Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Burckhardt, John Lewis
BURCKHARDT, JOHN LEWIS (1784–1817), traveller in the East, was born at Lausanne 24 Nov. 1784, of a family which had long been settled at Basel. His father, Colonel J. R. Burckhardt, had served in the French army, and in consequence of the turn of political feeling was obliged to live in retirement away from his family. He was, however, able to give his son a good education; and after a course of instruction at a school at Neuchatel, and of private tuition at the family house (the ‘Kirchgarten’) at Basel, he sent him to Leipzig University in 1800, and four years later to Göttingen. The boy was popular among his fellow-students at both universities, and was respected for the talents and zeal for knowledge which he already displayed. In July 1806 Burckhardt came to England, with a letter of introduction from the Göttingen naturalist, Blumenbach, to Sir Joseph Banks, at that time one of the chief supporters of the ‘Association for promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa.’ He soon volunteered to carry on the work of exploration, and his offer was accepted. He received his instructions at the end of January 1809, and sailed for Malta on 2 March, after employing the six weeks' interval in attending lectures on chemistry, astronomy, and medicine, in studying Arabic in London and Cambridge, and inuring himself to hardship by making long walks bareheaded, sleeping on the ground, and living on vegetables. At Malta he stayed seven weeks to improve his knowledge of Arabic, and to equip himself as a Mohammedan trader of India, in which character he proposed to travel in Syria, because he could thus explain any imperfections in his speech which would at once reveal that he was not a native. If he was asked to give a specimen of Hindustani, he used to treat his Syrian auditors to a choice exhibition of guttural Swiss-German, which completely satisfied them. He was landed, owing to the duplicity of a ship-captain, in Karamania, near Tarsus, reached Antioch, where his Indian disguise did not save him from some unpleasant treatment as a possible ‘giaour,’ and thence made his way with a caravan to Aleppo, where he proposed to pass his novitiate as an orientalist. Between two and three years' study not only made him a fluent Arabic speaker, but gave him such a knowledge of the language that he was allowed to be more learned than the Ulema themselves; and knotty points of interpretation were brought to him for solution by the doctors of the law at Aleppo, just as twenty years later the Ulema of the Azhar at Cairo used to apply to Lane to lay down the law for them in intricate matters of Islamic doctrine and exegesis. Burckhardt varied his long sojourn at Aleppo by a six-months' journey (in 1810–11) to Palmyra, Damascus, Baalbekk, Lebanon, and the Haurán, during which he was twice deserted by his guides, and encountered numerous difficulties and dangers from the disturbed state into which the country had been thrown by the Wahháby revolt. In 1812, after a further course of Arabic study, he set off to Syrian Tripoli and the Haurán, journeyed through Palestine, visited Petra, where he sacrificed a goat to Aaron, in order to allay the terrors of his Bedawy guides, and thence struck across the desert to Cairo, arriving in September 1812.
Arrived in Egypt, his main object was to meet with an opportunity of joining a caravan to Fezzan, whence he intended to explore the sources of the Niger. While waiting for this opportunity he made an expedition up the Nile, to see the monuments of ancient Egypt, which were then for the first time being revealed to European students. He started in January 1813, and before he returned to Aswán at the end of March he had explored the Nile valley as far as Mahass on the northern frontier of the province of Dongola. Being still delayed in his project of discovering the Niger sources by the disturbed state of the deserts, he made a lengthy sojourn at Esné, and then, in March 1814, succeeded in making his way through the desert by Berber and Shendy, and, following Bruce's footsteps into Abyssinia, came out at Suakim on July 20. Thence he crossed over to Jeddah, where he suffered from fever, and found himself in great straits for money, since his ragged appearance after his desert hardships belied the credit which he should have obtained from his Egyptian bankers' letters. Fortunately, Mohammed Aly, the viceroy of Egypt, was at the time in the neighbourhood of Mekka, prosecuting his Wahháby campaign, and, hearing of the famous traveller's proximity, summoned him to his presence, and soon relieved him of his difficulties. Burckhardt expressed a wish to visit Mekka as a Mohammedan pilgrim, and the pasha, although he was aware of Burckhardt's nationality, consented, provided he could satisfy a competent committee of Muslim examiners. Two learned doctors of the law thereupon questioned him on the religion of Islam, and ended by pronouncing him not only a Muslim, but an exceedingly learned one. After this Burckhardt supped with the Kady, or chief religious judge of Mekka, said prayers with him, and recited a long chapter of the Koran; and having thus placed himself on the best of terms with the authorities, he proceeded to perform the rites of pilgrimage at Mekka, go round the Kaaba, sacrifice, &c., and in every respect acquitted himself as a good Muslim. No Christian or European had ever accomplished this feat before; and the penalty of discovery would probably have been death. Burckhardt, however, mixed freely with the pilgrims, without once being suspected, and spent September, October, and November of 1814 in Mekka, and in the following January joined a caravan to Medina, in order to visit the prophet's tomb. Here he was again prostrated by fever until April, when he returned in an exhausted condition, viâ Yembo, to Cairo, arriving in June. Some months were now occupied in revising and completing the valuable journals of his several expeditions for transmission to the African Association. Still the opportunity he desired for his Niger exploration did not occur, and he solaced himself by assisting in the work of excavation then being carried on in Egypt by Belzoni under the auspices of Mr. Salt, the British consul [see Belzoni]. He had not yet recovered from the fatigues and fevers of his Arabian travels, and was compelled to seek the sea air of Alexandria for his health. Plague appearing in Cairo, he started off on a fresh tour to Suez and Sinai in 1816, returning in June in the hope of carrying out the long-cherished Niger scheme. Months passed, however, spent in preparing his narratives of travels for the association, and in writing valuable letters to England, and still the expedition was delayed; and in 1817 he was attacked with dysentery, and after eleven days' illness died 15 Oct. 1817. He was buried in the Mohammedan cemetery, under his eastern name of the Pilgrim Ibrahim ibn Abdallah.
Burckhardt possessed the highest qualifications of a traveller. Daring and yet prudent, a close and accurate observer, with an intimate knowledge of the people among whom he travelled, their manners and their language, he was able to accomplish feats of exploration which to others would have been impossible. Personally he was zealous in his work, disinterested, honourable, and very generous and openhanded, an affectionate son and brother, and a staunch friend. His valuable collection of oriental manuscripts he bequeathed to the university of Cambridge, because he there received his earliest lessons in Arabic. His journals, which were written with remarkable spirit in spite of the fact that he only began to learn English at the age of twenty-five, and that he had to jot down his observations secretly under his cloak or behind a camel for fear of exciting suspicion among his Arab guides and companions, were published after his death by the association which had sent him out and paid his expenses. Sir W. Ouseley and Colonel Leake assisted in the work of preparing them for the press. They appeared in the following order: 1. ‘Travels in Nubia,’ 1819, 2nd ed. 1822. 2. ‘Travels in Syria and the Holy Land,’ 1822; German translation, 1823. 3. ‘Travels in Arabia,’ 1829 (two editions); translated into French, Italian, and Spanish. 4. ‘Notes on the Bedouins and Wahabys,’ 1830. 5. ‘Arabic Proverbs,’ 1830, 2nd ed. 1875; translated into German 1834.
[Life, prefixed to Burckhardt's Travels in Nubia, published for the Association for promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa, 1819; Hall's Life of Salt.]