His biography could serve as a scenario for a feature movie full of action and adventure. Scholar and gentleman, he was an outstanding egyptologist and discoverer, and at the same time a Polish patriot and army officer, decorated with Poland’s highest military decoration for heroism and courage in the face of the enemy at war, the War Order of Virtuti Militari.
Kazimierz Michałowski was born in 1901 in Tarnopol (Poland’s eastern borderlands before World War II). Brought up in a patriotic family, he signed up at a young age to fight for Polish independence during the Lvov campaign of 1918. He also fought in the Polish–Bolshevik war of 1920.
At the University of Lvov he studied Romance languages, philosophy and art history, going on successively to Berlin, Heidelberg, Münster, Paris and Rome to continue his academic studies. He learned the ropes of archaeological excavations during a three-year stay at the Ecole Français in Athens. In 1930, he took the chair of archaeology at the University of Warsaw. Already then he was thinking of setting up a Polish archaeological school and developing the ancient art collection of the National Museum in Warsaw.
In 1936 he accepted an invitation from French colleagues to excavate in Egypt. The first exhibition of finds from Edfu was put on display in the new building of the National Museum in Warsaw already the next year. Today, they are part of the Museum’s Ancient Art Gallery.
Michałowski’s scholarly publications and the results of the excavations he directed in Egypt won him international renown. World War II interrupted rudely the string of successes. Being an officer in the Polish Army, Michałowski fought in the defensive war of September 1939. After the fall of Poland he was imprisoned in the POW camp in Woldenberg, where he spent the rest of the war. Never a man to lose time, however, he organized academic studies for his fellow prisoners, lecturing on egyptology and teaching ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Returning to Warsaw after the war, he joined in the effort to rebuild the University and the National Museum. For the rest of his life he combined academic lecturing and studies, working for both the National Museum in Warsaw and the Polish Academy of Sciences. But even as his academic career developed, he put his exceptional diplomatic and organizational skills to a test and within a few years had opened Poland’s first postwar excavations abroad, in the ancient Greek colony of Mirmeki on the Black Sea.
In 1956, he was invited back to Egypt and started excavating Tell Atrib in the Nile Delta. In the following years he lectured at the university in Alexandria, while managing the newly opened Polish archaeological and conservation projects at Deir el-Bahari in West Thebes (near Luxor), where a temple of Tuthmosis III was discovered, and in Alexandria, where the ruins of a great city from the Graeco-Roman period started to be explored.
In 1958, UNESCO issued a worldwide appeal to help save the ancient heritage that was to disappear at the bottom of a huge lake that was to form between the first and second cataract on the Nile, behind the High Dam being built in Egypt, in Aswan. An international committee was established to supervise the effort, among others, to move the priceless temples of Abu Simbel to high ground. Professor Michałowski was invited to preside over this advisory body.
Thus Polish archaeologists arrived in Sudan to begin excavations on the site of Faras close to the Egyptian border. An entire Nubian cathedral with 150 wall paintings preserved inside it was brought to light already in the first two seasons. The find and its subsequent preservation was acclaimed worldwide as one of the greatest achievements of the Nubian Salvage Campaign.
Michałowski was one of Poland’s most outstanding scholars and a great archaeologist of the 20th century. He established the so-called Polish school of Mediterranean archaeology and “discovered” Egypt for several generations of Poles. We owe it to him that today Polish archaeologists are active in Egypt, Sudan, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Iraq, Cyprus and several other countries in the region.