A Brill Calendar: April 26

The Adventures of Carsten Niebuhr

Few quests for scholarly knowledge have been as gruesome as a collegiate voyage, ending with one traveller surviving the ordeal and living to tell.

This traveller was Carsten Niebuhr - born March 17, 1733 in Lüdingworth, Hanover - died some 43 years after his safe return in Copenhagen, in Meldorf, Holstein, April 26 1815. The adventure of his life reads like a scenario for a Hollywood block-buster.

Young Carsten (then 27) is invited in 1760 to join as a map-maker and surveyor an expedition into Arabia, ordered by Frederick V, King of Denmark. Both the philologist and the naturalist of this band of scholars die: one in May, the other July 1763. After Arabia & Yemen, the remaining men sailed to Bombay, where the draughtsman and surgeon to the project follow the sad example of their deceased companions. At the bitter end, Carsten Niebuhr is alone, stays for more than a year in India and reaches Copenhagen late in 1767...

Without traditional academic experience, he published his seminal monograph ‘Beschreibung von Arabien’ in 1772, extended later by a ‘Reisebeschreibung’ of his Odyssey. Carsten’s venture is a milestone in the long quest into Asia, Islam and Muslim culture, a scholarly pursuit dear to Leyden traditions. When both books were written & published, Niebuhr married and produced a son, one Barthold Georg Niebuhr, born in Copenhagen August 27, 1776.

No scholar has better claims to be called main initiator of a new approach to the study of history than the only child of the heroic German traveller. Niebuhr II developed the crucial method of source criticism almost single-handedly. When, in 1810, he started lecturing on Roman History as Member of the Prussian ‘Academie der Wissenschaften’ at the young University of Berlin, his father was still alive. After Carsten died, Barthold got himself appointed Prussian Ambassador to the Holy See in Rome. It is seldom that evolution of scholarly effort during almost a century – from 1733 until January 31 1831, when Niebuhr Jr died in Bonn – is embodied and encompassed in one single father & son.