‘Ibrahim’ Burckhardt: Explorer Extraordinaire

There can’t be many explorers in history who can match the remarkable exploits of Jean Louis Burckhardt. Born in 1784 in Lausanne, Switzerland, he studied Arabic and attended lectures on science and medicine at Cambridge University in the UK before moving to Aleppo (Syria) in 1809. Here, he converted to Islam and took the name Sheikh Ibrahim Bin Abdullah. Over the next two years, he became a master of disguise, adopting local customs and putting his alias to the test among local Bedouin.

In 1812, travelling between Damascus and Cairo, he heard locals tell of fantastic ruins hidden in the mountains of Wadi Musa. Determined to see for himself, he had to think of a ploy to allay the suspicions of his guide and porters and decided to disguise himself as a pilgrim on a mission to pay his respects at the tomb of Haroun. This was an ingenious strategy because the tomb lies at the furthest end of the valley, allowing him cautious glances at the wonders he passed en route.

Although he tried hard to hide his astonishment, his guide wasn’t fooled for long and imagined that the pale Syrian had come hunting for treasure. To avoid occasioning more suspicion, Burckhardt therefore had to confine his curiosity to the briefest examination of the ancient monuments – enough, however, to conclude that this was Petra, a place which he understood no European traveller had ever visited. Despite being a man not given to literary flourishes, his journal, Travels in Syria and the Holy Land, reveals something of the excitement of his discovery and he describes emerging from the subterranean gloom of the Siq in terms that have inspired generations of future travellers.

For many an explorer, this expedition would have been a lifetime’s achievement – but not for Burckhardt. He went on to find the source of the Niger, stumbled on the magnificent Ramses II temple at Abu Simbel in Egypt, and still under disguise explored Mecca and Medina. In 1815 he contracted dysentery in Cairo, which returned with fatal consequences in 1817. He was buried as a Muslim in the Islamic Cemetery in Cairo. He was only 33 years old.