Carsten Niebuhr

Carsten Niebuhr

Carsten Niebuhr or Karsten Niebuhr (March 17, 1733 – April 26, 1815) was a German mathematician, cartographer, and explorer.


Niebuhr was born in Lüdingworth in the Electorate of Hanover, the son of a small farmer. He had little 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. Proceeding to Suez, Niebuhr made a visit to Mount Sinai, and in October 1762 the expedition sailed from Suez to Jeddah, journeying thence overland to Mocha. Here in May 1763 the philologist of the expedition, von Haven, died, and was followed shortly after by the naturalist Peter Forsskål. Sana, 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 the only surviving member of the expedition. He stayed fourteen months at Bombay, and then returned home by Muscat, Bushire, Shiraz and Persepolis, visited the ruins of Babylon, and thence went to Baghdad, Mosul and Aleppo. He seems to have visited the Behistun Inscription in around 1764. After a visit to Cyprus he made a tour through Palestine, crossing the Taurus Mountains to Brussa, reaching Constantinople in February 1767 and Copenhagen in the following November. 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 in 1815.

Niebuhr 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 observations. His works have long been classics on the geography, the people, the antiquities and the archaeology of much of the district of Arabia which he traversed. 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 1774-1778 by two other volumes, "Reisebeschreibung von Arabien und anderen umliegenden Ländern". The fourth volume was not published till 1837, long after his death, under the editorship of Niebuhr's daughter. He also undertook the task of bringing out the work of his friend Forsskål, the naturalist of the expedition, under the titles of "Descriptiones animalium, Flora Aegyptiaco-Arabica", and "Icones rerum naturalium" (Copenhagen, 1775-1776). To a German periodical, the "Deutsches Museum", Niebuhr contributed papers on the interior of Africa, the political and military condition of the Ottoman Empire, and other subjects.

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). A facsimile of the 1792 translation “Travels through Arabia” by “M.Niebuhr”, in two volumes, was published by Libraire du Liban, Beirut, undated. His son Barthold Georg Niebuhr 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. See DG Hogarth, "The Penetration of Arabia" ("Story of Exploration" series) (1904).


*"Beschreibung von Arabien" text and illustrations at the University of Göttingen []


* Thorkild Hansen, "Arabia Felix", ISBN: 0710310102. An excellent account of the 1761-67 expedition to Yemen.
* Josef Wiesehoefer und Stephan Conermann (hg): "Carsten Niebuhr (1733–1815) und seine Zeit" (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2002), 453 S. (Oriens et Occidens, 5).

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