Arabia FelixThe Danish Expedition 1761-1767
by Thorkild Hansen, introduction by Colin Thubron, translated from the Danish by James McFarlane and Kathleen McFarlane
Arabia Felix is the spellbinding true story of a scientific expedition gone disastrously awry. On a winter morning in 1761 six men leave Copenhagen by sea—a botanist, a philologist, an astronomer, a doctor, an artist, and their manservant—an ill-assorted band of men who dislike and distrust one another from the start. These are the members of the Danish expedition to Arabia Felix, as Yemen was then known, the first organized foray into a corner of the world unknown to Europeans. The expedition made its way to Turkey and Egypt, by which time its members were already actively seeking to undercut and even kill one another, before disappearing into the harsh desert that was their destination. Nearly seven years later a single survivor returned to Denmark to find himself forgotten and all the specimens that had been sent back ruined by neglect.
Based on diaries, notebooks, and sketches that lay unread in Danish archives until the twentieth century, Arabia Felix is a tale of intellectual rivalry and a comedy of very bad manners, as well as an utterly absorbing adventure.
Arabia Felix includes 33 line drawings and maps.
This tale of an 18th century scientific expedition gone awry (first published in Danish in 1962 and back out in a new English edition) is a brutal, beautiful story of human ideals – and all the clever ways we manage to muck them up. Part history, part fiction, part travelogue, this book balances its central tragedy with some winks and smirks. And yes, it's true: Before long, I found those pages practically turned themselves.
—Colin Dwyer, NPR Book Concierge, "2017's Great Reads"
An epic voyage...unflaggingly readable and interesting.
—Don Moraes, The Spectator
The material that Thorkild Hansen has gathered for this book is as dramatic and colorful as anything....Arabia Felix is a first-class job.... Hansen has rescued from oblivion a fine story of adventure, discovery, death and endurance.... He has written a shrewd study of human character under severe stress.
—Orville Prescott, The New York Times
A blend of historical chronicle and biography...Hansen’s absorbing chronicle of this expedition and its complicated background dramas is a splendid narrative told with literary distinction.
—Edmund Fuller, The Wall Street Journal
Thorkild Hansen...has written this so well that the reader is caught up in the problems of the expedition and travels with them slowly, sometimes dangerously as well as painfully.... This book reaffirms one’s faith in the ability of the human being as an observer with minimum equipment...fascinating to the general reader.
—Lorrin Kennamer, Austin American-Statesman
A scholarly and exciting account...an admirable writer, whose narrative energies [are] clear and dynamic...he tells it simply and well. Arabia Felix must appeal to anyone who enjoys reading of adventure and exploration.
—Michael Adams, The Guardian