John Lewis Burckhardt

JOHN LEWIS BURCKHARDT descended from an eminent family in Switzerland, was born at Lausanne, about the year 1785. He received the rudiments of his education at a school at Neufchatel, and completed his studies at the universities of Leipsic and Gottingen. At the latter, he recommended himself, by his talents and general good conduct, to the favorable notice of the celebrated Blumenbach, who gave him a letter of introduction to Sir Joseph Banks, upon whom Burckhardt called on his arrival in London, in July, 1806. His acquaintance with Sir Joseph brought him in connexion with the other members of the African Association, and ended in his undertaking, under the patronage of the Society, to explore the interior of Africa. His offer was accepted in May, 1808, when he immediately set about preparing himself for his journey, by studying in London and at Cambridge, not only the Arabic language and oriental customs, but also astronomy, chemistry, mineralogy, medicine and surgery. In addition to this, he suffered his beard to grow, accustomed himself to wear the eastern dress, and in the intervals of his studies, exercised himself by long journies on foot, bare-headed, in the heat of the day, sleeping upon the ground, and living upon vegetables and water.

On the 25th of January, 1809, he received his final instructions, and on the 2d of March, he embarked at Cowes, for Malta, where he appeared in an oriental costume, and, by his judicious conduct, contrived to conceal his real character from several Swiss officers, whom he had previously known. Being unable to procure a vessel bound for Cyprus, he embarked in one sailing to the coast of Caramania. 'I introduced myself,' he says, to the passengers, who were Tripolines, as an Indian Mohammedan merchant, who had been, from early years, in England, and was now on his way home; and I had the good fortune to make my story credible. During the course of our voyage, numerous questions were put to me relative to India, which I answered as well as I could; and when I was asked for a specimen of the Hindoo language, I answered them in the worst dialect of the Swiss-German.' Having landed at Satalia, he made an excursion to Tarsus, where, finding a vessel bound for the coast of Syria, he embarked for that country, and entered it at the point where the Aasi, the ancient Orontis, falls into the sea. Here he joined a caravan proceeding to Aleppo, in his way whither he was much annoyed by the companions of his journey insisting that he was a Frank; and at Antakia, one going so far as to pull him by the beard, he resented the affront by giving the offender a blow on the face. On his arrival at Aleppo, he assumed the name of Ibrahim, and applied himself with unceasing assiduity to the study of the Arabic language, into which he made an attempt to translate Robinson Crusoe. In July, 1810, he started, by way of Palmyra, for Damascus; and, in the course of his journey, was twice attacked by banditti, and robbed of his watch and compass. He quitted Damascus in September, but returned to that city, after having visited the ruins of Balbec, Libanus, and Mount Hermon. He subsequently made an excursion into the Hauran, the patrimony of Abraham, and, on the 1st of January, 1811, again entered Aleppo. From hence he accompanied an Arab sheikh into the desert towards the Euphrates, but the protection of his guide being insufficient, he was robbed of all his clothes, and compelled to return, without having accomplished any of the objects of his journey. It was in this excursion to the desert,' says Mr. Barker, the British consul at Aleppo, that Burckhardt had so hard a struggle with an Arab lady, who took a fancy to the only garment which the delicacy or compassion of the men had left him.' On the 14th of February, he finally quitted Aleppo, and once more returning to Damascus, made another journey from thence into the Hauran, in the course of which, he discovered the ruins of a city unvisited by any other European, which he conjectured to be those of Petra, the capital of Arabia Petra. The ruins are situate in the valley of Ghor, or Araba, the existence of which, he says , appears to have been unknown to ancient as well as modern geographers.' Speaking of Balka, he observes, many ruined places and mountains in that district preserve the names of the Old Testament; and elucidate the topography of the province that fell to the share of the tribes of Gad and Reuben.'

After many hardships and dangers, our traveler reached Cairo, in Egypt, with the intention of joining a caravan, and traveling to Fezzan, in the north of Africa, - the grand object of his mission. Whilst, however, the caravan was preparing, he undertook an expedition to Nubia, on which he set out, accompanied by a guide, on the 14th of February, 1813. They were mounted on dromedaries, and Burckhardt's only incumbrances were a gun, a sabre, a pistol, and a woollen mantle, which served by day for a carpet, and for a covering during the night. The country through which he passed was in a state of great distraction, but he proceeded in safety as far as the Mahass territory, on reaching which, he found himself,' says Mr. St. John, in his life of our traveler, in the midst of the worst description of savages. The governor, a ferocious black, furiously intoxicated, and surrounded by numerous followers in the same condition, received him in a hut. In the midst of their drunken mirth, they called for muskets, and amused themselves with firing in the hut, and Burckhardt every moment expected that a random ball would put an end to his travels.' Having proceeded up the Nile almost as far as Dongola, he turned towards the north, and at Kolbe swam across the river, holding by his camel's tail with one hand, and urging on the beast with the other.' He then visited Ybsambul, Mosmos, Derr, and Assouan, where he remained till the 2d of March, 1814; his whole expenditure during the time of his stay, for himself, his servant, dromedary, and ass, not exceeding one shilling and sixpence per day.

Having assumed the character of a poor trader and a Turk of Syria, he on the day above-mentioned, set out with a caravan, through the deserts of Nubia, to Berbery and Shendy, as far as Suakim, on the Red sea, whence he performed his pilgrimage to Mecca by way of Jidda. During this journey, in the course of which he had an opportunity of confirming many of the statements of Bruce, he endured a series of hardships and sufferings scarcely inferior to those of Park in Africa. Whilst mad with thirst in the burning desert, he beheld the mocking mirage; and if he escaped burial beneath the overwhelming sand, lifted like a wave by the tempestuous blast, it was doubtful whether he had not yet a more dangerous foe to meet in the plundering Arab. At Darner, he cried beads for sale, to procure provisions for his ass; at Jidda, his finances were so low, that he was compelled to sell his slave, and he had already thoughts of resorting to manual labor, when he fortunately obtained three thousand piastres (about L100) by giving a bill upon Cairo. Crocodile's flesh occasionally formed part of his food, and the dangers of the desert he found no greater than the inconveniences. Though almost worn out with fatigue, I was obliged,' he says, every day, to fetch and cut wood, to light a fire, to cook, to feed the ass, and finally to make coffee; a cup of which, presented to my companions, was the only means I possessed of keeping them in a tolerable good humor.' In his way through the Nubian desert, .he relates a singular custom of the Arab guides, for the purpose of extorting small presents from travelers. ' They alight,' he says, at certain spots, and beg a present; if it be refused, they collect a heap of sand, and mould it into the form of a diminutive tomb, and then placing a stone at each of the extremities, they apprise the traveler that his tomb is made; meaning, that henceforth there will be no security for him in this rocky wilderness.

Our traveler remained at Mecca from the 9th of September until the 15th of January, 1815, during which time he accurately noted the manners and customs of the holy city, without his real character being discovered, though it had been previously suspected by the pasha of Tayef, who jocosely, observed, It is not the beard alone which proves a man to be a true Moslem.' On the 28th, Burckhardt reached Medina, which he quitted on the 21st of April, in a state of great mental depression, and still suffering from the recent attack of an intermittent fever. To add to his dejection, he found, on his arrival at Yambo, the plague in its most virulent shape: and being unable to procure a boat, he was obliged to remain a witness of its horrors for more than a fortnight, during which time, he says, the air, night and day, was filled with the piercing cries of those who had been bereaved of the objects of their affection.' At length, on the 24th of June, he reached Cairo, where, after having recruited his health, he employed himself in drawing up an account of his travels. In the spring of 1816, he visited Mount Sinai; and, having returned to Cairo, was making preparations to commence his long-delayed journey to Fezzan, to explore the source of the Niger, when he was attacked with dysentery on the 14th, and died on the 15th of October, 1817. I have closed,' says Mr. St. John the lives of few travelers with more regret.' His obsequies were performed after the Mohammedan custom, according to his own request to Mr. Salt, to whom he observed, a few moments previously to his death, 'that as he had lived as a Mussulman in the east, the Turks would claim his body; and perhaps,' said he, you had better let them.'

Thus fell another victim in the cause of geographical discovery, which, in Mr. Burckhardt, may be said to have lost one of its most able and enterprising devotees. Patient, courageous, cautious, and intelligent, no fatigues dispirited, no obstacle disconcerted, and no dangers dismayed him. He conformed himself to the manners of the various countries through which he passed with admirable tact; and, with an apparent carelessness of what was passing around him, suffered nothing worth observation to escape his attention.