by J.M.I. Klaver, 2009


Ivo Klaver discusses the four major expeditions (Danish, French, Prussian and British) which assembled scientific data in various parts of the Arab world between 1761 and 1881. These unique expeditions were sponsored by governments and official institutions, as opposed to expeditions undertaken by individual collectors. As such they were aimed at satisfying a desire for national prestige in a European imperialistic context, either in the field of knowledge or in the field of trade. At the same time they were epic adventures for the brilliant and dedicated naturalists involved, several of whom paid with their lives for their single-minded determination to make new discoveries and record them.

To date little work has been done on the botanical and zoological results of the Danish and French expeditions, and no study has yet dealt with the German and English ones. The expeditions are reconstructed through private letters and diaries of the naturalists which are brought together for the first time in a single book, and which throw fascinating new light on the personalities involved and the extreme hardships they endured. As such it is a major contribution to the study of travel in the Middle East in this period, as well as to the scientific treatment of the area.


Introduction Europe and the Scientific Exploration of the Near and Middle East
Chapter One. Pehr Forsskål and the Danish Expedition of 1761–1767
Chapter Two. The Naturalists of the French Expedition of 1798–1801
Chapter Three. Ehrenberg and Hemprich: The Prussian Expedition of 1820–1825
Chapter Four. Balfour, Schweinfurth and the Soqotra Expeditions of 1880–1881
Conclusion. High Hopes, Disillusionment and Final Achievements

Author Information

Jan Marten Ivo Klaver studied at the Universities of Groningen and Exeter and took his doctoral degree at the University of Amsterdam. He is the author of Geology and Religious Sentiment: The Effect of Geological Discoveries on English Society and Literature between 1829 and 1859 (1997) and The Apostle of the Flesh: A Critical Life of Charles Kingsley (2006). He is a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London and teaches at the University of Urbino.

Review Highlights

‘Klaver's fascinating descriptions of the scientific results yielded by the expeditions are richly complemented by some beautifully reproduced illustrations … the book will undoubtedly hold fascination for historians of science, of exploration and of wider intellectual history alike.'
Simon Mills in The British Journal for the History of Science

‘This book is a fitting tribute to the heroic age of natural history, and a welcome addition to the literature of Arabian travel.’
Paul Lunde in the Journal of Arabian Studies

Sample Text

Preface: When the French army advanced up the Nile in 1799 and suddenly came upon the panorama of the ancient city of Thebes, an ‘émotion électrique’ ran through the soldiers, and, spontaneously halting, they clapped their hands. It was a moment of enthusiasm in a prolonged and futile military campaign which was full of hardship and disease. But it was with inspiring reports and many drawings of ancient Egypt, often made in haste, that the French returned to Cairo. A historian commented that if any conquest had been made, the conquest was theirs, and it was never lost. The sentiment is emblematic for the scientific work of the expeditions described in this study.

This book is about the great scientific expeditions which set out to catalogue and study the flora and fauna of the Near and Middle East. In 1761 a Danish expedition visited Egypt, the Red Sea, and the Southern Arabian peninsula, while at the turn of the century the French invasion of Egypt led to a thorough investigation of the natural history of that country. From 1820 to 1825 a Prussian expedition followed in the footsteps of the Danes and the French. At the end of the century German and British scientific expeditions were set up to study the endemic flora and fauna of the island of Soqotra. They were all expensive enterprises, state-sponsored and performed in the modern framework of Linnaean nomenclature.

Of course, over the centuries merchants, diplomats, missionaries and travellers had visited Egypt and the Arabian peninsula and made notes of the unknown plants and animals they encountered. But the study of the natural history of the Middle East remained only a part of a larger description of their travel experiences, and very little systematic research was carried out. On the other hand, the post-Linnaean Danish, French, German and English expeditions sent out trained botanists and zoologists with the specific object of collecting and mapping out all the species of the area. The efforts of these naturalists are scientifically important: many of the plants and animals they collected constitute the type specimens of species we recognize today.

What the naturalists on the expeditions studied in this book have in common is that they were all highly qualified young men who hoped to make their name in the European scientific community by their work on the flora and fauna of the Near and Middle East. Although they were not blind to the dangers of spending years of study in far-away countries, they all left with high hopes of achieving important results and they were not without a spirit of adventure. A strong sense of disillusionment, however, accompanies their final scientific achievements. Many of the naturalists succumbed to disease and never returned to Europe. And many of those who did return lost interest in working out the results of the expeditions and left their discoveries for others to describe and publish. This book follows the personal vicissitudes of the naturalists on the expeditions, analysing their feelings as their research progressed, and assesses the scientific importance of their work.

Introduction: During the 150 years following Linnaeus’ ground-breaking publications in the mid-1750s, a number of full-scale scientific expeditions to the Arab countries around the Red Sea were undertaken with the purpose of describing and classifying unknown species of animals and plants. Denmark was the first nation to organize such an expedition, sending a group of five scholars and scientists to Egypt and the Yemen in 1760. Forty years later Napoleon took a number of naturalists with him on his Egyptian campaign, founding a counterpart of the Institut de France in Cairo. In the 1820s the University of Berlin financed yet another scientific expedition to explore the flora and fauna of the Near and Middle East. As far as the study of nature was concerned, these expeditions must be seen against the late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century urge to stock the natural history collections of European museums with specimens of plant and animal species from all over the world, a phenomenon caused not least by questions of national prestige.

Although the Danish, French and German expeditions stand out as huge and expensive projects of research in the natural history of the Middle East, many other European travellers had visited the area, mapped out its geography, studied its plants and described its animals and rocks. The most famous work from antiquity is no doubt Herodotus’ History. In the passages on Egypt in the second book (also known as Euterpe), written in the mid-fifth century B.C., Herodotus intersperses factual information about local customs, religion, geography, and the climate with occasional tales of wonder. Although he does not dedicate much space to natural history, there are some descriptions of animals. For example, he mentions the crocodile’s scaly hide, its strong moving upper jaw, its near-blindness when in the water, and the absence of a tongue, and he describes the habit of the trochilus in liberating the reptile from its leeches. He also reports on ‘river-horses’ (hippopotamuses), otters and eels. He mentions the phoenix, but admits that he himself did not see the animal. Finally, in an interesting passage, he refers to winged serpents and the role of the ibis as the guardian of Egypt:


there is a place in Arabia to which I went to learn about the winged serpents. When I came thither, I saw innumerable bones and backbones of serpents; many heaps of backbones there were, great and small and smaller still. This place, where lay the backbones scattered, is where a narrow mountain pass opens into a great plain of Egypt. Winged serpents are said to fly at the beginning of spring, from Arabia, making for Egypt; but the ibis birds encounter the invaders in this pass and kill them.


Herodotus’ book was seen by many later naturalists as a starting point, and the French zoologists Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and Savigny analysed Herodotus’ descriptions in their nineteenth-century studies of the crocodile and the ibis.

The standard natural history work of classical antiquity was the huge compilation by the encyclopedist Pliny the Elder (23–79 A.D.) who described in 37 books all that was known at the time about the botany, zoology, mineralogy, geography and ethnology of Europe and the Near East. But, unlike Herodotus, Pliny did not travel widely—he never visited the Near East—and the greater part of his descriptions were based on second-hand observations. Most of his zoological data, for example, derived from Aristotle, while many of his botanical observations were based on the works of Theophrastus. Although Pliny’s Natural History included legendary information gleaned from folklore (such as his description of the phoenix and his belief that chameleons subsisted on air), it did make a genuine contribution to natural science, especially in the books on botany, and he remained a virtually uncontested authority throughout the Middle Ages until the end of the fifteenth century.

The Dean of Mainz, Bernhard von Breydenbach, was one of a group of German pilgrims who travelled to the Holy Land in the late Middle Ages. He reached Jerusalem in July 1483, visited St Catharine’s, and then proceeded to Cairo and Alexandria. After his return to Europe he published an account of his experiences, interspersed with the descriptions of earlier travellers. His Peregrinatio in Terram Sanctam (1486) was illustrated by the Dutch artist and engraver Erhard Reuwich, who accompanied him on his journey. The volume was highly successful in its time—no fewer than twelve editions appeared between 1486 and 1522—and it is generally regarded as the first illustrated travel book. Although the text is of no interest for the natural history of the Near East, one illustration towards the end of the volume is. It shows a group of animals which Breydenbach and Reuwich had seen, including a dromedary, two Indian goats, a giraffe, a crocodile and a salamander. It also featured a drawing of a unicorn and a hominoid baboon. This is probably the first occasion on which a giraffe and a dromedary were represented in an illustration, but though the latter is tolerably realistic, the giraffe has the horns of a gazelle and there is something very wrong with its tail. Although the caption underneath the illustration states that the animals were truthfully depicted, it seems obvious that Reuwich’s memory failed him when he drew them at a later stage.

The first and most influential Renaissance text on the natural history of the Near East was by the French naturalist Pierre Belon du Mans. Belon explored the Ottoman countries of the eastern Mediterranean between 1546 and 1549, using as a base the residence of Gabriel d’Aramon, the French ambassador in Istanbul. He explored part of Greece, Turkey and Palestine, and, during the late summer and early autumn of 1547, visited Egypt, which had been seized by the Turks in 1517. His travel account, Observations des plusieurs singularitez et choses memorables trouvées en Grèce, Asie, Iudée, Égypte, Arabie, et autres pays estranges (1553), contains numerous descriptions of animals and plants based on first-hand observation. With his Observations and the woodcuts in Portraits d’oyseaux, animaux, serpens, herbes, arbres, hommes et femmes, d’Arabie et Égypte (1557) Belon charted many species of plants and animals from the Near East that were unknown to Europeans. He drew up lists of the fish he saw around Alexandria, inspected those caught by the fishermen of the Nile, and carefully observed the birds during his voyage up to Cairo. He went out to catch snakes and had them studied. He described numerous plants, especially trees, and dwelt on their medicinal properties. He was also the first scholar to produce a reliable picture of a giraffe, drawn after a specimen in a menagerie in Cairo. His description of what he called a red lily makes him the first westerner to describe the tulip. Despite his inclusion of some fantastic entities, such as the phoenix and the flying serpent, his work was of genuine scientific value, based on direct observation. He did away, for example, with Pliny’s belief that chameleons lived on air by dissecting one. He found that, although they could indeed live a long time without food, they preyed on small animals like grasshoppers, snails and caterpillars, and needed to drink water to survive. Of further interest in the history of science is the fact that Belon draws attention to the homologous structure of the skeleton of a bird and that of a human. It makes him an early forerunner of Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, who joined Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign two and half centuries later and happened to advance his own theory of homologies while studying the fish of the Nile.

Whereas Belon was important for collecting reliable information about the animals and plants of the Levant, the Habsburg diplomat Augier Ghislain de Busbecq, ambassador to the Sultan, brought live specimens of camels, horses, Angora goats and a mongoose to Europe in 1562. Busbecq was also an enthusiastic herbalist and he returned from his travels with the lilac, the sedge, the horse chestnut and new species of irises, ranunculi and anemones. He reported on cultivars of the tulip, which he called ‘Tulipa Turcarum’, and some historians even attribute to him its introduction into Europe. In Turkey he obtained the most ancient extant codex of Dioscorides’ De materia medica. This copy of the famous herbal book is known as the Vienna Dioscorides and is now in the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek.

In the following decade the German traveller and physician Leonhart Rauwolff visited the Levant. Former botany student of Rondelet in Montpellier, Rauwolff was sent out to find profitable plants and drugs for a firm of merchants. In 1573 he first travelled to Tripoli and Aleppo, and from there to Baghdad, and then back via Jerusalem. After his return to Augsburg in 1576 he carefully sorted his botanical collection from the Near East in a herbarium (his ‘Viertes Kreutterbuech’) and, in his travel account Aigentliche Beschreibung der Raiß … inn die Morgenländer (1582–3), he published excellent descriptions and fine woodcuts of the plants he had found. The rare, seamless transitions from travel narrative to scientific description would later only be matched by Niebuhr’s account of the Danish expedition of 1761–7. The following is an example of a late seventeenth-century translation of Rauwolff’s text. It was published in John Ray’s Collection of Curious Travels and Voyages (1693):

I saw hereabouts two thorny shrubs, one whereof was, with it’s [sic] red colour’d grapes (setting the leaves aside as far as I remember) very like unto our Oxyacantha. The other, which was full of thorns, and had small red purple colour’d flowers, was like unto the firsy kind of Scorpius of Carolus Clusius. Among the bushes I saw the Scorzonera with yellow flowers, and also a pretty sort of Tulips with yellow stripes[...]

The mountain is very high, so that it may be seen in Cyprus about 200 Italian miles off; wherefore the day breaketh later at Tripoli, and not until the morning sun appeareth before it: And moreover you find there snow all summer long, which they bring down from the mountains, into the Batzars or Exchanges to sell, to cool their drink with it.


After Rauwolff’s death the Dutch humanist Isaac Vossius came across a copy of his herbal, now preserved in the library of Leiden University. Rauwolff’s herbarium and observations were of such outstanding quality that many of them were used by the eighteenth-century Dutch botanist Jan Fredrick Gronovius to produce Linnaean descriptions of them in his Flora orientalis of 1755.

In 1580 yet another physician and botanist travelled to the Levant. As personal doctor to the Venetian consul in Cairo, Prospero Alpini spent three years in Egypt. During his stay he studied the local flora around Cairo as well as the various plants he found growing in its gardens. The results of these studies were published in his De plantis Aegypti (1592), which features 57 descriptions and 49 illustrations of plants that were mainly unknown in the West. In his De medicina Aegyptorum he brought the coffee bush, the banana and the boabab to European attention. In 1591 he also published a dialogue on the balsam tree of the ancients, of which he had brought a specimen to Venice. He maintained that the tree was not of Egyptian, but Arabian origin, and his description made it a controversial species for almost two centuries, until it was finally found by Pehr Forsskål near Sana’a in the Yemen. In his description of the date palm Alpini noted that fertilization of plants was a sexual process. This was later to become the foundation of the Linnaean system of taxonomy. In 1593 he was appointed professor of botany at the University of Padua.

Often as a result of the increasing diplomatic relations with the Ottoman Empire numerous European travellers continued to visit, and describe, the countries on the eastern Mediterranean. Yet relatively little of note was done in the field of botanical or zoological exploration of the Levant during the seventeenth century. Early in the century the Portuguese Jesuit Jeronimo Lobo travelled to Ethiopia, one century after Francisco Alvares, but from his accounts only the merest mention of a handful of animals and plants can be gleaned. The German missionary Johann Michael Wansleben travelled to Tripoli, Damascus, Aleppo and Egypt in 1672–3 (but not to Ethiopia which was supposed to be his destination). Although he was generally a keen observer, he had little interest in natural history and reported vague and baseless explanations of the mating rituals of the crocodile. In 1675 the diplomat Francis Vernon travelled to the Ottoman Empire with George Wheeler and the French archaeologist Jacob Spon. Vernon went no further than Athens. Wheeler, on the other hand, continued to Istanbul on his own and drew up a good list (with short descriptions in Latin) of the plants he found in both Greece and Turkey. Unfortunately, he limited his research only to this part of the Ottoman Empire and did not explore any of the countries of the Middle East.

Considerably more famous than Wheeler’s work is Sir John Chardin’s book on the East. Chardin, a French Protestant, travelled to Persia in search of jewellery. After two journeys to the East, where he lived for over a decade, he returned to Europe and settled in England to escape persecution in France. He was knighted by Charles II in 1681, and the following year he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. In 1685 he published the first part of his Travels in Persia (Voyages du Chevalier Chardin en Perse, et autres lieux de l’Orient), but did not complete his work till 1711. The book, which was praised by Voltaire and Gibbon, offers a detailed account of contemporary Persia and has chapters on trees, plants, drugs, flowers, fish, birds and mammals. Chardin’s descriptions of natural history complete his picture of the East, but are of limited scientific significance.

The case of Jean de Thévenot, a French traveller and botanist who travelled extensively in Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Mesopotamia and Persia during the 1650s and 1660s, is more difficult to assess. Although reputedly a competent naturalist who put together an important collection of plants during his travels, he made no contribution to the natural history of the Near or Middle East. He was an avid collector but unfortunately only the Indian volume of his five herbariums ever reached France. Indeed, the almost complete absence of botanical descriptions in his accounts of his journeys is striking. In the occasional but superficial descriptions of the landscape and of the vegetation of the East, Thévenot merely mentions the existence of gardens, trees, reeds, rocks, rivers and woods, but very rarely reports on his botanical observations. In the first part of his travelogue Relation d’un voyage fait au Levant (1664) he refers the reader to Alpini’s work for the plants of Egypt, and of the over 400 pages of the Suite du voyage de Levant (1674), describing his journey to Persia, only five pages are devoted to plants and their fruits. Although Thévenot had drawn up lists of all the plants he had collected, many of them genuine new discoveries, these were only published in 1906, and by then they did little to increase the botanical knowledge of the Middle East. Thévenot’s collecting of plants might well suggest that he contemplated writing a work on the flora of the East once he had returned to France. This was not to be. He died in Armenia in 1667 on his way back to Europe.

Unlike the travellers of the seventeenth century, the eighteenth-century naturalists who visited the Near East contributed significantly to the European knowledge of its natural history. At the turn of the century one of Europe’s greatest botanists undertook a journey to the Levant. Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, who had studied botany in Montpellier, had made a name for himself with his early work on the French flora, and had consequently been appointed professor of botany at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris in 1683. He there worked on a new method of classification of plants based on the structure of their flowers and fruits, and he distinguished between generic and specific rank. Linnaeus was to adopt many of Tournefort’s genus names in his binominal system. In 1700 Tournefort received orders from King Louis XIV to explore the natural history and geography of the Levant, and gather information about its commercial possibilities. For two years he travelled with the draughtsman Claude Aubriet and the German botanist Andreas Gundesheimer from Istanbul to Tiflis in Georgia, and crossed Turkey back to Izmir, collecting over 3,000 plants on the way, of which over a third were new species. The account of these travels was published posthumously in 1717 as Relation d’un voyage au Levant. It included detailed drawings of new plants as well as a series of fine coloured plates.

The first half of the eighteenth century saw three further important contributions to the study of natural history by Thomas Shaw, Richard Pococke and Fredrik Hasselquist. Shaw was a clergyman who travelled to Algiers in 1720 to take up a post as chaplain to the factory of English merchants. There being few calls for the duties of his profession, he dedicated most of his time to touring and studying the north of Africa, travelling as far as Egypt and Syria. Shaw had had a classical education at The Queen’s College, Oxford, and was particularly interested in Greek and Roman antiquity in the Arab world. Moreover, he also studied the natural history of the countries he visited, and his Travels, or Observations Relating to Several Parts of Barbary and the Levant (1738) contains lists of over 400 plants, corals, fish and shells. Shaw was a good observer and his book was illustrated with pictures drawn by himself. The part on Egypt contains interesting observations on the plants and animals of that country. He notes that the crocodile ‘so rarely appears below the cataracts, that the sight of it is as great a curiosity to them [the Egyptians] as to the Europeans’. Shaw also included a detailed description and a drawing of the skeleton of an embalmed ibis, which he had brought back from Egypt. However, his acceptance of a report of how an Italian kept a couple of Egyptian vipers for ‘five years in a large crystal vessel, without any visible food’ shows some of the weaknesses of Shaw’s work.

Although Shaw’s work was criticized by Richard Pococke, the Travels enjoyed lasting popularity. A third edition appeared as late as 1808, more than half a century after the author’s death, and the book was translated into Dutch, German and French. After the publication of his Travels Shaw was elected Principal of St Edmund Hall at the University of Oxford and was appointed Regius Professor of Greek.

Pococke is famous for his voluminous Description of the East, based on his travels in Palestine, Syria, Egypt and Mesopotamia in 1737–8. The book contains chapters with detailed information about the plants and animals he encountered. Unfortunately, his descriptions of animals are uneven in quality, and he often compares his observations with those of Herodotus. Of the animals in Egypt, for example, he mentions in one breath hyenas, hares, foxes, camels and horses, and he distinguishes only two species of snakes, four species of lizards, and a handful of birds. However, none of these animals is described scientifically. But if Pococke was a poor zoologist, his botanical knowledge was far from superficial and much superior to that of the average traveller to the East. The descriptions of the countries he visited are interspersed with botanical observations, mixing technical description with information on how natural products were used by the local populations. For example, he drew attention to the fact that the ‘Palma Thebaica’ or gingerbread tree had never been adequately described or depicted. During all his travels he collected specimens of plants. He either pressed them, or sent seeds to Philip Miller at the Chelsea Physic Garden in London, who grew plants from them. It was Miller too who provided Pococke with long lists of the collected species, which Pococke again integrated with detailed scientific descriptions, based on his personal observations. The botanical illustrator Georg Dionysius Ehret, who had just completed his work with Linnaeus on the Hortus Cliffortiana, a publication which has been seen as ‘botanical art of a wholly new order of elegance and accuracy’, was engaged to make drawings of those species that had not yet been depicted. The preface to the French edition of the Description (1772) drew special attention to his botanical achievements: although Pococke was no doubt an erudite observer, his botanical qualities required special praise. Botany is not a ‘sedentary and lazy science’ which one can master in the cabinet as one can history, it was argued, but a science which requires ‘crossing mountains, climbing steep rocks and venturing to the edges of precipices’. ‘Our English traveller’, it concluded, ‘must have been indefatigable for having survived the fatigues and dangers of the pursuit of plants.’

A decade after Pococke the 27-year-old Swede Fredrik Hasselquist set out for the Middle East. Always eager to send young students around the world to collect plants and animals, Linnaeus once stated during a lecture that Palestine was among those countries in the world about whose natural history we were still relatively ignorant. The remark was not lost on Hasselquist, who had enrolled at the University of Uppsala to study Medicine and Natural History. He made up his mind to explore the Holy Land, and to prepare himself for such a journey he took lessons in Arabic and found the necessary funding. He sailed to Izmir in 1749, and to Alexandria and Cairo in 1750. In his lively diary (published as Iter Palaestinum eller Resa til Heliga Landet in 1757) he intersperses botanical and zoological information with accounts of local customs, and adds how he obtained specimens of plants and animals. Soon after arriving in Egypt, for example, he was struck by snake charmers. At the beginning of July he arranged to have snakes brought to him, as ‘the great heats bring [...] forth these vermin’, and have them put in spirits. A woman who arrived with specimens of ‘the common Viper, the Cerastes of Alpin, Jaculus, and an Anguis marinus’, filled the Europeans with ‘consternation’ as

she handled the most poisonous and dreadful creatures alive and brisk, without their doing or even offering to do her the least harm. When she put them into the bottle where they were to be preserved, she took them with her bare hands, and handled them as our ladies do their laces. She had no diffculty with any but the Viperae Officinales, which were not fond of their lodging. They found means to creep out before the bottle could be corked. They crept over the hands and bare arms of the woman, without occasioning the least fear in her: she with great calmness took the snakes from her body, and put them into the place destined for their grave.


Hasselquist wondered how the woman could handle snakes like this, and asked the Arab onlookers, considering it ‘worthy the endeavours of all naturalists’ to shed some light on this practice. The Arabs told him of some ‘unknown art’ possessed only by certain families. Before going out to catch serpents, the snake charmer ate a dish of them raw or boiled in a broth and received a blessing in a ceremony from their priest who ‘spits on them several times with certain gestures’. Hasselquist, however, suspected that they anointed themselves with some kind of herb, and from the explanation offered him by the Arabs he deduced that ‘We see by this, that they know to make use of the same means used by other nations; namely, to hide under the cloak of religion, what may be easily and naturally explained,’ a sceptical and realistic stand he shared with his younger colleague Pehr Forsskål, another of Linnaeus’ disciples.

From Egypt Hasselquist sent numerous botanical and zoological observations to the Royal Academies of Uppsala and Stockholm, which were duly published in their transactions. In 1751 he left Egypt for Jaffa and Jerusalem, and reached Izmir by the end of the year. Having long suffered from weak lungs, he died on 9 February 1752, just before he could sail back to Sweden. When his extensive collections of pressed plants, fish, snakes, and insects reached Sweden, Linnaeus was ‘astonished at the sight of so many unheard of curiosities’. Hasselquist’s diaries were published posthumously by Linnaeus, who also edited the scientific results of the expedition. It was he who placed Hasselquist’s species in their proper genera, giving them correct names according to the principles of the nomenclature proposed in his Systema naturae, describing 52 plants and 137 mammals, birds, reptiles, fish, insects and worms.

Modern botanical and zoological exploration of the Levant in terms of Linnaean nomenclature started with an ambitious expedition to Arabia Felix (generally located in Southern Arabia) sponsored by the Danish Crown. This first full-scale scientific expedition consisted of five members—the German mathematician Carsten Niebuhr, the Danish philologist Frederick Christian von Haven, the Swedish naturalist Pehr Forsskål, the Danish physician Christian Carl Kramer, and the German draughtsman Georg Wilhem Baurenfeind. They reached Cairo in 1761, and stayed there for a year and half, exploring the area. At the beginning of 1763 they sailed down the Red Sea, and set foot on Yemenite soil. The scientific results of these travels were published a decade later by Niebuhr in his Beschreibung von Arabien (1772), while a personal account of the journey was given in his three-volume Reisebeschreibung nach Arabien und andern umliegenden Ländern (1774, 1778, 1837). In 1775 he also edited Forsskål’s Flora Aegyptiaca-Arabica and Descriptiones animalium, the first Linnaean works on the natural history of Egypt, the Red Sea and the Yemen. Forsskål’s contribution to European knowledge of the flora and fauna of the countries he visited was of enduring importance, and many of the new specimens he collected and described are the type specimens of plants and animals occurring throughout Arabia and Africa.

An expedition of even greater dimensions followed twenty years later when Napoleon Bonaparte took over a hundred scientists and artists with him on his Egyptian campaign. Although the military side of the campaign was ultimately a failure, the scientific side was not. The naturalists carried out work on the Egyptian flora, fauna and geology. They included the renowned mineralogists Déodat de Dolomieu and Pierre Louis Antoine Cordier, the chemist Claude-Louis Berthollet, the zoologists Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and Jules-César Savigny and the botanist Alire Raffeneau-Delile. If the first three were already scientists of repute, the last three all made their names through their work in Egypt. For three years they studied the natural history of the country, exploring the Nile Delta, the Red Sea, the desert and the Upper Nile. Savigny contributed significantly to the knowledge of the invertebrates of the Red Sea, Geoffroy did important work on the fish of the Nile, and Delile put together a fine collection of the plants of Lower and Upper Egypt. Their scientific results were published in the natural history volumes of the sumptuously illustrated Description de l’Égypte.

The greatest number of specimens was collected by the Prussian expedition of the 1820s. The botanist Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg and the zoologist Wilhelm Hemprich explored for six years extensive parts of Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, Sinai, the Red Sea, Saudi Arabia and the Yemen, getting as far as Dongola and Eritrea. Notwithstanding countless difficulties, Ehrenberg and Hemprich collected tens of thousands of plants, and well over 30,000 specimens of animals were sent back to Berlin. Many of the new species were described in Symbolae physicae, a work with fine colour plates which was to rival the French Description.

Apart from the obvious scientific, military, topographical and commercial interests involved, more subtle imperialistic designs can be discerned in the histories of the great scientific expeditions to the Arab world. Edward Said perceived an influential textual tradition in European attitudes to the Orient, ‘as something one read about and knew through the writings of recent as well as classical European authorities’. In Orientalism (1978) he posited that the modern keynote of the relationship between the Near East and Europe was set by the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt, an ‘invasion which was in many ways the very model of a truly scientific appropriation of one culture by another’, and that this was nowhere symbolized so well as in its ‘collective monument of erudition’, the Description de l’Égypte. Sixteen years later he returned to the importance of the Description as signalling the beginning of a modern European imperial appropriation of the Orient in Culture and Imperialism, while in his afterword to the 1995 edition of Orientalism he once more underscored that ‘the innocent scholarly endeavour’ of the Description ‘can never unilaterally be detached from the general imperial context that begins its modern global phase with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798’.

Said’s imperial analysis extends to the French naturalists’ endeavours in Egypt as well. He writes, for example, that in reading the Description it is possible ‘to feel oneself as a European in command, almost at will, of Oriental history, time, and geography; [...] to divide, deploy, schematize, tabulate, index, and record everything in sight [...] and, above all, to transmute living reality into the stuff of texts’. Although Said’s views are helpful in reading the scientific results of the French expedition to Egypt from a Western imperial perspective, I think he is wrong about seeing the Description in this sense as the manifesto of modern Orientalism. I would argue, rather, that the scientific appropriation of the Orient (as indeed of any other part of the world outside Europe) started with Linnaean taxonomy, and that it was Forsskål’s work in Egypt, Arabia and the Yemen that first subjected the natural history of the Near East to a modern Linnaean system.

Linnaeus’ naming project was ideologically and culturally charged. His attempt to index all the species of the world in a single comprehensive nomenclatural system was meant to reflect the perfection and wisdom of God. In the Christian tradition the naming of species is equivalent to the domination and conquest of nature. It can, admittedly, be argued that the Linnaean system soon went well beyond its creator’s pious premises when it was adopted by the European scientific community. But in so doing it became even more overtly imperialistic in character as the new science was practised in a purely Western tradition. In the first place the Linnaean naming of species was culturally determined from the outset. In his introduction to Systema naturae Linnaeus wrote that a species inspires its own name and that this name proclaims what has been known about it through time. This, of course, meant that ‘scientific’ naming was based on what a Forsskål, Geoffroy or Ehrenberg discerned as characteristic of a species, and that it reflected the knowledge they, through their Western scientific tradition, had acquired about a plant or animal—or, as Pratt has it, ‘a European discourse about non-European worlds’. And finally, to return to Said’s argument, the naming (and ordering) of a species by the Danes, French and Germans was an appropriation of knowledge which was ultimately transferred to a European textual tradition. Their collections were punctually shipped to, and described and published in, Copenhagen, Paris and Berlin in order to constitute the collective body of European knowledge.

This book in the series Studies in The Arcadian Library deals with these prominent post-Linnaean collectors. It follows the vicissitudes of the naturalists of the Danish, French and Prussian expeditions on their adventurous quests for new plants and animals in the Near and Middle East. The naturalists’ scientific publications, their travel diaries and their private letters have been used to reconstruct the history of these expeditions, and modern taxonomical literature has been consulted to gauge the scientific importance of their discoveries.

Historians have done little work on the botanical and zoological results of the first two major expeditions, and no study has yet traced the vicissitudes of the naturalists on the German expedition or examined their scientific achievements in depth. The three expeditions are here brought together for the first time in a single study. I show that, although the Danish, French and German expeditions were in direct competition with one another as a question of national and personal prestige, the expeditions were at the same time European joint ventures to catalogue the animal and plant species in the Arab World.

For the Danish expedition I have relied heavily on Carsten Niebuhr’s accounts, Forsskål’s scientific publications and private travel diary, as well as on Michaelis’ Fragen an eine Gesellschaft gelehrter Männer (1762), which provided a challenge and a guide to the members of the expedition. To reconstruct the French enterprise in Egypt I have mainly looked at the natural history volumes of the Description, the papers presented at the Institut d’Égypte in Cairo, and at Geoffroy’s private letters. In the scientific descriptions of Symbolae physicae little concerning the Prussian expedition emerges, and Ehrenberg’s travelogue Naturgeschichtliche Reisen (1828) only covers the first few months of their journey. However, Ehrenberg’s and Hemprich’s private correspondence of 1820 to 1826 sheds abundant light on their activities and adventures. These were not only characterized by disappointments and tragedy, but also by unbounded enthusiasm at new finds.

This book concludes with a historical and scientific account of two further late nineteenth-century scientific expeditions to the island of Soqotra about 500 miles south-east of Aden. It was visited in 1880 by an English expedition led by Isaac Bayley Balfour, and in 1881 by a German expedition led by Georg Schweinfurth. The botanical results of these two expeditions were published by Balfour in his Botany of Socotra, a work which described for the first time the island’s numerous endemic species. Not much is known about the expeditions themselves, except for a short account by Balfour and the notes in a recently found travel diary of the German expedition, which is now in The Arcadian Library. These are used for my account of the English and German exploration of the Soqotran flora and fauna. Historians have paid very little attention to the Soqotra expeditions, and many aspects of these late nineteenth-century enterprises are here explored for the first time.

The core of my research has been based on the important collections of The Arcadian Library in London. The library not only contains rare European books testifying to five centuries of relations between Europe and the Arab world, but also holds a fine collection of important scientific publications, including copies of many of the above-mentioned works. Most of the illustrations reproduced in this volume are from the collections of The Arcadian Library.