Alexandra David-Neel and Ippolito Desideri are names unfamiliar to most people, including me until the past week when, by coincidence, I encountered them both.
Both were intrepid adventurers who overcame fear and the hardships of early modern travel to reach the roof of the world, Tibet.
Desideri caught my interest at first because he was a Jesuit, and I have long been interested in the amazing feats of the these men, mainly in science, in the 17th and 18th century. An Italian missionary, Desideri (d. 1733) was the first Westerner to master the study of Tibetan language and culture. He lived in Tibet from 1715 to 1722 and was the first Christian to master the language of Tibet well enough to explore Buddhist thought and debate fine points of theology with Tibetan monks. He wrote five works in literary Tibetan providing the first accurate account of Tibetan geography, government, agriculture, and religion.
Robert Trent Pomplun, himself a contemporary Catholic theologian and Tibetan scholar, has written a book, Jesuit on the Roof of the World (2010) and is now translating the works of Desideri, considered the father of Tibetan studies in the West.
Alexandra David-Neel was a French-Belgian feminist, anarchist, explorer, scholar of Buddhism, and opera singer (she performed in Hanoi in 1896).
She wrote 30 books based on her extensive travels to Asia, including her 1924 visit to Lhasa when it was considered the Forbidden City. Leaving her husband back in France, she traveled disguised as a beggar. I wonder if she knew of Desideri's works, long buried in the Jesuit archives in Rome.
Just after her 101st birthday in 1969, she renewed her passport. How can you not love that? How can anyone not be amazed at the will power, stamina, courage, and intelligence of these two pioneers--and at the potential we all have?