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G(eorg) A(ugust) Wallin (1811-1852) - Yrjö Aukusti Wallin - alias Abd al-Wali


Finnish explorer, orientalist, teacher and professor at the University of Helsinki, best-known for his journeys in Arabia in the 1840s. Wallin's adventurous life in the East inspired Z. Topelius to write a poem about him and his contemporary Finnish explorer, M.A. Castrén:

Jo kauas pohjolan piirin taa
Castrénin polku katoaa;
lakaissut tuuli aavikon
Wallinin jäljet on.

(translated into Finnish by Otto Manninen)

Georg August Wallin was born in the parish of Sund in Åland, the son of a district registrar. He entered the University of Helsinki in 1829, where he studied oriental languages, and received his M.A. in 1836. He then worked as a librarian at Helsinki University Library and continued his studies of Arabic and Persian. His teacher was Gabriel Geitlin, who was seven years his senior and had been appointed in 1835 professor of oriental languages.

After making his dissertation about Arabic in 1839, Wallin spent two years in St. Petersburg. There his teacher was Sheikh Muhammad SAyyad al-Tantawi (1810-61), whose tales of Egypt and the Arabs inspired the young scholar. Between 1843 and 1849 he conducted expeditions in Egypt, Arabia, Mesopotamia, Palestine, and Persia. It is also believed that Wallin adopted the Islamic faith, although his writings often reveal more or less skeptic view of religious practices. In Cairo he learned to play the Arab flute, spent a lot of time at coffee houses, ate with bare hands, and wrote to Geitlin: "What becomes of my appearance, and because of my real Arab beard, I am considered Oriental and Moslem..." Wallin did not live in celibate. Cairo and Paris offered him more opportunities for erotic adventures than Helsinki, which he fully utilized. He also recorded his affairs with Egyptian teenage girls in his writings. In Finland Wallin was labelled more as adventurer than a scholar and his scientific achievements were first ignored.

On his journeys Wallin, who was exceptionally dark for a Finn, presented himself as Abd al-Wali from Central Asia. He was the first European to reach al-Jauf and Ha'il. With the help of his disguise and knowledge of language, Wallin visited in 1845 Mecca – a forbidden city for non-Moslems. However, he did not describe his stay very thoroughly. Originally Wallin did not plan to see the town but had to go there by force of circumstances. In December 1846 Wallin started his second journey to the pilgrimage sites in the Holy Land. On his last expedition Wallin travelled via Taima and Tabuk to Bagdad and Persia. However, he did not visit the ruins of Persepolis on his way from Isfahan to Shiraz.

Wallin spent on his expedition over five year. On his journey through Europe he stayed a short time in Cologne. In the evening he went to hear Beethoven's Fidelio; the performance brought tears to his eyes. Wallin returned to Helsinki via London, where he published some of his studies, and was awarded with the gold medal of Royal Geographical Society in 1850. His study, Notes Taken During a Journey Through Part of Northern Arabia in 1848, was published next year by the Royal Geographical Society. Wallin was the first scholar to collect Bedouin poetry, his views on Arabic phonetics were highly valued by other researchers. However, most of his notes and letters Wallin wrote in Swedish, and his observations were not spread widely in the English speaking world.

In 1851 Wallin presented his doctoral thesis, Carmen elegiacum Ibnu-l-Faridi cum commentario Abdu-l-Ghanyi, and he was appointed professor of oriental literature. Wallin continued to arrange his research material, but his voyages to the Arabic lands were over. When the British and Russian geographical societies asked him to start a two years' expedition, Wallin rejected the offer because according to his plans, a new journey would take at least six years. And he did not like the idea that he should return through the Central Asia, which the Russians considered an obligatory part of the project. Wallin died on October 23, 1852, three years after his return to Finland. According to some speculations, he died of syphilis, which was not the official cause of death – he died of heart failure. Wallin contracted it possibly in Paris, where he was beaten and robbed, or most likely in Cairo. During his journeys Wallin bought 34 books and 19 manuscripts for Helsinki University Library, but they were not catalogued for over a hundred years. Wallin's portrait was painted by R.W. Ekman in 1853.

G.A. Wallin was among the first Westerners to enter the holy Islamic places and his adventures created similar legend around him as T.E. Lawrence's (Lawrence of Arabia) acquired through activities in Near East. However, Wallin's interest in Arabia was more influenced by 'Drang nach Osten' movement, which romanticized the Bedouin culture, than curiosity about the forbidden towns. He considered European culture oppressive, and this feeling only strengthened during the years he spent in Arabia as an romantic, nomadic adventurer, and fulfilling the dreams of exotic escapism. On his return he wrote: "I felt, that couldn't adapt myself to Europe any more"  he was ready to turn back and spend the rest of his life in the Orient.

For further reading: Georg August Wallins resetecknoingar från Orienten åren 1843-1849 by S.G. Elmgren (4 vols., 1864-66); Yrjö Aukusti Wallin by Knut Tallqvist (1903); Bref och dagsboksanteckningar af Georg August Wallin, ed. by Knut Tallqvist (1905); 'A forgotten explorer of Arabia: G.A. Wallin' by M. Trautz, in Journal of the Royal Central Asiatic Society, Vol. 19 (1932); 'G.A. Wallin and the Royal Geographical Society' by W.R. Mead, in Studia Orientalia, Vol. 23 (1958); G.A. Wallin's notes on Arabia in the 1840s, ed. by Kaj Öhrnberg (1981); Matka-arkku, ed. by Markku Löytönen (1989); Anti-Xenophobia, Fighting Discursive Xenophobia with G.A. Wallin's Travel Discourse by Mikko Vehkavaara (1997); Arabian salaperäinen vaeltaja: Tutkimusmatkaaja G.A.Wallin by Markku Löytönen & Miisa Waismaa (2000, note: for children); 100 Faces from Finland, ed. by Ulpu Marjomaa (2000); Aavikoiden seikkailija by Raili Mikkanen (2001); "Alldeles hemlik": Georg August Wallins Egypten 1843-1845 by Sofia Häggman (2011) 

Selected works:

  • De praecipua inter hodiernam Arabum linguam et antiquam differentia: dissertatio, 1839
  • Carmen elegiacum Ibnu-l-Faridi cum commentario Abdu-l-Ghanyi, 1850
  • Notes Taken During a Journey Through Part of Northern Arabia in 1848, 1851
  • Narrative Of A Journey From Cairo To Medina And Mecca: By Suez, Araba, Tawila, Al-Jauf, Jubbe, Hail, And Nejd, In 1845, 1854
  • Narrative of a Journey from Cairo to Jerusalem, via Mount Sinai, 1855
  • Über die Laute des Arabischen und ihre Bezeichnung, 1855
  • Tutkimusmatkoilla arabien parissa: otteita matkapäiväkirjasta ja kirjeistä, 1966 (edited by Jussi Aro and Armas Salonen)
  • Suwar min simali gazirat al-arab, 1971 - Scenes from the Northern Arabic Peninsula, 1991 (2nd edition; translated by Samir Chibli)
  • Källan i fjärran öknen, 1976 (edited by Göran Schildt)
  • Travels in Arabia (1845 and 1848), 1979 (with introductory material by W. R. Mead and M. Trautz)
  • Aavikon vaeltaja. Elämä ja päiväkirjat, 2007 (edited by Kaj Öhrnberg; translated by Jaakko Anhava)
  • Skrifter. Band I, Studieåren och resan till Alexandria, 2010 (eds. Kaj Öhrnberg, Patricia Berg, Kira Pihlflyckt)
  • Skrifter. Band 2, Det första året i Egypten 1843-1844, 2011 (eds. Kaj Öhrnberg, Patricia Berg, Kira Pihlflyckt)
  • Skrifter. Band 3, Kairo och resan till övre Egypten 1844-1845, 2012 (eds. Kaj Öhrnberg, Patricia Berg, Kira Pihlflyckt)

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