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.


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.

Touring the Near East

1 Gessner Tulip

Conrad Gessner sketch of tulip grown in Johann Herwart’s garden in 1559. Gessner Notebook, University Library Erlangen, Germany.

In past blog posts, I’ve focused on early modern botanical exploration from the Far East (1,2,3,4) to Latin America (1,2,3,4) and most recently, North America (1,2,3,4).  The set of posts I’m beginning this week will be the final one on exploration, at least for a while, and will again turn east, to Greece and the Near East.  Travel there was different from what I’ve already described.  Most obviously, it didn’t entail long ocean voyages, though there was usually some water travel through parts of the eastern Mediterranean to reach Turkey or Egypt.  This relative accessibility meant that those interested in natural history did not have to trek as part of large-scale expeditions, usually undertaken by naval powers such as France, Spain, the Netherlands, or Britain and usually with political and economic objectives.  Travel in the Near East was often for similar purposes, but on a different scale.  There were diplomatic missions to the Court of the Suliman in Istanbul or groups of merchants seeking trade relations in Turkey, Egypt, or Persia.

In 1453, the Byzantine Empire came to an end when Constantinople fell to Turkish forces.  This changed the political dynamics of the region, but its economic importance meant that Europeans were still interested in doing business there.  Because of historical ties to the region as well as geography, the Holy Roman Empire (HRE) based in Vienna, was in a good position to nourish relationships with the numerous rulers of the eastern Mediterranean and beyond.  Venice was another eastern-facing city with long-nurtured links to the region, but the Dutch, whose ports were on the North Sea, were also involved because their royal family had close ties with the HRE.

All this history and geography may seem a long way from plants, but I’m setting the stage for some of the key botanical forays to the Near East.  Because they were undertaken by just a few people the reports were written less as major studies of the region, such as those undertaken by Paul Hermann for the plants of Ceylon or Francisco Hernández for Latin America, and more as travelogues or a compilation of letters; these individuals were more travelers rather than explorers.  They were not going into completely unknown territory, instead they were reporting on areas which had a long-known history, including Biblical lands.  With the focus changing from European warfare with the Muslims to greater interest in trade as Europe developed economically, the Near East was opening up, at least a little, to the West.  However, travel was still difficult and dangerous; chroniclers write of being taken prisoner for varying periods of time and getting caught up unknowingly in local enmities.

For those interested in plants, the difficulties were worth it because they were able to finally see species that the best botanical writers of ancient world, Theophrastus and Dioscorides, had described.  At the time when one of the first of these travelers, Pierre Belon (1517-1564), visited the area in 1547, these ancient texts were still the primary sources of plant information available.  Belon was an apothecary who had also studied medicine and had traveled with his teacher Valerius Cordus, one of the leading botanists of his day.  Belon became the apothecary to a French cardinal and thus came to the attention of the king of France, Francis I, who sent Belon as part of a delegation to the court of Suleiman the Magnificent in Constantinople.  While there Belon not only studied the plants, but obtained a copy of Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine (Willis, 2011).  Access to such prized works was one of the benefits of traveling east.  European botanists were still relying heavily on these texts and were only beginning to develop botanical knowledge based on direct observation.

Belon journeyed from France through Croatia and stayed in Greece and Crete for some time.  This allowed him to see plants that Theophrastus had discussed.  Then he moved on to Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and Turkey, returning to France in 1549.  He is thought to be the first Westerner to describe the tulip, and he may have brought seeds back with him.  In her wonderful book on the tulip, Anna Pavord (1999) suggests that he may have been responsible for the first tulip to bloom in Europe, in the Bavarian garden of Johann Herwart in 1559.  In the next blog post I’ll get back to the tulip’s history, but the tulip wasn’t the only plant Belon described.  He also wrote about the lilac, plane tree, cedar, holm oak, olive tree, and oleander.  In addition, he discussed the doum palm, black myrtle, cassia tree, and sycamore fig (Thinard, 2016).

Belon noted the beauty of many of these plants and their medicinal uses as well.  Belon made the interesting observation that medicinal plants were considered so important that the camels carrying them were more closely guarded than those loaded with silks (Willis, 2011).  It’s observations like this that give Belon’s book its fascinating flavor.  An English translation of excerpts from it was published a century later in a book by John Ray that included a translation of the journal of another botanist who toured the Middle East, Leonhard Rauwolf, who will be the subject of a later post in this series.  But before I get to him, I’ll discuss the person usually credited with bringing the tulip to Europe, Ogier Ghiselin Busbecq.


Pavord, A. (1999). The Tulip: The Story of a Flower That Has Made Men Mad. London, UK: Bloomsbury.

Thinard, F. (2016). Explorers’ Botanical Notebook. Buffalo, NY: Firefly.

Willis, M. (2011). The Making of the English Gardener. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.