Isabelle Eberhardt

Isabelle Eberhardt bigraphy, stories - Swiss explorer

Isabelle Eberhardt : biography

17 February 1877 – 21 October 1904

Isabelle Eberhardt (17 February 1877 – 21 October 1904) was a Swiss explorer and writer who lived and travelled extensively in North Africa. For her time she was a liberated individual who rejected conventional European morality in favour of her own path and that of Islam. She died in a flash flood in the desert at the age of 27.

In culture

Eberhardt was portrayed by Matilda May in the 1991 film Isabelle Eberhardt, which co-starred Peter O’Toole as a French colonial officer. at Turner Classic Movies

On 24 February 2012, an opera composed by Missy Mazzoli, Song from the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt, premiered in New York City.

Isabelle Eberhardt is mentioned in Jolie Holland’s song "Old Fashioned Morphine", which is on her second album, Escondida.

Travelling to Africa

In 1888 her half-brother Augustin joined the French Foreign Legion and was assigned to Algeria. This sparked Isabelle’s interest in the orient and she started to learn Arabic. Her first trip to North Africa was with her mother in May, 1897, whereby her mother was hoping to meet up with Augustin. They were also considering setting up a new life there. While there they both converted to Islam, fulfilling a long-standing interest. However, her mother died suddenly in Annaba and was buried there under the name of Fatma Mannoubia .

Two years later Trophimowsky died of throat cancer in 1899 in Geneva, nursed by Isabelle. Following the suicide of her half-brother, Vladimir, and the marriage of Augustin to a French woman Isabelle felt nothing in common with (she wrote: "Augustin is once and for all headed for life’s beaten tracks"), her ties to her former life were all but severed. From then on, as recorded in her journals, Isabelle Eberhardt spent most of the rest of her life in Africa, making northern Algeria her home and exploring the desert.

Spiritual journeys

Dressed as a man and calling herself Si Mahmoud Essadi, Eberhardt travelled in Arab society with a freedom she could not otherwise have experienced. She had converted to Islam and regarded it as her true calling in life.

On her travels she made contact with a secret Sufi brotherhood, the Qadiriyya. They were heavily involved in helping the poor and needy while fighting against the injustices of colonial rule. At the beginning of 1901, in Behima, she was attacked by a man with a sabre, in an apparent attempt to assassinate her. Her arm was nearly severed, but she later forgave the man and (successfully) pleaded for his life to be spared. She married Slimane Ehnni, an Algerian soldier, on October 17, 1901, in Marseille.

On October 21, 1904, Eberhardt died in a flash flood in Aïn Séfra, Algeria. After a long separation, her husband had just joined her. She had rented a house for the occasion. This house, constructed of clay, collapsed on the couple during the flood; her husband was washed away but survived. She was buried according to the rites of Islam at Aïn Séfra. Slimane Ehnni died in 1907.


Isabelle wrote on her travels in many books and French newspapers, including Nouvelles Algériennes ("Algerian Short Stories") (1905), Dans l’Ombre Chaude de l’Islam ("In the Warm Shadow of Islam") (1906), and Les journaliers ("The Day Laborers") (1922). She started working as a war reporter in the South of Oran in 1903.

Early Life and Family Background

Eberhardt was born in Geneva, Switzerland, to an aristocratic Lutheran Baltic German Russian mother, Nathalie Moerder (née Eberhardt), and an Armenian-born father, Alexandre Trophimowsky, anarchist, and ex-priest. Isabelle’s mother had been married to elderly widower General Pavel de Moerder, who held important Imperial positions. After bearing him two sons and a daughter she traveled to Switzerland to convalesce, taking along her stepson and her own children, with their tutor Trophimowsky. Soon after arriving in Geneva she gave birth again, to Isabelle’s half-brother Augustin, and four months later came the news that her husband had died of a heart attack. She elected to remain in Switzerland and, four years later, Isabelle was born and registered as her "illegitimate" daughter to avoid acknowledging the tutor’s paternity. Although Eberhardt never acknowledged Trophimowsky’s paternity, her illegitimacy caused her emotional and financial troubles later in life, preventing her inheritance and contributing to her feelings of estrangement from her siblings, who hated her father.

Despite this, Isabelle was well educated. She was fluent in French and spoke Russian, German and Italian. She was taught Latin and Greek, and studied classical Arabic and read the Koran with her father; she later became fluent in Arabic.Review by Eve Auchincloss of The Life of Isabelle Eberhardt By Annette Kobak Knopf. Washington Post, 21 May 1989 From an early age she dressed as a man in order to enjoy the greater freedom this allowed her.Kobak, Annette, Isabelle: The Life of Isabelle Eberhardt. London: Chatto & Windus; New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988; London: Virago Classic, 1998.