Arabia Felix: The Middle East in 1761-1767

Arabia Felix: The Danish Expedition of 1761-1767 moves at a slow (18th century?) pace, but provides some interesting looks at how people were living back then. The expedition from Egypt through to present-day Yemen was motivated by an interest in Biblical times:

Michaelis fancied that the investigators could also study the Arabs’ daily habits and customs, and their architecture. His idea here was that as there were only a few places left on earth where so conservative a people as the Arabs could still be found, there was a good chance of finding in Arabia cultural forms similar to those of ancient Israel—better even than in Palestine itself, which in the intervening centuries had been exposed to numerous foreign influences.

Academia was the place for anyone who wanted to work at a slow pace:

In Rome, too, innumerable difficulties seemed to have conspired against him. On an earlier occasion, Professor Michaelis had emphasised the pointlessness of going to the Italian capital for instruction in Arabic, since nobody there knew the dialect spoken in Arabia Felix. Instead, von Haven’s instructions supposed that he was “to gain practice in the reading and copying of Oriental manuscripts.” Naturally, this could be done only in the Vatican library. But three months after his arrival in Rome he wrote to Bernstorff that he was receiving instruction in Arabic from a Syrian priest every morning and afternoon. Not until four months later did he report that he had been given a letter of recommendation to the Vatican library; and not until five months after that, thanks to the French Ambassador, had this letter of recommendation become a ticket of admission. Six months after arriving in Rome and eighteen months after leaving Denmark, the scholar was more or less able to begin his studies. Then once again fate took a hand. He wrote on 22nd March to Bernstorff that the Vatican library was unfortunately open only from nine until noon. “But,” von Haven continued, “in matters of discussion and learning I prefer the living to the dead; and as I can meet my Syrian priest only in the mornings, I am afraid there is nothing I can do but let others copy the manuscripts at the library.”

They got 43 paragraphs of instructions from the Danish king. Samples:

You will traverse the interior of Arabia as well as journey along the coast. As you are accompanied by a physician, it is expected that this will allow you an opportunity of visiting a number of places where deadly diseases are prevalent without exposing your lives to danger.

The members of the expedition will behave very circumspectly towards the Mohammedans, will respect their religion, and will not behave towards their women with European freedom.

Moreover, you will pay particular attention to the ebb and flow of the Red Sea, to the relations between the living and the dead, to the influence of polygamy on the increase or decline of the people, to the relationship between the sexes, and to the number of women in the towns and in the country.

These folks would not have complained about a Ryanair seat:

The wind freshened once more, and on 26th January the Greenland skimmed north through the Kattegat before a fresh south-westerly breeze. They had passed Skagen and were in hopes of reaching the open sea when the wind veered west and increased to near-hurricane force. In his diary Carsten Niebuhr endeavoured to keep his composure: “All day on 2nd February it was so stormy that we could not even light a fire on board. However, we did not worry too much on that account, for when one is at sea one must learn to disregard such inconveniences. We suffered the loss of only one sailor, who fell from the yard-arm into the sea during the gale and could not be rescued because of the darkness and the tremendous seas.”

It took about six months to reach modern-day Turkey, from which the expedition officially launched.

By 8th September, 1761 all the preparations for the journey were complete. Now the real adventure began. Dressed in their new Oriental clothes, the learned gentlemen took leave of their host von Gähler and went aboard the boat which was to take them to Alexandria. On this ship, a little Turkish vessel from the Adriatic port of Dulcigno, the expedition encountered quite another world from the one they had been accustomed to on the Greenland. The purpose of the ship’s journey was quite simply to take a cargo of young slave girls to the Egyptian markets. It is apparent right from the start how this curious cargo captured the interest of our travellers. Peter Forsskål forgot his jelly-fish and marine plants for a while and noted in his diary: “We find ourselves in the company of a merchant who is going to Cairo with a cargo that would be highly unusual in European ports, namely women. He has taken all the safeguards of jealousy: a special cabin, which lies above our own, has been reserved for the young women, and he alone takes them their food. In addition, he has fastened a blanket inside the door so that the women cannot be seen when he lets himself in and out.” It would appear from this description that Forsskål had lost nothing of his power of exact scholarly observation; and Niebuhr too seems to have made a conscientious study. The young women, he says in his diary,“are generally very well treated, because when they are to be sold in Egypt it is very important for their owners that they should arrive at the market healthy and cheerful.”

There were worse things than Internet/Facebook mobs:

During their stay in Alexandria the members of the expedition lived in the house of the French Consul; and when one late afternoon they went up to the flat roof to enjoy the cool of the evening as the sun sank over the roofs and minarets of the town, they suddenly witnessed a distressing scene in the street below them. A number of Bedouin robbers who had made their way into the town from the desert were discovered by the populace, and those of them who did not succeed in escaping were surrounded in front of the consul’s house and beaten to death by the angry crowd.

Trade was extensive, if not globalized:

Other evenings he visited the caravan that came up from Sennar, deep in the Sudan, which was called the djellabe and was led by coal-black men with yellow, violet or scarlet shawls over their shoulders under their short curly hair. They halted their animals in front of ogelet-ed-djellabe, the inn of the djellabe, and came to fetch coral and amber for jewellery, beads and mirrors, sabres and guns. With them from Africa they brought slaves and slave girls; young boys of about eight who cost only 25 mahbub; young men from twenty to thirty who could be got for between 35 and 40 mahbub; eunuchs that cost up to 110 mahbub; young women costing up to 40 mahbub for virgins, for those who were not virgins up to 30 mahbub, and for those who knew how to prepare food up to 60 mahbub.

Life before photography was slow and sometimes awkward…

Niebuhr came very close in these months to answering the complex questions which the German professor had put concerning the practice of circumcision among the Arabs. This he did partly by talking to Arab scholars, but also by experiences of a more direct nature. One visit to a distinguished Arab which Niebuhr paid together with Forsskål and Baurenfeind became a memorable experience. We may allow Niebuhr himself to report: “Whilst we were one day visiting a rather distinguished Arab of Cairo at his country estate, six or seven miles outside the town, Herr Forsskål and Herr Baurenfeind expressed the wish to see and to draw a young girl who had been circumcised. Our host immediately gave orders that a young peasant girl of eighteen years old should be brought in, and he allowed them to see everything that they wanted to see. In the presence of various Turkish servants, our artists drew the whole thing from nature, but with a trembling hand because he feared unpleasant repercussions from the Mohammedans. But as the master of the house was our friend, none of them dared make any objection.”

There was a tremendous amount of petty theft, grifting by vendors, and official corruption at every stop from Egypt through Yemen. Extra cash was turned into extra wives:

“In that corner of the Faran valley [Suez] there were eight tents full of wives and children. Only the very poorest Arabs had only one wife. The wealthier sheiks had two or three. Two of our guides had two wives each, and the third only one. But they all wanted more money, or at least enough to buy several wives.

Income inequality was an issue back then…

Only four days after the return of von Haven and Niebuhr from the Sinai peninsula the great caravan arrived at Suez with pilgrims on their way to Mecca. Like a swarm of outsize grasshoppers they settled on the little harbour town and overnight made it more densely populated than Cairo itself. Men, women and children were there in confusion; the poor with their bundles and beggars’ crutches, the rich with their servants and heavily armed mercenaries to protect them during the journey; and great numbers of traders, neither rich nor poor, who had learned to use this chance of getting themselves and their goods in safety to Mecca while doing a little business en route. Wherever rich and poor meet you will soon find a trader, so that the rich may become richer and the poor poorer.

The trip to Jeddah was slow:

In the middle of this hectic bustle Forsskål had had to step in. In time he had become well-known among the people in the harbour quarter, and he managed to reserve the topmost cabin in the biggest of the four ships now preparing to sail with all this turmoil to Djidda.

The best cabins were occupied by rich Turks on their way to Mecca with their entire harem; the women were accommodated immediately under the expedition’s cabin,

Finally, each of the four ships had up to three or four smaller vessels in tow. In most of these were horses, goats and sheep; when the animals were to be fed, a sack of straw was thrown overboard and allowed to drift astern to the boat in tow, where the herdsman fished it up with a boathook. With one of the other boats in tow there was a lively traffic of a different kind. It was filled with prostitutes, the so-called Hadsjs of Mecca, who worked hard during their pilgrimage to the Holy City to earn their keep.

While this floating caravan was making its way south, Forsskål and Niebuhr checked their course; and both of them remark in their diaries, with a shake of the head, how because of his fear of losing landmarks the captain always followed the line of the coast among the dangerous coral islands and skerries, where a European skipper would have made for the open sea as quickly as possible. Every evening at sunset they had to heave to, because the captain dared not continue this hazardous coastal journey in the dark. One afternoon Niebuhr found a partial explanation of this when, shaken to the core, he asked permission to remove two enormous lumps of iron which the helmsman had placed under the ship’s compass in the belief that its presence would strengthen the magnetic needle.

They are at the mercy of the winds:

and their stay there eventually lasted over six weeks, rather longer than they had anticipated. The reason was the constant northerly wind; the coffee ships, which were to take them the last stretch southwards along the coast, had been delayed by head-winds on their way up from Mocha to Djidda. None of the members complained, however, about this enforced stay in the port of Mecca. After their wearing time among the hostile Arabs in Egypt, they encountered here to their astonishment a population disposed to be friendly to them.

Then one evening, after a period of southerly winds, the strange ship appeared which was to carry them on the last stretch of the journey to the Yemen—Arabia Felix. It did not exactly inspire confidence. It was what was called a tarrád, an open vessel shaped almost like a barrel cut in two, pointed a little at its ends, and only seven fathoms in length and a little over a couple of fathoms in breadth, or approximately forty-two feet by twelve. There was hardly an honest nail in the entire hull, and the individual planks were sewn together as they were in the ancient Danish ships; the vessel had but one mast with a single sail, and there was neither deck nor cabins. The ship was not intended for the transport of passengers; it was a coffee ship from the coast of Muscat on the other side of the Arabian peninsula; it had come to Djidda with a cargo of coffee beans from Mocha in Arabia Felix, and was now to return to collect a new consignment, which this time was to be taken home to Muscat.

The skipper was an Arab, almost naked, with only a loincloth held round his hips by an end of rope, in which he kept a large curved knife. His crew consisted of no less than nine sailors, black slaves of whom some were Negroes from Africa with thick lips and flat noses, and some from the Malabar coast of India, the latter having a rather more golden-brown sheen to their skin than the Africans. Like the skipper, they were all clad only in turban and loincloth.

It took two years to reach Yemen:

On the evening of 29th December, 1762, within six days of the second anniversary of their departure from Copenhagen, Forsskål, von Haven, Niebuhr, Baurenfeind, Kramer and their servant Berggren set foot for the first time on the soil of Arabia Felix.

The land of Yemen was already an ancient realm at the time when Alexander called it Eudaimon Arabia. More than five centuries before this thirty-two-year-old horseman king was carried off by fever without having conquered the land of his dreams, the Minaean culture flourished—a culture which derived its enormous wealth from the trade between the Orient and the Mediterranean. Indian ships unloaded their cargoes at its ports, where Minaean merchants then forwarded them by caravan to Gaza together with the country’s own products: frankincense, balsam, and myrrh. Splendid cities sprang up, the kingdom grew and extended as far as the frontiers of Palestine. The decline came about the year 700 b.c.; the Minaean power waned, but their wealth did not disappear. They were replaced by the Sabaeans, who built the splendid luxury towns of Sirwah and Marib, and who sent the Queen of Sheba as a symbol of their wealth on a visit to King Solomon the Wise and thus into every child’s Bible lesson.

The Ptolemaeans in Egypt introduced cargo ships into the Red Sea, so that the caravans became superfluous; the empire of the Sabaeans collapsed, Sirwah and Marib became a collection of eroded sandhills in the desert. Alexander kept away, but the Nabataeans came, the Himyarites came, and the Mohammedans sent their swift cruel horsemen down over the desert plain by the sea; but no one was able to establish or to destroy the legend of happiness.

The visit to Yemen starts off well:

Nowhere else on their long journey had they met goodwill to compare with it. Every single one of the expedition’s members, as they sat outside in the little courtyard in the mild winter evening which was warmer than the Scandinavian summer, could quote new examples of the kindness and helpfulness of the natives. … they were received like long-awaited guests, like old friends who at last had returned to their rightful home.

The European physician is sought-after:

One rich old merchant heard of this and sent a message to the expedition … He was so feeble that he could not walk, but as he very much wanted to speak to the Europeans and listen to their music, he had had himself placed on his donkey and was now waiting outside their door, supported in the saddle by a servant on either side.

Carsten Niebuhr gives an account of this in his diary: “He had never been properly married, but he boasted of having deprived a large number of slave girls of their innocence (if I remember rightly, it was eighty-eight) and thereafter married them off or given them back their freedom. For some time, he went on, he had had two new young and pretty slave girls in the house, and he now very much wished to be able to do the same for them. He therefore offered our doctor a considerable sum if by his art he could give him strength to do this.”

Desert life is simpler:

Towns have their palaces and palaces their rich men, who have problems with their horses and their slave girls. But in the Arabian desert there were no palaces, no rich men, and no real problems. In the Arabian desert people rise before the sun; it is important to use those hours when it is light but not yet too hot. In the dawn, long before the sun makes its appearance and sets the day on fire, the Arab has already lit his own camp-fire, squatted down before it, picked out a glowing piece of wood and put it into the top of his pipe while waiting for the water to boil for his coffee. When coffee is ready, he pours it into small cups and hands it round to the others. He offers only a single mouthful at a time; when they have drunk that, they must hand the cup back and get another mouthful. This is the natural law of hospitality. To hand someone a cup brimful would be tactless; it would be like saying: There you are, drink it and go! Instead, things proceed unhurriedly, and one sits a while with the empty cup in one’s hand before handing it across to get another mouthful. Meanwhile, the ball of the sun comes up, clings a little to the low horizon, and then sets off with a jerk. Nothing else happens. No bird-song introduces the start of the day, no trees rustle in the wind. The human voice is the first and only one to break the great silence.

How does it end? Read Arabia Felix: The Danish Expedition of 1761-1767 !

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