Karsten Niebuhr - Encyclopedia

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KARSTEN NIEBUHR (1733-1815), German traveller, was born at Liidingworth, Lauenburg, on the southern border of Holstein, on the 17th of March 1733, 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, van Haven, died, and was followed shortly after by the naturalist Forskal. 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 Bagdad, 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. 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 on the 26th of April 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 observation. 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 in1774-1778by two other volumes, Reisebeschreibung von Arabien and anderen umliegenden Ll ndern. 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 Forskal, the naturalist of the expedition, under the titles of Descriptiones animalium, Flora Aegyptiaco-Arabica, and 'cones 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 Turkish 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). His son Barthold (see above) 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 D. G. Hogarth, The Penetration of Arabia (" Story of Exploration" series) (1904).

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