John Lewis Burckhardt’s Travels And Explorations In Nubia

J.L. Burckhardt’s intensity and determination clearly show in this engraving.

In a previous article we have sketched the life of John Lewis Burckhardt.  He was born in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1784 of a prominent family.  At the age of 16 his father moved the family to Leipzig; and four years after this they moved again to  Göttingen.  His family was staunchly opposed to the new Napoleonic government that had taken power in France, so he moved to London in July 1806 to seek employment prospects there.  At some point, and possibly influenced by the daring men he had contact with there, he decided on a career in exploration.

As we have noted before, the geography and ethnography of Africa was known only in the broadest outlines.  It was not difficult for qualified men to find sponsorship for expeditions seeking to expand the limits of European knowledge of the continent.  Burckhardt’s interests in the area steered him to the study of Arabic at Cambridge University, a language that he pursued with great dedication; he also conditioned his body for long marches, and learned the habits, prayers, dress, and manners of the Islam.  Explorers also needed a familiarity with medicine and rudimentary chemistry, so he learned the basics of these subjects as well.  As it turned out, this knowledge would save his life on more than one occasion.  He moved to Syria in 1809 and lived there for two years; in 1812 he traveled to Cairo, learning a great deal on the march.

At some point after reaching Cairo he determined to explore southern Egypt and Nubia, the region now known as north-central Sudan.  Even today, this remains a very little-known region to Europeans.  Burckhardt’s achievement in penetrating and exploring this country was an incredible feat, one that he accomplished practically on his own; by now he was almost entirely cut off from his employers in London, but he had the initiative to plan his own journeys and carry them out.  In January 1813 he left Cairo and traveled south along the Nile, intending to visit archaeological sites of interest along the way.  His first journey was from Aswan to Mahass, a place “on the frontiers of Dongola.”  He encountered the ruins of the temples of Ramses II at Abu Simbel, a site that was at that time half-buried by sand.  An interesting aside by Burckhardt tells us much about the consideration given to travelers in that country:

Here, as in every part of Nubia, the thirsty traveler finds, at short distances, water jars placed by the roadside under a low roof.  Every village pays a small monthly stipend to some person to fill these jars in the morning and again towards evening.  The same custom prevails in Upper Egypt, but on a larger scale; and there are small caravanserais often found near the wells which supply travelers with water. [p. 54]

Here Burckhardt describes the colossal ruins of Abu Simbel:

When we reached the top of the mountain, I left my guide, with the camels, and descended an almost perpendicular cleft, choked with sand, to view the temple of Ebsambal [Abu Simbel], of which I had heard many magnificent descriptions.  There is no road at present to this temple, which stands just over the bank of the river; but it is probable that some change may have taken place in the course of the stream, and that there may have been formerly a footpath along the shore, by which the temple was approached.  It stands about twenty feet above the surface of the water, entirely cut out of the almost perpendicular rocky side of the mountain, and in complete preservation.  In front of the entrance are six erect colossal figures, representing juvenile persons, three on each side, placed in narrow recesses, and looking towards the river; they are all of the same size, stand with one foot before the other, and and are accompanied by smaller figures…

The walls of the three apartments are covered with hieroglyphics, and the usual sacred figures of the Egyptian temples.  The figures seem all to have been painted yellow, excepting the hair, which, in several of them is black; that of Isis is in black and white stripes…I was afterwards informed, at Derr, that there is, near this temple, on the bank of the river, the statue of a man somewhat above human size, with the Egyptian corn measure under his arms; and that it is completely overflowed during the inundation.

He also explored the temples of Kalabshe and Dakke.  Regarding some of the customs of the Nubians, Burckhardt explained the following:

[p. 255]

The importance of weapons transcends cultures and geography.  As for other customs, Burckhardt relates the preparation of the Nubians’ dhourra bread, a coarse kind of flatbread made without salt.  In Sukkut and Mahass, this bread was prepared in very small cakes that could be stacked for use throughout the day.  The Nubians also made a very sweet kind of palm-wine, which could be found for sale in nearly every village.  The practice was certainly thousands of years old.

It was made in the following way.  When the dates matured, they were tossed into large cauldrons to boil with an amount of water.  This boiling lasted an incredible two full days without interruption.  The liquid was then strained, and poured into large earthen jars, which would be buried to their necks in the ground.  They were left to ferment there for 10 to 12 days.  After this time it was fit to drink although it would not last longer than a year, after which time it tended to sour.  The Nubians also made a kind of jelly from dates.

Burckhardt also tells us that the Nubians made a rich kind of barley beer called bouza, doubtless a direct descendant of the ancient Egyptian fermented grain drinks.  I was surprised to hear this Sudanese Arabic word used for this drink; in Syrian colloquial Arabic, the word bouza is used for ice cream (the old Turkish word dondurma has also been known to be used in Syria for ice cream).  I have no idea if there is any connection between these usages of bouza, or if it is just chance, but it did catch my eye.

Our explorer notes that the Nubians were tall, lean, and rarely wore facial hair, preferring to cover their faces with garments against the ravages of the sun and sand.  He remarks that the people of the country were very virtuous in comparison to his experiences in the more urban areas of northern Egypt and Syria.  Marriage was understood to be an arranged affair; men purchased wives from village elders or a girl’s parents.  All in all, Burckhardt’s account of his travels in Nubia are a fascinating record for anyone interested in exploration or African ethnography.

When one considers the risks that he took while traveling alone in a strange land, speaking a language he learned only as an adult, our admiration for his intrepidity grows with every page turned.  Deep within every man, there exists the urge to seek out new vistas, to explore new regions, and to lay eyes on the unknown.  We can act on this instinct, or not act on it, but we can never deny its existence.  And while we may not be able to repeat his feats, we can imitate his spirit.  For this is the stuff of greatness.

Just as the earthenware jars of water along the Nubian roads marked out progress for Burckhardt, so his life–and the lives of other great men like him–mark out milestones for us to follow and to emulate.  He died too young, but left us this precious record of his travels for us to pore over; within its pages we experience not only the physical travails of an explorer in Nubia, but also the migration of a great soul to a higher plane of understanding.


Read more about great deeds in my new translation of Sallust: