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‘Charles Huber: France’s Greatest Arabian Explorer’ by William Facey

‘Charles Huber: France’s Greatest Arabian Explorer’ by William Facey

William Facey gave a talk for the MBI Al Jaber Foundation and The IASA on his most recent book about Charles Huber, making the case for Huber to be considered France’s greatest Arabian explorer. While most people interested in Arabia have heard of Huber, and he stands on par with people like Niebuhr, Burckhardt, Doughty and Philby, not much is known about him and no obituary or biography was published after his death, even in France. Facey’s new publication seeks to remedy this omission.

Huber himself is partly to blame for this lack of knowledge, as he wrote only one book and that was published posthumously. The book was the journal of his second expedition to Arabia but was merely a reproduction of his note books; useful but with no attempt to shape a narrative or to give any coherence.

However, Facey reveals that in fact Huber had written a narrative account of his first Arabian journey of 1880-1 but that it had been published only in four journal articles which appeared just after his death in 1884/5 in the Bulletin de la Société de géographie (Paris). These articles in fact comprise a highly significant account of the journey which has never been republished until now in Facey’s new publication. This new book finally puts Huber in the spotlight and gives the critical assessment of his life and work which he deserves.

Facey started his talk by outlining the significance of Huber as an explorer before giving an account of his early life and character, his first Arabian journey, and then the difficult relationship with the German semitist Julius Euting. He then looked at Huber’s second Arabian journey (1883-4) and his death in the Hijaz on 29 July 1884. Finally, he considered the Franco-German embroglio over the discovery of the Tayma Stele.

In Facey’s opinion, what emerges most strongly from the report of Huber’s first expedition is that he was before his time as a scientific explorer. His main focus was on geography and mapmaking and he was championed accordingly by the Société de Géographie Paris and sponsored financially by the Ministry of Education. He was an excellent collector of data, and amassed an impressive array of samples.

He also possessed the great knack of making friends with the locals, and was especially lucky to gain the friendship of Mohammed Al Rashid, mayor of Ha’il, whose domain extended over the Nejd. Al Rashid’s protection meant that Huber was able to undertake journeys on camel back usually travelling with only one guide.

One of the results of the first journey was a detailed map (a facsimile of which is reproduced in Facey’s book) which was a huge leap forward for the European understanding of Arabian interior. Huber also sought out ancient inscriptions and archaeological remains, and was aware of the importance of the graffiti he collected; when he saw the Nabataean inscriptions at Madain Saleh he resolved to return.

Born in Strasburg, and brought up in a poor Catholic home, Huber got a job as a clerk and book-keeper and undertook courses in various sciences in his spare time. He did have occasional troubles with women and money and in 1868 at the age of 20 he was convicted of theft and sentence to 6 months in jail. He showed courage and fortitude in his travels, but was prone to risk-taking, which presaged his early demise. It is possible that he served in the Franco-Prussian war, as we know he suffered a leg wound. Things became difficult for Huber when France lost Strasbourg: he would not relinquish French citizenship and joined the League d’Alsace. He looked elsewhere to find a path in life, and went to Algeria in January 1874, finding employment in the French administration, where he was dogged by scandal. His time in Algeria inspired his interest in Arab culture.

In 1878 his membership of the League d’Alsace led to him being expelled by the German authorities. Huber went to Paris, adopted a false identity and got a job in a chemical company. He continued to study Arabic and anthropology, and was in touch with the Societé de Geographie as he was planning to go to spend some time in Egypt, and from there travel to record monuments and inscriptions in the Near East and to carry out some head measuring in the Hijaz.

His plan came to nothing but he very soon tried again and submitted a proposal. In three pages he sketched out a scheme to explore the whole of the Arabian Peninsula and then carry on to Iraq, Persia and Afghanistan and even Tibet. The expedition was to last 3 years. He presented this to the Ministry of Education who awarded him 8,000 francs.

In May 1879 he set off. But the Ministry had found out about his prison record and was making enquiries. In May 1880, after a series of setbacks, Huber finally reached Al Jawf where he could call on the protection of Sheikh Mohammed ibn Rashid. The two men formed a bond and Huber used Ha’il as his base for six pioneering excursions that would revolutionise Europe’s knowledge of the northern Nejd. Four of these were relatively local, enabling him to establish the area’s topography and record inscriptions. He was also determined to push south, though ibn Rashid was reluctant as this area was outside his direct control, but eventually he gave in and provided Huber with a single guide. It was a risky journey but Huber survived and returned.

Huber next made a long journey west along the southern fringe of the Nefud, first to Tayma where he reported on the ancient remains. He recorded 3 small pre-Islamic inscriptions, but significantly, does not mention the Tayma stele. He then went on into the Northern Hijaz, Madain Saleh and Al Ula, and across the Ḥarrat Rahāṭ lava flows to Al-Ha’at and was the first person to report on the important ancient remains there.

Meanwhile he had written to Paris requesting another 15000 francs to enable him to continue his exploration. The Ministry, peeved by his criminal record and scant report of his journey so far, wrote back asking for his immediate return but not giving a reason why. Deprived of funds, he had no choice but to go home.

Unable to make the journey to Jeddah due to tribal unrest, he opted instead to join a Persian pilgrimage caravan departing in January 1881 for Iraq resulting in a description of the Hajj caravan and its route along the medieval Darb Zubaydah which is an important historic document. He spent the rest of 1881 in Iraq visiting ancient sites in Babylonia and working on a British Museum excavation. In December, he decided to return to Damascus along the old direct courier route across the Syrian desert. He had travelled at least 5000km on camel back.

On return to Strasbourg, he submitted his report to the Ministry in March 1882. Though he had only covered a fraction of his original scheme, his observations and the scientific data he had amassed were recognised immediately as a major contribution to knowledge. One of his most significant discoveries was the pinpointing of the water shed in northern Arabia. He had redeemed himself in the eyes of his patrons and done enough to earn the Society of Geography’s Gold Medal.

Huber set out to raise funds for a second expedition and to write up his first journey for publication. He was keen to get out of Strasbourg again, as his political leanings and scandals continued to make life difficult. At this point, Julius Euting enters the story. Euting was older than Huber and already achieving eminence as one of the foremost semitic epigraphists of his generation. Born in Germany, he had moved to Strasbourg to take up a post in the Kaiser Wilhelm University. Euting had long been contemplating an expedition to Arabia. We don’t know how and the two men first met, but at some point they teamed up.

Huber submitted his proposal for a second expedition, this time focused solely on Arabia, with a time span of two years and a budget of 35000 francs. The Ministry was supportive, but could not make funds available straightaway, and only granted 10000 francs, which was not dispensed immediately. In any case, he had already set out with Euting who had raised funds on his own and had invited Huber. Unfortunately the two men did not get on, and both thought of themselves as expedition leader.

Euting had made the formal concession that all finds would go to Paris, part from one object which he could choose. Huber had to conceal the fact that he was with Euting from the Ministry in France, though the head of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, Ernest Renan, knew and may have encouraged the partnership.

Huber’s second Arabian journey is in two parts, first in the company of Euting, ending at Madain Saleh in March 1884 and the second his return to Ha’il, travel on to Jeddah and to Rabigh where he met his death on 29 July 1884. The two men maintained a pretence that they were travelling separately and their route covered more or less the same ground as part of Huber’s first journey. En route to Tayma they came across many prolific sites with Islamic graffiti and on reaching Tayma in February they scoured the town for inscriptions. A local took Euting to a building with an upside-down stele used as a door jamb. Euting realised that it was an important Aramaic inscription and told Huber, who bought it with Euting’s money. Huber then claimed that he had seen the stele on his previous journey and when Euting said that this was the single object that he would like to claim as per their agreement Huber was determined to keep it for Paris.

The pair travelled on to Al Ula, leaving their inscriptions in Tayma, and at Al Ula, Huber told Euting that he would not be welcome in Ha’il and that he should go home on his own. Euting did go home, and quickly published the inscriptions and squeezes, much to the annoyance of Renaud. Huber’s plan was to send for the inscriptions and stele, and then return to Europe. Unfortunately, on his journey north he was killed on 29th July by one or more of his guides. He was just 36 years old.

Eventually, the Tayma stele and other of Huber’s discoveries and possessions were returned to Paris, even though Euting claimed the stele for Germany. Facey’s book proves that it was actually Euting who discovered the stele, but that it was the French who managed to remove it from Arabia. The rightful place for the stele, however, is as question that may be debated today: should it, in fact, be returned to Arabia?

A question and answer session followed Facey’s excellent talk, which indeed shed well-deserved light on the life and career of Charles Huber, and justified that suggestion that Huber is France’s greatest explorer of Arabia.

Watch on our YouTube Channel: https://youtu.be/8YIvGjHtT1o

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