It has been 250 years since a special Danish scientific expedition set off from Denmark to the Arab world sent by the 18th century Danish King Frederik V.
But the expedition that has not lost is resonance with the Danish cultural world and Danish Arabs in Copenhagen who have been rediscovering this voyage and its implications for Danish-Arab relations.
The occasion is the opening in Copenhagen of a special exhibition of the historic journey.
In 1761 King Frederik V sent handpicked scientists on an expedition to the East, which was to last two years, with the clear aim of discovering, exploring and documenting the Arab world. However seven years passed before the one surviving scientist of the six, Carsten Niehbuhr returned to Denmark.
The journey took the six from Copenhagen by road to Constantinople and from there to Alexandria and Cairo. They realized that their European clothes were not well suited to the climate, and from early on they begin to wear Oriental attire. Along the way they collected seeds, mapped towns and seas (which included the first map of Yemen and the first map of the Red Sea), and documented scenes of everyday life; one of the men, an illustrator even sketched the various Arab hats that he observed. It was not until they reached Yemen that the first of them succumbed to illness—most probably malaria—followed soon after by the others.
Only Niebuhr and one other traveler made it to India, but Carsten Niehbuhr was soon to become the sole traveler, and he continued his journey alone through Iran, Iraq and Syria, often under the name Abdullah, before he finally returned to Denmark in 1767.
It was Neibuhr who kept a detailed journal of the expedition, and along with illustrations, the exhibition offers a fascinating, and very personal insight into this Danish Arabia expedition.
The exhibition opened on May 8, and it has been a huge success, with critics praising it and large crowds attending the show. Held at Copenhagen’s Royal Library, Prince Henrik of Denmark and Foreign Minister Lene Espersen came to the opening.
To represent the Arab side of the relationship the Director of the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO), Dr. Abdualaziz Othman Altwaijri, and the newly appointed “Ambassador of Historic Relations of Denmark and the Middle East,” and President of Helnan International Hotels, Enan Galaly were present.
The story of this journey was hailed by the guests as having been of huge importance for the relationship between the Arabs and the Danes. They also said that the relationship served as a beacon of hope for the improvement of relations between the two in the present, especially after the damaging repercussions of the series of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammed, which were published in a Danish newspaper in 2005 and which sparked outrage in the Middle East.
Lene Espersen, Minister of Foreign Affairs said, “Fundamentally the expedition is a perfect case study in the benefit of cultural exchange and the ability of meeting a different civilization with an open and inquisitive mind.”
She continued, “Today, 250 years later, the expedition shown here in the library calls on us not to rush to judge other people without getting to know them first.”
In Neibuhr’s own journal he said, “We Europeans often judge the customs of foreign nations too quickly, even before we have come to know them.”
The rediscovering of this journey is also being made into a documentary by the Danish broadcasting corporation (DR), part of which includes a renewed expedition to the Middle East, following in Niebuhr’s footsteps.
Catherine Knudsen of DR said “I went to Egypt, and I think that some ideas that I had about the Middle East before I went turned out to be different. I think that this exhibition is a good idea to build new relations between Denmark and the Middle East, because our relationship is not perfect at the moment. I hope this will strengthen it.”
The expedition was intended as a purely scientific and exploration journey, the first of its kind to set out from Europe to the Orient, and is in stark contrast to the mainly military expeditions that were sent from Europe at the time.
Lene Espersen reiterated its peaceful message, “The expedition was born out of curiosity, a search for knowledge… when the high and mighty rulers of Europe and the capitals could think of little else than to show power and glory, the goals behind Carsten Niebuhr’s expedition to Arabia Felix were different and of a more noble nature.”
(Lucy Stuart of Al Arabiya’s London bureau can be reached at: email@example.com)