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Dr. Alois Musil - The Discoverer of Qasr Amra

Alois Musil aka Sheikh Musa al-Rweili

(30. 6. 1868 – 12. 4. 1944)

explorer, orientalist, ethnographer and writer


Alois Musil was born and grew up in Moravia, a historical Eastern region of Bohemia, part of the Austrian empire until 1918. He was the eldest of five children in a poor farmer family, therefore fated to become a priest.

In the years 1887-91 he studied at the Theological Faculty of Olomouc (Moravia), was consecrated as a priest in 1891 and received a Doctorate in Theology in 1895.

He was fascinated by Old Testament studies and decided to explore the region where three major monotheistic religions - Jewish, Christian and Islamic, originated. In the years 1895-98 he studied at the Dominican École Biblique in Jerusalem and at the Jesuit University of St. Joseph in Beirut. Musil first started to explore the region looking for archaeological and biblical sites then became more and more attracted by its people – desert tribes.

In that early stage, his most important trip took place east of Amman in 1898. During this expedition he discovered a little desert castle called Quseyr Amra, build in the early 8th century – one of the most important examples of early Islamic art and architecture. Musil’s first report on this discovery was strongly disbelieved, since the description of Amra art went against all that was known by European scholars at the time about the conventions of Islamic art. So in summer 1900 he was back again - equipped to take photographic evidence. This time, besides sketches and plans, he brought back some 120 photographs; his reputation was saved and Quseyr Amra recognized by European orientalists as a unique world monument.

Musil continued to travel extensively throughout the Arab world until 1917, collecting a huge body of scientific material and becoming a highly respected geographer, ethnographer and expert in the Arabia and its people. In addition to modern and classical languages he mastered 35 dialects of Arabic. He lived with Rwala Bedouins for prolonged periods of time and gained the honorary title 'Shaykh Musa al-Ruwayli.'.

Between his journeys Musil kept working on his publications and lecturing. In 1902 he became professor at the Theology University in Olomouc, in 1909 professor of theology at Vienna University.

After the World War I and the birth of Czechoslovakia he became a professor at Charles University in Prague and helped establish the Oriental Institute of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences.

Encouraged by first President Tomáš G. Masaryk and supported by American industrialist Charles Crane, Musil published his works in English in New York. In addition to scientific work and travel books, he wrote 21 adventure novels for young readers.

He worked at Charles University until 1938, and was active until the very end of his life, in 1944.

      Alois Musil achieved international recognition for his exploratory and scientific work, was a respected member of many European scientific societies, was awarded the Gold Medal of the American Geographical Society, and his name is embossed with bronze letters in the Hall of Fame alongside Marco Polo, Livingstone or Amundsen.