Review: Arabia Felix


The Royal Danish expedition to Arabia Felix—modern-day Yemen—departed in January 1761 and officially returned in November 1767. Its purpose was to study this biblical land, and thereby to shed light on the Scriptures themselves. The company of six participants for the journey had been assembled years in advance, to be given time for the specialized training their journey would require. First among them were the two Danes, Frederik Christian von Haven, the philologist, and Christian Carl Kramer, the doctor. Next were Peter Forsskål, the Swedish polymath and the expedition’s natural scientist, and Carsten Niebuhr, the modest German peasant who, by good fortune, had attended university in his mid-twenties to study mathematics and astronomy—he was to be the company’s cartographer and treasurer. Finally, they were joined by Georg Wilhelm Baurenfeind, the artist, whose job it would be to draw the expedition’s journey along with its discoveries, and a Swedish servant just off military service in Prussia named Lars Berggren. Through a careful reading of their private letters and documents in the Danish State Archives, Thorkild Hansen has ably reconstructed their story in his 1962 book, Arabia Felix.

It was something of a miracle that the expedition happened at all. Commissioned and financed by Frederik V of Denmark to win glory and scientific acclaim for the Danish throne, the diversity of the participants presented an early obstacle. Naturally the findings of the expedition were the property of the Danish King, and each of the adventurers was required to forward all the results of his researches, as well as a diary of his journey, back to the court in Copenhagen.

Professor Forsskål was a brilliant and devoted student of the great Linnaeus and intended to use his position to advance the methods and reputation of his mentor. His appointment for the journey was as botanist, but he was far and away the most learned man in the party, with degrees in philosophy and oriental languages—in fact, he was a superior linguist to von Haven, the appointed philologist. While von Haven was an erudite man and the only other true professor on the journey, he was too indolent to think of anything other than the preservation of his own comfort: It seems that he accepted his appointment to the journey only because he believed it would never be made. The others were sucked into the rift between these two professors, and the resulting conflict would follow the men until their arrival in Arabia Felix. Hansen’s book portrays Forsskål as a tireless Swede, striding forward in the name of science and learning but hiding his own discoveries in a code only to be deciphered by Linnaeus; Von Haven is lazy, vain, fearful, full of excuses, and trying at every turn to delay the expedition, or at least to turn it towards his own interests by schmoozing with the eminent persons in whatever city he found himself.

The adventurers finally set sail in difficult conditions from Copenhagen in January 1761, at which time von Haven immediately abandoned his companions and decided to take his delicate constitution over land to Marseille, where they were all reunited months later. After stopping briefly at Malta, the group sailed on to Constantinople, where tensions between Forsskål and von Haven reached such a head that the local Danish ambassador forced the two men to embrace and apologize to one another in the presence of the entire company. It seems Forsskål included in his apology an elaborate and subtle insult; immediately after, von Haven stormed out and, in the presence of Kramer, bought several packets of arsenic.

As the journey continued, the members of the exhibition pursued their various researches at each stop—Alexandria, Cairo, and Suez. Niebuhr dutifully mapped out and compiled the history of each town, while Forsskål made miniature journeys out to neighboring villages in search of botanical and biological specimens that he carefully preserved and cataloged while Baurenfeind, the artist, drew them. Von Haven did little, preferring to be received as an honored guest at the houses of whatever wealthy residents were willing to have him.

In Suez, then, von Haven found himself unprepared to carry out the first major task he had been assigned: to journey to Mount Sinai and copy down the inscriptions that could be found there. He was unwilling to go alone, but only Niebuhr would agree to accompany him; their Arab guides, unhappy with von Haven’s insulting and self-righteous attitude, led them right past several inscriptions as revenge. At Sinai, von Haven refused to climb, citing a bad foot, and Niebuhr, the cartographer, had to do the task himself. The inscriptions, thought to have been put there by the ancient Israelites, turned out to be only Egyptian hieroglyphics marking a graveyard, and none of the Arabs were able to confirm whether this was the right Mount Sinai at all. To finish off this ignominious performance, the two men attempted to visit the Monastery of Saint Catherine on the return journey, where a more competent von Haven might have gained access to the Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest extant copy of the Greek Bible. Instead, they were told that they could only be admitted if they could produce a letter of recommendation from the Archbishop of Sinai, on whose hospitality von Haven had been imposing just a month prior. It had never occurred to him to ask. Eventually, they turned away from the gates of the monastery with nothing more than a basket of grapes.

Von Haven died shortly after, upon the expedition’s arrival in Mocha, a port city of l’arabie heureuse (“happy Arabia,” as it was commonly called). He had contracted a “cold,” as had Niebuhr—malaria. While the members of the expedition had decided to make the journey from their landing at Loheia to Mocha over land, their chests full of scientific instruments and carefully preserved specimens had been sent ahead by sea with a young man they met on the ship from Suez, Ismael Salech, whose father was governor of the port called Mocha. Soon after their arrival they realized their mistake; their belongings would be held as ransom until they paid the governor off and had their doctor heal his foot. To prove the point, several chests full of priceless years of research were dumped into the ocean.

An angry and determined Forsskål, whose linguistic mastery had allowed him to quickly adapt his speech to the local dialect, paid a brusque visit to the governor, handed him the money, and began planning the party’s exit to Sana, the capital of Yemen. Entirely through his own energy and brilliance, he negotiated the use of camels, obtained (after some delay) a letter of recommendation to the governor of another city on their journey, Taaes, and maneuvered the battered group of scholars out of the port town toward their inland destination. Forsskål had so exerted himself that he fell ill on the day of their departure; he was strapped to a camel and the stains of his vomit streaked its sides. Niebuhr, the only other capable man in the expedition, did what he could to carry out his comrade’s plans. Upon their arrival at Taaes, they were attacked by an angry mob which hurled rocks at the shuttered windows of their rented house all night. Forsskål died and was shuffled across town and buried; his corpse was promptly dug up by grave-robbers who supposed that this strange European, buried in a box of wood, must have been buried with riches too. Finding none, they dumped his naked body on the road and left. It was reburied the next day by a peasant who, as reward for his trouble, took the coffin home for himself.

From here the sad tale gets worse. Niebuhr managed to get the other two men to Sana, the capital, where they were all graciously received by the Imam, but Niebuhr was only too eager to leave again. On the way to the capital they had abandoned the servant, Berggren, to die in a desolate town. He recovered and joined them in Sana only to find them setting out for Mocha once more, where the adventurers hoped to catch some English merchants who were planning to set sail for Bombay; there Berggren died. The rest managed to catch one ship to Bombay, and Baurenfeind died aboard. Soon after landing, Kramer succumbed to illness as well. Niebuhr was then alone. He stayed in Bombay for just over a year before beginning his long, solitary journey home, traveling through Muscat, Bushire, Shiraz, and Persepolis—all of which he meticulously mapped and analyzed. From there he went on to the site of ancient Babylon, then to Baghdad, Mosul, and Aleppo, where, somehow still infected by the adventurous spirit, he wrote home to the King asking if he should return and make good on the earlier failures of the expedition. Instead he was sent to Cyprus,  whence he sailed to Palestine, hiked to Brussa, finally returned to Constantinople, and decided to head home through northern Turkey and Poland.

Niebuhr arrived in Copenhagen to find that the king had died and that his heir was more interested in tossing ornate pieces of furniture from the window of the palace with his mistress than in hearing the travails of a lonely German explorer his father had sent into the unknown six years earlier. Most of the researches completed by his colleague and friend Forsskål had been scrapped by the spiteful Danish professor who had been appointed to assess them. The expedition’s reception in the academic community was no different. Niebuhr was forced to publish his diaries, his and his colleagues’ researches, and the numerous maps and drawings which had been so carefully drawn up over years, all at his own expense. They were ignored.

Niebuhr decided then to marry and become a town clerk in Meldorf, a region not twenty miles from the place of his birth. Only then did his writings gradually begin to win him fame, first abroad and eventually in his adopted home in Denmark. He was made a corresponding member of the Academie Francaise, but he declined to attend the ceremony to receive this honor. When he died in 1815, he had watched his labors emerge from complete neglect and obscurity to considerable fame, yet he lived out his life in a happy, self-imposed state of isolation. A hundred years later, his maps were still used and cited as authoritative; he became the source with which no subsequent adventurers could dispense. The cuneiform inscriptions he had copied in Persepolis led to the eventual deciphering of the ancient language. But this respite from obscurity was to be brief. The hard-headed German peasant himself would be forgotten soon after his death, joining his friends as printed names in the silent, unopened pages of the Danish Archives. By the mid-20th century their works were superseded, and their modest reputations had expired.

Why is Arabia Felix “happy”? Hansen’s tale of the doomed eighteenth-century Danish expedition to Yemen poses this question over and over, with little by way of answer. Eventually the author explains: “Yemen” signifies, in Arabic, “on the right.” In Arabic cartography, the east is upwards, much as the north is in ours—thus Arabia-on-the-right is simply south Arabia. The left, in Arabic as in Latin, was ill-favored, and the right was fortunate—and so South Arabia became Arabia Felix. The happiness of the land was a mirage, rooted in a misunderstanding.

But if it is an error, it is a sadly illuminating one. Moses never entered the promised land. This is a story about bad Christians who, seeking permanent fame, never find it. The only religious thoughts any member of the journey seems to have during this effort to study the origins of Holy Scripture involve death—burying their dead—and even those are in scarce supply. Wanting to be first, they find themselves last; having sought their rewards, they do not find them; intellectually rich, they are sent empty away.

And perhaps no better lesson could be taken from this book, in which every illustrious character’s story, one after another, rushes to its bitter, forgotten end. It was in “glittering radiance” that St. Martin was visited by the Devil; the radiance and diadems and royal robes aside, St. Martin knew that this dazzling figure could not be Christ, for he did not have Christ’s wounds. The meaning of Martin’s encounter in our age, Newman writes, is that “Christ comes not in pride of intellect, or reputation for philosophy. These are the glittering robes in which Satan is now arraying.” Would that our adventurers had lived to hear him: “Many spirits are abroad, more are issuing from the pit; the credentials which they display are the precious gifts of mind, beauty, richness, depth, originality.”

Such were the prizes these men hoped to claim, and such were they denied. In Newman’s words, “Christian, look hard at them with Martin in silence, and ask them for the print of the nails.”

[This article appears in Fare Forward Issue 8 (Dec. 2017), order here.]'

William Borman

William Borman, a native Virginian and graduate of the University of Virginia, now writes from New York.