Max van Berchem

Max van Berchem was born in Geneva in 1863. After studying in his native city and then in Stuttgart, he completed his doctoral thesis, focusing on the Islamic land-tax (kharâj), at the University of Leipzig in 1886. It was in Leipzig that he was initiated to the Semitic languages, particularly Accadian, the study of which was then in full expansion. He later turned decidedly towards Arabic. The same year that he completed his doctorate, he left on his first journey to Egypt where the dilapidated state of many Islamic monuments in Cairo, as well as the discovery of unrecorded Arabic inscriptions were to give his life its definite orientation.

Max van Berchem was the first to recognize the value of Arabic inscriptions for a more exact reconstruction of mediaeval history. Founding scholar of Arabic epigraphy as its own discipline, he began systematically to explore the old quarters of Cairo looking for inscriptions and photographing mosques, schools, palaces and walls. Acknowledging the immensity of the task, he divided the work between a number of scholars, mostly French and German, but kept the larger cities of the Middle East - Cairo, Jerusalem, Damascus - for himself. To mention a few of his more important travels, he explored Egypt in 1887, 1888, 1889 and 1890; Jerusalem and Palestine in 1888, 1893 and 1914; and, Syria in 1894 and 1895. Between 1895 and 1914, he devoted most of his time to the publication of the huge volume of texts he had collected. As late as 1915, he wrote to one of his correspondents: "I have at least ten years worth of work!". But World War I had broken out in 1914 and had severely disrupted the international collaboration he had laboriously set up. The letters written during those years reflect his despondency. In the spring of 1921, having travelled to Cairo in order to supervise the printing of the Corpus of Jerusalem, he was suddenly taken ill and returned precipitately to Geneva where he died a few weeks later.

In the course of his travels, Max van Berchem collected an impressive number of Arabic inscriptions. But he did not confine himself to the bare texts inscribed on the monuments. He studied each building as a whole, while placing it within its urban and natural environment. He was deeply aware that only in such a global framework could texts assume their full significance. This kind of methodology can be noted in his published works, where the philological edition of the inscriptions is accompanied by a detailed historical commentary. Hence, a vast number of pictures of monuments and landscapes taken by Max van Berchem can be found among the more technical photographs of inscriptions.

These photographs, together with his notes, descriptions, projects, letters and other documents now constitute the Max van Berchem Archives under the joint care of the Foundation and the Bibliothèque de Genève. His main published works are Corpus Inscriptionum Arabicarum, principally volumes devoted to Cairo and Jerusalem, the Voyage en Syrie and articles collected in the two volumes of his Opera Minora.