Traces of Germany in Lebanon
Kara Ben Nemsi in Quarantine: Karl May Visits Lebanon

Karl May
Karl May | © Anonymous

The most famous protagonist in our selection has to be Karl May (1842-1912), the author of the famous Winnetou and Kara Ben Nemsi adventure novels. May has often been accused of never having seen the landscapes that provide the backdrops for his novels himself, but rather ‘copied’ scientific travel reports and other travel writing. But this is only partly true.

Although May embarked on “adventure journeys without ever leaving his desk [...] with his finger on the map”, as Heike Hartmann notes, at least he visited some of his stories’ settings at an older age. But then he had already written most of his works before he started travelling.

May stopped off in Lebanon twice during his extended tour of the Orient which lasted almost one and a half years. His first impression of Beirut was marred by unfortunate circumstances: after his ship arrived from Port Said in late June 1899, May was placed under quarantine for two weeks at the Port of Beirut due to a plague epidemic – incidentally, the quarantine centre is what gave the modern-day quarter of ‘Qarantina’ its name. This put May’s travel plans ‘on ice’ for the time being. 

Once he was released from quarantine, May stayed at the local Hotel Allemand, the German Inn, and spent his remaining days with short trips in and around Beirut. Two days before leaving for Haifa and still fatigued from the stress of quarantine, he wrote:

“Lebanon, especially in the area around Beirut, is of exceptional beauty, nay excellence. I have studied it for a whole week. That’s how long it took to recover from the hardships of my 12-day quarantine. I had become skinny and feeble.” 

(From a letter from May to Wilhelmine Beibler, 15/07/1899, in: Hans Wollschläger / Ekkehard Bartsch: Karl Mays Orientreise 1899/1900: Dokumentation [Karl May’s Journey to the Orient in 1899/1900: A Documentation], in: Claus Roxin (ed.): Jahrbuch der Karl May Gesellschaft [Karl May Society Yearbook] (1971)) 

Almost a year and many travel highlights later – in the meantime, May had visited Jerusalem, Colombo and Sumatra, among many others – the author visited Lebanon once again. Interrupted by a one-week visit to Damascus, May spent the days from 29 May to 18 June 1900 between Beirut and Baalbek. 

May had already used the ruins of the ancient city, whose size impressed him deeply upon first seeing them in real life, as the setting for an adventure story featuring Kara Ben Nemsi, Hadschi Halef Omar and Lord Lindsay, which the author had woven into in his travel story “From Baghdad to Stamboul”, published in 1892: After a jewel heist in Damascus, the villain Abrahim Mamur flees towards the coast on horseback with the unwitting Lord Lindsay as his companion. The thief carefully avoids the road to Beirut, choosing instead to travel along the mountain pass road by the Barada river near Al-Zabadani. A ‘showdown’ takes place at the ancient city of Baalbek. In an underground tunnel labyrinth, his pursuers, with the local authorities in tow, manage to briefly apprehend the thief and even retrieve the loot. But the thief escapes again using a ruse, reclaims the loot and absconds to Tripoli, where he, just a few minutes before his pursuers arrive, flees onto a ship heading north. And so the case has to be solved later on in Turkey. 

May’s second stay in Lebanon was much less eventful. Travelling with his wife Emma and another German couple, May went on some more trips within the country. May had only good things to say about the inhabitants of Beirut and Mount Lebanon. He took an especial liking to the architecture of Lebanese private residences. Not far from Bikfaya, he visited a silk mill where he watched the people spinning silk from cocoons. He was very pleased when Hotel Saalmüller in Brummana offered him a complimentary lunch. The following quote entered into the fourth part of his travel story “In the Realm of the Silver Lion” in 1903:
“Whoever has been to beautiful Brummana in Lebanon at nighttime under the sparkling stars and looked down upon the lights of the Port of Beirut, will never forget these hours for as long as he or she may live.”

(Karl May: Im Reiche des silbernen Löwen, Bd. 4 [In the Realm of the Silver Lion, Vol. 4], in: Karl May’s gesammelte Reiseerzählungen, Bd. 29 [Karl May’s Collected Travel Tales, Vol. 29], Freiburg im Breisgau 1903, p. 3.)