Finding traces of a dead East German prince in Egypt

in Culture / Entertainment/History/Travel

Tomorrow, 31 October, is Halloween, but do you know what is today? The 230th birthday of Prince PĂĽckler-Muskau.

Prince who? Don’t worry, I wouldn’t know him either if I weren’t currently doing research on the history of Egyptology.

“PĂĽckler-Muskau” by Auguste HĂĽssener – Stahlstich, in: Deutsches Taschenbuch auf das Jahr 1837. Hg. von Karl BĂĽchner. Berlin: Duncker u. Humblot 1837. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Hermann Ludwig Heinrich von PĂĽckler-Muskau (1785–1871), born in Eastern Saxony, was a German nobleman who today would be considered a member of the “jet set.” In German, a three-layer ice-cream creation is named after him. In English, though, it’s called Neapolitan ice-cream – and PĂĽckler-Muskau doesn’t deserve the honor anyway because he by no means invented that treat.

Instead, he spent his time designing landscape gardens, writing, and traveling. On account of the latter, I found part of his legacy when I visited Luxor earlier this month, the place in Upper Egypt that houses so many of ancient Egypt’s most magnificent remains, from the tombs of the Valley of the Kings to the Pharaonic temples along the Nile.

Signature from dead German prince in Egypt. Photo by Maximilian Georg.
Signature from dead German prince in Egypt. Photo by Maximilian Georg.

PĂĽckler-Muskau toured Egypt in 1837, and surely the most remarkable “souvenir” he brought back home from there was a maybe thirteen-year old Ethiopian girl he had purchased at the Cairo slave market. Well, times were different. Which is also shown by what I saw in the so-called Ramesseum, a monumental temple outside the Valley of the Kings, built for Pharaoh Ramesses II, in the 13th century BC. Mighty columns, giant statues, massive walls, and everything covered with the finest hieroglyphs and reliefs. I was, of course, deeply impressed, and so was PĂĽckler-Muskau, so much so that he left a deep impression on the building, literally…

Compared to the ancient Egyptian inscriptions, Pückler-Muskau’s suffers from the obvious flaw that the “c” is missing in front of the “kler”, which may indicate that he didn’t chisel himself – or he did but lacked concentration in Upper Egypt’s sweltering heat. I’ve in any case wondered how that chiseling took place in practice.

Unfortunately Pückler-Muskau doesn’t tell us in his travel account. Did somebody in the prince’s travel entourage happen to carry heavy tools in his pocket, or did a local sculptor offer his services in return for some generous tip? In fact, there could even have been “entrepreneurs” in Egypt specializing in chiseling foreigners’ names on antiquities, since Pückler-Muskau’s is not the only modern visitors’ contribution to the Ramesseum, and countless other Egyptian ruins have been thus decorated, too (also by Pückler-Muskau, by the way).

In each case, the carving seems deep enough to let the letters, unless somebody intervenes, accompany the monuments well through the next three millennia of their existence. To those who carried the signatures out we must say: good job! But however outraged we may now be by how in the past illustrious persons treated cultural heritage, we need to make one concession to PĂĽckler-Muskau: If he hadn’t insisted on his name being chiseled in a column of the Ramesseum, The Leipzig Glocal would most likely not in the least have commemorated the 230th birthday of that Saxon adventurer… and this would have been a real shame, wouldn’t it?

Maximilian Georg is a historian based at the University of Leipzig, currently researching in Egypt.

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