Professor Alois Musil, D.Th.
(June 30, 1868–April 12, 1944)
Alois Musil was born in the Moravian village of Rychtářov, nearby Vyškov (approx. 200 km southeast of Prague, or 120 km north of Vienna, at that time the territory of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire that is present-day Czech Republic). After graduating from Gymnasium, he decided to lighten his parents’ economic burden from their indebted farm by enrolling in the theological seminary in Olomouc. In 1891, he passed his final exams with high marks and was ordained a priest.
While studying for his doctorate (1891–1895) Musil learned of the École biblique opening in Jerusalem. He enrolled in November 1895. From 1897 to 1898 he continued his studies with the Jesuits at Saint Joseph University in Beirut. His move to the Orient launched the series of his research expeditions, the first of which focused on the less populated areas of Palestine associated with the Old Testament (Sinai, the Negev, the region east of the Dead Sea).
Musil made his most important discovery in 1898 when he became the first European to visit the hitherto unknown desert castle of cAmra (about 80 km east of Amman), with its unique frescoes of figural motifs. Yet it still took him several years before he could thoroughly document the site and thereby convince the scientific community, who had greeted this unknown young priests’s find with general skepticism, of its existence.
Having published several scholarly works in Vienna at the beginning of the 20th century, Musil returned to the Orient in 1908 to explore the deeper inland areas of the northern part of the Arabian peninsula. In 1912, he took part in an expedition to the territories of present-day Syria and Iraq, serving as guide to Prince Sixtus of Bourbon-Parma, brother of Archduchess Zita, future Empress of Austria-Hungary. Musil was also accepted at the Habsburg Imperial Court in Vienna, where he wielded considerable influence. The trust placed in him by the imperial family led to his accepting a new, political role, which he performed during his expeditions to the Orient in 1914–1915 and 1917.
Over the course of his numerous journeys into the desert, Musil in time became a co-leader of two Bedouin tribes. When he returned to Europe he would have with him hundreds of reproduced ancient inscriptions, sketches, and photographs, as well as a large body of Biblical, topographical, ethnographical, archeological, and botanical data. Yet this also took a toll on his health – he contracted malaria and suffered multiple injuries from the constant, life-threatening Bedouin raids.
In 1920, after the formation of Czechoslovakia, Musil took a position as professor in the Faculty of Arts of Charles University, and he was instrumental in establishing the Oriental Institute in Prague. Czechoslovakia’s first president, T. G. Masaryk, persuaded Musil to publish his lifework in English, the six-volume Oriental Explorations and Studies, as a way to promote the newly formed state in the United States.
To this day Musil’s body of knowledge is an invaluable source of information. The scope of his research was monumental, as is the breadth of the work he left us. His experiences and observations are collected in more than 70 books and over 1400 specialist and popular articles. Musil died April 12, 1944, in Otryby, nearby Český Šternberk (approx. 50 km southeast of Prague).
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