of Finland Bulletin 2011
The National Library of Finland Bulletin 2011


Kaj Öhrnberg

The extraordinary travels of Georg August Wallin or ‛Abd al-Wālī

From the Åland Islands to the Arabian Peninsula

When Russia acquired Finland from Sweden in the war of 1808-09, the Russian Empire was opened to Finnish academic circles and not only to those with an interest in Finno-Ugric studies. Several Finns pursued Oriental studies in the main seats of Oriental scholarship in Russia, namely Saint Petersburg, Kazan and Moscow. One of those to benefit from Finland's new position was Georg August Wallin (1811–1852).

The Orientalist

Born on 24 October, 1811 in the Åland Islands, Wallin studied Arabic, Persian, Turkish and classical languages at the Imperial Alexander University of Helsinki from 1829 to 1836 and in Saint Petersburg from 1840 to 1842. A key figure for his future travels was his Arabic teacher in Saint Petersburg, Shaikh Muḥammad ‛Ayyād al-Ṭanṭāwī (1810–1861), whose stories about Egypt and the Arabs inspired Wallin to become acquainted in situ with the Arabs and Islamic culture. In 1841, Wallin was awarded a travel grant from the Imperial Alexander University in Helsinki to enable him to further his studies of Arabic dialects and acquaint himself with the doctrines of the nineteenth-century fundamentalists, the Wahhābīs, who dominated the form of Islam practised on the Arabian Peninsula. It thus happened that in the 1840s when the interest of Finnish academic circles, inspired by romanticism and an awakening national spirit, was focused almost exclusively on Siberia, a head-strong Finnish individualist travelled over the Arabian Peninsula on a camel, seeking the Noble Savage of the Romantics in one Bedouin camp after another.

Abd al-Wālī

In July 1843, Wallin set sail from Helsinki, arriving in Cairo in January of 1844. Using Cairo as his base, he made three expeditions into the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula and Sinai, the basis for his later reputation as a linguist and explorer. Throughout his stay in Cairo and during his journeys, the Nordic scholar presented himself as a Muslim subject of the Russian Tsar: ‛Abd al-Wālī from Bukhara in Central Asia.

In April of 1845 when ‛Abd al-Wālī set out on his first desert journey, he became the first European to reach al-Jauf and Ḥā'il, from where he intended to continue to the Persian Gulf. However, conditions forced him to return to Cairo – via Mecca and Medina, cities forbidden to non-Muslims. ‛Abd al-Wālī's second trip began in December of 1846. This time his destinations were the monastery of St Catherine and the pilgrimage sites in the Holy Land, revered jointly by Jews, Christians and Muslims. His last desert journey began in December of 1847. Travelling via Taimā᾿ and Tabūk, this time 'Abd al-Wālī got as far as Ḥā'il, where he was again forced to change his itinerary: instead of proceeding to Oman and Aden as intended, he had to turn north to Baghdad, from where he went on to Persia, visiting Kermānshāh, Iṣfahān and Shīrāz.

Enchanted by Arabia

Wallin returned to Helsinki in June of 1850. Following his appointment as professor of Oriental literature, he enthusiastically began preparing for a new trip to Arabia. The idea was that the British and Russian geographical societies would share the costs. But an absolute requirement of the Russians was that, on his way home, Wallin would have to make a separate expedition to the Islamic world of Central Asia where in the 1850s Russia had specific political and military goals. This, however, Wallin was not prepared to do, "and when willingness and dedication are lacking, results cannot be expected". In any case, in light of his diary entries there is good reason to believe that, enchanted by the deserts of Arabia and emotionally attached to the Bedouins as he had became, Wallin had no intention of returning to Europe. Negotiations had reached a stalemate when Wallin died suddenly at his home in Helsinki on 23 October, 1852.

A mere footnote in the history of exploration

Of the material Wallin collected on the Arabian Peninsulam, only the article about Bedouin songs, "Probe aus einer Anthologie neuarabischer Gesänge, in der Wüste gesammelt" (1851-52), was published on the basis of Wallin's own manuscript. Two articles, "Notes taken during a Journey through Part of Northern Arabia, in 1848" (1851) and "Narrative of a Journey from Cairo to Medina and Mecca, by Suez, Arabá, Tawilá, al-Jauf, Jubbé, Háil and Nejd, in 1845" (1854), written for the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, were mutilated by the editors. Posthumously edited from Wallin's papers by Herman Kellgren were two articles on linguistics, "Über die Laute des Arabischen und ihre Bezeichnung" (1855 and 1858) and "Bemerkungen über die Sprache der Beduinen" (1858).

In evaluating the results of Wallin's travels, it should be taken into consideration that his copious notes, although partly published, were written in Swedish and have thus remained largely inaccessible to international researchers. David George Hogarth, the British archaeologist and author of The Penetration of Arabia (1904), wrote that "one might spare something of his successors' narratives to have more of Wallin's". Unfortunately, Wallin's early death and the language barrier presented by his diaries have relegated him to a footnote in the annals of linguistics and exploration.

The first European scholar of the Bedouin way of life

This position, of course, does not imply that the texts that were published are of no significance. Wallin was the first scholar to collect Bedouin poetry and to show a scholarly interest in Arabic dialects; his views on Arabic phonetics enjoyed respect well into the twentieth century. His third trip, which made Wallin the first European to cross northern Arabia, brought approbation and honours from both the Royal Geographical Society in London and La Société de Géographie in Paris. Carsten Niebuhr and Johann Ludwig Burckhardt had written about the Bedouins of the Arabian Peninsula earlier, but Wallin was the first European to get to know the Bedouins and their way of life, and to live among them for a considerable time.

In great esteem in the Middle East

As a fulfilment of Hogarth's wish made in 1904, a new complete edition of Wallin's literary output is on its way. In 2008 Svenska litteratursällskapet i Finland (Society of Swedish Literature in Finland) undertook to publish all of Wallin's material, both published and unpublished, in its original language whether Swedish, Arabic, Latin, German, French, English or Russian. Volume 1 was published in 2010; volume 2 will appear in 2011. Altogether there will be six volumes, each comprising approximately 500 pages. When the critical edition is available, translation of selected portions will be made, at least into English, Arabic and Persian.

Today Wallin enjoys great esteem in the Middle East. One reason is that, unlike many travellers to the region in his time, he was not a spy sent by the European powers. In his descriptions of Arabian conditions and geography, he was often the first – and the only – scholar to give references to particular tribes and localities. This has earned him an excellent reputation, particularly in Saudi-Arabia. Muslims also believe that 'Abd al-Wālī genuinely embraced Islam and did not merely pass himself off as one of them.

Kaj Öhrnberg is a researcher in Islamic studies at the Department of World Cultures, University of Helsinki.

The year 2011 marks the 200th anniversary of Wallin's birth. A celebratory exhibition of the great explorer's travels will open at the National Library of Finland on 20 October 2011. Highlights include Wallin's travel diaries and letters from the Library's collections, as well as books and manuscripts he brought back from Cairo. There will also be an international seminar on Wallin at the University of Helsinki on 21 October with researchers invited from Saudi Arabia, Sweden and Finland.


Georg August Wallin

Print this article (PDF) Print entire issue (PDF)