Carsten Niebuhr

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Carsten Niebuhr
Carsten niebuhr trimmed.png
Born (1733-03-17)17 March 1733
Lüdingworth, Bremen-Verden
Died 26 April 1815(1815-04-26) (aged 82)
Meldorf, Dithmarschen
Nationality German
Occupation mathematician, cartographer, and explorer
Known for Royal Danish Arabia Expedition (1761-1767)

Carsten Niebuhr or Karsten Niebuhr (17 March 1733 Lüdingworth – 26 April 1815 Meldorf, Dithmarschen) a German mathematician, cartographer, and explorer in the service of Denmark, is renowned for his participation in the Royal Danish Arabia Expedition (1761-1767). He was the father of the Danish-German statesman and historian Barthold Georg Niebuhr, who published an account of his father's life in 1817.


Niebuhr was born in Lüdingworth (now a part of Cuxhaven, Lower Saxony) in what was then Bremen-Verden. His father Barthold Niebuhr (1704-1749) was a successful farmer and owned his own property. Carsten and his sister were educated at home by a local school teacher, then he attended the Latin School in Otterndorf, near Cuxhaven.

Originally Niebuhr had intended to become a surveyor, but in 1757 he went to the Georgia Augusta University of Göttingen, at this time Germany's most progressive institution of higher education. Niebuhr probably was a strong student because in 1760 Johann David Michaelis (1717-1791) recommended him as a participant in the Royal Danish Arabia Expedition (1761-1767), mounted by Frederick V of Denmark (1722-1766). For a year and a half before the expedition Niebuhr studied mathematics, cartography and navigational astronomy under Tobias Mayer (1723-1762), one of the premier astronomers of the 18th century, the author of the Lunar Distance Method for determining longitude. Niebuhr's observations during the Arabia Expedition proved the accuracy and the practicality of this method for use by mariners at sea.

The expedition sailed in January 1761 to Istanbul and Alexandria. Then the members of the expedition visited Cairo and Sinai, before traversing the Red Sea via Jiddah to Yemen, which was their main destination. In Mocha, on 25 May 1763, the expedition's philologist, Frederik Christian von Haven, died, and on the 11th of July 1763, on the way to Sana, the capital of Yemen, its naturalist Peter Forsskål also died. In Sana the remaining members of the expedition had an audience with the Imam of Yemen al-Mahdi Abbas (1719-1775), but suffered from the climate and returned to Mocha. Niebuhr seems to have preserved his own life and restored his health by adopting native dress and eating native food. From Mocha the expedition continued to Bombay, the expedition's artist Georg Wilhelm Bauernfeind (1728- 1763) dying en route and the surgeon Christian C. Kramer (1732-1763) soon after landing. Niebuhr was now the only surviving member. He stayed in Bombay for fourteen months and then returned home by way of Muscat, Bushire, Shiraz and Persepolis. His copies of the cuneiform inscriptions at Persepolis proved to be a key turning point in the decipherment of cuneiform, and the birth of Assyriology. He also visited the ruins of Babylon (making many important sketches), Baghdad, Mosul and Aleppo. He seems also to have visited the Behistun Inscription in around 1764. After a visit to Cyprus he made a tour through Palestine, crossed the Taurus Mountains to Bursa, reached Constantinople in February 1767 and finally arrived in Copenhagen in the following November.

Niebuhr's production during the expedition is indeed impressive. It includes small-scale maps and charts of Yemen, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf and Oman, and other larger scale maps covering the Nile Delta, the Gulf of Suez and the regions surrounding various port cities he visited, including Mocha and Surat. He completed 28 town plans of significant historical value because of their uniqueness for that period.

Niebuhr married in 1773, and for some years held a post in the Danish military service, which enabled him to remain in Copenhagen. In 1776 he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. In 1778 he accepted a position in the civil service of Danish Holstein, and went to reside at Meldorf (Ditmarsh). In 1806 he was promoted to Etatsrat, and in 1809 made a Knight of the Order of the Dannebrog, one of Denmark-Norway most valued honour for service. He died in Meldorf in 1815.


Niebuhr's first book, Beschreibung von Arabien, was published in Copenhagen in 1772, the Danish government providing subsidies for the engraving and printing of its numerous illustrations. This was followed in 1774 and 1778 by the two volumes of Niebuhr's Reisebeschreibung von Arabien und anderen umliegenden Ländern. These works (particularly the one published in 1778), and most specifically the accurate copies of the cuneiform inscriptions found at Persepolis, were to prove to be extremely important to the decipherment of cuneiform writing. Before Niebuhr's publication, cuneiform inscriptions were often thought to be merely decorations and embellishments, and no accurate decipherments or translations had been made up to that point. Niebuhr demonstrated that the three trilingual inscriptions found at Persepolis were in fact three distinct forms of cuneiform writing (which he termed Class I, Class II, and Class III) to be read from left to right. His accurate copies of the trilingual inscriptions gave Orientalists the key to finally crack the cuneiform code, leading to the discovery of Old Persian, Akkadian, and Sumerian.[1]

A fourth volume, also based on materials from the expedition to Arabia, was not published till 1837, long after Niebuhr's death, under the editorship of his daughter. Niebuhr also contributed papers on the interior of Africa, the political and military condition of the Ottoman Empire, and other subjects to a German periodical, the Deutsches Museum. In addition, he edited and published the work of his friend Peter Forsskål, the naturalist on the Arabian expedition, under the titles Descriptiones animalium, Flora Aegyptiaco-Arabica and Icones rerum naturalium (Copenhagen, 1775 and 1776).

French and Dutch translations of Niebuhr's narratives were published during his lifetime, and a condensed English translation of his own three volumes, prepared by Robert Heron, was published in Edinburgh in 1792, under the title "Travels through Arabia". A facsimile edition of this translation, as by "M. Niebuhr", was published in two volumes by the Libraire du Liban, Beirut (undated).

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) highly prized Niebuhr's works. In 1811 he wrote to his son Barthold Georg Niebuhr, that 'You carry a name which I have learned to honor since my youth'.


  1. ^ The Sumerians: Their History, Culture and Character, by Samuel Noah Kramer, University of Chicago Press, 1963


  • Wikisource-logo.svg Gilman, D. C.; Thurston, H. T.; Colby, F. M., eds. (1905). "Niebuhr, Carsten". New International Encyclopedia (1st ed.). New York: Dodd, Mead. 
  • Hansen, Thorkild (1962). Arabia Felix. Copenhagen.  English translation: McFarlane, J.; McFarlane, K. (1964). Arabia Felix. Collins, U.K. and Harper & Row U.S.A. 
  • Julia Chatzipanagioti: Eine Reise in die Gegenwart der Vergangenheit. Die Expedition Carsten Niebuhrs nach Arabien (1761-1767). In: Transactions of the Ninth International Congress on the Enlightenment. Vols 2-3. Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1997, p. 863-866.
  • Christiansen, Jürgen. Niebuhrslust. In: TOP 37 (19. Jahrgang, Juni 2009).
  • Stephan Conermann, Josef Wiesehöfer (Hg.): Carsten Niebuhr und seine Zeit. Beiträge eines interdisziplinären Symposiums vom 7.-10. Oktober 1999 in Eutin. (Oriens et Occidens 5). Steiner, Stuttgart.
  • Heenes Volker. Carsten Niebuhr und seine Reise nach Arabien von 1761 bis 1767. In: Reisen in den Orient vom 13. bis zum 19. Jahrhundert. (Schriften der Winckelmann-Gesellschaft 26). Stendal 2007, p. 49-57.
  • Eckardt Opitz: Carsten Niebuhr in: Die unser Schatz und Reichtum sind. 60 Porträts aus Schleswig-Holstein. Christians, Hamburg 1990, p. 77–85
  • Roger H. Guichard Jr. (2014). Niebuhr in Egypt. European Science in a Biblical World. Cambridge, Lutterworth.
  • Lawrence J. Baack (2014). Undying curiosity. Carsten Niebuhr and the Royal Danish Expedition to Arabia (1761-1767). Stuttgart.


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