How Did Europeans Learn About the Middle East and Its Past in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries CE?
Some European rulers and many of their agents thought of themselves as men of the Enlightenment and saw commercial, diplomatic, and military missions to the East as occasions for scientific exploration that included the recording of antiquities.
In the 1760s, the king of Denmark sent an expedition that included a philologist, a botanist, a surveyor, and an artist to Egypt, Sinai, Yemen, and Persia. The last survivor, Carsten Niebuhr, brought back their records, including the first accurate copies of trilingual cuneiform inscriptions from Persepolis, which became the basis for the first steps in deciphering the cuneiform scripts.
Between 1798 and 1801, Napoleon invaded Egypt, with an army accompanied by 160 scholars. They undertook a description of Egypt that ran to thirty-seven large volumes, including exact records of many standing monuments of pharaonic Egypt. They also found the Rosetta Stone, a royal decree written in Greek and in two Egyptian scripts that was the basis for Jean-François Champollion’s decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics in the 1820s.
In 1807, the British East India Company made Claudius James Rich its consul in Baghdad. Rich published an exact description of the site of Babylon. His secretary, Carl Bellino, made accurate copies of cuneiform inscriptions on bricks and tablets and sent them to Georg Grotefend in Göttingen, the first European scholar to make real progress on the decipherment of cuneiform.
By the 1820s the audience for such findings was growing. More travelers went to the Middle East, looking at its monuments with the works of the Greco-Roman writers or the biblical narratives in their minds, sometimes with picks and shovels in their hands. Their travel books were snapped up by an eager reading public.
By the 1840s early archaeological expeditions were sending finds to the newly established museums of London, Paris, and later Berlin—stone reliefs and steles, architectural ensembles and monuments weighing many tons, tools, ornaments, and innumerable papyri and clay tablets. By mid-century, independent amateurs had laid the Foundations for studying these ancient documents and artifacts. They reported to royal academies or learned societies that had been re-invigorated by the Enlightenment. Between the 1840s and 1880s, the work moved into the forerunners of modern research institutions—national academies, national museums, and universities.
Holloway, Steven W. “Assur is King of Persia: Illustrations of the Book of Esther in Some Nineteenth-Century Sources.” Journal of Religion & Society. Link to resource (accessed June 24, 2010).
Lush, Julian. “In the Steps of Carsten Niebuhr.” The British-Yemeni Society. Link to resource (accessed June 24, 2010).
Matthew W. Stolper
Professor of Assyriology and the John A. Wilson Professor of Oriental Studies
1. What were some of the reasons for exploring “the East?”
2. What was the significance behind the discovery of the Rosetta Stone?