is often visited with a putrid fever, which, as the inhabitants told me, sometimes appeared to be contagious; fifty persons having been known to die of it in one day…

Ophthalmia is very little known in the Hedjaz. I saw a single instance of leprosy, in a Bedouin at Tayf. The elephantiasis, and Guinea-worm are not uncommon, especially the former, of which I have seen many frightful cases. It is said that stone in the bladder is frequent at Mekka, caused, perhaps, by the peculiar quality of the water; to the badness of which many other diseases also may be ascribed in this hot country, where such quantities ,of it are daily drunk…

Sores on the legs, especially on the shinbone, are extremely common both at Mekka and Djidda; but more so at the latter place, where the dampness of the atmosphere renders their cure much more difficult; indeed, in that damp climate, the smallest scratch, or bite of any insect, if neglected, becomes a sore, and soon after an open wound: nothing is more common than to see persons walking in the streets, having on their legs sores of this kind, which, if neglected, often corrode the bone. As their cure demands patience, and, above all, repose, the lower classes seldom apply the proper remedies in time; and when they have increased to such a state as to render their application indispensably necessary, no good surgeons are to be found; fever ensues, and many of the patients die…

During my stay at Mekka, I seldom enjoyed perfect good health. I was twice attacked by fever; and, after the departure of the Syrian Hadj, by a violent diarrhoea, from which I had scarcely recovered when I set out for Medina. In those days, even when I was free from disease, I felt great lassitude, a depression of spirits, and a total want of appetite. During the five days of the Hadj, I was luckily in good health, though I was under great apprehensions from the consequences of taking the ihram. My strength was greatly diminished, and it required much effort, whenever I left my room, to walk about.

I attributed my illness chiefly to bad water, previous experience having taught me that my constitution is very susceptible of the want of good light water, that prime article of life in eastern countries. Brackish water in the Desert is perhaps salutary to travellers: heated as they are by the journey, and often labouring under obstructions from the quality of their food on the road, it acts as a gentle aperient, and thus supplies the place of medicinal draughts ; but the contrary is the case when the same water is used during a continued sedentary residence, when long habit only can accustom the stomach to receive it.

Had I found myself in better health and spirits, I should probably have visited some of the neighbouring valleys to the south, or passed a few months among the Bedouins of the Hedjaz; but the worst effect of ill-health upon a traveller, is the pusillanimity which accompanies it, and the apprehensions with which it fills the mind, of fatigues and dangers, that, under other circumstances, would be thought undeserving of notice.

Burckhardt is a professional explorer in every sense of the word; only Heinrich Barth surpasses him in fidelity of observation.  But the rigors of travel ground him down.  This is a pattern we see in many others whose careers we have explored here:  Dixon, Barth, and Ledyard, to name a few.  The environments in which he was moving exposed him to dysentery and other types of ailments.  When he left Arabia in 1815, he needed weeks to recover.  Relocating himself to Cairo, Burckhardt began to prepare for a journey across the Sahara to Western Africa.

But like so many other great men, he fell victim to disease:  contracting dysentery in Cairo, he lost strength and died in 1817 at the tragically young age of 33.  Nearly all his journals, papers, and Arabic manuscripts were preserved, though, and in a sense nothing useful to posterity was lost.  He was buried as a Muslim in Egypt, under the Arabic name he created for himself as cover during his explorations.  Burckhardt’s achievements place him on the list of the very greatest in the history of exploration, and he contributed significantly to the ethnographic and geographic study of the modern Near East.  He sought the desert, and the sands claimed him.


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13 thoughts on “John Lewis Burckhardt’s Pioneering Explorations And Travels In Arabia

  1. Great article, I never heard of Burckhardt before today. The climate of Arabia is not one suited for empires: this is probably the reason the caliphs quickly fled to the more welcoming climates of the Levant. That makes the Islamic civilization quite pelicular, and maybe schizophrenic: it’s openly and rightly proud of its cultural and political accomplishments, but openly despises the peninsula and the Beduin culture.
    Since you are a great amateur of traveler stories, military tradition and anglo-saxon history, I assume that you already read the literature of John Glubb? His Arabian Adventures are one book that must be read. In particular, his disgressions about the division of mankind between the sedentary farmer and heroic nomads influenced me a lot and are one of the pillars that support my conception of our world.

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  2. Not important, but while Burckardt was born in Lausanne, he was the scion of one of Basel’s most well known patrician families, who also gave us the historian of the Italian Renaissance Jacob Burckhardt, and Carl Jacob Burckhardt, a famous diplomat, League of Nations commissioner of Danzig and president of the international committee of the Red Cross.

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    • Thanks for mentioning this Steven. Yes, I remember reading a reference to his lineage, and maybe I should have noted this in the article. Good point!
      Sad that he died so young…one wonders what other achievements he might have accomplished.


  3. If it interests you, there was another Arabic-speaking Swiss explorer, from close to Basel, Werner Munzinger, also known as Munzinger Pasha, who explored parts of Arabia (Aden) but mainly Sudan and the Horn of Africa, ultimately becoming being appointed a governor by Egypt and then dying in some battle during an incursion into Ethiopia.

    Munzinger’s father’s life was more interesting; in 1847-1848 Switzerland experienced a civil war whose motivations were remarkably similar to those motivating the American civil war a few years later; agrarian, generally mountainous (in Switzerland mainly, but far from exclusively, Catholic) and aristocratic cantons versus industrialising (almost exclusively Protestant) cantons in the flat parts who strongly wanted a new system more suited to their needs.

    Munzinger’s father was the swing vote in the Swiss diet (at the time Switzerland was not as much a country as an alliance of sovereign cantons) who gave the pro-war or, more precisely anti-secession group, its majority, but whereas most of the Protestant cantons wanted to do the full Sherman and really teach the other side a lesson, leaving a trail of corpses, ashes, and hatred behind them, Munzinger conditioned his vote for the war on it being entrust to a squeamish commander in chief, who made it his first priority to keep bloodshed to an absolute minimum. Rather than taking the fight to the enemy, he used a cleverly chosen set of sieges and, in the case of the Ticino spies, to crush the secession. The war saw 180,000 (militia) soldiers pitted against each other, and less than 90 deaths.

    Unlike other countries which took generations to get over their civil wars, this allowed Switzerland to get on with business after the war. While the same resentments that preceded the war continued to exist, the hatreds were nothing like in the US, not to mention Spain or Lebanon after their civil wars, which were no longer able to function normally even when the war had been won.

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