Category Archives: Explorers

Palgrave, William Gifford (1826-88) (Explorer who traversed hostile Arabian Peninsula – among other things)

William Palgrave


A scholar and a soldier, a Jesuit and a Jew, a French spy and a British ambassador – Palgrave was a man of contradictions, all of them highly compromising when in 1862-3, fortified by Pius IX’s blessing and Napoleon III’s cash, he attempted the first west-east crossing of the Arabian peninsula. To steely nerves and a genius for disguise he owed his eventual success; but not before both were sorely tested, when, as a Syrian doctor, he became the first European to enter Riyadh. The desert capital of the fanatical Wahabis, dangerous for an infidel at the best of times, was then doubly so as the sons of the ageing king Feisal intrigued for power. At one point, Palgrave was accused by a Saudi Prince of being a Christian, a spy, and a revolutionist, come to ruin the Moslem religion and state. But Palgrave bluffed his way out.
Palgrave’s father was interesting too – he was a child prodigy who at the age of eight translated Homer’s "Battle of the Frogs" from Greek into French. As an adult he changed his name from Cohen to Palgrave and converted to Christianity. He wrote many important historical works.
(Source – John Keay’s book Exploration – Classic Accounts of the Great Stories of Human Endeavour, and the Jewish Encyclopedia)

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)

Stein, Sir Aurel (Jewish Explorer of the Silk Road)

Marc Aurel Stein

Aurel Stein was a giant of Central Asian scholarship. He was a explorer, archaeologist, geographer, and a phenomenal linguist. He was brought up in Budapest, Hungary, where he received a top-notch university education. He was fascinated by Orientalism and philology from an early age.

While studying Oriental manuscripts in England in 1887, Stein heard of a suitable job in India. But he yearned to explore the wild and treacherous regions of Central Asia, which first captured his imagination as a schoolboy, when he read about the exploits there of Alexander the Great. In 1900, he embarked on a great adventure which was to last for 30 years: the discovery of the lost cities of the Silk Road, the ancient trading route which once linked China to the Mediterranean, and along which silk first found its way to the West. Replete with priceless artefacts, its cities had lain buried in the deserts of Chinese Turkestan for 1,500 years.

Stein led extensive archaeological expeditions by camel caravan across the Taklamakan – the forbidding "desert of death" – and along hair raising mountain passes. They sometimes took over two years, during which he braved freezing temperatures, sweltering heat and sandstorms, and saw no other Westerner. He returned with treasures by the ton – sculptures and frescoes, ancient silks, manuscripts and other relics of a bygone Buddhist civilisation. He even unearthed the earliest known printed book. Then the Chinese banned him, branding him a "foreign devil" and "wicked bandit."

But Sir Aurel Stein was no bandit. He lovingly preserved and recorded what he had found for posterity.

For more detail, including a map of Marc’s route, see: an archeologist follows his dreams.

Heilprin, Angelo – Explorer

Angelo Heilprin

In 1891, Angelo Heilprin became the first president of the Geographical Club of Philadelphia. He climbed erupting Mont Pelee on the island of Martinique in 1902. It had sent burning ashes and superheated steam at over 100 miles per hour, suffocating and scorching 40,000 people, and demolishing everything in its path. Soon after the news hit the Philadelphia headlines, Professor Heilprin was on his way south. When he arrived, the mountain was still sending out lava, steam, and toxic gases. Along with a journalist, George Kennan, he clambered up the steep flanks of the volcano until he could see the exploding guts of Mont Pelee just a few feet away. Kennan said: "I must pay the highest possible tribute to Heilprin. .. He is a superb mountaineer and the nerviest and pluckiest man I ever knew. The ascent was the most terrifying experience of my life".

Angelo was born in Hungary in 1853 and emigrated in 1856 with his parents to the US. He went to London where he studied at the Royal School of Mines with Huxley as his guide. There he received the Forbes medal for proficiency in Biology and Paleontology. He did great geographic exploration work in Mexico and elsewhere. The society gives out a Heilprin medal which it has presented to distinguished authors like Thor Heyerdahl, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, John Glenn and others.

Foa, Edouard – French Jewish Explorer of Africa In The Late 1800’s

Edouard Foa

In 1880 Edouard Foa, at 19 years old, left his homeland of France for the wilds of Algeria, where he spent three years mapping the unknown reaches of its rivers. When he came home in 1885, having also explored the French Congo, he was famous, and was decorated with the highest award of the Paris Geographical Society, La Grande Medaille d’Or.

Then he was invited by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and of Colonies to make a crossing of Africa from the Indian to the Atlantic ocean. His main exploration started in Gazaland, a little known part of Mozambique. His caravan had 380 members. But many times he would leave the caravan and make detours on his own, often at risk to his life. He started crossing Africa at the mouth of Zambezi, in 1894. For several months the expedition made its way up the Zambezi. There were long halts when the white men went off shooting big game. Foa ranks as one of the greatest hunters that have ever lived in Africa, something nowadays that we might not feel positive about. With a single gun he managed in two years to kill 30 elephants. Altogether his expedition secured for the Paris Zoological Museum several hundred specimens of African animals, including some that were very rare.
Edouard found that the great Lake Nyassa was wrongly marked on the charts, and he found the source of the Zambezi, a place which geographers had argued about for centuries.
In the effort to reach the great tributary of the Congo, the Kasai, he encountered great difficulties, the bearers refusing to undergo further hardships in the mountain. But he decided to cross the heart of the warlike and untamed Wanyambezi country, a home of cannibals. For 20 days he and his men trekked through the giant Congo Forest. Foa was the first white man to see these particular regions.
Finally, after a five and half months journey by canoe, the expedition reached Stanley Pool, and went on to Gabon, where in Dec. 12, 1897, the crossing of Africa was complete.
Foa wrote a book on hunting, full of excellent yarns, and some other books, His health, however, was broken, so he returned to Africa to seek the sun, but he died at the early age of 39 on June 29, 1901. (source "Rhodesian Jewry and Its Story – by Eric Rosenthal – you can find this document on the internet)