Giuseppe Ferlini: The Pyramid Destroyer

Feb 5, 2021 2 comments

If there is something that characterizes archeology, it is the care, the almost exquisite touch that is given to the sites and that makes a tool as simple and limited as a brush the protagonist of the excavations, making the archaeologist have to spend hours and hours in the sun, setting aside just a few inches of sand or dirt to make sure that no small piece is missed. But it was not always like this; In its beginnings, archeology sought to exhume remains of other civilizations at all costs and things were done without so many trifles. A good example of this was Giuseppe Ferlini.

Pyramids of Meroë

The result of grave looting by Giuseppe Ferlini, on the east bank of the Nile near Shendi, Sudan. Photo: Hans Birger Nilsen/Flickr

Let us place ourselves chronologically in the first half of the 19th century, the time when archaeology was born as an auxiliary science of history. Of course, man had always had an interest in his past and the ancient chroniclers already paid attention to earlier times to explain his present. However, it was not until the Renaissance that a revival of Classical Antiquity was experienced through the recovery and imitation of its art. We know that Brunelleschi, Michelangelo or Domenico Fontana attended those Roman excavations, as a result of which the famous sculptural group Laocoön and his sons came to light, as well as the ruins of Pompeii, among others.

In the following centuries, this taste for the past became established, although from a rather collector's point of view. The city buried by Vesuvius was rediscovered after Johann Joachin Winckelmann found Herculaneum and went down to posterity as the father of archaeology. The closed season had been opened, and everyone set out to drill the earth in search of treasures. Napoleon carried out his Egyptian campaign taking with him a scientific team and the so-called cabinets of curiosities began to appear. It is in this context, in which the passion for Egypt had become fashionable jumping from France to England and other countries, that Ferlini must be placed.

Giuseppe Ferlini

Possibly the only surviving portrait of Giuseppe Ferlini.

Giuseppe Ferlini was born in Bologna in 1797, but soon left home to escape the impossible coexistence with his stepmother. He passed through the cities of Venice and Corfu, in some of which he studied medicine. Bouncing around, he found himself, in 1817, in Albania, a country that was then part of the Ottoman Empire but which, being in conflict with the Sultan, welcomed anyone into its army. If he was also a doctor, all the better and, in any case, no one demanded to see Ferlini's degree.

In any case, five years later he was part of the Greek rebels facing the Turks in the Peloponnese peninsula. Defeated by the enemy troops of Ibrahim Pasha, son of the governor of Egypt Mehmet Ali, Ferlini escaped and did not return to Greek territory until 1827, although he did so rather to bury his lover. By then the war was coming to an end, as the three great European powers (Russia, France and the United Kingdom) had decided to intervene and consolidate, thanks to the naval victory at Navarino.

Pyramids of Meroë

Ruins of 2,500-years-old pyramids near the ancient city of Meroë in Sudan. Photo: Christopher Michel/Flickr

Ferlini decided to pool his savings and emigrate once again. The destination this time was Egypt, which appealed to him for two reasons. The first was that a good part of the troops stationed in Greece by the Ottoman Empire were Egyptians and now they were preparing to re-embark back to their land, presenting a good opportunity to find a place in one of the ships. The second was that Mehmet Ali was bent on modernizing his administration and, consequently, hired European technicians. A doctor would be welcome.

In 1829, the Italian landed in Alexandria and at once headed for Cairo. One of the things the governor wanted to improve was the army and that included a more efficient military health care, so Ferlini enlisted as an assistant and the following year he was already the head doctor of an infantry battalion. As such, he accompanied the 1st Regiment on its march to Sennar, the capital of the sultanate of the same name, where the corps had been assigned. Sennar was located in southeastern Sudan, on the banks of the Blue Nile, as Mehmet Ali's campaigns had extended the borders to Ethiopia.

Pyramids of Meroë

Meroë pyramids. Photo: Valerian Guillot/Flickr

The trip lasted more than five months and in that time Ferlini visited places like Khartum and Wadi Halfa, in which there were an abundance of archaeological remains, arousing in him his first interest in ancient civilizations. In fact, after a dark period in which he married an Ethiopian slave, lost the child he had with her and was forced to fight a malaria epidemic in a hospital with precarious means and in harsh conditions, he was transferred to Khartoum to join a medical team. There he befriended the governor, Curschid, whom he accompanied on several expeditions through Nubia in search of gold.

Surely the scarcity of metal found prompted the Italian to seek an alternative: the pharaohs had accumulated much in their heyday; you just had to locate it and dig it up. In fact, he had precedents: in that first quarter of the 19th century, the Frenchman Bernardino Drovetti, the Padua Giovanni Batista Belzoni and the English Henry Salt had taken the first serious steps in Egyptology precisely in the service of Mehmet Ali. Ferlini chose Meroe as his target, the city of the Meroitic Kingdom that had provided Ancient Egypt with its black dynasties, and there he went on an expedition in association with the Albanian merchant Antonio Stefani, who financed the equipment in exchange for half of the profits obtained.

Pyramids of Meroë

Ruins of Meroë pyramids. Photo: Valerian Guillot/Flickr

The two of them made their way to Meroe, in August 1834, accompanied by their wives, some thirty servants, hundreds of porters and a good number of horses and dromedaries. The results of that adventure were not good. First, they tried to access a half-buried temple but to no avail, despite poking at the walls to open an entrance. Then they also failed with some sand-covered ruins where they found a large obelisk decorated with hieroglyphs but which due to its enormous dimensions they had to leave. Meanwhile, diseases began to take their toll on workers and animals.

Related: The Forgotten Nubian Pyramids of Meroe

Things were starting to get difficult and Ferlini decided to try his luck with the pyramids. Not the Egyptian ones, but those of Meroe, where there are more than a hundred, although they are much smaller in size compared to others—none more than thirty meters high. They had been discovered in the previous decade by the Frenchman Frédéric Cailliaud, also in the service of Mehmet Ali and also while looking for gold. Spurred by legends from local workers about hidden gold, Ferlini hired half a thousand indigenous peons who, with their picks, dedicated themselves to demolishing the pyramids. That irreparable damage was in vain.

The Great pyramid of Queen Amanishakheto

The Great pyramid of Queen Amanishakheto before its destruction by Giuseppe Ferlini. From the book “Voyage à Méroé, au fleuve Blanc” by Cailliaud, Frédéric in 1826

The Great pyramid of Queen Amanishakheto

The Great pyramid of Queen Amanishakheto after its destruction by Giuseppe Ferlini in the 1830s. Photo: TrackHD/Flickr

Already desperate, the Bolognese chose the largest pyramid, the one known today as N6, and instead of piercing it laterally, he did it from the top down. This time fortune smiled and a sarcophagus, without a mummy, appeared accompanied by a funeral trousseau. Not that it was a marvel, but it certainly corresponded to a royal character (today identified as Queen Amanishajeto, who ruled between 15 BC and 1 AD) and was sufficiently suggestive to suppose that there could be more. And so it was, because two weeks later a beautifully decorated secret chamber with some interesting objects appeared; almost all of them were bronze rather than gold, but at least they would no longer return empty-handed. Ferlini had to keep the pieces hidden because of doubts about the loyalty of the natives, who flocked to the excavations when they heard that there had been findings.

Finally, the servants alerted Ferlini and Stefani to a betrayal and together they loaded what they found on their camels: a dozen bracelets of gold, silver and bronze, sixteen scarabs also of gold with enamels, dozens of rings, bracelets, crosses, necklaces, figurines of various stones, etc. They managed to reach the Nile, putting distance between them and their pursuers, then went down the river to the Fifth Cataract and then the Bolognese went to Cairo to present his report to the governor. This report, or an expanded and detailed version, was published later, in 1836, when he had returned to his hometown; its title was Nell'interno dell'Africa (First trip to the interior of Africa).

Bracelet from the tomb of Amanishakheto

Bracelet from the tomb of Amanishakheto in Nubia, now in Museum Berlin. Photo: Sven-Steffen Arndt/Wikimedia Commons

That treasure was distributed throughout Europe between sales, donations and auctions to try to recover the investment. Most of it was divided between the Egyptian museums in Berlin and Munich, since it was validated by the German Egyptologist Karl Richard Lepsius, in front of the experts of the British Museum, who considered it a fake, and consequently, did not want any piece.

Ferlini died in Bologna at the end of 1870 and was buried in the cemetery of the Carthusian monastery of Certosa di Bologna, where lie the remains of other personalities such as the singer Farinelli, the automobile manufacturers Alfieri Maserati and Ferrucio Lamborghini, Letizia Murat (the daughter of the famous Napoleonic marshal) and Isabella Colbran (wife of the composer Rossini). Today he is hardly remembered except for having destroyed forty pyramids.

This article was originally published in La Brújula Verde. It has been translated from Spanish and republished with permission.


  1. The museums should return the artifacts and use the profits they made to help restore the pyramids. Not likely to happen but it's the right thing to do.

  2. It would be kind of funny if someone hacked apart his grave someday, looking for gold rings or whatnot, wouldn't it?


Post a Comment

More on Amusing Planet


{{posts[0].date}} {{posts[0].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[1].date}} {{posts[1].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[2].date}} {{posts[2].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[3].date}} {{posts[3].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}