In 1891, the Danish philologist Johannes Østrup (1867-1938) set out on a journey that was as adventurous as it was scientific. For two years he explored parts of Egypt, the Middle East, and Asia Minor. Dressed partly in Arab clothes, and partly in Western-style attire, he cut a distinctive figure as he traversed the Syrian Desert, before riding from Homs to Copenhagen, via Damascus and Constantinople, on his faithful companion, a grey thoroughbred stallion that he picked up from the Bedouin Sbâ tribe.
Shortly after returning to Denmark, he published his observations. That he did so in Danish – his mother tongue – should occasion no surprise. For scholars and enthusiasts alike with an interest in the archaeology, cultural history, and languages of the regions visited by Østrup – including such spellbinding sites as Palmyra – it remains worthwhile to delve into his texts. Today, though, it is evident that the need to read Danish may scare off some potential readers.
To overcome this, Østrup’s book – Skiftende horizonter (Shifting Horizons) – has now been translated into English by his great-granddaughter, Cisca Spencer. A treasure trove of knowledge has thus become available to a much broader readership. The book was published this June by Brepols Publishers, as the first volume in the Archive Archaeology series founded by Rubina Raja (see ‘Further information’).
Even though Østrup’s descriptions of the lands he traversed and the people he met are more than a century old, his observations remain relevant today. His words help to illuminate the condition of the sites he visited, as well as recent archaeological discoveries made at them, and the contexts in which early scientific studies played out. Naturally, Østrup’s book is not the only testimony from this pioneering age of exploration that is worth revisiting. Archives around the world are crammed with records – often half-forgotten – from travels and fieldwork conducted in centuries gone by. This material has great potential to open new research avenues and reveal the choices earlier scholars made when they set about interpretating objects, sites, or cultures. It is essential to engage with these documents and mull over earlier observations, if the modern discipline of archaeology is to advance. The new Archive Archaeology series offers, among other things, a scholarly forum for such historiographic sources.
Scientist or tourist?
Perhaps Østrup’s greatest achievement was being the first person to map the Syrian Desert – specifically the part that stretches northwards from Palmyra to the ruined ancient city at Resafa. When it came to Egypt and the Middle East, though, Østrup found himself following a more well-trodden path on his scientific journey.
From the last half of the 18th century and into the early 19th century, numerous large expeditions had sought knowledge of these regions. Some such missions were inspired by biblical narratives, but this angle was not the primary focus for everyone. Instead, the rich cultural, natural, and geographical settings attracted the attention of many scientific lenses. One large and famous expedition was funded by the Danish king Frederik V (r. 1746-1766). This later became known as the Niebuhr Expedition in honour of its sole survivor – surveyor and cartographer Carsten Niebuhr – who alone endured the hardships experienced from 1761 to 1767. Despite this alarmingly high attrition rate, the results laid important groundwork for future research. The team’s goals were to investigate the geography and topography of the countries they visited, while making linguistic and ethnological observations, and achieving a better understanding of the cultural and natural history of the region. Expedition members also anticipated the development of archaeology as a discipline by studying artefacts, some of which were collected and shipped to Copenhagen.
Napoleon Bonaparte’s military campaigns in Egypt and Syria also proved to be a magnet for the curious and scientifically minded. The scientific side of the campaigns brought more than a hundred scientists and artists to Egypt. Later, smaller travel parties and individual explorers seeking to discover foreign countries and different ways of life followed in his army’s wake. Along the way, landscapes peppered with ruins were visited, described, and – sometimes – illustrated with detailed measurements and drawings. In this way, blanks on the maps were filled in, while the Bedouin lifestyle was examined at first hand. Some of these travellers pursued scientific aims, while others were embarking on the Grand Tour as tourists. Many, regardless of their motives, noted down their observations in diaries, while travelogues emerged as a popular literary genre. Many gems await modern archaeologists in published and unpublished accounts alike.
Advances in photography around the middle of the 19th century made it possible for photographers to participate in scientific expeditions. The popularity of the still improving technique of photography is reflected in the major regional cities boasting photographic studios by the late 1860s. Of course, not everything could be photographed: theologians and philologists with an interest in the Old Testament and Semitic languages also set out on field trips to harvest new knowledge. It is among their number that we can count Johannes Østrup.
Østrup was 24 when he abandoned his library desk in favour of seeing, with his own eyes, the regions that his studies focused on. He left Denmark on 18 September 1891, the day after he successfully defended his higher doctoral dissertation, making him the youngest person in Denmark to do so at that time. The researcher’s field studies took him first to Egypt, where he was based in Cairo, before moving on to Lebanon, and then Syria. His return trip to Copenhagen, accomplished entirely on horseback, took him through Asia Minor. It is not the mechanics of this extraordinary journey, though, that Østrup chose as the focus for his write-up. Indeed, it is not always easy to work out his precise route, nor the length of time he devoted to different sites. He flags this up in his foreword to Shifting Horizons: ‘My book does not start with anything systematic (as my title hints at).’ This approach is often in evidence. His stay in Egypt is not directly described, for instance, as he felt he had nothing to add to existing accounts. Instead, the results of his studies there are interwoven throughout his book as comparative material to what he witnessed elsewhere.
Østrup took pains to stress in the very first sentence of his Shifting Horizons that this was no travelogue. In his view, a tourist describes what is seen, while a true researcher relates what is heard. Sure enough, he was guided by stories and hearsay recounted by the people that he met – be they the carpet-seller in the bazaar, the storyteller in the café, or the Bedouin sheik in the largest tent of the camp. This approach certainly gives Shifting Horizons a distinctive flavour when set alongside much 19th-century travel literature.
During one stay in Damascus, Østrup heard tell of the numerous, well-preserved ancient ruins scattered between Palmyra and the Euphrates River. Equipped with essential kit, and accompanied only by his travel guide Mansur ibn Abdallah (a Bedouin of the Sbâ tribe), their servant Mahmûd, and four rented Syrian horses, he duly ventured forth into the desert.
Østrup reached Palmyra in March 1893, and spent a few days there, before setting off in search of unexplored ruins. And he was successful, securing information about previously uninvestigated geographical, topographical, and archaeological features. All told, his desert sojourn lasted from 16 March to 9 April. His important findings, and his map of parts of the Syrian Desert, were published by the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters in another of his works, namely Historisk-topografiske Bidrag til Kendskabet til den syriske Ørken (Historical-Topographical Contributions to Knowledge about the Syrian Desert), which appeared in 1895.
This publication provides more thorough descriptions of some of the archaeological remains at Palmyra. Among other things, he visited an underground tomb – a so-called hypogeum – which had been discovered by some locals shortly beforehand. Østrup ventured into the tomb via a small opening in a vault. There, equipped with candles and matches, he went on to explore a cavernous funerary complex. Its walls were perforated by shelves and niches to receive the deceased, and richly adorned with artwork, including exquisite portrait paintings. Østrup compared these to the famous mummy portraits from Fayum in Egypt, but observed that the Palmyrene portraits are distinctively local by virtue of their clothes, posture, and hand gestures. In the dim candlelight, he was also able to distinguish between the handiwork of different artists.
Before leaving, he covered up the vault that granted him access to the tomb. To this day, we do not know which one he visited. Perhaps it is waiting to be rediscovered – or, as Østrup would doubtless have it, to be heard of – once again.
By contrast, Østrup does not dedicate much space in Shifting Horizons to describing what he saw in Palmyra. Instead, he delves more into what he heard about Palmyra from the locals he stayed with. They talked of the city’s origin – built by the spirits, at the command of King Solomon – and about Queen Zenobia – outwitted by a Roman commander and 40 camels – stories that we now know were not true historical events. Some ancient structures were described, though, such as Palmyra’s impressive colonnaded street. Even so, this is to provide context for something else he had heard, in this case about magnificent gilded column capitals. Much like the Roman commander and his 40 camels, such capitals are not known from the archaeological record of Palmyra.
Østrup used this opportunity to record, too, how cultural heritage was being vandalised, with the heads of Palmyrene sculptures broken off and traded. He adds that the laws of the Ottoman Empire prohibited foreigners from conducting excavations or buying such pieces of art. Despite this knowledge, Østrup regales readers with accounts of his own successes and failures in pursuit of this outlawed collecting of antiquities.
Archive archaeology and today’s world
Østrup’s research stood him in good stead. Later on in life, in 1918, he became professor extraordinarius of Islamic culture at the University of Copenhagen. From 1934, he held the rector’s post at the same university.
Today, his narrative is crucial in several ways: first and foremost, we hear about the state of archaeological sites that he visited. Tragically, many currently lie in a conflict zone and so can only be safely studied from a distance. Østrup’s willingness to record how local people understood their past – and so were shaped by it – is also immensely valuable, even if we now know it is not historically accurate. Research is based on the successes and failures of earlier research, so in order to move forward we must be willing to look back. In that regard, historiography is a key factor when we are framing research questions for the future. Thanks to Østrup’s account, we are just that little bit better equipped to explore the archival records and understand those pioneering days of early field studies.
So why not take this opportunity to share in the exploits of a scientific explorer and hear the archaeology of times long passed?
FURTHER INFORMATION We wish to thank the ALIPH Foundation for financially supporting the archive archaeology project Preserving and Sharing Palmyra’s Cultural Heritage through Harald Ingholt’s Digital Archives (2020-). The project delves into the records of the Danish excavations in Palmyra during the 1920s and 1930s. In order to contextualise the archival records, earlier scientific explorations of the oasis city are also investigated. https://projects.au.dk/archivearcheology/ For the new translation: J Østrup (2022) Shifting Horizons: observations from a ride through the Syrian Desert and Asia Minor, trans. C Spencer (Archive Archaeology 1; Turnhout: Brepols). See more about the publication at www.brepols.net/Pages/ShowProduct.aspx?prod_id=IS-9782503596822-1 (the original 1894 Danish version can be found online, for instance at Project Runeberg: http://runeberg.org/orkenen/). Other works by Østrup with information on his travels include J Østrup (1895) Historisk-topografiske Bidrag til Kendskabet til den syriske Ørken (Det Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskabs Skrifter 6, historisk og filosofisk Afdeling IV.2; Copenhagen: Bianco Luno) and J Østrup (1937) Erindringer (Copenhagen: H Hirschsprungs Forlag). See also R Raja and A H Sørensen (2019) ‘Historiography: Danish research from Johannes Østrup (1893) to the Palmyra Portrait Project’, in H Eristov, C Vibert-Guigue, W al-As’ad, and N Sarkis (eds) Les Tombeau des trois frères à Palmyre: mission archéologique franco-syrienne 2004-2009 (Beirut: Institut français du Proche-Orient), pp.59-64.