Austrian Adventures along the Middle Nile (with a focus on the Meroitic civilization)

We must leave behind the sad news announced in the previous entry…

From the Viennese Meroitic Conference, for example, we have so many other memories that we cherish, first and foremost our friendship and cooperation with Michael Zach (for an interview with Michael by GNM click on the last – no. 14 – of the list of interviews hosted HERE). He is the author of today’s entry, introducing a narrative of:

Austrian adventures along the Middle Nile

While descriptions of Meroitic antiquities by French, British and German travellers to 19th century Sudan have been referred to in scientific studies up to this very day, the contributions of Austrians are widely ignored. However, until 1918 we have to think of Austria in the borders of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, comprising Hungary, Bohemia, Moravia, the southern part of Poland, Transylvania, the northern and central Balkans as well as northern Italy.

So it does not make wonder that the first description of Meroe by an Austrian traveller to Sudan was authored by Giuseppe Michele Zuccoli from Milan, whose biography remains somewhat obscure. What we know about him is that after serving in the Austrian troops during the Napoleonic wars he became officer in the Egyptian army, accompanying Isma’il Pasha on his conquest of the Sudan in 1820/21. His diary, later published by the Austrian orientalist and diplomat Anton Prokesch Ritter von Osten in his book Das Land zwischen den Katarakten des Nil. Mit einer Karte astronomisch bestimmt und aufgenommen im Jahre 1827, Vienna 1831, documents his visit to the pyramids of Meroe. Aside a very short description of the site, Zuccoli also mentions that he collected several Meroitic offering tables, which he lost during a sandstorm in Wadi es Sebua on his way back to Egypt. In the later years of his life Zuccoli held office of Austrian consul in Patras (Greece), in which function he can be traced until 1839.

Somewhat curious is the figure of Domenico Ermenegildo Frediani (* 1783 Seravezza near Milan, † 1823 Cairo). Becoming resident of Naples he later served in the army of king Joaquin Murat on the Napoleonic side and left to Egypt in 1817. After conducting expeditions to Nubia, Palestine and Syria he also accompanied Isma’il Pasha to the Sudan, claiming to be his “private teacher”. Obviously due to exertion he became mentally ill and named himself “Prince Amiro”, feeling more and more threatened by the other European participants of the campaign – especially the Frenchman Frédéric Cailliaud (being the first who shortly afterwards published a comprehensive description of Meroitic antiquities) – whom he accuses of having copied his diary. As we know from a letter by Cailliaud, in delirium Frediani burned all his records, which contained information on Napata, Meroe and Wad Ban Naqa. A solution of these accusations remains open and it must be pointed to the fact that Cailliaud tries to ensure the European public by a letter printed in various periodicals that it was only to him that the discovery of Napata and Meroe belongs. Though Frediani’s diary is lost, his presence at various Meroitic sites is well documented by graffiti left in the form of “Amiro” on one of the monumental statues from Tabo, in Gebel Barkal Temple B 300 and Meroe Pyramid Beg N 6.

Also the next Austrian traveller to Sudan originates from nowadays Italy, namely Giovanni Battista Brocchi (* 1772 Bassano near Venice, † 1826 Khartoum). Being geologist and professor of Natural Sciences at Brescia University, he accepted the offer of Mehmed Ali for organising Egyptian geological activities within his realm in 1821, visiting Sudan in 1825/26. During this journey he visited the site of Meroe, referring to “statues of animals and humans” ten miles north of Shendi. Without doubt, they can be identified with the alley of rams in front of the Amun Temple and the torso of a king (?) situated nearby. Unfortunately he obviously passed the pyramid cemeteries at some distance, not delivering any in-debt description of them. The record of his travels was published posthumous under the title Giornale delle osservazioni fatte ne’viaggi in Egitto, nella Siria e nella Nubia, Bassano 1843, also containing the drawing of a Meroitic offering table that he found in Shendi. From the perspective of Meroitic Studies it is remarkable that he rightly charged the Meroitic civilisation having been influenced by Egypt and not the reverse way, as often considered by contemporary travellers.

Meticulously detailed descriptions of the sites of Meroe, Duanib, Musawwarat es Sufra and Naqa as well as the so-called “Soba Ram” can be found in volume 7 of Der Orient und Europa. Reisebilder von Land und Meer, Leipzig 1854, authored by Eduard Ferdinand Freiherr von Callot (* 1792, † 1862 Vienna). The former army officer and later railway official claimed to have travelled to Turkey, Syria, the Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, the Sudan, Ethiopia and Arabia in 1831. However, an analysis of his work reveals that all his “adventures” are a fraud, reflecting nothing more than plagiarism from travel literature available at his time. For example, his “descriptions” of Meroitic sites are simply translations of the observations published by Frédéric Cailliaud. So we can judge Callot as an impostor, who never visited the Near East and Africa at any time, but authored a fictive “travel report” during his six years’ imprisonment after the 1848 revolution.

In March 1837, Joseph Russegger (* 1802 Salzburg, † 1863 Schemnitz) visited the pyramids of Meroe. As a renowned geologist, he joined the Egyptian service and led an expedition to the Sudan for discovering the legendary gold mines on the order of Muhammad Ali (1837/38). Though only his description of the northern necropolis at Meroe relies on autopsy (details on other Meroitic sites like Wad ban Naqa, Musawwarat es Sufra and Naqa were taken from the works of other travellers), his judgement on the age of the pyramids is sound, dating them in Ptolemaic to Roman times. On his return to Egypt he also visited the ruins of Napata and the pyramids of Nuri, discovering the remains of a temple in the hamlet of “Abdum”, which can be identified with the sanctuary of Amun at Sanam Abu Dom. His description of its archaeological remains is the first one to appear in literature, included in two of three parts of the second volume of his comprehensive Reisen in Europa, Asien und Afrika, mit besonderer Rücksicht auf die naturwissenschaftlichen Verhältnisse der betreffenden Länder, Stuttgart 1843-49.

Several years passed, till the next stay of an Austrian citizen at Meroe is documented. Conte Emilio Dandolo (* 1830 Varese, † 1859 Milan) is more prominently known as an opponent to Austrian rule in Lombardy and a leading proponent of the Risorgimento, fleeing after the – failed – 1848 revolution to Egypt, travelling the Sudan in 1851. The rather short descriptions have been published in his Viaggio in Egitto, nell Sudan, in Siria ed in Palestina (1850-51), Milan 1854 and comprise the pyramids near the ancient capital, temple M 250 and the ruins at Jebel Barkal.

Three years after, Martin Ludwig Hansal (* 1823 Groß-Thaiax/Moravia, † 1885 Khartoum) delivered the next description of Meroitic antiquities. Joining the Austrian protected “Roman Catholic Mission to Central Africa” in 1853 he served as teacher at the missionary school in Khartoum till 1857 and returned to the Sudan in 1862. One year after he was appointed Austrian consul in Khartoum and was killed during the Mahdist capture of Khartoum. Staying at Meroe in December 1854, he erroneously judged its pyramids predating the Egyptian ones, repeating the obsolete view that the Egyptian civilisation derived from the south. Besides, he recorded the previous excavation of the monumental statue of the so-called “Soba Ram” – which due to recent documentation can be attributed to the Meroitic king Amanikhareqerema ruling at the end of the first century AD – by missionaries (later transferred to Khartoum and now being exposed in the Sudan National Museum). Though staying in the Sudan for decades, except for his first travel to the country published in Neueste Briefe aus Chartum in Central-Afrika, Vienna 1855, no further reports can be traced.

Documentation of Meroitic antiquities by Austrians during the 19th century came to an end with the photographer Richard Buchta (* 1845 Radlow/Galicia, † 1894 Vienna), travelling the Sudan and northern Uganda from 1877 to 1879. Though Buchta has authored several books on contemporary Sudan, none of them includes a written record on the Meroitic antiquities. However, he edited a box containing 160 photographs taken during his travels with a “foreword” by Robert Hartmann under the title Die oberen Nilländer, Volkstypen und Landschaften, Berlin 1881. Sheets 22 and 23 contain images of the Northern and Southern groups of the pyramids at Meroe, being the first photos ever to have been taken on the site.

After an interruption due to the Sudanese national movement during the Mahdia, Austrian experience with the culture of Meroe is no longer related to the experience of travellers but professional archaeological missions, first of all concentrating under the directorship of Hermann Junker on the cemetery of Arminna in the Egyptian part of Nubia in the years 1911/12.

Also Austrian participation to the UNESCO Campaign for rescuing Nubian Antiquities conducted by Karl Kromer in the Sayala area in the 1960ies revealed significant material relating to late and post-Meroitic history. As a result of these excavations, the study of material remains of early Sudanese cultures became integrated in the scientific scope of the Department of Egyptian and African Studies at the University of Vienna, as it was called at that time. With the separation of the combined Department in 1978, Meroitic Studies became an integral part and research focus at the newly formed Department of African Studies under the renowned scholar Inge Hofmann.

By that, Vienna demonstrated a new strategy, as to a certain degree Meroitic Studies became detached from Egyptology, in general often considering the Kushite kingdom only a marginal copy of Egyptian culture, by re-positioning it in its African context.

It was also the “Viennese team” consisting of Inge Hofmann, Herbert Tomandl and Michael Zach, who conducted two research projects on Meroe and visited Sudan for several times for producing a photographic documentation of the main Meroitic sites. The photos and slides are digitized at this very moment and will be available for study purposes. The Department of African Studies also houses a small collection of Meroitic pottery fragments for demonstration purposes, which have been transferred to Vienna by permission of the “Sudan Antiquities Service”. Finally, the department also publishes the international periodical “Beiträge zur Sudanforschung” and the monograph series “Beihefte zu den Beiträgen zur Sudanforschung”, appearing since 1986.

To summarize, Austro-Sudanese relations date back to the beginning of the 19th century, when the first Austrians participated to the Turco-Egyptian occupation of the Sudan in 1820/21. During the following decades a large number of Austrian travellers, being either scientists, missionaries, diplomats or simply adventurers, visited the country and some of them delivered descriptions of Meroitic antiquities in their records. It must be born in mind that until the year 1862 (when the Roman-Catholic Mission to Central Africa being protected by emperor Franz Josef was abolished) Austria was the predominant European power in Sudan. So it does not make wonder that there have even been various attempts to create the country into an Austrian colony at that time, only failing by disruptions within the European political systems and new focal points of Austrian foreign policy. Nevertheless, Austrian citizens were still present in the Sudan afterwards, some of them serving as high-ranking officials like Ernst Marno as governor of Qallabat and Rudolf Slatin as governor of Darfur. Also the Austrian consulate in Khartoum created in 1851 was still in service up to 26 January 1885, when the city was conquered by the forces of Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahdi. In a general view, Austrian contribution to studies on ancient Sudan can be judged essential and it is to be hoped that the tradition will be revived, resulting in new archaeological activities in the future.


We are thankful for this priceless contribution by Michael Zach (all the photographs come also from his archive) and we are proud that BzS is the hosting journal for the  reports of the Greek-Norwegian Archaeological Mission on the field on Sai Island. And it is of course a wish worthwhile the attempt to see the Austrians returning to Sudan for archaeological fieldwork!

The next related entry should complement the Central European perspective on Sudan Archaeology from a Hungarian point of view…

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