Burckhardt Discovers Egypt’s Abu Simbel

The young Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt made one of the great archaeological discoveries of all time when he happened, almost by accident, on the colossal statues that Pharaoh Ramses II had erected in his own honor during the thirteenth century b.c.e.

Summary of Event

Johann Ludwig Burckhardt was born into a prominent Swiss family in Berne. However, his family fell into political disfavor after the French Revolution (1789), and his father was unfairly discredited while Burckhardt was still in his teens. This change caused a precipitous decline in the family’s fortunes. Burckhardt left Switzerland for England in 1806, shortly after completing his studies at the German universities of Leipzig and Göttingen. While his money was running low in London, he met the intellectual Sir John Banks, who introduced him to the writings of William George Browne, a noted English explorer of Africa. Abu Simbel
Burckhardt, Johann Ludwig
Egypt;Abu Simbel
Archaeology;Abu Simbel
North Africa;exploration of
Exploration;North Africa
[kw]Burckhardt Discovers Egypt’s Abu Simbel (Mar. 22, 1812)
[kw]Discovers Egypt’s Abu Simbel, Burckhardt (Mar. 22, 1812)
[kw]Egypt’s Abu Simbel, Burckhardt Discovers (Mar. 22, 1812)
[kw]Abu Simbel, Burckhardt Discovers Egypt’s (Mar. 22, 1812)
Abu Simbel
Burckhardt, Johann Ludwig
Egypt;Abu Simbel
Archaeology;Abu Simbel
North Africa;exploration of
Exploration;North Africa
[g]Switzerland;Mar. 22, 1812: Burckhardt Discovers Egypt’s Abu Simbel[0560]
[g]Egypt;Mar. 22, 1812: Burckhardt Discovers Egypt’s Abu Simbel[0560]
[g]Africa;Mar. 22, 1812: Burckhardt Discovers Egypt’s Abu Simbel[0560]
[c]Exploration and discovery;Mar. 22, 1812: Burckhardt Discovers Egypt’s Abu Simbel[0560]
[c]Art;Mar. 22, 1812: Burckhardt Discovers Egypt’s Abu Simbel[0560]
Ramses II
Banks, Sir Joseph
Browne, William George
Hornemann, Friedrich Konrad
African Association
Belzoni, Giovanni Battista

Abu Simbel during the early twentieth century. The man standing on the lap of one of the statues makes it possible to appreciate the colossal scale of the sculptures.

(Library of Congress)

Through Banks Banks, Sir Joseph , Burckhardt learned that the Association for Promoting the Discovery of Interior Parts of Africa was in the enviable position of having a large credit balance. Consequently, it was prepared to award a substantial sum to someone who would be willing to spend ten years or more exploring in North Africa and the Middle East. The recipient was expected to send regular reports back to the association. At that time, most of Europe was caught up in an enthusiastic tide of curiosity about everything Arabic and Egyptian.

Burckhardt had been attending public gatherings that focused on Arabic culture, and he applied for the grant, for which there was only one other contender. In early 1808, he learned that he had won the award and requested the committee’s permission to attend Cambridge University in preparation for his travels. During the spring, he began his work at Cambridge, where he concentrated on Arabic and other languages and on Arab history. He was already fluent in five European languages.

In January, 1809, Burckhardt left for Syria Syria , where he spent two years in Aleppo, working on his Arabic until he spoke it flawlessly. He also immersed himself in Arab religion, history, dress, daily life, rituals, customs. During his years in England, he had already adopted Arab dress. In Syria he went further in adopting Muslim ways. He mingled with the poor, lived as they did, sleeping on earthen floors, eating their food, and generally fitting into the culture so fully that he eventually could pass as a Muslim. That ability made it possible for him to travel through the desert with Arab caravans, which would be necessary to the work he was committed to doing. Out of this experience grew Burckhardt’s detailed book on Muslim life, Notes on the Bedouins and Wahabys
Notes on the Bedouins and Wahabys (Burckhardt) (1831). This study became the most complete account in print about Arab culture and is still an informative source for those wishing to learn more about the Middle East and Muslim culture.

Abu Simbel in Modern Egypt

In 1812, the association sponsoring Burckhardt suggested that he travel to the regions south of the Sahara Desert Sahara Desert by way of Fezzan in the southeastern part of what is now Libya. Libya He was expected to follow the route plotted by Friedrich Konrad Hornemann, Hornemann, Friedrich Konrad a German explorer who had devised a detailed plan for exploring the region but died before he could implement it. As Burckhardt traveled from Aleppo to Cairo, he passed through present-day Jordan. Following information he gleaned from people he met on his travels, he explored an area that Europeans had not yet discovered: the ancient city of Petra, Petra, Jordan one of the world’s most significant archaeological sites.

Burckhardt continued to Cairo, hoping to join a caravan going to Fezzan. Finally, when hope of joining such a caravan faded, he sailed south on the Nile River toward Sudan. After reaching Aswan, he continued his journey south to a point about twenty-five miles north of Egypt’s modern border with Sudan, where he made an amazing find. Protruding from sands that had drifted around them for centuries were four colossal stone heads. Below them, unseen by Burckhardt, was a temple that had been built to honor Egypt’s Pharaoh Ramses II Ramses II between 1260 and 1250 b.c.e. The temple’s great hall was 115 feet (35 meters) wide and 98 feet (29.8 meters) high.

Also unseen by Burckhardt on the same site was another smaller temple honoring the memory of Ramses’ queen, Nefertari, Nefertari that remained completely covered. Burckhardt made his initial discovery on March 22, 1812, but could do little except to report it. He certainly could not begin a project as complicated as excavating the temple, and he did not realize the full extent of his find. In fact, he would die five years later without ever knowing that a second temple stood on the site.

The slow and arduous process of excavating the site was begun in 1816 by the Italian Egyptologist Giovanni Battista Belzoni. Belzoni, Giovanni Battista By 1850, only two of the four colossi that had revealed the site were been completely uncovered. It was not until the twentieth century that excavation of the entire site was completed, but then it was threatened with destruction when the Egyptian government erected the Aswan High Dam Aswan High Dam in 1952. A worldwide effort saved Abu Simbel by having it moved and reassembled, stone by stone, on a higher site.

Meanwhile, in 1813, Burckhardt became the first European who is known to have visited the holy city of Mecca, Mecca where he had to pass as a Muslim. He continued his explorations and writing but suffered from recurring illnesses. He finally died in Cairo on October 17, 1817, after suffering from persistent dysentery. He was accorded a Muslim funeral and buried the same evening in a Muslim grave. He lived only thirty-three years.


Working in a solitary situation without direct supervision, Burckhardt was supported decently by his grant. He used this money conscientiously and to full advantage, becoming a virtual citizen of the Middle East, blending into its culture as few Europeans could have done, and learning about it as an insider.

Burckhardt bequeathed his papers, including many Arab manuscripts, to Cambridge University, where this valuable collection is available to scholars. His writings, all published posthumously, include Travels in Nubia (1819), Travels in Syria and the Holy Land (1822), Travels in Arabia (1829), Notes on the Bedouins and Wahabys (1831), and Arabic Proverbs (1972). Few nineteenth century European explorers made Johann Ludwig Burckhardt’s broad range of discoveries and contributions, but the English explorer and Arabist Richard Francis Burton matched some of his achievements.

Further Reading

  • Burckhardt, John Lewis. Arabic Proverbs: Or, the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians. Piscataway, N.J.: Georgias Press, 2002. Collection of proverbs collected and translated by Burckhardt. Valuable for Burckhardt’s preface and a penetrating introduction by Egyptologist C. E. Bosworth.
  • _______. Notes on the Bedouins and Wahabys. 2 vols. New York: Johnson Reprint, 1967. This reprinting of Burckhardt’s 1831 book contains a modern preface by Egyptologist William Ouesley and presents information about a world little known to nineteenth century Europeans. Its chapters on Bedouin attire, robbery and theft, government, blood revenge, and burial of the dead present detailed insights into nineteenth century Muslim life.
  • Hallett, Robin. The Penetrating of Africa: European Exploration in North and West Africa to 1815. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1965. Chapter three of this detailed book begins with a lengthy and illuminating section on Burckhardt. The accompanying maps of Burckhardt’s travels are especially useful.
  • Jones, Charles H. Africa: The History of Exploration and Adventure as Given in the Leading Authorities from Herodotus to Livingstone. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Negro University Press, 1970. Jones presents a brief biographical sketch of Burckhardt in a useful discussion of North African exploration.
  • Sim, Katharine. Desert Traveller: The Life of Jean Louis Burckhardt. London: Phoenix Press, 2000. This new edition of the only full biography of Burckhardt is comprehensive, readable, and well presented. An essential resource.

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