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Yemen: Arabia Felix

Thursday, 13 September, 2018

On a winter morning in 1761 six men boarded a ship in Copenhagen. They were the members of a Danish expedition to Arabia Felix, as Yemen was then known. The adventures of the group, which comprised a botanist, a philologist, an astronomer, a doctor, an artist and their manservant, are recounted in Arabia Felix: The Danish Expedition 1761-1767 by Thorkild Hansen. Translated from the Danish by James McFarlane and Kathleen McFarlane, the book features an introduction by Colin Thubron, and it’s a joy to read.

It took about six months for the Danes to reach modern-day Turkey, and on 8 September, 1761, with all the preparations for the journey complete, the expedition officially began. Snippet:

Dressed in their new Oriental clothes, the learned gentlemen took leave of their host von Gähler and went aboard the boat which was to take them to Alexandria. On this ship, a little Turkish vessel from the Adriatic port of Dulcigno, the expedition encountered quite another world from the one they had been accustomed to on the Greenland. The purpose of the ship’s journey was quite simply to take a cargo of young slave girls to the Egyptian markets. It is apparent right from the start how this curious cargo captured the interest of our travellers.

Peter Forsskål forgot his jelly-fish and marine plants for a while and noted in his diary: “We find ourselves in the company of a merchant who is going to Cairo with a cargo that would be highly unusual in European ports, namely women. He has taken all the safeguards of jealousy: a special cabin, which lies above our own, has been reserved for the young women, and he alone takes them their food. In addition, he has fastened a blanket inside the door so that the women cannot be seen when he lets himself in and out.” It would appear from this description that Forsskål had lost nothing of his power of exact scholarly observation; and Niebuhr too seems to have made a conscientious study. The young women, he says in his diary, “are generally very well treated, because when they are to be sold in Egypt it is very important for their owners that they should arrive at the market healthy and cheerful.”

Felix Arabia


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