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.