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The Egyptian Sarcophagi of Vipava
by Branko Soban
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, Jožef, 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 Jožefa 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 unless dead.

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," wrote Knoblehar.
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 Jožef 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 izseljenska matica.)