When Max’s plans for an expedition to Lake Chad in Central Africa had to be abandoned, he set off instead on a trip to the Near East. He spent some months in Cairo, immersing himself in the world of the city’s inhabitants, making friends, and improving his command of Arabic. In summer 1893 the actual expedition could begin in Damascus, continuing for more than 1200 km southwards to Basra and the Persian Gulf. He traversed stretches of land, not previously trod by any European, and for the first time in his life, he encountered Bedouin to whom he felt drawn at once, marveling above all at their pride and sense of freedom. He began to record genealogies which served as the core of a Bedouin’s identity. Previously such information had been transmitted only orally. Ethnological studies of desert nomads were a part of Oppenheim’s life from this moment onward, culminating in four-volumes which comprise a standard reference work for research on the Bedouin.
In 1899 and 1900, long before the completion of that seminal undertaking, Oppenheim’s two volume travel account about the Near Eastern expedition won him international renown. By then, he had undertaken yet another journey through the Orient. The high point of it occurred when Sultan Abdul Hamid II, ruler of the Ottoman Empire, granted him an audience. Their conversation primarily concerned “pan-Islamism,” an idea taking shape at the time. The Sultan, who as Caliph was the spiritual head of Muslims as well as Ottoman sovereign, hoped to create a decisive movement to counter the growing dominance of the West.