The beginnings of archaeology in general and Egyptology in particular, beyond the curiosity that the ruins unleashed in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, came between the late eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth century, being vertebrated by a number of names that are almost familiar to fans. We have mentioned some of them here, such as Jean-François Champollion or Karl Richard Lepsius; others would be William Flinders Petrie, Bernardino Drovetti, Henry Salt, John Gardner Wilkinson, Amelia Edwards, Ippolito Rosellini… But probably the most important of all was Giovanni Battista Belzoni.
Belzoni, a native of Padua, then part of the Republic of Venice, was born in 1778. He had no less than fourteen siblings and, as his father was a modest barber who found it difficult to support such a large brood, an adolescent Giovanni was sent to Rome, the city where his father’s family came from – which was also better off financially – to earn a living. However, he had a different idea: he had a deep religious vocation that prompted him to take the habit in a monastery.
Much would have changed his future -and that of Egyptology- if he had accomplished it. However, an unforeseen event occurred: in 1798 the French troops occupied the city, revoked the authority of the Pope and proclaimed the Roman Republic; Belzoni, it seems, took part in some intrigues and, threatened with imprisonment, decided to put his foot down.
Thus, in 1800 he tried to start over in the Netherlands, practicing the trade he had learned from his father. It did not last long; after all, Napoleon had turned that territory into the Batavian Republic and the danger of being recognized and arrested was always present even if he avoided it by going unnoticed thanks to his northern appearance and his red hair, so three years later he moved to England. It was in that country where he met the woman who would become his wife, Sara Bane, the architect of the change in his life that was coming. Because Sara was a restless spirit, she convinced her future husband -they would marry in 1813- to join a traveling circus with which they toured the country.
Belzoni was over 6 feet tall and had a robust constitution, so his circus contribution consisted of strength demonstrations -the classic strongman- and he came to perform at Astley’s Anphitheatre, a prestigious permanent circus located in the London district of Lambeth. There he became interested in other facets of that world, such as the so-called phantasmagoria, a type of scary show based on the projection of terrifying images (skeletons, ghosts, demons…) with a magic lantern. The Italian took a liking to it and began to study mechanical engineering, something he had already started during his stay in Rome, designing his own hydraulic devices that he used in the Covent Garden shows. This was to come in handy for the future.
In 1812 he left England for an European tour. He visited Spain, the Netherlands, Portugal and Malta, performing but also trying to sell a waterwheel design he had conceived. That was precisely what allowed him to contact an Egyptian diplomat, Ismael Gibraltar, who was interested in it because the Pasha of Egypt, Muhammad Ali, was implementing a modernization policy and wanted to expand the cultivation areas. This was how Belzoni visited the country of the Pharaohs for the first time and, although the experience was not as satisfactory as he had hoped – the Pasha finally dismissed the invention – the Italian decided to stay.
To this end, he devised new devices, this time designed to facilitate the transport of large blocks of stone, since it was customary to remove them from ancient monuments to reuse them in modern constructions. Also, through the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt, who was visiting Egypt and with whom he became friends, he gained access to the office of Henry Salt, British consul, who assigned him a mission: to go to Thebes to take the huge bust of Ramesses II (mistakenly called Young Memnon) that decorated his temple, the Ramesseum, and move it to the British Museum, as authorized by a signature (order) of the Pasha. The statue weighed seven tons and Belzoni had to struggle to move it; he managed to lift it by means of levers and then using rollers, as it was done in Ancient Egypt. An arduous job in which he spent seventeen days and one hundred and thirty men until he reached the river, where the piece was shipped.
The success of that commission opened the door to other similar assignments, almost all of them involving complex difficulties. For example, an obelisk that he was taking to Alexandria by boat went down with the ship in the middle of the Nile and he had to rescue it by mounting a water scaffolding. He was already fully involved in this world and in 1815 he accompanied William Beechey, Salt’s secretary, on a trip to Abu Simbel to see how they could unearth the speos temples (excavated in the rock) discovered by Jacob Burckhardt a couple of years earlier. Indeed, thousands of tons of sand covered them, making it impossible to access the interior.
The disappointed Italian had to resign but returned in 1817 accompanied by his wife, who took the opportunity to give written testimony of the life of the Egyptian women and overcame, with their help, an eye condition. On the second attempt, with effort and patience, Belzoni managed to remove enough sand to partially uncover the entrance and go inside in search of pieces for the collectors. He found hardly anything and for that reason the temples, both that of Ramesses II and that of Nefertari, fell back into oblivion for a time.
That same year, Belzoni was excavating in the Valley of the Kings, where he discovered, among others, the tombs of the pharaohs Ay and Ramesses I, and extracted all the objects to sell them. This attitude should not be surprising, since in that first half of the 19th century archaeology was, fundamentally, collecting pieces and plundering was seen as normal for the sake of science, which, of course, was based in Western Europe. That is why he did not hesitate to take things away stripped of their context and burst sarcophagus lids in search of jewels, a bit along the lines of Giuseppe Ferlini although not as brutally as he did. In fact, he was a mixture of adventurer and collector, rather than scientist, but thanks to his work Egyptology was beginning to take shape. Because he also found the tomb of Seti I (which was called Belzoni’s Tomb because, as Champollion had not yet translated the hieroglyphic script, it was not known to whom it belonged), studied the temples of Philae, Edfu and Elephantine, carried out excavations at Karnak…
In 1818, after a trip to the Holy Land accompanied by Sara, he devoted his attention to the Giza pyramids, convinced that, contrary to the opinion of his companions, he would find things of interest inside them and, thus, he became the first to enter the pyramid of Khafre (on which he left an inscription that read Scoperta da G. Belzoni 2 Mar. 1818). He was also a pioneer in visiting El-Wahat el-Bahariya, an oasis in the middle of the desert through which Alexander the Great would have passed on his way to Siwa (in fact, he erected a temple there), and in investigating the ruins of Berenice Troglodytica, a Red Sea port built by Ptolemy II. By then he and his wife had been in Egypt for six years and out of England for twenty, so they decided to return. They did so in the fall of 1819; yes, taking with them the sarcophagus of Seti I.
Once in London and well into 1820, Belzoni published a book recounting his Egyptian experience. It was entitled Narrative of the operations and recent discoveries within the pyramids, temples, tombs and excavations in Egypt and Nubia. That work included a contribution by Sara, Mrs. Belzoni’s trifling account of the women of Egypt, Nubia, and Syria, integrated into the set.
The book was a bestseller and was translated into several languages, serving as a presentation for a public exhibition of the sarcophagus and other pieces in the Egyptian Hall, a room dedicated specifically to such events that in the last quarter of the nineteenth century would redirect its activity to spiritism and magic shows (the illusionist John Nevil Maskelyne performed there, as we saw in another article).
In 1822 the exhibition crossed the English Channel to be installed in Paris. But three years of quiet life were too much for such a restless spirit as that of the Belzoni family, especially considering that they had several confrontations with Henry Salt and the British Museum, who claimed the pieces they had kept, so in 1823 they packed their luggage once again and returned to Africa. This time the destination was the sub-Saharan zone because they wanted to visit Timbuktu, a city that no European had been able to set foot in until then (the first would be Alexander Gordon Laing in 1826). It was not the first time they had tried something like this, since during their stay in Palestine, Sara had even disguised herself in men’s clothes in order to enter a Muslim temple. However, things did not turn out as they had hoped.
If the African continent is still too vast and unpredictable today, it was even more so at that time, and it turned out that the Sultan of Morocco refused them permission to cross his territory, so they were forced to make a considerable detour along the coast of the Gulf of Guinea with the idea of going up the Niger River. Their adventure ended in the Kingdom of Benin, in a village called Gwato which today belongs to Nigeria.
Belzoni was imprisoned and met a sad end, ill due to dysentery (murdered to be robbed, according to Sir Richard Burton). Sara was able to escape and return to England but she was left alone and without means. An exhibition she organized with the drawings her husband had made in Thebes totally failed and she was forced to mis-sell the archaeological collection she and Giovanni had assembled. Even so, her friends had to campaign for her to be granted a pension in 1851. She died in 1870.
This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on June 3, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en Belzoni, el pionero de la egiptología que desenterró los templos de Abu Simbel y abrió una entrada a la pirámide de Kefrén
Narrative of the operations and recent discoveries within the pyramids, temples, tombs and excavations in Egypt and Nubia (Giovanni y Sara Belzoni)/The Great Belzoni. The Circus Strongman Who Discovered Egypt’s Ancient Treasure (Stanley Mayes)/Travelers in Egypt (Paul Starkey y Janet Starkey)/Saqueo. El arte de robar arte (Sharon Waxman)/Wikipedia