The 18th Century Search for the Blue Nile

Bruce's Research

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James Bruce's drawing of an Obelisk at Axum

Obelisks at Axum

"There is at Axum an obelisk erected by Ptolemy Evergetes...without hieroglyphics, directly facing the south, with its top first cut into a narrow neck, then spread out like a fan in a semicircular form, with a pavement curiously leveled to receive the shade..."

Here Bruce is describing one of the great Axumite obelisks. A trade city between Rome and Persia, Axum was home to one of the greatest pagan kingdoms, ruling from early 4th century B.C.E. to 10th Century C.E. These obelisks were erected to represent the burial spots of great people in the Kingdom of Axum.







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Bruce's drawing of a harp and its player from his time in Thebes

The Thebian Harp

"As the first harp seemed to be the most perfect, and least spoiled, I immediately attached myself to this...My first drawing was of a man playing the harp. He was standing, and the instrument being broad, and flat at the has thirteen strings. The back part is composed of four thin pieces of wood, joined together in the form of a cone. The whole principles, on which this harp is constructed, are rational and ingenious."

Here, Bruce makes his appreciation for the object apparent and proceeds to describe it in great detail.He makes notes about how the object looks, stands, and the man playing it. He even remarks about the lack of facial hair on the player of the harp.




The Book of Enoch

"Amongst the articles I consigned at Paris was a very beautiful and magnificent copy of the prophecies of Enoch...the more ancient history of that book is well known. The Church first looked upon it as apocryphal; and as it was quoted in the book of Jude, the same suspicion fell upon that book also. For this reason, the Council of Nice threw the epistle of Jude out of the canon, but the council of Trent arguing better, replaced the apostle in the Canon as before."

James Bruce describes the Book of Enoch that he encountered in Ethiopia and brought back with him. More importantly, however, he describes the history of the book and the society reading it. This was exactly the point of antiquarianism: discover a historic item, learn about it, and relay that history to the academics piecing together the history of the world. Bruce returned with three copies. He kept one, and donated the other two, one of which was a gift to the king of France.

Bruce also studied languages including Arabic and Ge'ez, a mark of an antiquarian. This would greatly help him enjoy a painless and survivable journey through the Ethiopian bureaucracy.

Bruce's Reception

Although the Enlightenment was a time in which Europeans experienced an insatiable desire for knowledge and understanding of the world around them, they were mightily skeptical. In fact, it is almost considered a tradition for the unlearned public to discredit the travel narrative of an explorer. However, none faced the ridicule that Bruce did when he returned to Europe. So, what about Bruce and his narrative made it so unbelievable? One reason (there are many) Bruce was so fervently discredited is that he employed too much of a "curious" narrative rather than a "rational" one. Europe was waiting for indiscriminate descriptions of everything in sight. Although Bruce did indeed perform the work of an antiquarian, he did not meet the standards of the public that would doom his reputation until long after Bruce's death.

Cited Works

Bruce, James. Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, in the Years 1768, 1769, 1770, 1771, 1772, and 1773. Vol. 1. Edinburgh: G. G. J. and J. Robinson, 1790.