The Egyptian Sarcophagi of Vipava
Translated by Christina Strojan
"How far the son of a Slovene farmer can come, with a
good heart and a sharp wit, is amply demonstrated in the case
of Sir Anton Lavrin, Knight of the Order of the Iron Wreath,
HM Councillor and Consul General in Egypt. Born of pious and
well-regarded farming and landowner parents in Vipava, he and
his brothers completed their studies with honours. The younger,
Janez, was a doctor of medicine and the elder, Joef, was
a Court Councillor and the judge of HM Capital Court of Milan.
The middle son, Anton, is HM Consul General in Egypt…"
These are the words with which in 1845, or exactly 160 years
ago, the Kmetijske in rokodelske novice ("Farmers' and
Crafts News"), a Slovene newspaper for farmers and craftsmen,
chose to introduce our countryman from Vipava, Anton Lavrin.
He appeared in a longer article entitled "The Gratitude
of a High-Ranking Gentleman to his Simple Farming Parents".
Anton Lavrin has certainly earned his place in the history of
the Slovene nation and Slovene diplomacy. Only a handful of
Slovenes managed to climb as high in the Vienna hierarchy in
the time of the Hapsburg or later Austro-Hungarian Empire. Anton
Lavrin met and corresponded with Metternich, Minister of Foreign
Affairs and the man who in effect ran the Empire on a fairly
frequent basis. The Emperor himself, who also knighted Lavrin
for his service in diplomacy, held him in high regard.
Anton Lavrin is no less known in Slovenia. He was one of the
first who brought more detailed accounts of Ancient Egyptian
history and culture to our country. He donated a painted coffin
containing the mummy of the priest Isahta (dating from the 650
BC) and the then even more attractive crocodile, measuring 12
feet and 6 thumbs in length to the Carniolan Provincial Museum
in Ljubljana. As the previously-mentioned newspaper wrote in
1846, "this terrifying enemy of the fiercest beasts, cattle,
horses, lions, lynx and men will now rest in the Museum in Ljubljana
and show its deadly teeth to curious visitors." To his
native Vipava he sent two precious ancient Egyptian stone sarcophagi
discovered in the tombs of courtiers at the feet of the famous
pyramids in Giza. These "old chests for dead men"
as the Novice called them now hold the remains of Lavrin's father
Jernej, his mother Joefa and his son Albert who died as
a child aged eight years. The sarcophagi can be seen today at
the Vipava cemetery.
From Vipava into the world
The life of Anton Lavrin, the son of a fairly wealthy landowner
and the owner of the Vipava mill, is symbolic in its link to
the events of the day. He was born in 1789 in the time of the
French Revolution which turned Europe upside down and he died
in 1869, the year when the Suez Canal was opened, which shortened
sea journeys and also caused an upheaval in transport and communication.
During his lifetime he helped to steer many stormy events which
shaped the history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and consequently
Slovenia as well.
Coming from a fairly wealthy family he was able to study in
Vienna where he graduated in law and quickly acquired a post
in diplomacy on account of his knowledge of foreign languages.
First he was a consular official in Southern Italy. In 1828
he became the Hapsburg Consul General in Palermo and six years
later he was assigned the post of Consul in Egypt which was
then of strategic importance to the Habsburg monarchy.
Lavrin was an incredibly gifted diplomat. At the time of his
post in Alexandria the relations between the Ottoman Empire
and Egypt, which wanted independence, began to deteriorate.
Through his intervention between Sultan Mahmud the Second and
the Egyptian Regent of Albanian origins, Mehmed Ali, he managed
to calm the situation for at least a couple of years for which
he was amply rewarded and knighted by the Emperor Ferdinand
I. Anton Lavrin of course invented a coat of arms to go with
his new station: two olive branches, three Egyptian sphinxes
and a Latin motto: Non nisi moriens mutor or I will not change
However, as a diplomat he helped not only Muslims but also
Christians living in Jerusalem, where he often travelled from
Egypt. Pope Gregory XVI rewarded him for his efforts with the
title Dignitarius terrae sanctae or Dignitary of the Holy Land.
He also supported the work of the Slovene missionary and African
explorer Ignacij Knoblehar. In his letters, Ignacij Knoblehar
often praised "our valiant countryman". "He is
deeply religious which particularly suits a high state official
because such devotion is rarely seen in their ranks. He remains
a true Slovene. He often talked to me about our beloved homeland,"
A diplomat in love with beauty
Soon after arriving in Egypt Lavrin became an enthusiastic
collector of art and examples of ancient Egyptian culture. He
was a friend of the British Consul, Patrick Campbell, who funded
archaeological research and of Colonel Howard Vyse, who explored
the area around the Giza pyramids. In one of his books the colonel
mentions that he described in detail the work in process in
Gaza to Mr Lavrin, the Habsburg Monarchy Consul General. Following
the example of his British colleges Lavrin embarked upon exploration
projects himself and got in touch with the digger and antiques
merchant Yusuf Masara. The same man would later help Lavrin
to acquire the two famous »Vipava« sarcophagi.
While living in Egypt, Lavrin amassed an important collection
of Ancient Egyptian and Greco-Roman art which, together with
remains of old Coptic Church manuscripts from the monastery
in Vadi Natrun near Cairo, he dutifully sent to various institutions
in Vienna. In 1849 he sold part of his collection to the Hapsburg
Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian to serve as decoration in the
mansion Miramar near Trieste. After the archduke's tragic demise
in Mexico the collection was moved to Vienna. The sphinx, made
of Aswan granite, is the only item that remained in the Miramar
Park and it guards the Miramar Pier to this day.
But Lavrin did not forget his Slovene countrymen. Thus in 1846
he sent the aforementioned coffin containing the mummy of the
priest Isahta, from the end of the twenty-fifth dynasty, to
the Museum in Ljubljana. It was found next to the Colossi of
Memnon not far away from Luxor in Upper Egypt. Lavrin supplied
the following information concerning the coffin: "The Egyptian
mummy in the coffin, which had never previously been opened,
is well preserved. It is painted with hieroglyphs and has a
fretwork image on the lid. It is made of sycamore wood."
He also provided its measurements (191 cm in length and 51 cm
in width) and drew attention to the objects which accompanied
it, especially the scarab with open wings. "The deceased
was the keeper of the keys to Amun's temple," added Lavrin.
Even more famous are the two heavy sarcophagi which were brought
to Trieste by ship and were then transported on carts via Gorizia
to Vipava. They were discovered in the tombs of the courtiers
of the fifth dynasty (2494-2345 BC) at the foot of the Pyramid
of Khafre in Giza. They belong to the group of six similarly
shaped sarcophagi that we know of, all of which are decorated
on the outside with the motive of stylised Egyptian buildings.
If we look at the way the sarcophagi are placed in the Vipava
cemetery, the one on the left belonged to Raver, a high ranking
court official, while the right contained the remains of Yunmin,
the first son of the king and perhaps even the son of the pharaoh
Mycerinus. There are only four more sarcophagi of this kind
in the world today. Two are in the famous Cairo Museum in Egypt,
one was bought in 1990 by the British Museum in London and the
last one is in the Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim, Germany.
Sir Anton Lavrin, who became a member of scientific societies
in Athens and Rome, was named honorary member of the Carniolan
Museum Society in 1844. He was, in 1849, posted to Bucharest,
where he remained until the outbreak of the Crimean War. In
1854 he was called to Vienna, where he held the post of Minister
Councillor until his retirement four years later. From Vienna
he moved to Milan, where his brothers Janez and Joef lived
and there he died suffering from a mental illness. His grave
was dug up in 1979.
No one knows whether his wife, Penelopa Beneducci, many years
his junior, was with him during the last few years of his life.
However, we do know that, after the death of her husband, she
travelled to Vienna, where she tried to lay claim to a higher
widow's pension with the help of the Vienna lawyer Matija Dolenc,
also from Vipava. Later, she returned with her children Hedvika,
Ida and Konrad to Alexandria to Villa Lavrin, which was sadly
completely destroyed during the British shelling of the city
in 1882. All records and documents were destroyed in the fire,
thus no one has a single photograph of Sir Anton Lavrin. All
that remains is his great work.
(Content abstracted from "Slovenija.svet"
published by Slovenska