1902 Encyclopedia > Karsten Niebuhr (Carsten Niebuhr)

Karsten Niebuhr
(Carsten Niebuhr)
18th century German traveller, explorer and surveyor

KARSTEN NIEBUHR (1733-1815), Eastern traveller, was born at Lüdingworth, Lauenburg, on the southern border of Holstein, March 17, 1733, the son of a small farmer. He had little elementary education, and for several years of his youth had to do the work of a peasant. His bent was towards mathematics, and he managed to obtain some lessons in surveying. It was while he was working at this subject that one of his teachers, in 1760, proposed to him to join the expedition which was being sent out by Frederick V. of Denmark for the scientific exploration of Egypt, Arabia, and Syria. To qualify himself for the work of surveyor and geographer, he studied hard at mathematics for a year and a half before the expedition set out, and also managed to acquire some knowledge of Arabic. The expedition sailed in January 1761, and, landing at Alexandria, ascended the Nile and devoted some time to an examination of the pyramids and of the hieroglyphic writings of Egypt. Proceeding to Suez, Niebuhr made a visit to Mount Sinai, and in October 1762 the expedition sailed from Suez to Jiddah, journeying thence overland to Mocha. Here in May 1763 the philologist of the expedition, Van Haven, died, and was followed shortly after by the naturalist Forskäl. San'a, the capital of Yemen, was visited, but the remaining members of the expedition suffered so much from the climate or from the mode of life that they returned to Mocha. Niebuhr seems to have saved his own life and restored his health by adopting the native habits as to dress and food. From Mocha the ship was taken to Bombay, the artist of the expedition dying on the passage, and the surgeon soon after landing. Niebuhr was now left alone, the only surviving member of the expedition. He stayed fourteen months at Bombay, and then returned home by Muscat, Bushire, Shiraz, and Bersepolis, visited the ruins of Babylon, and thence went to Baghdad, Mosul, and Aleppo. After a visit to Cyprus he made a tour through Palestine, crossing Mount Taurus to Brussa, reaching Constantinople in February 1767, and Copenhagen in the following November. On his return Niebuhr at once set himself to the task of preparing the records of the expedition. His first volume, Beschreibung von Arabien, was published at Copenhagen in 1772, the Danish Government defraying the expenses of the abundant illustrations. This was followed in 1774-78 by other two volumes, Reisebeschreibung von Arabien und anderen umliegenden Ländern. The fourth volume was not pub-lished till long after his death, in 1837, under the editor-ship of Niebuhr's daughter. He also undertook the task of bringing out the work of his friend Forskäl, the naturalist of the expedition, under the titles of Descriptiones Animalium, Flora Aegyptiaco-Arabica, and Icones Rerum Naturalium (Copenhagen, 1775-76). To a German periodical, the Deutsches Museum, Niebuhr contributed papers on the interior of Africa, the political and military condition of the Turkish empire, and other subjects. He married in 1773, and for some years held a post in the Danish military service which enabled him to reside at Copenhagen. In 1778, however, he accepted a position in the civil service of Holstein, and went to reside at Meldorf, where he died, April 26, 1815.

Niebuhr was in no sense a genius nor even a man of many accomplishments, but he was one of the best scientific travellers that ever lived. He was well equipped for the particular service which he had to perform in connexion with the Eastern expedi-tion ; above all, he was an accurate and careful observer, had the instincts of the scholar, was animated by a high moral purpose, and was rigorously conscientious and anxiously truthful in recording the results of his observation. His works have long been classical, and even now must be consulted by any one who desires to have the most trustworthy accounts, not only of the geography, but of the people, the antiquities, and the archaeology of much of the district of Arabia which he traversed. His narratives aro simple and he himself is kept almost entirely in the background. He was a genuine peasant in many respects to the end of his life, having many of the peasant's virtues as well as failings.

French and Dutch translations of his narratives were published during his lifetime, and a condensed English translation, by Robert Heron, of the first three volumes in Edinburgh, 1792. His distinguished son Barthold published a short Life at Kiel in 1817 ; an English version was issued in 1838 in the Lives of Eminent Men, published by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge.

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