Jean Louis Burckhardt was born in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1784. He travelled to London when he was 22 and shortly after came under the wing of the Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa, which offered him the mission of locating the source of the River Niger. Burckhardt accepted. Then, as now, Egypt was the gateway into Africa, and so he devised a plan to familiarize himself with Islam and Arab culture in preparation for the expedition. Journeys into the Middle East at this time were extremely dangerous: the territory was virtually unknown and local people (few of whom had ever seen Europeans) were engaged in continuous tribal skirmishing and were highly suspicious of outsiders. While still in England, Burckhardt embarked on crash courses in Arabic, astronomy and medicine, and took to sleeping on the ground and eating nothing but vegetables to toughen himself up.
On his arrival in Aleppo in 1809, locals immediately questioned him about his strange accent. Burckhardt told his cover story: that he was a Muslim trader from India and his mother tongue wasn’t Arabic but Hindustani. Suspicion persisted, and he was pressed to say something in Hindustani, whereupon he let loose a volley of fluent Swiss-German – which seemed to satisfy the doubters. Burckhardt spent over two years in Aleppo, adopting local customs, taking the name Sheikh Ibrahim ibn Abdallah, perfecting his Arabic and becoming an expert in Quranic law.
In 1812, Burckhardt set off for Cairo, recording everything that he saw in a secret journal: had he been found out, no doubt he would have been killed as a spy. Around Karak, he heard the locals talking of an ancient city locked away in the heart of an impenetrable mountain. His curiosity was aroused, but there was no way he could openly declare an interest without bringing suspicion onto himself: a genuine devotee of Islam would know that such ruins were the work of infidels and of no concern. Burckhardt made up a story that he had vowed to sacrifice a goat at the shrine of the Prophet Aaron atop Jabal Haroun near the ruins: an unimpeachably honourable motive for pressing on.
As he and his guide approached Wadi Musa (then known by its old name of Elji), they were stopped by the Liyathneh tribe, camped near Ain Musa, who tried to persuade them to sacrifice their goat there and then, with the white shrine in plain view on the distant summit. But Sheikh Ibrahim insisted on going on, much to the irritation of his guide. They went down the steep hill, on into the Siq, and arrived at the Treasury. Burckhardt somehow managed to make detailed notes and a sketch of the facade, and they continued throughout the city in this way, Burckhardt writing and sketching in secret, his guide becoming ever more suspicious. They reached the foot of Jabal Haroun as dusk was falling, and Burckhardt finally submitted to his guide’s insistence that they make the sacrifice and turn back.
Burckhardt’s adventures continued: he arrived in Cairo to prepare for his great African expedition, but quickly got tangled in bureaucracy. In the meantime he travelled deep into Nubia, crossed the Red Sea to Jeddah (and was probably the first Christian ever to enter Mecca, where his Quranic learning deeply impressed the city’s religious judge), and explored Sinai, but back in Egypt in 1817, he contracted dysentery and died in eleven days, with his journey to the Niger not even begun. All Burckhardt’s journals were published after his death, Travels in Nubia and Travels in Arabia overshadowed by the news of his rediscovery of Petra, published in 1822 in Travels in Syria and the Holy Land. His grave, bearing his pseudonym Sheikh Ibrahim, is visitable in a Muslim cemetery in Cairo. Its existence shows that, far from being simply a game or ploy, Burckhardt’s alter ego took on a genuine life of its own.