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Since 15 October 2017

Sheik Ibrahim

October 15 th, 2017 marks the bicentenary of the death of Johann Ludwig Burckhardt (1784–1817).

The Basel Historical Museum is therefore honouring the famous explorer, who as «Sheikh Ibrahim» travelled all over the Near East, with an extensively revised and expanded edition of a biography that has long been out of print. It is also staging a small exhibition about him inside the house in which he grew up, the Haus zum Kirschgarten.

Basel Historical Museum


Scheich Ibrahim

Der Basler Kaufmannssohn Johann Ludwig Burckhardt (1784–1817) und seine Reisen durch den Orient

This new edition of the biography of Johann Ludwig Burckhardt has been published to coincide with the bicentenary of the famous explorer’s death.

In the course of his travels and adventures throughout the Near East, Burckhardt rediscovered not only the rock-hewn city of Petra in what is now Jordan, but also the Egyptian temple of Abu Simbel. His detailed descriptions of the Arab world continue to impress, even today.

Johann Ludwig Burckhardt was the son of a prosperous silk-ribbon manufacturer and grew up in the Haus zum Kirschgarten in Basel. After several years as a student in Germany, he went to London in search of employment. There he was recruited by the African Association, which in 1809 tasked him with exploring trade routes between Cairo and Timbuktu. After a period of intense preparation consisting primarily of the study of Arabic, he set off for Aleppo to begin his mission. To avoid being suspected of espionage, Burckhardt henceforth donned oriental garb and called himself Sheikh Ibrahim ibn Abdallah. Until his untimely death at the age of thirty-two, therefore, he was able to travel incognito through the then largely unknown territories of the Near East. Burckhardt’s accounts of his travels and descriptions of the Bedouins became important sources for nineteenth-century cartographers and ethnographers. They are still avidly read even today, and every few years new editions of them are published.


This extensively revised and expanded edition of the biography authored by a team of experts from the Historisches Museums Basel sheds new light on the life of this fascinating traveller and explorer. As the only German-language publication on Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, it has also provided an opportunity to turn the spotlight on his family background, his childhood and youth in the Haus zum Kirschgarten, his education and training, and formative influences. Quoting liberally from his letters and reports, this new edition of Scheich Ibrahim gives the sheikh himself a voice.

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Objects in the collection

New in the presentation of the collection

There, a small but poignant selection of objects attesting to the posthumous recognition that Burckhardt was accorded is on show.

One special highlight, on view for a limited period until October 29th only, will be the originals of Burckhardt’s letters to his parents and siblings and of the certificate confirming his 1814 pilgrimage to Mecca, temporarily on loan from the Universitätsbibliothek Basel.


«Travels in Nubia» by Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, called Sheikh Ibrahim

Author: Johann Ludwig Burckhardt (1784–1817) ed. William Martin Leake (1777–1860)
London, John Murray, 1819
Paper, cardboard, leather binding
27.5 cm x 4.3 cm x 22.3 cm (45.6 cm when open)
Inv. 1941.498.

The London-based Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa first published Travels in Nubia by Johann Ludwig Burckhardt (1784–1817) in 1819. Having been recruited by the organization known simply as the “African Association,” the son of a Basel businessman had spent the years 1809 to 1817 exploring the Near East on its behalf. Burckhardt’s mission was to investigate trade routes between Cairo and Timbuktu, in pursuit of which he was to join the Fezzan caravan carrying goods from Egypt to Central Africa. When disease and political unrest delayed the caravan for several years, Burckhardt seized the opportunity to embark on two exploratory journeys through those parts of the Ottoman Empire that now belong to Egypt, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia. He kept a record of his impressions and experiences in little notebooks, often scribbling furtively in the shade of a palm tree or under cover of his cloak so as not to be suspected of espionage. He later wrote up these notes and dispatched them as reports to the African Association in London. After Burckhardt died of dysentery in Cairo in 1817, aged just 32, the African Association began work on the publication of the travelogues that he had penned for them in English. The first edition of the Travels in Nubia, 638 pages and two fold-out plates, begins with a potted biography of Burckhardt by William Martin Leake (1777–1860), which also quotes excerpts from the letters. This is followed by a description of Burckhardt’s travels up the Nile and of his second expedition into the Nubian Desert.

Burckhardt was one of the first Europeans to cross this desert successfully. He wrote knowledgeably about the ancient sites and about the Nubians’ traditions and customs. As the son of a businessman, he also described in detail all that he had observed of local trading practices, which had likewise been part of his brief. By no means the least of his achievements was to supply the Western world with its first account of the great temple of Abu Simbel and its colossal statues.


«Travels in Syria and the Holy Land»
by Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, called Sheikh Ibrahim

Author: Johann Ludwig Burckhardt (1784–1817), ed. William Martin Leake
London, John Murray, 1822
Paper (668 pages), cardboard, leather binding
27.8 cm x 4.9 cm x 22 cm (46.8 cm when open)
Inv. 1951.985. Gift of Dr. Max Burckhardt-Menzi, Basel

Between 1819 and 1830, the British Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa published the travelogues written at its behest by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt (1784–1817). The first edition of Burckhardt’s Travels in Syria and the Holy Land opens with a portrait of the author clad in oriental garb. Among the detailed accounts of all that he saw and experienced, his description of the ancient, rock-hewn city of Petra in what is now Jordan warrants special mention. As the first European since the Crusaders to set foot in it, he described the famous Nabataean city’s many tombs and ruins, and today is hailed as the man who rediscovered it

German translations of Burckhardt’s writings began appearing as early as 1820, when they were published in Weimar as single volumes of the series called "Neue Bibliothek der wichtigsten Reisebeschreibungen zu Erweiterung der Erd- und Volkskunde". They stand out among the many other works published during this golden age of travel writing primarily on account of Burckhardt’s practice of embedding his own first-hand experiences in a larger historical, political, and cultural context. His accounts also met with great interest on the part of geographers and cartographers. The theologian Wilhelm Gesenius (1786–1842), for example, published a new, enlarged edition of the Travels in Syria complete with a new translation in 1821, just one year after the publication of the first German edition. In his preface, Gesenius extolls Burckhardt for having “cast a most welcome light on the many dark recesses of biblical geography.”


Jordanian Order of Independence, second class, posthumously awarded to Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, alias «Sheikh Ibrahim» (1784–1817)

Switzerland, 1991
Made by Huguenin, Switzerland
Silver, parcel gilt and enamelled; fabric; case
Dia. 9 cm (large star), dia. 4.4 cm (pendant), dia. 2.2 cm (small star); weight: 513.92 g (total)
1992.86.a.-b. Deposit of the Burckhardt'sche Familienstiftun

“We, Hussein bin Talal, King of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, do hereby award the well-known Swiss explorer, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, a posthumous Order of Independence, second class, in honour of his many laudable qualities and on grounds of the prominent role played by him in the discovery of the city of Petra, which for centuries had languished under the seal of oblivion.”
This is how the Arabic of the original deed issued by the chancellor of the Hashemite Royal Court on behalf of His Majesty the King in Amman on 10 September 1990 might be translated into English. A member of the Burckhardt’sche Familienstiftung travelled to Amman to receive the order in 1991, and in a special ceremony held at the Barfüsser Church on 8 May 1992 formally presented it to the government of Canton Basel-Stadt. Since then, the Jordanian order has been preserved together with the deed here at the Historisches Museum Basel. The medal itself consists of a star mounted on a golden laurel wreath surrounded by ten bundles of silver rays.

Two years before his untimely death at the age of 32, Burckhardt wrote to his mother in a letter dated July 3rd, 1815: “My discoveries in Arabia Petrae and along the Nile from Egypt to Dongola have attracted considerable notice, and I blush to tell you of all the accolades that have been heaped upon me from all sides in England.” It follows that even during his lifetime, Burckhardt reaped the praises of the London-based African Association both for his discoveries and for his accounts of his travels. Yet he could scarcely have imagined that 173 years after his death he would be honoured with an order of merit by the king of a country which in his day did not even exist!


Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, called «Sheikh Ibrahim»

Basel, ca. 1830
Sebastian Gutzwiller (1798–1872)
Oil on canvas, H 105.5 cm, W 89 cm
Inv. 1947.221. Gift of Dr. Charlotte Burckhardt-Passavant

The turban-wearer portrayed here may not look typically Swiss, yet he counts among the most famous scions of the Basel Burckhardts, a mercantile family, many of whose members held political office. The subject’s father, Johann Rudolf Burckhardt (1750–1813), was a successful silk-ribbon manufacturer and as one of Basel’s business leaders was well connected internationally. He and his second wife, Sara, lived with their children in his very grand townhouse, the Haus zum Kirschgarten.

After attending boarding school in Neuchâtel, his seventh child, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt (1784–1817), studied history, languages, and jurisprudence at the universities of Leipzig and Göttingen. While in London in 1809, he was recruited by the African Association to explore the region between the rivers Nile and Niger. As Sheikh Ibrahim he also travelled extensively in Syria, Egypt, Nubia, and Arabia. Burckhardt won enduring acclaim as the man who rediscovered both the ancient, rock-hewn city of Petra in what is now Jordan and the great temple of Abu Simbel. After Burckhardt died of dysentery at the age of just 32, his accounts of his travels were published in both England and Germany. Some editions were illustrated with a portrait of the author in oriental costume. This painting by the Alsatian painter Sebastian Gutzwiller was painted some thirteen years after Burckhardt’s death after one of those portrait prints. The prints in their turn were based on the last portrait of Burckhardt produced during his lifetime. This was a drawing by British Consul Henry Salt, made just a few months before the sitter’s death in 1817. It shows Burckhardt as Sheikh Ibrahim, i.e. with a long beard and clad in a loose-fitting oriental robe and turban, which was the guise he adopted to avoid being identified as a Western European during his adventures in the Orient.

Portrait bust

Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, called «Sheikh Ibrahim»

Ferdinand Schlöth, Rome, 1857
Plaster, painted
H 84 cm, W 56 cm, D 36 cm
Inv. 1947.108. Gift of Hans A. Burckhardt

Born in Lausanne, raised in Basel, schooled in Neuchâtel, educated in Leipzig and Göttingen, prepared over several years for his travels in the Near East in both London and Cambridge – Johann Ludwig Burckhardt (1784–1817) was well-travelled even as a young man, as befitted the son of the wealthy silk-ribbon manufacturer Johann Rudolf Burckhardt (1750–1813). Originally destined for a career in the diplomatic corps, a shortage of available postings in London led to a change of plan and to Burckhardt agreeing to go to Syria on behalf of the Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa. By adopting the alias “Sheikh Ibrahim” he was able to slip into the role of merchant, apothecary, priest, or pilgrim, and so to embark on several extensive journeys of exploration throughout the Near East. Not only was he one of the first Europeans to visit Mecca and Medina, but he also described the rock-hewn city of Petra in what is now Jordan as well as the colossal statues of the great temple of Abu Simbel. He was prevented from accomplishing his real mission, which had been to explore the trade routes used by caravans journeying from Cairo to Timbuktu, only by adverse circumstances and his own untimely death.

Approximately four decades after Burckhardt’s death in Cairo in 1817, Basel’s burgomaster, Johann Jakob Burckhardt-Ryhiner, (1809–1888), gifted a marble bust of the explorer to the university for installation in its great hall. The artist commissioned with it was Ferdinand Schlöth (1818–1891), a Basel sculptor who was living in Rome at the time. On completion of the bust, which shows Johann Ludwig Burckhardt bareheaded in the manner of portrait busts of Roman emperors, Schlöth created a second portrait of Burckhardt later that same year. This plaster version shows the explorer in the oriental robe and turban he wore on his travels in the Orient; and it names him on the plinth as “SHEIKH IBRAHIM”. The portraits of Burckhardt in his travelogues take much the same form.

Oil painting

Tomb of Johann Ludwig Burckhardt

Rudolf Durheim, Cairo, ca. 1855
Oil on canvas
H 39.7 cm, W 58.1 cm
Inv. 1986.55.

Between September 1814 and April 1815, the explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt (1784–1817), called Sheikh Ibrahim, became one of the first Europeans to visit Islam’s holy sites of Mecca and Medina. He had prepared for his visit by studying all the required texts and might even have converted to Islam – though whether out of conviction or simply to facilitate his travels in predominantly Islamic countries it is impossible to say. Weakened by numerous bouts of illness, Burckhardt died in Cairo from a repeat attack of dysentery on 15 October 1817 and was buried according to the Islamic rite in the cemetery of the Old City of Cairo.

Thrilled by the exotic cultures and lambent light of the Orient, the Bernese painter Rudolf Durheim (1811–1895) travelled extensively in Egypt, Syria, and Palestine in the 1850s. Since he is known to have spent the years 1842 to 1846 in Basel, he could conceivably have been asked by a member of the Burckhardt family to produce a painting of their illustrious ancestor’s last resting place. Durheim first made a detailed drawing in situ, which he signed with his initials and dated “1850”, and five years later produced an oil study of the same motif. Tradition has it that both these works show the tomb of Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. That tomb in Cairo has in fact survived to this day and is now protected by a little mausoleum. Its single stele is inscribed in Arabic and surmounted by a turban. Yet the sepulchre as it looks today in fact dates from the restoration work undertaken in the 1930s at the instigation of Carl Leonhard Burckhardt (1902–1965), a businessman who at the time was resident in Egypt. Durheim’s 1855 view of it, by contrast, shows the explorer’s last resting place as it was prior to its restoration and hence presumably shows the tomb as it was originally.

Small collection presentation in Haus zum Kirschgarten

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