Giovanni Belzoni Circus Giant
and Collector of Egyptian Antiquities
By Marie Parsons
Giovanni Battista Belzoni was born in Italy, but when his native land was invaded by Napoleon of France in 1798, Giovanni fled. For years he learned hydraulic engineering and worked as a merchant trader.
In 1802, the now 67" tall Belzoni traveled to London and was employed as a circus strongman, called the "Patagonian Samson." The highlight of his act was to lift a special constructed iron frame with 12 people sitting on it, and then, still holding it, walk across the stage.
At the age of 40 in 1812, Belzoni left England with his wife Sara. They journeyed to Malta, where Belzoni learned from a Captain Ishmail that the Pasha of Egypt, a former Macedonian mercenary named Muhammed Ali, needed a hydraulic engineer. Ali was very Western-minded, desiring modern knowledge to develop his poverty-stricken country. Belzoni wrote of Cairo, "It was barbarous, really barbarous, and it remains so to this day." Of course, he came to the city when it was torn apart by plague.
When Belzoni finally got an audience with the Pasha, Ali was less than enthusiastic about his plans for a new ox-driven water pump. But he did award Belzoni a tiny government allowance which permitted him to live a while longer in Egypt. During this time, Belzoni met Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, who had adopted Arabic dress and managed to travel to places in Egypt no other European had yet seen. He described to Belzoni both the Abu Simbel temple in Nubia to Belzoni, and a part of a colossal statue known as the "Young Memnon" in Luxor.
Belzoni was intrigued by these discoveries. He applied to Henry Salt, then British consul, to move the colossus to England. Salt granted permission and also promise to provide the required funds. Days later, equipped with only four poles and some rope made locally, Belzoni sailed down the Nile to Luxor and identified the statue. After three weeks of moving several columns in his way, Belzoni had the bust safely on a boat bound for England. This statue, a bust really, measured 9 feet high.Burckhardt described the feat this way: "He handles masses of this kind with as much facility as others handle pebbles, and the Egyptians who see him a giant in figure, for he is over six feet and a half tall, believe him to be a sorcerer."
Perhaps Belzoni rescued the statue just in time. The French Consul had also eyed the statue, and had considered drilling into it and inserting dynamite in order to make it smaller. The drill-hole can still be seen in the statues right shoulder.
Belzoni then traveled further to Abu Simbel, and was dismayed to find 30 feet of sand covering the temple entrance. He remained there several weeks, but was unable to find workers willing to stay long enough for his offered wages, and so he left without having ever reached the entrance itself. On his return trip, Belzoni made a tour of collection, stopping first at Philae island and the temple of Isis to collect several fine pieces of sculpture and send them north. Next he stopped again at Luxor, and south of the main temple of Karnak in the precinct of Mut, he found a series of statues of the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet, made of black granite. Some of those joined the Philae sculptures going north.
Henry Salt was so pleased he sponsored a second trip to return to Nubia and collect more and finer pieces. But Belzoni had antagonized the French Consul, also an Italian, named Bernardino Drovetti. Drovetti himself collected artifacts and threw obstacles in Belzonis way, sending his men to each place Belzoni stopped to rouse public opinion against him, although often it was justified. Since Belzoni could not access the Karnak temple complex, he roamed the Valley of the Kings instead, and there managed by his actions to truly blacken his reputation with archaeologists and scholars.
Belzoni did make some discoveries while in the Valley of the Kings, though in many instances, because hieroglyphs had not yet been deciphered, he had no idea who or what he had found. He almost literally stumbled into the tomb belonging to King Ay, but only noted a wall painting of 12 baboons, leading him to christen the chamber "tomb of the 12 monkeys."
Henry Salt had directed Belzoni to arrange for the removal of the bottom part of a decorated sarcophagus, now in the Louvre in Paris, which is attributed to Ramesses III. Belzoni also found the lid buried under heaps of rubble and claimed that for himself, bringing it back to England.
On another occasion, the Italian giant came across an ancient wall, and ordered his workmen to create a battering ram to get through. It is unknown just what might have been learned from studying the wall in an intact condition.
Once inside the tomb, Belzoni recorded finding eight mummies in coffins "all painted, and one with a large covering thrown upon it." He didnt bother with more than that, and the identities of those mummies are left unknown, though they may have been priests from Karnak.
Entering another tomb, he noted wall paintings that were the finest he had ever seen. He had
found the tomb of Prince Mentuhirkhopeshef of the 20th Dynasty. Moving through into another area, Belzoni found two mummies, which he described as "females, and their hair pretty, long, and well preserved, though it casually separated from the body by pulling it a little." Another blot on Belzonis record, this haphazard treatment of his finds.
Belzoni also was fortunate to find the tombs of Ramesses I, the first king of the 19th Dynasty, and of Seti I, the finest tomb found in the Valley of the Kings. The paintings on the walls looked as if they had just been completed. The sarcophagus was carved of finest alabaster, 9 feet 5 inches long and 3 feet 7 inches wide. Sadly, Setis tomb no longer looks as it must have when he found it. Not only did Belzoni and his workers take wax impressions of the reliefs, but a sudden flash flood in the valley shortly after he left allowed rainwater to enter the tomb and caused immense damage to the paintwork.
Belzoni returned to Abu Simbel and after some days of making an entrance was the first modern man to set eyes on the chamber of Ramesses IIs temple. He collected everything moveable and returned north. Stopping at Giza, Belzoni dug for three weeks at the pyramid of Khafre, found the entrance and, squeezing himself through, was the first modern man to see the sarcophagus.
When he returned to London, Belzonis artifacts were put into an exhibition. He re-created the burial chamber of Seti I, but could not include the sarcophagus. That was claimed by the British Museum, but later sold to Sir John Soane.
Giovanni Belzoni never returned to Egypt, and died of dysentery in a small village in Benin, near Timbuktu in southern Africa.
Not to defend the methods (or lack thereof) of Giovanni Belzoni and others of his time in the early days of archaeology, it should be noted that monuments had been altered and even reduced for countless centuries, as their stones were taken and used in other monuments, or the sands and waters broke in on them and allowed nature to whittle away. There are entire tombs and temples that once existed in Egypt, that certainly exist today in textual references, but as physical structures, can only be marginally pieced together.
- The World of the Pharaohs by Christine Hobson
- Ancient Egypt: The Great Discoveries by Nicholas Reeves
Marie Parsons is an ardent student of Egyptian archaeology, ancient history and its religion. To learn about the earliest civilization is to learn about ourselves. Marie welcomes comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.