Touring the Near East: Leonhard Rauwolf

3 Limonium sinuatum

Limonium sinuatum collected in Lebanon by Leonhard Rauwolf in 1575. Collection of the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, The Netherlands.

In the last post, I discussed Ogier Ghiselin Busbecq’s introduction of many Near Eastern plants into Western Europe through the writings, specimens, seeds, and bulbs he distributed.  Twenty years after Busbecq left for Constantinople, the German physician and botanist Leonhard Rauwolf (1535-1596) set out for an extensive tour of the Near East.  While Busbecq went as a diplomat, Rauwolf went primarily as someone interested in plants; he was sponsored by his brother-in-law, a prominent trader who had agents in several countries including Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine, and Syria.  Rauwolf was charged with providing medical treatments for the trader’s employees and also with investigating medicinal plants and treatments that might be profitable for his patron.

Rauwolf was well-equipped for his mission.  He was born in Ausburg in southern Germany and studied medicine in France, including some time at the University of Montpellier, tutored by the noted botanist Guillaume Rondelet in 1560.  From this time on Rauwolf kept a herbarium, which documented not only what but where he collected.  He also carefully studied the work of Dioscorides, the first-century physician whose herbal was the major botanical text still relied upon by doctors in the 16th century.  But as botanists studied plants more carefully in their native ranges they realized that the characteristics of the species in France and Germany did not always match with Dioscoridean descriptions.  This was a major reason Rauwolf wanted to visit the Mediterranean region:  to see firsthand the plants that Dioscorides had described (Dannenfeldt, 1968).

Rauwolf set out in May 1573 and traveled to Marseilles with a friend and from there sailed to Tripoli.  He went to Aleppo with a camel caravan and then beyond to the Euphrates River in southern Turkey, sailing on the river to Baghdad.  On the return trip, it was caravan all the way until they again reached Tripoli.  They went through a lot of rough country not just in terms of geography, but also because of encounters with local tribes that were often wary of foreigners and questioning of their loyalties.  These details make Rauwolf’s journal intriguing.  The reader wants to find out what is going to happen next.  For each of the places he visits he describes not only the plants he encountered, but also the terrain, the people and their customs, and the problems that arose.  He tells of others who had been captured and held prisoner for years on this route, and he himself turned back after reaching Baghdad because of violence in the area.

Despite all the problems, it’s clear that Rauwolf is enchanted by the plants he sees, and he frequently notes how they are similar to those described in Dioscorides and Theophrastus.  This is indeed what he came for, though at several points he writes of how disappointed he is in the medicinal herbs that are available from local apothecaries when he is looking for treatments for his patients.  This dearth may be real, or it may be that the remedies are so different from what he is accustomed to he can’t appreciate what he’s offered, or that the locals aren’t willing to share their finest sources with him.  In any case, he does his best to record what he sees growing around him and writes, for example, about “plants, which I gather’d during my stay in Aleppo, in and round about it, not without great danger and trouble . . . All these and several other herbs have I preserved and glued to some paper, with great and peculiar care, so that they are to be seen in their natural colors so exact, as if they were green “ (pp. 73, 77).

Many of these specimens still exist.  There are four volumes of Rauwolf’s herbarium preserved at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, the Netherlands, and they are now the subject of an intensive study being conducted on 16th-century herbaria by a group that Tilde van Andel heads.  In her inaugural address as the Clusius Chair at Leiden University in 2017, she noted that Rauwolf’s “herbarium was locked in a treasure room for more than 400 years, where it was only seen by a handful of botanists” (p. 5).  Now things are changing, and it is exciting to see this much attention given to these early specimens.  The fourth volume of Rauwolf’s specimens is a particularly important historical document, because the 191 species preserved there were collected on his Near East trip and are supported by his published journal and the illustrations it includes (Ghorbani et al., 2018).  One early result of this new attention is the typification of two Linnaean plant names based on two of these illustrations.  There are also herbarium specimens relating to these images (Ghorbani et al., 2017).

Another reason Rauwolf’s work is more accessible today is that his journal is available electronically through the Biodiversity Heritage Library.  Both the 1583 version in German is there as well as a translation into English that was published in 1693 by the botanist John Ray.  I was curious as to what moved Ray to work on Rauwolf, so I consulted Charles Raven’s (1950) biography of Ray.  It turns out that Ray himself did not do the translation.  It was created by a German apothecary under the aegis of Hans Sloane, the great collector and botanist.  Sloane and others thought the manuscript needed editing to improve the English and also to update the plant identifications.  They urged Ray to take on the job, and though he was busy with his own work, he accepted the assignment, appending a list of the plants Rauwolf discussed.  Also added were excerpts from the writings of a number of other travelers to the Near East.  I’ll touch on these and later explorers in the next post.


Dannenfeldt, K. H. (1968). Leonhard Rauwolf, Sixteenth-Century Physician, Botanist, and Traveler. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ghorbani, A., de Boer, H. J., Maas, P. J. M., & van Andel, T. 2017. The typification of two Linnaean plant names based on illustrations published by Leonhard Rauwolf in 1583. Taxon, 66(5), 1204-1207.

Ghorbani, A., Wieringa, J. J., de Boer, H. J., Porck, H., Kardinaal, A., & van Andel, T. (2018). Botanical and floristic composition of the Historical Herbarium of Leonhard Rauwolf collected in the Near East (1573-1575). Taxon, 67(3), 565-580.

Raven, C. E. (1950). John Ray Naturalist: His Life and Work. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

van Andel, T. (2017, January). Open the Treasure Room and Decolonize the Museum. Inaugural Lecture, Leiden University.

One thought on “Touring the Near East: Leonhard Rauwolf

  1. Pingback: Open the Treasure Rooms | Herbarium World

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s