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:
Full post, including comments
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