Just one Italian: the pyramids of Meroe and Giuseppe Ferlini, their destroyer

Few people are aware of the amazing pyramids of Meroe in the Sudan, about a hundred miles north of Khartoum, and easily accessible by a day-trip from the city.  I have not been there myself, sadly.


Sadly they are all badly damaged these days.  They look as if the tops were blown off with gunpowder; which is, in fact, exactly what happened to them, in 1830, at the hands of a rascally Italian treasure hunter named Giuseppe Ferlini.

The Sudan was conquered by a massive Egyptian army, sent up the Nile in 1820.  Ferlini accompanied this army as a physician, but soon struck out on his own behalf.

In 1838 Ferlini published an account of his adventures in Rome, and thanks to the marvels of the internet, it is online.[1]

I embarked at Cairo on 6 August 1830.  At that time I held the rank of Doctor-Surgeon Major, attached to the first regiment stationed in the valley of Sinnaar, and its dependencies.  I was stationed there for four and a half years, but I only spent ten months in this capital of upper Nubia, i.e. Sinnaar, where the first battalion of my regiment was garrisoned.  On the arrival of Dr Botta, son of the celebrated historian, on 13 May 1832 I went to Kordofan, capital of the western part of Nubia, twelve days from Sinnaar, after crossing the White River, and passing nine days in the deserts.  In 1833 a new corps of doctors and pharmacists was formed under the direction of the Tuscan Dr Landrini.  He sent me to the Fifth Battalion, resident at Khartoum, a city at the extremity of the peninsula of Sinnaar, built by the Turks after the conquest of the country.  It is here that the White River and the Blue River merge to form the Nile, and where resides Crusut Pasha, governor of all the colonies conquered by the Viceroy in the countries that take the name of the Military Sudan.

Since my stays in Greece and Egypt, I had constantly the fixed idea of making some discovery useful to history.  To this effect, I sought to get into the good graces of the governor.  After some months the opportunity arose to ask him for permission to make some excavations in the places where there were ancient monuments.  The pasha was surprised at my request, and did not leave me ignorant of all the perils to which my enterprise would be exposed; he told me that, although he gave me his permission, he would not allow me to work until I promised to pay the workers, and that I ran the risk of losing the fruits of my four years of saving. …

He got slaves together, and joined with an Albanian adventurer calling himself Antoine Stefani.  After some adventures he reaches Meroe.

I left Mr Stefani and went with a hundred men to visit the great pyramids.  A few days later, my friend discovered another habitation as big as the first but there was no luck, just a small terracotta idol.  With this in mind I had demolished the remains of a small pyramid at the foot of the hill.  Coming to the foot of the mountain, I found black stones which seemed to have been carved by man. I sought, with the aid of the pick, to penetrate below the foundations, and found the first step of a stair… I continued to uncover the stair, and reached the ninth and last step.  This led into a small cave, where I only found some bones of camels, horses and some other small skeletons which I took for dogs.  Then I found two types of harness …

During this time, Mr Stefani, who had begun the demolition of another pyramid, in eight hours had only reached the height of the portico; he tried everywhere, this day and for several days after, to find the stair and the caves.  Among the bodies he found one covered by a stone.  We were digging at the side of the head to remove this stone, when a worker, giving a blow with his spade to a round stone, like an ostrich egg, caused a mass of glass objects to come out, of a solid, white and transparent nature. …

And so it goes on, page after page of vandalism and search for saleable items.  He must have been slightly ashamed of his own coarse methods; for he fails to mention gunpowder, at least in any section of the text that I saw.

Of course it is anachronistic to complain, in a way.  Ferlini and his men had no notion of archaeology.  We cannot sensibly complain that they didn’t act as we would have done.  It was, indeed, this useless digging that caused men to devise the science of archaeology.  He had no yardstick for comparison, beyond the volumes of the Description de l’Egypte, which he lacked the resource to duplicate.  The list of objects found, and a few drawings at the end of objects, is no substitute for any kind of proper report.

All the same, one can only curse the man.

  1. [1]G. Ferlini, Relation historique des fouilles opérées dans la Nubie par le Docteur Ferlini : suivie d’un catalogue des objets qu’il a trouvés dans l’une des 47 pyramides aux environs de l’ancienne ville de Méroé , Rome (1838).  Online at the Bavarian State Library here.

3 thoughts on “Just one Italian: the pyramids of Meroe and Giuseppe Ferlini, their destroyer

  1. Great recount. Many of the ancient tomb looters are known, but Fertini has slid beneath the radar in the annals of history. He was a particularly unscrupulous person, even for his day, despite the many contemporaneous scholars who were already conducting meticulous archaeological research in Egypt (such as Jean-François Champollion and his work on hieroglyphics, or even his fellow Italian Ippolito Rosellini whom he certainly had met). Fertini should have known better.

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