The first printed eyewitness account of any place in today's UAE: early original edition

Varthema, Lodovico di. Itinerario de Ludovico de Varthema Bolognese nello Egitto, nella Soria, nella Arabia deserta, & felice, nella Persia, nella India, & nela Ethyopia. Le fede el vivere, & costumi delle prefate provincie. Et al presente agiontovi alcune isole novamente ritrovate.

Venice, Francesco Bindoni & Maffeo Pasini, April 1535.

Small 8vo (94 x 143 mm). 100, (4) ff. With woodcut title illustration and woodcut printer's device to final leaf. Near-contemporary limp vellum with traces of a handwritten spine title.


Still early original Italian edition of Ludovico di Varthema's famous travels to Arabia, Persia, and India: the highly important and adventurous narrative containing the first printed eyewitness account of any place in today's United Arab Emirates. On his return journey from Mecca (which he was the first Westerner to describe), Varthema visited Ras al-Khaimah ("Giulfar") and portrayed the city as "most excellent and abounding in everything", with "a good seaport", and whose inhabitants are "all Muslims". While Montalboddo's famous anthology of discoveries, printed in 1507, contained the first printed reference to the Arabian Gulf region, it was Varthema's work, published only three years later, that offered the first actual report from the region by a Western traveller who had visited the coast. All early editions of Varthema’s “Itinerario” are exceedingly rare (even the 2013 Hajj exhibition at the MIA, Doha, only featured the 1654 reprint; cf. below).

Varthema, a gentleman adventurer and soldier from Bologna, left Venice at the end of 1502. In 1503 he reached Alexandria and ascended the Nile to Cairo, continuing to Beirut, Tripoli, Aleppo and Damascus, where, adopting Islam and taking the name of Yunas, he joined a Mameluke escort of a Hajj caravan and began the pilgrimage to Mecca. Varthema was amazed by what he observed: "Truly I never saw so many people collected in one spot as during the twenty days I remained there", he begins, and arriving at the Great Mosque, continues, "it would not be possible to describe the sweetness and the fragrances which are smelt within this temple." Thanks to his knowledge of Arabic and Islam, Varthema was able to appreciate the local culture of the places he visited. Impressed and fascinated, he describes not only rites and rituals, but also social, geographical, and day-to-day details. "I determined, personally, and with my own eyes", he declares in the prefatory dedication, "to ascertain the situation of places, the qualities of peoples [...] of Egypt, Syria, Arabia Deserta and Felix, Persia, India, and Ethiopia, remembering well that the testimony of one eye-witness is worth more than ten hear-says." His good fortune did not continue unabated, however: after embarking at Jeddah and sailing to Aden, he was denounced as a Christian spy and imprisoned. He secured his release and proceeded on an extensive tour of southwest Arabia. Stopping in Sanaa and Zebid as well as a number of smaller cities, he describes the people, the markets and trade, the kind of fruits and animals that are plentiful in the vicinity, and any historical or cultural information he deems noteworthy. Returning to Aden, and after a brief stop in Ethiopia, he set sail for India. In addition to visiting Persia, Varthema explored the coasts of Malabar and Coromandel, including a stay at Calicut at the beginning of 1505. He also purports to have made extensive travels around the Malay peninsula and the Moluccas. Returning to Calicut in August 1505, he took employment with the Portuguese at Cochin and, in 1508, made his way back to Europe via the Cape of Good Hope.

First published in 1510, Varthema's account became an immediate bestseller. In addition to his fascinating account of Egypt, Syria, the Arabian Peninsula, and the holy Muslim cities, "Varthema brought into European literature an appreciation of the areas east of India [...] which it had previously not received from the sea-travelers and which confirmed by firsthand observations many of the statements made earlier by Marco Polo and the writers of antiquity" (Lach, I. i. 166). "Varthema was a real traveller. His reports on the social and political conditions of the various lands he visited are reliable as being gathered from personal contact with places and peoples. His account of the overland trade is of great value in that we are made to see it before it had begun to give way to the all-seas route. He even heard of a southern continent and of a region of intense cold and very short days, being the first European probably after Marco Polo to bring back the rumor of Terra Australis" (Cox I, 260).

This edition includes the itinerary of the island of Yucatan (fols. 89ff.), repeated from the 1526 edition of Varthema: Juan Díaz's account of Juan de Grijalva's 1518 expedition to Middle America, first published in Venice in 1520.

Trimmed closely with occasional slight loss to the outermost letters of the page. Some browning and waterstains. The fine title woodcut, copied from Scinzenzeler's 1523 edition, shows Varthema seated on a bench in front of a building, writing on a globe, behind him a set of dividers; in the background is a landscape with a ship at sea and a castle. 17th century ink annotation to verso of last leaf. Rare; a single complete copy in international auction records since 1936. OCLC lists six copies only.


Edit 16, CNCE 48228. BM-STC Italian 73. Macro 2239. Gay 140. Röhricht 574, p. 163. Cordier Indosinica I, 98f. Fumagalli 77. Harrisse 205. Sabin 98646. Alden, European Americana, 535/20. OCLC 56581916. Cf. Blackmer 1719. (1523 edition). Boies Penrose, pp. 28-32. Exhibition cat. "Hajj - The Journey Through Art" (Doha, 2013), p. 90 (1655 Dutch ed. only). Carter, Robert A. Sea of Pearls, p. 68 (1520 edition). Not in the Atabey collection. Not in Adams.