A diarist, a poet, a skilled horseman and a vagabond are just some names that describe Wacław Seweryn Rzewuski whose captivating exploits are now made available by Poland’s National Library in its latest five-volume publication on the ‘Polish Indiana Jones’.
“Sur les chevaux orientaux et provenant des races orientales” (“On Eastern Horses and Those Originating from Oriental Races”), which contains more than 400 full-colour drawings and accounts of Middle Eastern social structures, customs and stories, was published for the first time on December 1 in its original, French written form, with a Polish translation and scientific commentary for the first time.
Born in 1784 in Vilnius, which at the time was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth territory, Rzewuski was unlucky to be a son of Seweryn Rzewuski. Seweryn Rzewuski, as a Hetman, meaning one of four chief commanders of the Polish-Lithuanian army, collaborated with the hostile Russian Empire participating in a pro-Russian faction known as the Targowica Confederation.
According to the authors of the hefty publication, 3,000 pages long and weighing 10 kg, the infamy brought by his father's decision upon the Rzewuski family prompted Rzewuski junior to achievements in education and culture.
In 1809, together with Austrian researcher Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall he established “Mines de l’orient. Fundgruben des Orients” – one of the first European journals covering Middle Eastern affairs. According to one of the publication’s authors Tadeusz Majda, Rzewuski was fluent in French, he knew Italian and German, and learnt to speak both Arabic and Turkish.
He did not find fulfilment when he became a soldier in the Austrian army and a husband’s life bored him. Having returned to his home in Volhynia he established an Arab horse husbandry business. In 1817, Rzewuski decided to travel to the Middle East in order to purchase Arab horses.
Having arrived in Istanbul, Rzewuski made it his base for future journeys that brought him to Aleppo, to Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Turkey’s Anatolia. Venturing into Bedouin territories of the Levant he was received as a guest by 13 Bedouin tribes. The nomads, amazed by his stories and linguistic prowess, called him Abd al-Nishan (“Servant of the Sign”) and Taj al-Fahr (“Crown of Glory”) and granted him the title of an emir – a prince – and called him the Goldenbeard Emir.
These and many other Rzewuski’ stories need to be treated with healthy scepticism, according to scientist Marta Piwińska. Nevertheless, Rzewuski left a legacy of invaluable sociological, historical and political accounts, and diaries full of keen observations and images depicting buildings, people and the Arab horses that fascinated him.