Vamberry, Arminius (Hungarian Jewish traveler and Orientalist, undercover explorer among the Persians.)

He was apprenticed at the age of twelve to a ladies dressmaker, but after becoming tutor to the son of the village innkeeper, he was enabled by his friends to enter the gymnasium of St. George, near Presburg. Later he studied at Vienna, Kecskemet, and Budapest. Vambery was attracted by the literature and culture of Turkey, and in 1854 he went to Constantinople. There he became a private tutor. About this time he was elected to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in recognition of his translations of Turkish historians. In 1861, disguised as a Sunnite dervish (a person who goes into mystical trances), he set out from Constantinople. He explored Persia and Afghanistan – the first journey of its kind undertaken by a European. Vambery could not take notes since he had to avoid suspicion. He returned to Europe in 1864 and became professor of Oriental languages in the University of Budapest. He became a publicist defending the English policy in the East as against that of the Russians.

Arminius Vambery as Dervish


Vambery’s gift for languages came in handy when he was playing the part of a dervish near Teheran. His companions having discovered that he understood European languages became suspicious. Vambery explained to them that "Allah had, as a reward for his piousness, blessed him with the grace of being able to talk in all tongues." The Persians believed it, and very soon the rumour went abroad that he was a miraculous Hadji who was conversant with every language. The Swedish Minister to Teheran, who had heard of this, proposed to put the holy man on his trial. A begging Dervish upon a Persian highway who knew Swedish was really unimaginable. Thus it would be easy for him to unmask the humbug. Accompanied by several Europeans and by Persian Court officials, he rode outside the gate where Vambery was sitting in Oriental fashion on his crossed legs. The Minister stopped in front of him, and suddenly addressed him in Swedish. Vambery just knew, in a poor way, how to read this language, but he was unable to speak it. However, not a muscle in his face moved; he slowly raised his eyes to the gigantic Swede, and all at once, distinctly and slowly, began to recite one stanza of Tegner’s "Frithjof’s Saga." This stanza had, somehow, remained in his memory, and it was indeed all that he could, coherently and without making mistakes, say in Swedish. The Swede hearing the lines of poetry in his mother tongue, spoken by the ragged, turbaned, begging Dervish, changed color, remained for a moment speechless, then sharply turned his horse round and spurred it away. He was scared and convinced of having experienced something supernatural. Even fourteen years later Vambery could not help laughing heartily when he described the stupefied countenance of the Swedish Minister.

(source: Max Nordau’s introduction to "The Life and Adventures of Arminius Vambery – written by himself" and The Jewish Encyclopedia)

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Posted on August 25, 2011, in Explorers and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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