History of the collection
The Vienna Egyptian and Near Eastern Collection has a turbulent history extending back to the period around 1560. At that time an emissary of the Austrian imperial family purchased in Constantinople the kneeling figure of Gem-nef-hor-bak, thus laying the foundation for a collection of Aegyptiaca.
Avid interest in collecting Egyptian antiquities did not really begin in Europe until the early 19th century. The few Egyptian antiquities already in Habsburg possession in the 18th century were held in the coin collection and cabinet of antiquities. There was an emancipation of the genre when Napoleon’s spectacular invasion of Egypt (1798-1799) resulted in unparalleled esteem for Egyptian culture.
The holdings of Egyptian artefacts were considerably expanded by various gifts and acquisitions, most importantly by the objects purchased in Egypt in 1821 by the physician Ernst August Burghart. The most significant gifts were made at mid-century by Anton Ritter von Laurin, Austrian general consul in Alexandria from 1824 to 1849. The Vienna collection also has him to thank for the discovery of the magnificent stone sarcophagus of Nes-shu-tefnut. Other articles were provided by the son of Emperor Francis Joseph, Crown Prince Rudolf, who acquired numerous Egyptian artefacts during his travels to Egypt in 1881.
Several years later the collection received a generous gift from the Egyptian government. These were coffins and coffin ensembles found in a hiding place – a so-called cachette – in Thebes. Towards the end of the 19th century the Miramar collection of almost 2,000 objects from the possession of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico was added to the inventory of the imperial collections.
Most of the additions in the first half of the 20th century were the result of archaeological excavations in Egypt and Nubia financed by the Austrian Academy of Sciences. The Egyptian Collection today has its most important holdings of artefacts from the Old Kingdom due to excavations on the rocky plateau of Giza between 1912 and 1929. Among them are the famous Reserve Head, numerous tomb statues, inscribed and reliefed architectural components such as false doors and architraves, coffins of stone and wood, Canopic jars, jewellery, vessels of various materials, etc. Private financing made it possible in 1914 to purchase the Offering Chapel of Ka-ni-nisut from the Egyptian Antiquities Service.
The focus of the Oriental Collection is on artefacts from the ancient culture of southern Arabia. The core is based on the research of Eduard Glaser, who between 1882 and 1895 undertook four expeditions to Yemen. Even today, the Old South Arabian inscriptions that he collected remain of fundamental importance for the study of ancient Yemen.
The rooms of the Egyptian and Near Eastern Collection in the Kunsthistorisches Museum are magnificently decorated, and this Egyptianesque design was part of the original plan of the architects, Gottfried Semper and Carl von Hasenauer. Unique is the reuse of three original Egyptian monolithic columns more than six metres in height instead of the marble pillars used to support the ceilings of the other halls. The columns, which had been excavated in Alexandria, were a gift to Emperor Francis Joseph I in 1869. Also worthy of note are the murals on paper, which lend the large first hall a special character. They are copies of mural paintings from the tomb of Prince Chnum-hetep at Beni Hassan in Middle Egypt and were made by Ernst Weidenbach for the Vienna International Exhibition of 1873.