Born in Lausanne in 1784, and studied in Leipzig, Gottingen and Cambridge before heading to Arabia…he was a geographer and author, best known for having re-discovered in modern times the ruins of Petra, the Nabatean city in Jordan. Burckhardt was an explorer who spent three years in Syria learning the language and ways of Arabia before beginning his journey through the sands and on to Medina and Mecca.
Burckhardt was a modest and self-effacing man whose careful accounts of his travels in Syria and Arabia are classics, and whose conversion to Islam was apparently sincere.
Before leaving Damascus, Burckhardt had tried to anticipate trouble. ‘Knowing that my intended way led through a diversity of Bedouin tribes,’ he wrote in his journal, ‘I thought it advisable to equip myself in the simplest manner. I assumed the most common Bedouin dress, took no baggage with me and mounted a mare that was not likely to excite… cupidity …’
His writing covered not only the natural geography of Arabia but also deep insights into the cultural geography of the Bedouin and the Wahabis–peoples of the sands. He wrote of the Wahabis:
‘The founder of this sect is already known as a learned Arabian named Abd el Wahab who had visited various schools of the principal cities in the East, as is much the practice with his countrymen even now being convinced by what he had observed during his travels that the primitive faith of Islam or Mohammedism had become totally corrupted and obscured by abuses and that the far greater part of the people of the East and especially the Turks might be justly regarded as heretics. But new doctrines and opinions are as little acceptable in the East as they are in the West and no attention was paid to Abd el Wahab until after long wanderings in Arabia he retired with his family to Derayeh at the period when Mohammed Ibn Saoud was the principal person of the town.’
Travelling as a poor man, Burckhardt drew close to the Arab tribes, he was depending upon them. His books tell the strange stories…lessons?
‘Unfortunately in Kerak he learned that cupidity is a relative thing. For there, for the third time, he placed himself under the protection of a shaikh—the Shaikh of Kerak—and for the third time was betrayed. Although he swore on the head of his son to protect Burckhardt, the shaikh promptly robbed him of most of his funds and turned him over to a guide who made off with the rest and then abandoned him. Again he was stranded in the desert without either money or a guide.’
The difference between truth, prejudice and political correctness can only be learned by the individual. But Burckhardt’s writings from two centuries ago and the contributions from many contemporary authors frame a window of understanding for that landscape and the humans who have called that desert their home.