Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Egyptian diary in Pisa

An Italian diary, nearly two centuries old and detailing archaeological sites in Egypt that were subsequently destroyed, has just been found in a library at Pisa university. The diary was written by Dr Alessandro Ricci, an explorer, draughtsman and medical doctor. There is not much information about him on the internet, though he took part in the important Franco-Tuscan expedition to Egypt with Ippolito Rosellini, said to be the father of Italian Egyptology. Oh, and he died of a scorpion sting.

Last month, the Italian news service Ansa revealed the story of Dr Alessandro Ricci’s diary; and, since then, it’s been widely reproduced across the internet, but without any additional facts or embellishment. So, most of the information in this article is based on the Ansa-sourced story (as on the Archaelogy Daily News website, for example).

Ricci was born in Siena and left Italy in 1817 to travel to Egypt, staying first in Alexandria and then travelling through Nubia, where he found tribal fighting and hostility from the local governor. In 1820, while in Cairo, he joined a military expedition to the Siwa Oasis - 560km west of Cairo - organised by the Viceroy Muhammed Ali, who is sometimes called the founder of modern Egypt (see Wikipedia). Indeed it was Ali who claimed the Siwa Oasis for Egypt. During the trip, Ricci carefully copied inscriptions he found at the temple of Amun and mapped out the area around the oasis. Later that year, he travelled to Suez and to Mount Sinai, where he spent some time at St Catherine’s Monastery. 

In 1821, he returned to southern Egypt, joining another military expedition, this one led by Ali’s son Ibrahim Pasha. Ricci returned to Italy in 1822 and set to work organising the drawings and notes he had made in Egypt. A few years later, in 1828, these notes would be of much service when he returned to Egypt, serving as a draughtsman and doctor, on the so-called Franco-Tuscan expedition. This was organised by a French philologist, Jean-Francois Champollion, and Ippolito Rosellini, of Pisa university, who would later be called the father of Italian Egyptology (see The Travellers in Egypt website). It lasted a year, and explored up river on the Nile as far as Wadi Halfa, but soon after it was over Ricci was bitten by a scorpion. He was paralysed and eventually died in 1834.

Ricci’s journal - the one that has just been rediscovered - concerns his first period in Egypt, the five years to 1822. ‘This is an exceptional find for the field of Egyptology,’ said Marilina Betro, the professor heading a Pisa university team researching the Franco-Tuscan expedition. This is partly because, Betro explains, Ricci describes and draws sites that were already destroyed by the time of Champollion-Rosellini expedition, but also because he writes about much more along the way, ‘the customs and habits of the people he met, the fighting strategies of armies, the condition of women and even the treatment of animals’.

The whereabouts of Ricci’s journal appears to have been a mystery for decades. Ricci gave it to Champollion in 1827, prior to the Franco-Tuscan expedition, apparently believing the French expert would publish it. But then both Champollion and Ricci died a few years later. Although Rosellini asked French authorities to return the journal to Italy in 1836, it remained in France.

The diary then vanished for several decades until surfacing in 1928, when an Italian architect working for King Fuad I of Egypt bought it in a Cairo bookshop (these details are all from the Ansa news story). This architect showed it to the Italian Egyptologist Angelo Sammarco, who recognised its value and was keen to organise its publication. A synopsis of the diary appeared in 1930 but the project never got any further. After he died in 1948, all trace of the journal vanished - until recently, when it was found at Pisa university by researcher Daniele Salvoldi.

‘Now, two centuries after it was written, our goal is to get this book published,’ said Betro.

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