The Unbelievable Life and Discoveries of Giovanni Belzoni

Giovanni Belzoni operated before the era of scientific archaeology, and there has been much criticism regarding his methods. He was more interested in finding monuments than describing or investigating them, and often-times he caused irreversible damage. Others often accused him of being nothing more than an ordinary graverobber. He hunted for treasures only to sell them to European collectors. Yet at the same time, he was pioneering, both in his discoveries and the sheer volume of exploration voyages. Because there was no scientific archaeology or prolific exploration of Ancient Egypt yet, Belzoni discovered a wealth of places, artefacts and treasures. He discovered the entrance of the great temple at Abu Simbel, discovered the Tomb of Pharaoh Seti I, father of Ramses II, and was the first person in modern times to enter the inner chamber of the pyramid of Khafre, among many, many other discoveries.

He certainly inspired subsequent generations of Egyptologists. There is a reason why he is referred to as ‘the Great Belzoni’. And what’s so curious is that his track record certainly isn’t one you’d expect for someone that used to be nothing more than a drifter in Europe, and a circus artist in London, for much of his life…

Giovanni Battista Belzoni, 1778-1823

Early Life

Giovanni Battista Belzoni was born in 1778 to a barber in Padua, northern Italy, into a family of fourteen children. At the age of 13, he ran away from home, together with his nine-year-old brother Antonio. The next couple of years, he drifted around Europe, returning home once, and often with different goals in mind. Initially, he wanted to become a monk and joined a Capuchin Abbey in Rome. In later years he claimed he studied hydraulics during this time. When in 1798 Napoleon’s soldiers occupied Rome and arrested Pope Pius VI, Belzoni abandoned his religious order and once again started to drift, or ‘wander’, in his own words. He ended up in the Batavian Republic, established after the downfall of the old Dutch Republic, the German territories and even Paris. Yet he didn’t stay too long, and in 1803 he left for England. 

By the time he was in the middle of his 20s, he had married Sarah Banne, who accompanied him on his future travels, and lived in London. To make ends meet he performed in a circus, exploiting his strength and tall build, as he was over two metres in height, which is around six foot seven. In London’s Sadler Well’s theatre he performed as the ‘Patagonian Samsom’, very fitting for his build. Whilst working in the circus he met the painter, traveller, antiquary and his future patron, Henry Salt.

Throughout the years Belzoni remained interested in hydraulics. In 1815 his circus travelled to perform on the island of Malta. Yet on Malta, Belzoni met a representative of Pasha Mohammed Ali, Egypt’s governor. He was on a mission to invite engineers to modernise Egypt, and Belzoni, experienced in hydraulics, promised that he could build and sell an improved version of the waterwheel. His wife and he were invited to Egypt, where they arrived in June that year. Belzoni constructed the wheel, which was supposed to be operated through animal strength. Instead, for the demonstration, the Pasha wanted him to use servants. Belzoni recounted the meeting with Pasha Mohammed Ali: 

No sooner had the wheel turned once round, than they all jumped out, leaving the Irishman alone in it. The wheel, of course, overbalanced by the weight of the water, turned back with such velocity, that the catch was unable to stop it. The lad was thrown out, and in the fall broke one of his thighs.” 

Following this event the Pasha refused to buy the waterwheel, considering it a bad omen. Belzoni nearly had to return to Europe. But Henry Salt happened to have just been named as British consular-general in Cairo, Egypt’s capital. Salt could use a man like Belzoni for a task that was quite the undertaking.

Belzoni in Egypt

Belzoni’s first assignment was to secure an absolute gigantic bust of a pink-grey granite monumental statue of Ramses II. Being two-and-a-half meters in height and two meters in width, weighting around seven-tonne, it was a considerable challenge. The statue was to be shipped to the British Museum in London, donated by Henry Salt and Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. 

Belzoni’s engineering qualities were of use transporting the statue. He managed to carefully move the statue from the Ramesseum, the memorial temple of Pharaoh Ramesses II, on the west bank of the Nile across Luxor. With success, he coordinated the safe transportation of the statue to England. In total it took him 17 days and 130 men, using an efficient craft of logs and ropes to roll it towards the river to load it onto a boat. The shipping and placement in the British Museum were successful, and the bust remains there to this day. 

Following this assignment, he did some exploring and sailed to the south to visit Abu Simbel, near the current-day border with Sudan. Here he started the excavation of the two massive rock temples, which nowadays are part of UNESCO World Heritage. The temples originated in the 13th century BC, carved out of a mountainside. Due to a lack of funds, he was forced to return to Luxor, before finding that Salt was willing to finance a new expedition. Together with a team Belzoni properly excavated the Temples of Abu Simbel. He oversaw the removal of the thick layers of sand, under which the Great Temple at Abu Simbel was buried. Following this, he contributed to the excavations at the Karnak Temple Complex, north of Luxor. This complex construction probably started over 4000 years ago, and continued well into the Ptolemaic period which ended only 30 BC. 

The temples of Abu Simbel

Then, he returned to the Valley of the Kings, where he discovered four tombs within twelve days. Among them was the Tomb of Pharaoh Ay, Tutankhamun’s successor. In addition, he found the uncompleted grave of Prince Mentu-her-khepshef, the son of Ramses IX. He also discovered the tomb of Ramses I, who established the 19th dynasty. He discovered the beautifully decorated grave of Seti I, father of Ramses I. To this day Seti’s tomb is still known as ‘Belzoni’s tomb’. 

But following these discoveries, Belzoni did not take a break. He took up work in Gizeh. In 1818 he made another exciting discovery: he found the entrance to the pyramid of Khafre. This was the second-largest pyramid at Gizeh, which up until then was considered to have no entrance. Entering the pyramid and exploring its intricate network of tunnels and hallways he was the first person in modern times, the pyramid was constructed in around 2570 BC, to reach its interior. Inside, he left a carving of the date of his discovery on the wall: March 2nd, 1818. I’m sure you now understand what I meant when I said that some critics describe him as a graverobber and brute. 

After entering this pyramid, he took up the challenge to locate the ancient port of Berenice. This was located around the Red Sea and was a Greek-Roman port that was abandoned in the 6th century. Later that year Belzoni identified the port, continuing his journey southward to the island Philae. 

Pyramid of Khafre

Philae is an island a bit south in the Nile, nearby Aswan, a city in the south of Egypt. On this island stood the Philae obelisk, one of the twin obelisks that were discovered several years earlier. Contracted by the English politician, explorer and Egyptologist William John Banks, Benzoti removed the obelisk and transported it to England. To this day the Philae obelisk still stands in front of Kingston Lacy, Bankes’ estate in Dorset. This obelisk is regarded as the ‘second Rosetta Stone’ for it aided Jean-Francois Champollion in deciphering hieroglyphics.

Upon his return, Belzoni explored the northern part of Egypt. He travelled into the Western Desert, to Libya, where he hoped to discover the Siwa Oasis, which supposedly housed Ammon’s Oracle in ancient times. Belzoni does write that he found an ancient temple of Jupiter Ammon, although no evidence of this has been found. 

Final years

Obelisk of Philae

In 1820 Belzoni returned to London and published a book where he described his travels, adventures and discovered. This book, the Narrative of the Operations and Recent discoveries within the pyramids, temples, tombs and excavations in Egypt and Nubia; and a journey of the coasts of the Red Sea, in search of the Ancient Berenice, and another in the oasis of Jupiter Ammon”, is quite a mouthful. It is also regarded by scholars as being culturally important and is in the public domain in the United States of America. That means the entire book is available online and it’s certainly worth checking out and having a look if you want to get a better grasp of Belzoni and his adventures. Immediately upon release, his book became a bestseller and was even translated into French and Italian. 

Giovanni Belzoni

But Belzoni, just like he did with his travels, barely paused to enjoy the moment. Following his book release, he organised an exhibition of all artefacts and places he found. Hosted in the newly finished Egyptian Hall in Picadilly, London, Belzoni showcased the tomb of Pharaoh Seti I. Two rooms of the tomb were built according to their original measurements. It became an incredible success with nearly 2000 visitors on the first days. Because of the success, Belzoni, a showman at heart decided to pull another stunt that would become quite the trend in 19th century Britain: he unrolled a mummy. He subsequently added this mummy to the exhibition. Organising this exhibition, Belzoni was pioneering when it came to making Egyptology more accessible to a large public. 

In 1822 Belzoni once again decided to see the world. He travelled to Russia, where he met Czar Alexander I. He then concluded a new challenge would be to find the legendary city of Timbuktu and discover the source of the country’s largest river. Yet this was a challenge he wouldn’t complete. Belzoni met his end the way he lived. In 1823 he embarked on the journey. But in the village of Gwato, in the Kingdom of Benin, his adventure came to an abrupt halt. He fell ill with dysentery and on December 3rd, 1823, he passed away at the age of 45. Although relatively young, Belzoni enjoyed enough adventures in his lifetime to fill hundreds, if not thousands of lives with it.

Sources:

Belzoni, Giovanni Battista. Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries Within the Pyramids, Temples, Tombs, and Excavations, in Egypt and Nubia: And of a Journey to the Coast of the Red Sea, in Search of the Ancient Berenkè; and Another to the Oasis of Jupiter Ammon. Рипол Классик, 1835.MOSHENSKA, GABRIEL. “Unrolling Egyptian Mummies in Nineteenth-Century Britain.” The British Journal for the History of Science 47, no. 3 (2014): 451–77. doi:10.1017/S0007087413000423.

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