Who remembers John Lewis Burckhardt? (Or Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, or Jean Louis Burckhardt – alternative forms of his name to which as a Swiss citizen he must have become accustomed.) But if you know the famous line
‘A rose-red city half as old as time’
by the equally obscure (except for that one line!) J. W. Burgon, you should know about Burckhardt, because he was the first westerner to visit the long-abandoned Nabataean city of Petra in modern-day Jordan. His account of this discovery aroused intense interest among biblical scholars, archaeologists and the general public back in Britain, but by the time his writings on the Near East were published, Burckhardt was dead – and buried in a Muslim cemetery in Cairo, as Ibrahim ibn Abdallah, the name he had adopted in order to pass undetected as a westerner in the countries through which he travelled. The extraordinary story of Burckhardt’s life – including the irony that his complete immersion in Arabic language and culture was intended as training for an expedition (which never took place) to discover the source of the River Niger – is summarized in the ODNB, and his own accounts of his travels are being reissued in the Cambridge Library Collection: Travels in Nubia (1819); Travels in Syria and the Holy Land (1822); Travels in Arabia (2 vols., 1829); Arabic Proverbs (1830); and Notes on the Bedouins and Wahabys (2 vols., 1830).
After studying at the universities of Leipzig and Göttingen, Burckhardt travelled to London, hoping for a job in the British diplomatic service. However, he carried a letter of introduction to Sir Joseph Banks (who else???), who among his many other roles was a supporter of the Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa. Burckhardt appears to have volunteered for an expedition to explore the area in which the sources of the Niger were believed to lie, but starting overland from north Africa rather than on the west coast. This could be most safely achieved by travelling as a Muslim, and he prepared for the task by studying Arabic in London and Cambridge, and building up his physical strength by taking long hikes and sleeping on the ground.
Once he was in the Middle East, he went for total immersion, adopting the persona of Ibrahim ibn Abdallah, with the backstory that he was a Muslim merchant of Indian origin but brought up in London, which he hoped would satisfactorily account for any lapses of Arabic accent, grammar or vocabulary. (If required to speak in Hindustani, he used Schweizerdeutsch, which was apparently convincing.) The effect of his studies is shown not only by his ability to pass unquestioned as a Muslim on a day-to-day basis, but also by his success in convincing two Muslim theologians that he was a learned man. This test was required by Mohammed Ali, then viceroy of Egypt (who knew Burckhardt’s real identity) before he would give him permission to take part in the pilgrimage to Mecca, which Burckhardt did in the autumn of 1814 (39 years before Sir Richard Burton’s much-publicised exploit); the following January he travelled to Medina. In either case, discovery of his real identity would have almost certainly led to death.
The real goal, of travel west across north Africa and then south into territory unknown to Europeans, continued to recede, while Burckhardt went on joining caravans to explore Egypt, Nubia, Sinai and Arabia, making surreptitious notes on all he saw (so as not to be accused of spying), and sending reports back to the Association. At one point he assisted Giovanni Belzoni in his archaeological excavations. But the years of travel and frequent illnesses (and, one imagines, the continual strain of supporting his adopted identity) had weakened him, and he succumbed to dysentery in October 1817, maintaining his disguise to the last.
The Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa published his accounts, including his journey to Petra (where his ostensible goal was pilgrimage to the grave of Aaron). The rediscovery of this astonishing city, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site (and the backdrop to the climax of ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’) should have made Burckhardt’s name as an explorer on a par with Burton, Speke or Samuel Baker (all coming next year in CLC!). Petra itself entered the Victorian consciousness through Burgon’s Newdigate-winning poem – the famous quote is of the final line of 350-odd – but Burckhardt’s early death (at only 32), the deliberate obscurity in which he moved, and his genuine modesty about his own achievements all contrived to make him quickly forgotten.