When the world gets closer.

We help you see farther.

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter.

Petra, Jordan
Petra, Jordan
Catherine Cossy

BASEL - Johann Ludwig Burckhardt’s bust can be seen at the foot of the monumental staircase of his family’s palace in Basel, Switzerland. It is hard to believe that this is his family home when you see his long curled beard and oriental turban.

Burckhardt – also known as Sheikh Ibrahim – who died at the age of 33 in 1817, was one of the most accomplished explorers of his time. In 1812, he discovered the ruins of the ancient city of Petra, a red sandstone village that had been forgotten for nearly 1,000 years in the desert of Jordan. Having died from dysentery in Cairo, he was never able to return to Switzerland to tell his stories.

In Basel’s Museum of Antiquities, the exhibit “Petra, Splendor of the Desert” reminds us of the role played by Burckhardt, displaying 150 archeological objects found recently in Petra.

After studying in the universities of Leipzig and Gottingen, Burckhardt left for England to be a part of the African Association, a British society whose aim was to beat France to the discovery of Africa and its riches. Burckhardt was not a hotheaded adventurer. He prepared his trip to Africa in Cambridge, where he began to learn the Arabic language.

In 1809, he left England for Malta. This is where he made his metamorphosis and introduced himself as Sheikh Ibrahim ibn Abdallah for the first time. He explains in his writings that he passed himself off as a Muslim Indian merchant in order to explain his accent and imperfect use of Arabic. When he is asked to speak Hindi, he uses a German dialect.

He then headed off to Aleppo, Syria, in July 1809, where he spent two more years improving his Arabic. He learned part of the Koran by heart. He wrote to his parents: “I don’t know if you would recognize me, if you could see me, sitting down on the floor with my Turkish clothes and beard.” His fascination for the Bedouin tribes began during the small expeditions he goes on from Aleppo. Learning to be prudent, he isolates himself from others to take notes in the cover of his tunic and hiding his notebook under his turban.

Stumbling upon an ancient city

In 1812 he leaves Aleppo and heads to Damascus and Cairo. Traveling without a map, he tries to find ancient sites that he has memorized. In August of that year, he declared that he wanted to sacrifice a goat on Mount Aaron which he supposes is in the vicinity of the Nabataean city of Petra. On Aug. 22, he managed to convince a guide about his good intentions.

In his “Voyages to Syria, Palestine and the region of Mount Sinai” he writes about the spectacle he stumbled upon after walking through a narrow passage between cliffs for 30 minutes. He was unable to explore the palace and tomb as much as he had wanted to, not wanting to not awaken suspicion from his guide – who might think he was a looter, or even worse, a practitioner of black magic. Not for one second does he doubt the value of his discovery. “I advise future voyageurs to visit these sites under the protection of an armed troop. The inhabitants themselves should get used to seeing foreigners who are hungry for knowledge.”

Burckhardt did not want to risk the project dearest to his heart, which in the end he was unable to see through – the exploration of the sources of Niger. He arrives in Cairo in Sept. 1812 and takes two trips into the Nubian Desert. It is there, in 1814, that he discovers by chance the monumental columns of the temples of Abu Simbel. Although these sites are well-known today, Burckhardt only allots them a small space in his writings. He was more of an ethnologist, observing the populations he comes in contact with, as well as the local politics, which he writes about in a descriptive and objective style.

The Sheikh writes the first Western description of the sites of Mecca, where he completed a two-month pilgrimage. A risky business for a European, therefore making us doubt if the conversion was real or feigned. In any case, he never addressed the subject in his letters to his family.

He was cremated following the Muslim rite at a cemetery in Bab el-Nasr, one of the most populous neighborhoods of Cairo. In 1991, he received a posthumous Order of the Independence, the highest distinction of Jordan.

You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Stories from the best international journalists.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
Already a subscriber? Log in

When the world gets closer, we help you see farther

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Society

Journalism In A Zero-Trust World: Maria Ressa Speaks After Rappler Shut Down Again

The Rappler CEO and Nobel Peace Prize winner spoke with The Wire's Arfa Khanum Sherwani about how journalists everywhere need to prepare themselves for the worst-case scenario of government-ordered closure and what they should do to face up to such a challenge.

Maria Ressa, Filipino journalist, author and Nobel Peace Prize laureate

Arfa Khanum Sherwani

HONOLULU — For someone who’s just been ordered to shut down the news website she runs, Rappler CEO Maria Ressa is remarkably cheerful about what may happen next.

In a speech she gave to a conference at the East-West Center here on challenges the media face in a “zero trust world”, Ressa said that she and her colleagues were prepared for this escalation in the Philippines government’s war on independent media and will carry on doing the work they do. “If you live in a country where the rule of law is bent to the point it’s broken, anything is possible…. So you have to be prepared.”

Keep reading...Show less

When the world gets closer, we help you see farther

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Stories from the best international journalists.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
Already a subscriber? Log in
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS

Central to the tragic absurdity of this war is the question of language. Vladimir Putin has repeated that protecting ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine was a driving motivation for his invasion.

Yet one month on, a quick look at the map shows that many of the worst-hit cities are those where Russian is the predominant language: Kharkiv, Odesa, Kherson.

Watch VideoShow less
MOST READ