Jean-Louis Burckhardt: The Desert Traveller

Today, in the Ancient Egyptian Statuary gallery of the British Museum is one of the most famous statues of Ramses II brought from Thebes in the nineteenth century by Giovanni Belzoni, the engineer and explorer, who has done much to improve our knowledge of and collections of ancient Egyptian artefacts. However, it would not be in the British Museum at all were it not for one man, Jean-Louis Burckhardt, who suggested to Belzoni and the British Consul for Egypt, Henry Salt, that it be brought back to England after he first discovered it on his travels in the early part of that century.

Jean-Louis Burckhardt was an intrepid desert traveller from the Georgian era. He was the first modern European to discover the rose red city of Petra in Jordan and also the long lost and buried temple of Abu Simbel in Nubia. He also visited the Sinai Desert and made the Haj (pilgrimage) to Mecca, being a Muslim convert, and became the first westerner to seriously document what went on in the holy city. Like many great people, he died young while still in his early thirties in 1817.

Although he was Swiss by birth, Jean-Louis (Louis to his friends) was born in 1784 to a fiercely pro-British and anti-French family. His Father was a soldier and merchant, and the family lived in Basle.

It was an educated and privileged household that Louis grew-up in.

Visitors to his home included Goethe and the British historian Edward Gibbon, famous for his book on Rome.

After attending university in Leipzig, Louis went to London to seek employment. It was there that he met with members of the African Association, who were seeking travellers and writers to improve their knowledge of the Middle East and central Africa.

Anxious to make his mark in life, Louis signed-up as an explorer for the association, which would fund his travels and expenses while abroad.

To fulfill his ambitions, Louis realized that he would have to pass as an Arab, so in 1809 he set out from Britain to Syria to learn Arabic and Arab customs like a native. He was never to return.

For two-and-a-half years he made Aleppo his home and base, while accustomising himself to Arab dress and customs and mastering the language and the Koran. He often explored regions as yet unpenetrated by Europeans and sent notes back to the African Association.

“Louis had to suppress an inward laugh when he thought how startled his family would be to see him now outwardly so changed – bearded, voluminously costumed, seated cross-legged on the rug-strewn floor; the glittering hubble-bubbles giving off sharp fragrance of cooled tobacco, blue smoke curving languorous around turbanned heads.” He became one of the early Europeans to visit the Roman city of Palmyra. As on his many other travels he was accompanied by the Bedouin, roughing it by European standards of travel at the time: “My method is just the opposite. I stop at the dirtiest caravanserai, use the floor as my mattress and my coat as a blanket, eat with camel drivers and brush my horse myself, but I see and hear things which remain unknown to him who travels in comfort.” Louis was frequently robbed on his travels, and often came back home looking little more than a beggar. On one occasion one of his friends tried to shoot him as he approached his home because he did not recognize Louis and mistook him for a robber! As ‘Sheik Abraham’, he set forth on his first great journey, south through unexplored parts of Syria and Palestine and on to Egypt. His reward en route was the discovery of Petra, which he noted and documented for the association.

When he arrived in Cairo, Louis rented a house. The city, as now, was a lively chaotic place, but then under the rulership of Mohammed Ali – the charismatic and bloodthirsty ‘Pasha’ whom Louis became acquainted with.

His next major expedition was across the desert to Nubia, mainly by camel, with a Bedouin caravan. En route he was captured by a hostile Kashif, who was drunk and wanted to behead him. Louis escaped and later went on to discover the buried temple of Abu Simbel: “I fell in with what is yet visible of four immense colossal statues cut out of the rock… they stand in a deep recess excavated in the mountain; but it is greatly to be regretted that they are almost entirely buried beneath the sands, which are blown down here in torrents. The entire head, and part of the breast and arms of one of the statues, are yet above the surface, of the next one to it scarcely any part is visible, the head being broken off, and the body covered with sand to above the shoulders; of the other two only the bonnets appear… The head which is above the surface has a most expressive youthful countenance, approaching nearer to the Grecian model of beauty, than that of any Egyptian figure I have seen…” Louis recorded in his notebook at the time.

His next journey was his toughest and most dangerous expedition yet. He went on a Haj to Mecca accompanied by a caravan of slaves and slavers. Being a kindly sort of fellow, Louis soon fell out with the coarse, unkind company he was keeping. They continually insulted and bullied him all the way to Mecca, but Louis remained steadfast in his determination to see the holy city for himself. On one occasion, he was nearly murdered for the little money he was carrying with him, but managed to call the robber’s bluff.

When Louis eventually arrived in Mecca, the journey had taken its toll on his health and he stayed there for a while recouperating from a nasty fever that had set in. He eventually set off for the return to Cairo, stopping dangerously at the ‘plague city’ of Yembo, where people were dying all around him, before hastening to his destination.

On his return to Cairo, Louis noticed that more Europeans were coming over to Egypt to make a name for themselves. He met and became acquainted with Henry Salt, the British Consul, Giovanni Belzoni, the famous engineer and explorer, and John William Bankes from Kingston Lacy, who also journeyed down the Nile to Nubia.

The plague eventually hit Cairo, and Louis decided to go on another journey – to the Sinai Desert. Once again, he chose the Bedouin as travelling companions – a group he was growing to admire for their simple and honest lifestyle.

He followed in the footsteps of Moses, and also visited St Catherine’s Monastery while he was there.

On his return to Cairo again, Louis seemed to be in peak physical condition, and it came as a real shock to his friends when he contracted dysentery and eventually died in his thirty third year. He never made his final journey down the Niger to central Africa, but in his short lifetime he had already achieved a great deal.

Louis was given a Muslim burial in a cemetery in Cairo.

Information taken from the book: ‘Desert Traveller the Life of Jean Louis Burckhardt’ by Katharine Sim (Phoenix Press 2000).

A good and readable account of his life.