Exploration of Arabia Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Acting with the encouragement of their governments and upon a variety of personal motives, a growing number of European explorers began penetrating the vast Arabian Peninsula, a region then little known to the outside world.

Summary of Event

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Europeans knew little about Arabia. That Middle Eastern peninsula’s extremely harsh climate and desert terrain, coupled with the hostility of its inhabitants toward Christian interlopers, had discouraged contact through more than a millennium. During the eighteenth century, however, the pattern had begun to change, and during the nineteenth century European explorers, acting from a variety of motives, traveled into and sometimes across Arabia. Several Europeans even disguised themselves in order to visit the holy city of Mecca, Mecca;Western visitors a pilgrimage to which was required of every able-bodied Muslim man. Arabia;exploration of Middle East;exploration of Exploration;Arabia Burckhardt, Johann Ludwig Islam;and Western travelers[Western travelers] [kw]Exploration of Arabia (1814-1879) [kw]Arabia, Exploration of (1814-1879) Arabia;exploration of Middle East;exploration of Exploration;Arabia Burckhardt, Johann Ludwig Islam;and Western travelers[Western travelers] [g]Middle East;1814-1879: Exploration of Arabia[0680] [g]Saudi Arabia;1814-1879: Exploration of Arabia[0680] [c]Exploration and discovery;1814-1879: Exploration of Arabia[0680] Burton, Sir Richard Francis Doughty, Charles Montagu Blunt, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, Anne Isabella Palgrave, William Gifford Wellsted, James Guarmani, Carlo Sadlier, George Foster

During the nineteenth century, Arabia was wracked by turmoil as a result of a movement initiated by eighteenth century Muslim reformer Muḥammad Muḥammad ibn ՙAbd al-Wahhāb ibnՙAbd al-Wahhāb. Islam;and Wahhābīs[Wahhabis] Believing that they were cleansing a religion grown corrupt, the Wahhābīs Wahhābīs Islam;and Wahhābīs[Wahhabis] eventually conquered most of the peninsula, even sacking Mecca and Medina in the first decade of the nineteenth century. However, their success was checked for a time by the actions of Egyptian viceroy Muḥammad ՙAlī Pasha and his son Ibrāhīm Paṣa.

One of the first European explorers to produce an account of the Wahhābīs was Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. Commissioned by a British society known as the African Association African Association , Burckhardt immersed himself in Muslim culture in preparation for an expedition into northwestern Africa. After studying Arabic and making an initial expedition into Jordan, Burckhardt took passage aboard a small ship crossing the Red Sea from Egypt in 1814 as “Sheikh Ibrahim.”

Burckhardt reached the Arabian port of Jidda in mid-July, and after numerous difficulties he managed to enter Mecca—which lies inland from Jidda—on September 9, 1814. Although the city was once again under intermittent siege by the Wahhābīs, Islam;and Wahhābīs[Wahhabis] Wahhābīs and although he faced a dire fate should his identity be revealed, Burckhardt enjoyed Mecca. In Medina, however, he contracted plague and was forced to return to Egypt via Yanbuՙ al Bah r (a port north of Jidda, commonly called Yanbu). He died in Egypt in 1817. Burckhardt’s posthumously published books provided Westerners with detailed descriptions of the Muslim holy cities.

Another explorer who reported on the Wahhābīs was George Foster Sadlier Sadlier, George Foster , an officer with the British army in India who landed on the eastern coast of Arabia in June of 1819. Carrying offers of British assistance to Ibrāhīm Paṣa, who had recently defeated Wahhābī forces, Sadlier trailed the victorious commander from the Persian Gulf into the heart of Arabia. He observed the sacked Wahhābī capital of Ad Dirՙīyah and caught up with the Egyptian only at the outskirts of Medina. Proceeding to Yanbu, he became the first European known to have crossed the peninsula.

Some years later, James Wellsted Wellsted, James surveyed the southern and southeastern coasts of Arabia as a naval officer with the British East India Company British East India Company , identifying sites for the coaling stations necessary to refuel steamships. Wellsted visited the island of Socotra, located off the Horn of Africa and part of present-day Yemen, in 1834. The following year, he and fellow officer Charles Cruttenden Cruttenden, Charles discovered the ruins of the ancient city of Naqab-al-Hayar (also in present-day Yemen), built by early inhabitants of southern Arabia known as the Himyarites. In 1836, Wellsted’s ship put in at the port of Masqat on the Gulf of Oman Oman . Venturing inland, the officer became the first European to see the Rubՙ al-Khali, or Empty Quarter (Great Sandy Desert), the desert that covers much of southeastern Arabia.

Like Wellsted Wellsted, James , Sir Richard Francis Burton Burton, Sir Richard Francis [p]Burton, Sir Richard Francis[Burton, Richard Francis];explorations of worked for the British East India Company, and like Burckhardt he visited the Muslim holy cities Islam;holy cities . On leave from the Eighteenth Bombay Light Infantry, he was commissioned by the Royal Geographical Society to explore central and eastern Arabia. After perfecting his command of Arabic, Burton sailed disguised as Afghan doctor “Sheikh Abdullah” from Port Suez in Egypt to Yanbu. After joining a camel caravan, Burton reached Medina on July 25, 1853, and subsequently accompanied another caravan of some fifty thousand pilgrims to Mecca, which he entered on September 11. Like Burckhardt, Burton feared for his life should his disguise be penetrated, but he managed to make sketches of several of the city’s shrines. Although his plans to explore the Rubՙ al-Khali were thwarted by illness, he wrote one of the liveliest travel accounts of the century, Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to El-Medinah and Meccah (1855-1856). Years later, in 1877-1878, Burton would take part in an unsuccessful expedition into Midian, in northwestern Arabia, to hunt for gold.

William Gifford Palgrave Palgrave, William Gifford reversed Sadlier’s Sadlier, George Foster feat in 1862-1863. A Roman Catholic priest, Palgrave undertook his travels for a mixture of motives. He wanted to investigate the practicalities of missionary Missionaries;in Middle East[Middle East] work in Arabia, but he had also agreed to report his findings to French emperor Napoleon III, who hoped to extend French influence in the region. In addition, Palgrave planned to help European horse dealers obtain breeding stock of Arabia’s renowned horses. Disguising himself as a Syrian doctor, Palgrave set out from southern Jordan in July, 1862, crossing the An Nafūd desert and entering the central Arabian city of Riyadh. He eventually reached Masqat in 1863.

The Syrian-Italian horse dealer Carlo Guarmani Guarmani, Carlo shared several of Palgrave’s Palgrave, William Gifford motives. Under commission from Napoleon III and Italian king Victor Emmanuel II, Guarmani traveled to the central Arabian cities of ՙUnayzah and Hā՚il in 1863 to purchase horses and to report on the activities of the Wahhābīs. Wahhābīs Islam;and Wahhābīs[Wahhabis] Borrowing heavily from the writings of those who had preceded him, he produced a colorful narrative still popular among horse enthusiasts.

Charles Montagu Doughty Doughty, Charles Montagu was in many ways the most admirable of Arabia’s European explorers. After studying geology at Cambridge University and wandering through Europe, Doughty determined to make his way to Madāՙ in Ṣāliḥ, an ancient city in what became northwestern Saudi Arabia. He studied Arabic in Baghdad but otherwise made few practical preparations. Doughty set out in November, 1876, with a caravan that was expected to pass by the ancient city on its way to Mecca and Medina. A devout Christian, he refused to deny his religion and consequently suffered many indignities and near death. His Travels in Arabia Deserta (1888) is a widely admired masterpiece of English literature, drawing on Arabic as well as on the language of classic English authors Geoffrey Chaucer and Edmund Spenser.

Like Guarmani Guarmani, Carlo , Anne Isabella Blunt Blunt, Anne Isabella Blunt, Wilfrid Scawen and Wilfrid Scawen Blunt were interested in horses. They traveled through what are now Iraq and Syria Syria in early 1878 and obtained six Arabian mares. Like Doughty, Doughty, Charles Montagu they made no secret of their Christian religion, but their obvious admiration for the way of life of the desert-dwelling nomads, or bedouins, eased their passage. As a result, they also came away with the promise of safe conduct into Arabia itself, joining a caravan in late 1878 and early 1879 into the An Nafūd desert. Thanks to his experiences, Wilfrid was to become one of the earliest champions of Arab nationalism.


Europeans boasted of “exploring” Arabia, but, with the possible exception of the Rubՙ al-Khali, Arabians themselves were familiar with most of their own homeland. What Europeans meant was that they were familiarizing themselves with Arabia—no small feat, as the region had long been cut off from European contact. The rise of the Wahhābīs had piqued European curiosity, and the construction of the Suez Canal, which was completed in 1869 and which linked the Mediterranean and Red Seas, increased the strategic interest of the region to Europeans.

Many of Arabia’s European explorers acted out of a desire for knowledge, a motive especially evident in the case of polymath Richard Francis Burton Burton, Sir Richard Francis [p]Burton, Sir Richard Francis[Burton, Richard Francis];explorations of . Others acted wholly or partially out of political concerns on behalf of their respective countries or sponsors. Some had commercial expectations, while others acted out of spiritual conviction or a keenly developed sense of adventure. With the exception of Sadlier, who apparently disliked Arabia intensely, all the European explorers seem to have found their travels exhilarating if extraordinarily difficult and dangerous. Among them, Wilfrid Blunt Blunt, Wilfrid Scawen seems to have had the greatest sensitivity to the nationalistic impulses that would dominate the region in the following century.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burton, Richard F. Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to El-Medinah and Meccah. London: Longman, Brown, Green & Longmans, 1855-1856. Burton’s famous account of his penetration of the Muslim holy cities.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Doughty, Charles Montagu. Travels in Arabia Deserta. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1888. Doughty’s idiosyncratic re-creation of his travels.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Guarmani, Carlo. Northern Nejd: Journey from Jerusalem to Anaiza in Kasim. Jerusalem: Press of the Franciscan Fathers, 1866. Guarmani’s account of his adventures securing Arabian horses. Usually translated as Journey from Jerusalem to Northern Najd.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lovell, Mary S. A Rage to Live: A Biography of Richard and Isabel Burton. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998. A joint biography emphasizing the interaction between the explorer and his wife. Illustrations, map, chronology, bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sim, Katharine. Desert Traveller: The Life of Jean Louis Burckhardt. London: Gollancz, 1969. Biography of the first important nineteenth century explorer of the region. Illustrations, maps, bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Taylor, Andrew. God’s Fugitive: The Life of Charles Montagu Doughty. Hammersmith, Greater London, England: HarperCollins, 1999. Biography recounting Doughty’s explorations as well as his literary career. Illustrations, maps, bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Trench, Richard. Arabian Travellers. Topsfield, Mass.: Salem House, 1986. An attractively produced survey supplemented with maps, numerous illustrations, a glossary, and a select bibliography.

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Categories: History