Touring the Middle East: More Travelers

4 Astragalus psoraloides

Astragalus psoraloides collected in Armenia by Joseph Pitton de Tournefort. Herbarium, Musée National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris.

In the last post, I mentioned that the botanist John Ray had edited a translation into English of Leonhard Rauwolf’s journal of his trip to the Near East in 1573-1574.  Ray’s 1693 work includes excerpts from the writings of other travelers to the area, some of whom focused on plants, while others were more interested in antiquities and geography.  This mélange was the brainchild of Hans Sloane, who collected manuscripts as well as plants, and a lot more.  The excerpts bear mention here because they include some interesting sources such as parts of Pierre Belon’s book on his trip in 1547.   I discussed Belon in an earlier post, and I’ll quote him here to give the flavor of his prose:  “The most remarkable Herbs I took notice of, were Papyrus Nilotica (a sort of Cyperus out of whose threads, or filaments, the ancients made their paper.) The Colocasia, or great Egyptian Arum, whose root they boil with most of their meats:  The Sugar-cane, or Reed, by the fuel whereof thy melt their Metals, wood being scarce in Egypt” (p. 410).

In Ray’s book, there are also descriptions of plants written by George Wheeler (also Wheler) who went to Greece and Asia Minor.  It is essentially a list of places he visited and the plants he found there.  He shared his information with Ray, and the plants are included in another of Ray’s works.  This is noted at the end of the entry, as a friendly reminder from the editor that his other work might be useful to a reader seeking more botanical information.  Ray does this at the end of several of the entries.  Wheeler’s 1682 book, under the name Wheler, is available electronically through the Royal Collection Trust.  It is illustrated with images not only of plants, but of animals, antiquities, and ancient ruins.  In addition, Wheler collected plant specimens which he gave to Oxford University, where they are preserved.

In his book on a later traveler to the Near East, John Sibthorp, Stephen Harris (2007) of Oxford University classifies early European travelers to the area into three groups.  First were those with medical interests and diplomats, Pierre Belon, Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, and Leonhard Rauwolf, whom I’ve mentioned in earlier posts (1,2,3), fit into these categories.  The second group included those who wanted a more extensive “Grand Tour,” not limited to France, Germany, and Italy.  And third were men on “official” expeditions, sponsored by governments and with published results.  Harris sees Sibthorp’s two trips east as falling into all three categories, since he was interested in tracing the plants describe by Dioscorides in his first-century herbal, had the money to make a tour as grand as he desired, and led his own expedition.  This enterprise included the artist Ferdinand Bauer who created the exquisite drawings for the massive Flora Graeca.  Sibthorp’s died shortly after he returned from his second voyage east, and the flora was left unpublished for years.  It is a testimony to his work and that of Bauer and of James Edward Smith who did a massive editing job since Sibthorp’s notes lacked order at the time he died.  Both his specimens and the flora are available online.

As far as Harris’s third category of “official” expeditions, he notes that there were two before Sibthorp’s travels in the 1790s.  First there was Joseph Pitton de Tournefort’s trip in 1700-1702, sponsored by the French King, Louis XIV.  Tournefort too traveled with an artist, Claude Aubriet, who also created excellent illustrations for this work.  The other was led by Carsten Niebuhr in 1761 under the patronage of the Danish King.  The botanist on this expedition was Peter Forsskål, a former student of Carl Linnaeus.  Unfortunately, Forsskål didn’t survive the journey, though much of the information he collected was published after his death.  The early deaths of Sibthrop and Forsskål suggest that travel at that time could be physically brutal; deserts were very hot and very cold places, and mountain terrain was difficult to navigate.

Fortunately for botanical science, these travelers left documents in texts and specimens that are available to us today.  I’ve already cited Sibthorp’s materials.  Forsskål’s specimens are at the University of Copenhagen and Tournefort’s at the Musée Nationale d’Histoire Naturale in Paris and their books are available through the Biodiversity Heritage Library.  Obviously, Forsskål was using Linnaean taxonomy in his work, while Tournefort’s analysis was not only pre-Linnaean because of when it was written, but also because he had a different taxonomic philosophy.  Tournefort was one of the most important exponents of a natural system for classifying plants.  His work in the Near East was only a small portion of his contributions to botany which included his teaching many of the botanical notables of his time, including Hans Sloane, who has been mentioned here many times, and William Sherard, a British botanist and diplomat who served as British Council at Smyrna in Turkey for several years and whose herbarium is now at Oxford University.  As with so many of the people whose names occur in these blog posts, these are linked in a complex network of interactions, that makes this history all the more intriguing.


Harris, S. (2007). The Magnificent Flora Graeca: How the Mediterranean Came to the English Garden. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.