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Jean Louis Burckhardt: portrait (ca. 1815)

Portrait of Jean Louis Burckhardt in Arabic dress (ca. 1815).

Jean Louis Burckhardt, born in Lausanne, Switzerland on Nov. 24, 1784, studied oriental languages at the University of Gottingen. In 1806 he visited the naturalist Sir Joseph Banks in England, proposing to search for the source of the Niger River in Africa. With the backing of Banks and other members of the African Association, Burckhardt prepared for the expedition by studying Arabic at Cambridge University.

Departing from England in March, 1809, Burkhardt went to Aleppo, Syria to study both Arabic and Islamic Law. Assuming the identity of a Muslin, he converted to Islam and adopted the name of Sheikh Ibrahim Ibn Abdallah. By the end of two years (1811) he had mastered both Arabic and Koranic (Quranic) doctrine to the extent that he could pass as a learned scholar of Islamic law. Meanwhile, he had visited Damascus, Palmyra, and various other sites in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. In the process, he found the ancient city of Petra in Jordan, whose location had been lost for hundreds of years.

In 1812 Burkhardt went to Egypt to begin his search for the source of the Niger. His original plan was to join a caravan setting out from Cairo to travel to Fezzan, in Libya. Unable to do this, he journeyed southward on foot, up the Nile to Dar Mahass (about 50 km south of the third Nile cataract in Upper Nubia or Sudan), then trekked east through the Nubian desert in the guise of a poor Syrian trader. After reaching the Red Sea at Suakin, Burkhardt turned south and made a pilgrimmage to Mecca, where he stayed several months in 1814-15.

Burkhardt's travels up the Nile in 1812-1813, mainly performed on foot, are of major interest in early Egyptology. He kept a detailed journal of various ancient sites he passed on a journey of nearly 2000 km, and periodically mailed letters to England containing copies of his journals and notes. Part of these were published in 1819 by the African Association as Travels in Nubia, which remains a primary source for the region.

Among the sites in Lower Nubia he visited (of which, in some cases, he provided the first temple plans and/or recorded inscriptions) were Kertassi, Taphis, Kalabscha, Dakkur, and Abu Simbel. Burkhardt's observations on the local people and towns along the way are also of unique importance, with vocabularies collected from several little-known languages in the Sudan.

Burkhardt returned to Cairo in June 1815 in poor health from his protracted journey. After a brief visit to Mt. Sinai early in 1816, he returned to Cairo to prepare for the planned journey to Fezzan. In April 1817, however, he caught dysentary, and died on October 15, 1816, after giving his major collection of oriental manuscripts to Cambridge University Library. Besides Travels in Nubia (1819), the African Association published four other volumes of the journals of Jean Louis Burckhardt, including Travels in Syria and the Holy Land (1822), Travels in Arabia (1829), Arabic Proverbs, or the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (1830), and Notes on the Bedouins and Wahabys (1831).

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