Arabia Felix is an extraordinary story of endurance on an 18th Century Danish expedition to the Yemen, known in antiquity as “Arabia Felix”. I noticed recently that New York Review Books was reprinting this book, and was reminded that I had the 1964 Harper and Row edition on my shelf. I knew nothing of this work, but NYRB has a good record of reissuing excellent older titles, so I thought it would be worth a look. I’m glad I did, because from the beginning I was pulled into a masterfully told narrative of exploration, rivalry, hardship and adventure. Hansen tells the story so remarkably that I hesitate to reveal too much, other than to say that he breathes real life into the six men who set out to undertake the expedition under the aegis of the King of Denmark for the purpose of describing the manuscripts, monuments, and natural history of far southern Arabia. The idea was that in this land, fabled in antiquity for its riches, an uncorrupted way of life harkening back to biblical times persisted, and that the discovery of those treasures would bring glory to the Danish kingdom and important scientific and historical knowledge to Europe.
The undertaking turned into a six year endeavor, the challenges of which most members of the expedition rose to heroically. The success of the endeavor turned doubtful when one of the members, the thoroughly unlikable von Haven, purchases packages of arsenic in an Istanbul apothecary shop. This creates a tension that underlies the expedition for quite some time, until the charms of their destination (which would soon enough turn sour) envelope them. This country, which contains both scorching desert and idyllic mountain palaces, holds within it a sickness that will overtake the expedition and imperil its success.
Thorkild Hansen obviously did painstaking research for this book, and the genuine feeling of compassion and humanity that runs through it reveals that it must have been a labor of love. If you enjoy a captivating tale of true adventure, I hope you’ll take a chance on this one.