Giuseppe Ferlini was an Italian combat medic turned explorer and treasure hunter, well known for having raided and desecrated several ancient pyramids of Meroë in Sudan.
Born in Bologna in 1797, Ferlini embarked on a journey of exploration and self-discovery. After spending 18 years in his homeland, he sought an escape from an untenable living situation with his stepmother. His travels took him to Greece before eventually settling in Egypt, where he joined the Egyptian Army during their conquest of Sudan. It was during his time stationed in Sennar and later in Khartoum that Ferlini first heard tantalizing rumors of concealed riches.
Fueled by these tales and driven by his own ambition, Ferlini made the fateful decision to desert the army and pursue a career as a treasure hunter. He was determined to either return home empty-handed or laden with unprecedented wealth. Partnering with an Albanian merchant named Antonio Stefani, who provided financial backing in exchange for a share of the profits, Ferlini organized an expedition to Meroë, setting off on August 10, 1834.
Upon reaching Meroë, Ferlini faced a significant obstacle. Unlike the Egyptian pyramids, the Kushite pyramids in Meroë were constructed in a manner that prevented easy access to the inner chambers. Undeterred, Ferlini resorted to demolition, systematically dismantling numerous pyramids in his relentless search for hidden treasures.
One of Ferlini’s notable exploits took place at Wad ban Naqa, where he targeted the pyramid N6 belonging to the kandake Amanishakheto, a prominent Sudanese queen who reigned between 15 BC and 1 AD. Starting from the top, Ferlini leveled the pyramid and ultimately discovered a cache of treasures consisting of dozens of gold and silver jewelry pieces. In total, it is estimated that Ferlini’s actions resulted in the destruction of over 40 pyramids in Meroë.
In 1836, Ferlini returned to Italy with the treasures he had obtained. A year later, he wrote a report detailing his expedition and cataloging his findings. The report was translated into French and republished in 1838. Despite his successful acquisition of the treasures, Ferlini encountered significant challenges in selling them. At the time, many doubted that such exquisite jewelry could have originated from Africa.
It was only when German Egyptologist Karl Richard Lepsius authenticated the treasures in front of experts from the British Museum that Ferlini found a potential market. However, Lepsius himself mistakenly considered the artifacts to be fake, leading to the British Museum’s rejection of the collection. Ferlini’s chance to sell the stolen treasures finally came when he found buyers elsewhere in Europe.
The collection included several remarkable pieces, such as six golden bracelets adorned with crystals and gems, a golden and crystal armlet, and a necklace composed of gems, ceramics, and glass. Among the treasures were also a necklace featuring twelve golden and crystal beads, seven meticulously crafted golden beads with crystal accents, a vase with two bronze supports, a perfume container with a wooden lid, a small gold and red agate statue of the god Amun, two golden statues of lions, a statue of a fox, a lotus flower statue, a golden chain adorned with carvings of a goddess, a golden chain featuring a beetle carving, and a six-piece golden chain with the key-like emblem of the god Amun.
To recoup their investment, Ferlini and Stefani distributed the stolen treasures through sales, donations, and auctions across Europe. King Ludwig I of Bavaria acquired a portion of the treasures, which are now housed in the State Museum of Egyptian Art in Munich. The remainder found a home in the Egyptian Museum of Berlin.
Giuseppe Ferlini passed away in Bologna on December 30, 1870, and was laid to rest in the Certosa di Bologna. His legacy is one marred by the destruction of several ancient pyramids. Although his actions revealed valuable treasures and sparked interest in ancient civilizations, Ferlini’s deeds highlight the importance of practicing responsible archaeology and showing respect for the historical significance of these ancient structures.