More than 200 years on from his greatest find, Giovanni Belzoni still delights and horrifies in equal measure. Jonny Wilkes explores the adventures of this circus strongman-turned-Egyptologist
Giovanni Belzoni stepped slowly with only a candle to pierce the darkness, the sand crunching under his feet and the air musty from being trapped for over three millennia. Sometimes the tunnels were barely tall enough for his towering, muscular frame. He wound his way down stairways and through pillared halls, marvelling at the still-unreadable hieroglyphics on the walls or the multitude of reliefs portraying gods and goddesses, rituals, scarabs, snakes and the unknown hero buried within.
“A new and perfect monument of Egyptian antiquity,” wrote Belzoni about the tomb. “Superior to any other in point of grandeur, style and preservation.” The deeper he went, the more relics he acquired and the more vivid the reds, blues, whites and golds became – as if freshly painted, he remarked.
Then, inside a high-vaulted chamber, Belzoni identified the tomb’s most splendid treasure: a sarcophagus cut from a single piece of alabaster. The delicate-looking, translucent shell measured almost three metres long and had hundreds of intricately carved figures on its sides, which could be illuminated by a torch inside. Even that the lid had been broken and its occupant removed, the result of an ancient robbery, failed to spoil this most “beautiful and invaluable” artefact.
It is 200 years since Belzoni discovered the tomb of Seti I on 17 October 1817, and the Pharaoh’s unique sarcophagus. And while he is remembered for this find, plus a long list of other achievements in Egypt, there is no questioning that Belzoni’s path to becoming an archaeologist, and his methods in collecting antiquities, were hardly typical.
Only a few years earlier, he was in the theatre halls and fairs of Britain making a modest living as a travelling strongman. A giant of the time at an alleged 6ft 7in, the Padua-born son of a barber spent nearly a decade performing under the names ‘Patagonian Sampson’ or ‘Great Belzoni’. His speciality – referred to, appropriately enough, as the human pyramid – involved wearing an iron frame harness fitted with wooden benches, on which he could supposedly lift 12 punters before pacing the stage waving flags.

Was Belzoni a treasure hunter or archaeologist?

He stepped on mummies; he pulled down ancient columns and smashed through a tomb wall with a battering ram; he carved his name on statues and cut up artefacts to make them easier to carry. Belzoni’s actions could make today’s archaeologists grimace. 
Egyptology was in its early days, with scientific methods for excavations still decades away. People like Belzoni had to work out themselves how to collect the antiquities littering the sands, unwanted by the locals, while keeping their work lucrative. To this day, Belzoni faces accusations of plundering. Yet he actually took more care than others – his rival Drovetti worked in bulk so cared little for damages, while Jean-François Champollion once cut away a whole section of decorated wall. 
Belzoni, at least, understood the importance of making records, such as the measurements of Abu Simbel, and longed to see his collections in the British Museum. Therefore, he is part of both the treasure-hunting past and the sophisticated future of archaeology.
Going to Egypt only came about thanks to a chance meeting. In 1815, Belzoni, approaching 40, and his equally daring wife Sarah, set their sights on the theatrical stages of Constantinople. In Malta, however, they met an emissary of the most powerful man in Egypt, the pasha Muhammad Ali, who sought new technologies to modernise the country, particularly irrigation of the Nile. This caught Belzoni’s attention. Smart, ambitious and fostering an amateur interest in water hydraulics since his youth in Rome, he enjoyed the idea of leaving his circus strongman days behind him and giving engineering a go.
That career did not last long, though. Belzoni arrived in Cairo to demonstrate his water wheel design, which worked efficiently enough, but the pasha rejected his idea. Left penniless and unemployed, he accepted he needed to think again. Helped by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt – who befriended Belzoni with tales of his exploits, such as disguising as a Muslim in Mecca – he found an opportunity with the recently installed British consul-general, Henry Salt.
Salt looked to make his fortune selling antiquities to the British Museum. Ancient Egypt had become something of a boom industry since Napoleon’s campaign in the country in 1798-99, so to satisfy the growing fashion for artefacts in Europe, collectors sifted through the sands for statues, carvings and anything else that they could move.
One item Salt eyed greedily was the ‘Younger Memnon’, a 2.7-metre carved granite upper body of Ramesses II. Lying in the ruins of a mortuary temple at Thebes, the face remained so well preserved that, despite being separated from the body, the statue made a highly desirable prize. But it weighed between seven and eight tons. Moving something so heavy had defeated earlier French collectors (a hole in the right shoulder reveals how they planned to use dynamite to separate the face from the torso to make it lighter).
Belzoni had less claim as an expert of ancient objects than he did water engineering, yet he convinced Salt he could move the statue five miles over land to the Nile, ready to sail to London. Having believed he could make his name building the country’s future, Belzoni would seek glory by digging up Egypt’s past.
On 30 June 1816, Belzoni and Sarah embarked on the 300-mile journey to Thebes, over the river from modern-day Luxor. They had little money, so hired a cheap boat and only brought rope and timber as equipment. When they arrived at Ramesses II’s temple, the sight left them in awe. “It appeared to me like entering a city of giants who after a long conflict were all destroyed, leaving ruins of their various temples as the only proof of their former existence,” wrote Belzoni.
Once he identified the Younger Memnon – “With its face turned upwards, and apparently smiling on me, at the thought of being taken to England,” – he began the colossal task. Belzoni not only raced against time to reach the Nile before the flood season, but his efforts to employ locals were hampered by a man working for the French, who would become his chief rival throughout his time in Egypt: Bernardino Drovetti. To get the 80 men he needed, Belzoni resorted to bribes and threats, putting his muscular physique to good use. “In this country,” he declared, “respect is paid only to the strongest.”
With the statue eventually levered onto a wooden sledge, the slow and backbreaking process of dragging it along rollers got underway on 7 July. Some days, they moved only a few metres. The workers chanted as they pulled – it being Ramadan, they could not eat until the Sun went down – Belzoni yelled commands and Sarah followed. Like many of his contemporaries, Belzoni showed an unfortunate disregard for antiquities not deemed of interest, notably ordering the bases of two columns blocking his path to be ripped down. Yet after weeks of exhausting labour, Belzoni and his statue arrived on the banks of the Nile on 12 August.
Belzoni succeeded where everyone else had failed, and he wanted more. Rather than wait for a boat large enough to load the statue, he explored the Valley of the Kings – the burial site of pharaohs – and sailed south into Nubia to build a collection. Belzoni and Sarah snaked their way along the Nile and bartered coffee, tobacco and beads with locals, as they hunted treasures at the ancient temples and monuments on the river banks.
A local chief once asked Belzoni: “Have you a scarcity of stones in Europe that you come here to fetch them away?” He replied that Europe had plenty, but Egypt’s were of a better sort. At the ruins on the island of Philae, he took possession of 16 blocks that form a decorated wall, although he then had them cut smaller to make them easier to carry.
The Belzonis' final destination was Abu Simbel, where Ramesses II had cut two temples into the mountainside on the west bank. The smaller, built to honour his consort Nefertari, could still be seen, while the four 21-metre statues in front of the Great Temple had nearly disappeared. Belzoni, having heard of his friend Burckhardt’s visit in 1813, longed to see if he could find the entrance, but he compared removing the mountain of sand to “making a hole in water”. With nowhere near enough time, money, supplies or labour, they returned to Thebes.
By the time Belzoni returned to Cairo, he had amassed an impressive collection of statues from the Karnak temples and the Younger Memnon, for which Salt paid £100. Salt also agreed to a second expedition, but that did not mean the two worked well together. They each had different ideas of their relationship – while Salt always considered Belzoni to be in his private employ, Belzoni believed he acted on behalf of the British Museum. He grew increasingly concerned that his involvement would not receive full credit.
This made him more determined to collect as many antiquities as he could and ensure the world knew who found them. Belzoni, leaving Sarah in Cairo, departed for Thebes in February 1817, only to learn that Drovetti had secured firmans (permissions) to dig. He later had some of his finds vandalised by French agents. By focusing on tombs instead, Belzoni sought out canopic jars, amulets and profitable shreds of papyri, but also destroyed countless mummies by carelessly stepping, and once sitting, on them. He wrote of an examination of two female mummies: “Their hair pretty long and well preserved, though it was easily separated from the head by pulling it a little.”
Belzoni, by now wearing Turkish dress and growing his beard long, continued to Philae to wait for Sarah. By the time she arrived, he had invited two Royal Navy officers to join his excavation of Abu Simbel, which already included Salt’s secretary Henry Beechey and a Greek collector nicknamed Yanni. The boat had no more room, so to long-suffering Sarah’s “great mortification”, Belzoni sailed away without her. Not to be out undone, she went on her own adventure to the Holy Land – and snuck into a mosque.
Back at Abu Simbel on 29 June, Belzoni resumed his search for the way into the temple. Over a month of digging – during which provisions ran low and the local help stopped showing up, leaving Belzoni and his small team to carry on themselves – they cleared much of the sand off the giant statues. Then, on 1 August, the call went up that an opening had been discovered. Waiting until the next morning to let the 3,000-year-old air clear, they first saw the wonders of Abu Simbel’s halls and mighty statues in the early-morning sunshine. Yet Belzoni, not knowing how iconic this place would become, perhaps felt a twinge of disappointment. The temple contained few treasures to take away, let alone rooms of gold (as some of the legends had claimed). They stayed in the sweltering heat long enough to record details from the temple and carve their names in the wall.
Belzoni’s next landmark discovery came within a couple of months. Drovetti still controlled excavations in Thebes, so Belzoni pushed deeper into the Valley of the Kings, where he had an uncanny ability to locate lost tombs (four in 12 days, by one account). That did not leave much time for taking due care – once using a battering ram to break down an outer wall.
“A fortunate day, one of the best perhaps of my life,” was how Belzoni described 17 October 1817, the day he opened the magnificent tomb of Seti I. The alabaster sarcophagus alone constituted a career-defining haul, but Belzoni further uncovered hundreds of wooden shabti figures (which act as servants in the afterlife) and even the remains of an embalmed bull.
It would not be a Belzoni discovery, however, without a few blunders. One corridor could not be explored due to being blocked by bat dung and, more egregiously, Belzoni severely dulled the fresh-looking paintwork by taking wax impressions of the walls. A flash flood would later cause substantial damage inside, but the longest tomb of the Valley of the Kings, at 136 metres, is still remembered as
‘Belzoni’s Tomb’.
Still, Belzoni wanted to do more. He carried out “a little private business” in Giza, which actually meant becoming the first man in millennia to open the entrance to the second pyramid and explore the burial chambers. He initially kept it quiet out of ongoing fears that Salt claimed credit for everything he did.
Then – tired with the scandals and petty rivalries that plagued him along the Nile, thanks to Drovetti – Belzoni looked to the deserts on either side. His 40-day expedition in 1818 successfully identified the ruins of the Greco-Roman port of Berenice on the Red Sea. It became a shambles, though, as they forgot to bring spades, so the only digging could be done by a young boy with a large seashell. For his final adventure in Egypt, in April 1819, Belzoni set off west in search of the legendary Siwa Oasis, where Alexander the Great had supposedly visited. He went to the wrong place.
Belzoni and Sarah left Egypt in September, following the path of his beloved treasures back to England. Unsurprisingly, given his concerns over Salt and conflicts with Drovetti, Belzoni had barely settled before his focus turned to establishing the legacy he wanted. By 1820, he had already written and published a hugely popular, if hastily put together, account of his travels in Egypt.
Following this came an exhibition of his work, complete with facsimiles of chambers from Seti’s tomb, models of Abu Simbel and a host of the finest statues and artefacts. In a publicity move, Belzoni unwrapped a mummy in front of an audience of doctors. The exhibition was a sensation, with some 1,900 visitors paying half a crown to get into the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly on the first day in May 1821. The handsome, colourful Belzoni briefly became a favourite among the social elite of London and also Russia, where he went to meet Tsar Alexander I.
When the spectacle inevitably ended, the Great Belzoni felt the pull of another expedition – to trace the source of the Niger River in West Africa on his way to Timbuktu. It had been the unfulfilled desire of his much-respected friend Burckhardt, who had died, unknown to Belzoni, the day before the discovery of Seti’s tomb. Belzoni only made it as far as Benin before he caught dysentery and died, aged 45, on 3 December 1823.
Belzoni went from circus strongman to plundering Egyptologist, who brought a wealth of treasures back to the surface – just not all in one piece.

Treasure trove: the great Belzoni’s greatest finds

SARCOPHAGUS LID OF RAMESSES III

Location: Valley of the Kings
Today: Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge 
Belzoni may not have discovered the tomb of Ramesses III, but he extricated the three-metre-high, seven-ton lid of the sarcophagus. It had been offered to him as a meek peace offering by his rival, Drovetti, who could not have known – with it buried in sand and laying upside down – how magnificent it would be. Carved from red granite, the cartouche depicts Ramesses III as Osiris, god of the afterlife, with goddesses Isis and Nephtys on each side. 

HEAD AND ARM OF AMENHOTEP III

Location: Karnak
Today: British Museum, London
Among Belzoni’s many finds at Karnak were the granite head and arm of a colossal statue of 18th-dynasty pharaoh Amenhotep III, which he unearthed with his friend Henry Beechey at the Mut temple enclosure in 1817. It took eight days to move the 2.9-metre head just a mile. 

HEAD AND ARM OF AMENHOTEP III

Location: Karnak
Today: British Museum, London
Among Belzoni’s many finds at Karnak were the granite head and arm of a colossal statue of 18th-dynasty pharaoh Amenhotep III, which he unearthed with his friend Henry Beechey at the Mut temple enclosure in 1817. It took eight days to move the 2.9-metre head just a mile. 

STATUES OF SEKHMET

Location: Karnak
Today: World Museum, Liverpool 
Although several statues of the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet were discovered in near-perfect condition, that did not stop the Great Belzoni carving his name into them. 

PHILAE OBELISK

Location: Island of Philae 
Today: Kingston Lacy, Dorset
Finding the red granite obelisk in 1815 was the easy part. Moving it on behalf of English explorer William John Bankes, who wanted it for his country estate, proved torturous. 

THE YOUNGER MEMNON

Location: Ramesseum mortuary temple, Thebes
Today: British Museum, London
Belzoni succeeded where no one else could – transporting the much-desired carved head from a statue of Ramesses II to the Nile. Dragging the granite giant, weighing over seven tons, required 80 men, days of toil in sweltering heat and Belzoni’s tireless determination. It would be sent on to the British Museum, but under the name of Henry Salt.

SARCOPHAGUS OF SETI I

Location: Valley of the Kings
Today: Sir John Soane’s Museum, London
In the heart of Seti I’s cavernous and intricately decorated tomb, Belzoni saw something on 17 October 1817 he declared to have no equal in the world. It was a three-metre sarcophagus, cut from a single piece of alabaster and decorated with inscriptions and hundreds of figures.

ENTRANCE TO ABU SIMBEL

Location: Aswan
Today: Relocated to Lake Nasser
When Belzoni first reached the Great Temple of Abu Simbel, only the head of one of the four giant statues of Ramesses II remained visible. It took two digs, plenty of local help and the ingenious use of palisades to find the entrance. Unfortunately, it contained few treasures.

ENTRANCE TO PYRAMID OF KHAFRE

Location: Giza
Finding a way into the second largest of the pyramids of Giza had proven such a futile task that general belief held that it was solid throughout. Even Belzoni’s own workers called him ‘magnoon’ (madman) for looking for an entrance, yet it only took him a matter of weeks of examining the stones to unlock the mystery. He found the lost entrance on the northern face in 1818.
Jonny Wilkes is a former staff writer for BBC History Revealed, and he continues to write for both the magazine and HistoryExtra. He has BA in History from the University of York.
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