A few years back, my family and I were emptying the house of my late grandfather and grandmother. Naturally, I spent some time going through their bookshelves and obviously found a lot of books I wanted to read. And instead of having them thrown out or given away, I was fortunate enough to take them home with me. Every time, I look on my shelves and see some of those books, I’m reminded of where they come from. It brings back a lot of great memories. But one of the books, I didn’t actually picked out myself was an old book from 1968. Arabia Felix by Thorkild Hansen. My uncle gave it to me and told me it was one of the best books he’d ever read.
While I do not completely agree, it is a really interesting story, and a rather important part of Danish (and European) scientific history, I believe. It is a story of exploration and misfortune. And you will be surprised that it is, in fact, based entirely on a true story.
About “Arabia Felix”
Like being thrown from above and straight into the boat in which we find ourselves some 250 years ago, we are introduced to our five protagonists of Arabia Felix by Thorkild Hansen. This is the story of the first European scientific expedition to the Middle East. An unknown part of the world (to Europeans, at least).
The expedition is funded by the Danish king, however only two Danes participate. Frederik Christian von Haven as philologist (don’t ask me what this is precisely) and Christian Carl Kramer as doctor. Furthermore, the party consists of the Swede Peter Forsskål as physicist and botanist, as well as the two Germans Georg Wilhelm Baurenfiend as illustrator and, last but most certainly not least, Carsten Niebuhr as mathematician and astronomer. The latter is probably the most famous of them all. He recorded and drew maps of the Middle East. Maps which were largely used in expeditions to those parts of the world, even up until the time of publication of the book in the 1960s.
From the day they meet, they are all fighting with one another. One might wonder why well educated people with an insurmountable amount of titles would even want to condescend to such meaningless quarrels. But as it were, a lot of them were apparently power hungry and most probably cursed with a variety of inferiority complexes.
Especially the Dane von Haven and the Swede Forsskål had on-going falling outs. The most sympathetic and humble of the lot is the less educated Carsten Niebuhr. He is not in it for either the titles or the life pension offered by the king. No, he’s doing it of pure interest and inquisitiveness of the world.
The Journey Begins
The expedition begins in Copenhagen and by boat the party is heading for Arabia Felix (literal meaning: Happy Arabia). They make a detour to Iceland before heading south through the Strait of Gibraltar. And from there towards Constantinople, the first real stop of the journey. They travel on across the Red Sea to Yemen, the actual destination of the expedition. It is reached in 1763, two years after their departure from Copenhagen.
From here on, it’s an uphill battle. The expedition demands its first victim on the 25th May 1763, and this is far from the only one. Exposed to unknown diseases and the foreign environment, the party is facing an invisible opponent, they mostly doesn’t even know exist.
Why “Happy Arabia”?
“Why is the country named Arabia Felix?” This question is often asked throughout the book. Both as an actual question to which you want an answer, but just as much as a question of doubt. “Can it really be?” And to be blunt, there is a certain logic in the skepticism. In long passages of the book, one might ask oneself, if happiness or blissfulness as a concept has a different meaning to it compared to the general acknowledgement of the term in the present (and the past, for that matter).
Overall, this expedition is downright unfortunate – (spoiler alert!) only one of them actually returns. But it isn’t exactly the expedition per se that is attributed the adjective. Rather the country or the Middle Eastern region around present day Yemen is applied it. A region that apparently seemed distant and exotic, a paradise on Earth, “which the young Alexander dreamt of conquering, but where no one has ever been, nor the young Alexander, and which perhaps, precisely because no one has ever been there, has been called Arabia Felix in ancient times and onwards” [translated from Danish]. According to Niebuhr, you get a feeling that it is rather the way of life, environment and the people that most likely make the country Arabia Felix.
Lost In Translation
That the name Arabia Felix is actually due to an error in translation from Arabic is partly quite comical, partly explanatory of the question regarding the name of the region so often addressed by the party. The literal explanation taken from the book is as follows. The word “jemen” (or Yemen) means “right hand” or “right hand side”. When Arabs are praying they turn their faces towards east. This means that when the Arabs at the Kaba in Mekka (the most holy in Islamic religion) are praying with their faces turned toward east, Yemen is at their right hand side. For this specific reason, the word has been attributed the meaning of “south”.
Thus, Yemen is the country to the right, or to the south, you might say. To Muslims, the right hand is cleaner than the left, so the word “jemen” has become equivalent to something happy or blissful. The conclusion is that Arabia Felix (if translated correctly) does in fact simply means South Arabia.
Whether the expedition is based on a faulty perception of the country, is entirely plausible. It does not mean, however, that the journey is of no value and yields no results. Because the result is quite positive. Forsskål and Niebuhr have procured several discoveries that are still echoing in present day science.
Furthermore, the account of the expedition provides a completely different image of the Middle East compared to what we know and associate with it today. With present day Aleppo in Syria being practically nonexistent, the book offers an image of a flourishing and grand city. Food for thought!
My Thoughts On “Arabia Felix”
Normally, I rarely read older books but I must admit that besides challenging the linguistic part of ones knowledge, they especially provide the reader with a significant perspective of what past society was like compared to that of today, for better or worse. And that is extremely important, in my opinion.
Generally speaking, Arabia Felix is a quite excellent book. It is very descriptive and written in an archaic language making it more formal than what we are used to in today’s publications. To me, what is most interesting, are the descriptions and narratives of the things the party experiences.
However, there are some passages throughout the book that tend to become rather political and explanatory, and therefore quite lengthy. If one can accept that this was probably just the way of writing in the 60s, it won’t be a problem to get through those parts of the book.
Overall, this book is for the inquisitive reader, eager to learn something about history, science and past society. To one such, it is a quite interesting read. Carsten Niebuhr is most likely one of the most famous explorers and scientists linking to Denmark. And the book describes an extremely important chapter of Danish (and perhaps, general) history of natural science.
If you’re into action and suspense, however, I would recommend leaving it on the bookshelf and perhaps return to it at a later time in ones existence.
The Hard Facts
Thorkild Hansen, a literature student dropout, is a Danish author who lived from 1927 to 1989. He is mainly known for the book reviewed in this post, Arabia Felix, along with a trilogy about the Danish slave trade. For the latter, he received the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 1971.
Arabia Felix (in Danish: Det Lykkelige Arabien) was published in 1962 by Danish publishing agency Gyldendal. It was published in English by the New York Review of Books. The book is obviously based on true events and Hansen thoroughly implements historical sources and accounts, such as diaries and maps.
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© Image by Georg Wilhelm Baurenfiend from Arabia Felix (acquired from SquareKufic)