Finnish researchers and explorers in the Near East

Here you get to meet Finnish researchers and explorers!

Finnish explorers and researchers have approached ancient Near East through various fields such as linguistics, textual studies, anthropology, social sciences, and archaeology. The individuals and their stories highlighted in the exhibition also depict broader themes of their time and the growing interest in ancient Middle East during the 19th century. Notable Finnish scholars of the Middle East have included Karl Fredrik Eneberg, who specialized in cuneiform scripts, and Georg August Wallin, who conducted research expeditions in Islamic culture and Egypt. Anthropologist Hilma Granqvist, on the other hand, studied the lives of local women in Palestine.

The history of the Near East has been studied in Finland for a long time. Georg August Wallin, born in Åland, was one of the earliest and most renowned explorers of the Middle East from the current territory of Finland. In the 1840s, he conducted three research expeditions to the Middle East, spending a total of six years exploring a vast area from Egypt to Central Asia. Wallin also acquired numerous artifacts during his travels and sent them back to Finland. One of the items he sent was a coffin from ancient Egypt, which he obtained in Cairo in 1848. You can read more about this coffin and the fragile cultural heritage of the ancient Near East in the "Objects Tell Stories" section!

Besides researchers, seafarers also brought Egyptian artifacts to Finland from their voyages. Interest in Egypt and its cultural treasures began in Europe in the 18th century and grew during the 19th century due to research and exploration expeditions. Europe's fascination with Egypt was so strong that it was referred to as "Egyptomania." This fascination also influenced Finland, especially in the 1920s and 1930s, impacting architecture, literature, fashion, and advertising. For instance, elements of Egyptian architecture can be seen in the side entrances of the main stairs of the Finnish Parliament House. Mika Waltari's novel "The Egyptian" (1945), set in ancient Egypt, quickly became an international success, translated into 41 languages. Waltari's typewriter is on display in the core exhibition "The Story of Finland" at the National Museum of Finland. Egyptian imagery and names were used to promote luxurious products such as cosmetics, fabrics, sweets, and cigars.

The enormous European interest in buying ancient Egyptian objects led to the production of modern replicas. These were not necessarily considered forgeries, as their modern origin was openly known. Nonetheless, these replicas were popular as souvenirs, just like they are for tourists today.

The "Stele of Berlin," also known as the burial stela, was discovered in the necropolis of Sakkara, Memphis, in 1877. Made of limestone, the original stele was destroyed during World War II, but its mold and plaster cast still exist, and the stele in the exhibition was made based on the original plaster cast.

The stele is dedicated to a woman named Ahatabu and her husband Abah. Through the inscription on this commemorative stele, commissioned by their son Absal, researchers have been able to learn about this immigrant woman in Persian-era Egypt. Ahatabu was apparently the daughter of a Jewish immigrant soldier. At the time of the inscription in 482 BCE, Persians had ruled Egypt for about 40 years, so it is highly possible that Ahatabu was born outside Egypt and came there as a child with her father Adijan.

The stele also depicts a scene related to Egyptian death rituals or burial ceremonies, where the god of the afterlife, Osiris, sits on his throne judging the deceased, with the goddesses Isis or Hathor and Nephthys behind him. Above the deities is a winged sun disk. Ahatabu and Abah are also shown approaching Osiris with outstretched hands in the image.


Niniveh was one of the ancient Assyrian capitals, known in Europe for its biblical references, palaces, and cuneiform inscriptions. The growing interest in Niniveh was fueled by Western colonialist motives, the development of museums, and the professionalization of archaeology. French and British explorers dominated the research, but other Europeans soon followed. Early research often focused on impressive sites with connections to biblical narratives. Archaeological findings were unearthed from the ruins of ancient cities such as Persepolis, Nimrud, Babylon, and Niniveh and taken back to their respective countries' collections.

Karl Fredrik Eneberg, a researcher born in Närpes, studied oriental languages in Helsinki, St. Petersburg, Kiel, and Leipzig during the 1860s and 1870s. With a scholarship from the Imperial Alexander University (now the University of Helsinki), he studied cuneiform scripts, Akkadian, and Sumerian in Paris. In February 1876, Eneberg set out on an expedition to Niniveh with the renowned Assyriologist George Smith, known for his interpretation of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Niniveh was one of the ancient Assyrian capitals, famous for its biblical references, palaces, and cuneiform inscriptions. Eneberg planned to bring ancient artifacts from Niniveh to Helsinki for further study.

The young researcher's dream of journeying to the ruins of Niniveh began in London in February 1876, accompanying the famous Assyriologist George Smith. In Aleppo, Eneberg parted ways with Smith and traveled directly to the city of Mosul, near Niniveh. Eneberg wrote about suffering from headaches, fatigue, and homesickness in Mosul. However, in his letters to his mentor Otto Donner, he expressed enthusiasm for the opportunities to study the remains and texts of ancient Assyrian culture:

"The longer I stay here, the more I want to organize excavations myself. Of course, there are challenges. I lack two essential things: official permission and funds."

In mid-May, Eneberg's diary entries became shorter. He mentioned the scorching heat and a visit to the city of Khorsabad (ancient Dur-Sharrukin). A few days later, on May 24, 1876, the 35-year-old Eneberg was found dead in his room. His dream of conducting excavations remained unfulfilled. He was buried in a Christian cemetery outside Mosul. Eneberg's fiancée, Minette Munck, mourned his loss and had already sensed his fate in her own diary entry:

"What if he is dead? God help me live without my friend. Whether he is alive or not, I send him my deepest gratitude for all the love that was often misunderstood but brought light into my life. Blessed be he, whom I love more than anyone else on Earth."

Minette later married Otto Donner, and their well-known grandchild is the writer Jörn Donner.


The Near East had long been studied from a European perspective, and Finnish research on the Middle East was also part of the scholarly endeavors of its time. This phenomenon is known as Orientalism. Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said extensively addressed this topic in his critical work "Orientalism," which was published in 1978. In this book, he highlighted how Western-conducted research and representation presented the Middle East as a unified and passive region, contrasting it with the West, which was seen as dynamic and changing. The perception of immutability often led to interpreting the region's past through the study of its contemporary societies.

Anthropologist Hilma Granqvist, born in Sipoo in 1890, traveled to Palestine in the 1920s to study women's lives as depicted in the Bible. After spending some time in the region, she realized that the current inhabitants did not represent the biblical past, and she needed to study women's lives more broadly from their own perspectives. Despite facing criticism, Granqvist held onto her research approach and obtained her doctoral degree in 1932. Today, the method she developed to study a foreign culture by participating in its everyday life is known as participant observation, and it is one of the fundamental methods in modern anthropology.