Sunday, January 25, 2015


Roger H. Guichard, Jr., Niebuhr in Egypt: European Science in a Biblical World. Cambridge: Lutterworth, 2014. Pp. xvii, 344. ISBN 9780718893354. $55.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Robert Lamberton, Washington University, St. Louis (

Version at BMCR home site


Carsten Niebuhr (1733-1815) was a "simple engineer" (311), a German who took part in one of the most fascinating of all the voyages of discovery of the eighteenth century, the Royal Danish Expedition to Arabia Felix (Yemen) sponsored by Frederick V that departed from Copenhagen in 1761. He was ultimately the only survivor among the seven members of that expedition, after the last of his companions (a servant named Berggren) died in Bombay nearly three years later. They had left Yemen frustrated by obstructive officials and by fever, but it was only after another four years, in 1767, that Niebuhr reached Copenhagen by way of Muscat, the Persian Gulf, Persepolis, Bagdad, Jerusalem, Anatolia and the European provinces of the Ottoman Empire. It then fell to him to publish (in part at his own expense) the results of that expedition, including both his own observations, maps and survey points and the botanical and zoological work of the expedition's principal naturalist, Peter Forsskål (a student of Linnaeus), who had died in Yemen in 1763 aged thirty-one. Niebuhr's own copious accounts, Beschreibung von Arabien (1772) and Reisebeschreibung nach Arabien und andern umliegenden Ländern (3 vol.:1774, 1778, 1837 [posth.]) were quickly translated, abridged, and published in various forms in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and the volumes of Forsskål's work that he edited constitute important contributions to the flora and fauna of southern Arabia and the Red Sea. Most of the Arabic words that are found in zoological Latin today — e.g. in exotic binomials like Abudefduf sordidus (Forsskål) — will be found to go back to new genera and species identified by Forsskål.

It is the work of Forsskål, along with the scant eight months the expedition actually spent in Yemen (where most of the participants died, apparently of malaria), and Niebuhr's subsequent travels that have most often drawn attention to this amazing undertaking. But Roger H. Guichard Jr.'s book adopts a novel perspective, examining in greater detail than previous authors the year during which the expedition was delayed in Cairo, before setting sail from Suez for Yemen, and Niebuhr's fundamental contribution to our knowledge of late eighteenth-century Cairo. It was nearly a half century later when, after Napoleon's invasion, the rise of Mohammed Ali made Egypt significantly more accepting and accessible for Europeans.

Why is this book being reviewed in BMCR? It is, after all, concerned with an eighteenth-century scientific expedition and any connection to classical antiquity is at best remote. The answer is not as simple as it might seem, and the subtitle, European Science in a Biblical World, goes some way toward an explanation but needs clarification. Guichard emphasizes (as his predecessors have not) the peculiar status of this expedition and the tensions between its explicit goals and what its members in fact set out to accomplish, and in some cases did accomplish. It is thus a study in the history of ideas, touching on issues relevant to the relationship of philology and other areas of inquiry in early-modern Europe. Focusing on the Fragen,1 a set of one hundred questions that defined quite explicitly the expectations of the backers of the expedition, Guichard makes it clear that the impulse behind the enterprise was deeply rooted in an intellectual world that was still very much alive in 1760 but increasingly out of line with contemporary inquiry. These questions were largely the work of the eminent philologist Johann David Michaelis, who promoted the expedition but seems ultimately to have lost interest in it when the researchers failed, for instance, to gain access to the manuscripts of St. Catherine's in the Sinai, or to identify and report on the supposed "east Arabic" dialect in Yemen, which Michaelis hoped would throw light on Biblical Hebrew. The Fragen came from researchers who saw the Near East from the perspective of the Biblical narrative. If they wanted more knowledge of the natural history of the region, this was in the service of explaining the plagues of Genesis and other Biblical puzzles. About the Egyptians themselves, ancient or modern, they had little curiosity. What the researchers were themselves trying to do, however, belonged to the world of the Enlightenment and of the Systema Naturae of Linnaeus. What we are shown, then is an exercise in "sacred philology" more-or-less subverted into a modern fact-finding and scientific undertaking.2 Beyond this concern with the relationship of (ultimately fruitless) Biblical philological inquiry and eighteenth-century science lie the amazing continuities Guichard emphasizes between medieval — and sometimes even ancient — Cairo and Alexandria and the city experienced by Niebuhr and his colleagues, where few Europeans had previously ventured.

The Cairo where the expedition was stalled from November, 1761, until August, 1762, had not been mapped before Niebuhr did so, and his map and the difficulties under which he worked to complete it are a large part of Guichard's story (see 6). Niebuhr's apparently remained the only map of Cairo until Napoleon's expedition, and Guichard is surely correct to emphasize the importance of this map in particular and of Niebuhr's cartographic work in general. His portrait of this "simple engineer" is marked by great respect, not least for the man's humility and practicality (27 and passim). This was in contrast to the attitude of the expedition's philologist F. C. von Haven in particular, who clearly found excessive contact with the locals (and indeed with the other members of the expedition) quite unattractive, and of Forsskål himself. In Guichard's account (as in Hansen's [see note 2] above) the hard-working Forsskål, whose Arabic was even better than von Haven's, is clearly the more sympathetic character, but both of these professorial egos were nevertheless difficult at times for Niebuhr to take (Hansen, [see note 2], 145-146).

Ultimately, though, Niebuhr's voice is our major source for the dynamics and for the accomplishments of the expedition. Guichard's book is in large part paraphrase of Niebuhr's Reisebeschreibung along with well-informed elaboration on subject after subject broached by Niebuhr, punctuated with citations. Guichard tells us that he read Niebuhr in an eighteenth-century French translation acquired some years ago in Cairo (x) but has compared the material quoted (in English) in his book with the German original (xiv).3 This is an odd way to get at such an important primary source, but Guichard makes it clear that he is not a scholar by profession (the jacket identifies him as a "management consultant who has lived and worked for most of the last thirty years in the Arab and Muslim worlds"). It is evident throughout that he is a book collector and thoroughly acquainted with the (bibliographically difficult) work of local historians of Cairo and the Near East. If his bibliography seems a bit dated and does not include some works that would be cited in such a book by a professional historian (including those of Suzanne Marchand4 who supplies a laudatory jacket blurb), his knowledge of the older literature is thorough and he makes good use of scholars as recent as Braudel. His fascination with the early-modern travelers to Arabia and the Near East is tangible and the insights that he attaches to the narrative of Niebuhr are particularly striking in his accounts of the government, inhabitants, and commerce of eighteenth-century Cairo (chs. 7-9).

All in all, Guichard's book is more scholarly, more narrowly focused, and better annotated than Hansen's,5 which it otherwise resembles in general methodology. He makes a strong case not only for the importance of Niebuhr and his unique perspective for our knowledge of pre-Napoleonic Cairo, but also for the man's unassuming competence and admirable accomplishment in realizing the potential of an expedition that, at least in the eyes of its sponsors in Copenhagen, "was bound to fail" (294).


1.   Johann David Michaelis, Fragen an eine Gesellschaft Gelehrter Männer, die auf Befehl Ihro Majestät des Königes von Dannemark nach Arabien reisen. Frankfurt: Johann Gottlieb Garbe, 1762.
2.   Guichard makes this point repeatedly. A rather different picture, more complimentary to Michaelis, will be found in Thorkild Hansen, Arabia Felix: The Danish Expedition of 1761-1767 tr. James and Kathleen McFarlane, New York: Harper & Row, 1962, 15-17 and passim; and in Suzanne Marchand, German Orientalism in the Age of Empire: religion, race, and scholarship, German Historical Institute (Washington DC), New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009, 38-43.
3.   The English version by Robert Heron of the Reisebeschreibung, easily accessible in reprint (Travels through Arabia and other Countries in the East, performed by M. Niehbur, now a captain of engineers in the service of the King of Denmark translated into English by Robert Heron. 2 vol. Edinburgh: R. Morison and Son, 1792. Reprint: Reading: Garnet Publishing, 1994) is for various reasons far inferior to the French translation, as Guichard explains (313), but the original German has been reprinted as well (Carsten Niebuhr, Reisebeschreibung nach Arabien und umliegenden Ländern. Graz: Akademische Druck- und Verlagsanstalt, 1968).
4.   Note 2, above.
5.   Note 2, above. These remarks apply only to the English translation of Hansen, which lacks notes entirely and explicitly omits material which appeared in the Danish original. See "Publisher's Note" [6].

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