Johann Ludwig Burckhardt

From Academic Kids

Johann Ludwig (aka John Lewis) Burckhardt (November 24, 1784 - October 15, 1817), Swiss traveller and orientalist, was born in Lausanne.

After studying in Leipzig and at the University of Gttingen he visited England in the summer of 1806, carrying a letter of introduction from the naturalist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach to Sir Joseph Banks, who, with the other members of the African Association, accepted his offer to explore the interior of Africa. Burckhardt briefly studied Arabic at the University of Cambridge and prepared for his rigorous career as an explorer by wandering bareheaded in the English countryside during a heatwave, subsisting on vegetables and water, and sleeping on the bare ground. Burckhardt left England in March 1809 for Malta, whence he proceeded, in the following autumn, to Aleppo in order to perfect his Arabic and study Islamic Law.

In order to obtain a better knowledge of oriental life he disguised himself as a Muslim, and took the name of Sheikh Ibrahim Ibn Abdallah. There is some indication that his conversion to Islam may have been sincere, although his family denies this.

After two years passed in the Levant he had thoroughly mastered Arabic, and had acquired such accurate knowledge of the Qur'an, and of the commentaries upon its religion and laws, that after a critical examination the most learned Muslims entertained no doubt of his being really what he professed to be, a learned doctor of their law.

During his residence in Syria he visited Palmyra, Damascus, Lebanon and thence journeyed via Petra to Cairo with the intention of joining a caravan to Fezzan, and of exploring from there the sources of the Niger. In 1812, whilst waiting for the departure of the caravan, he travelled up the Nile as far as Dar Mahass; and then, finding it impossible to penetrate westward, he made a journey through the Nubian desert in the character of a poor Syrian merchant, passing by Berber and Shendi to Suakin, on the Red Sea, whence he performed the pilgrimage to Mecca by way of Jidda. At Mecca he stayed three months and afterwards visited Medina.

After enduring privations and sufferings of the severest kind, he returned to Cairo in June 1815 in a state of great exhaustion; but in the spring of 1816 he travelled to Mount Sinai, whence he returned to Cairo in June, and there again made preparations for his intended journey to Fezzan. Several hindrances prevented his prosecuting this intention, and finally, in April 1817, when the long-expected caravan prepared to depart, he was seized with illness and died on the 15th of October. He had from time to time carefully transmitted to England his journals and notes, and a very copious series of letters, so that nothing which appeared to him to be interesting in the various journeys he made has been lost. He bequeathed his collection of 800 vols. of oriental manuscripts to the library of Cambridge University.

His works were published by the African Association in the following order:

  1. Travels in Nubia ( (to which is prefixed a biographical memoir) (1819)
  2. Travels in Syria and the Holy Land ( (1822)
  3. Travels in Arabia ( (1829)
  4. Arabic Proverbs, or the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (1830)
  5. Notes on the Bedouins and Wahabys (1831).


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