Egypt: Early Travelers to the Pyramids, Part II

Early Travelers and Explorers to to the Pyramids, Part II

By Allen Winston

Giovanni Battista Belzoni

After the initial European visitors to the Pyramids of Egypt, beginning just after the Crusades, then came the Antiquarians, foremost among them the French. When Napoleon's forces invaded Egypt, they included scholars who not only investigated the great pyramids, but also went throughout Egypt making very scholarly reports on many of Egypt's monuments.

Unfortunately and ironically, after this massive French effort at accurate documentation, began the era of plunder and destructive, non-systematic excavations that was a hallmark of Egyptian archaeology and pyramid exploration in the 19th century. The French were soon driven out of Egypt by the British, but Egypt remained a battleground for Anglo-French rivalry. Now, there would be a bitter competition to see who could obtain the best antiquities.

These efforts were led on the French side initially by Bernardino Drovetti (1776-1852), actually an Italian-born diplomat who came over with Napoleon's forces. He was the French Consul-General in Egypt between 1802 and 1814 (and also in 1820). He was opposed by Henry Salt, appointed British Consul-General in 1816. Salt had been trained as an artist and had experience traveling extensively in the East. Both of these men financed excavations and amassed collections, which they then sold to finance more excavations. Today, Drovetti's treasures form the foundation of the Egyptian Museum in Turin, while Salts best known find is the colossal head of Ramesses II, now in the British Museum.

In the late 18th century, Italy produced two unlikely antiquarians who would play into this battle to rob Egypt of its treasures. They both shared first names as well as a passion for Egyptian antiquities. One was Giovanni Battista Caviglia (1770-1845), who was born in Genoa and spent his early life on a merchant ship around the Mediterranean. He was uneducated for the most part, temperamental, but he managed to later find employment with several European collectors. A religious man, he was convinced that the chambers within the Great Pyramid held mystic secrets. He was the first to carry out major excavations on the Giza Plateau, where he worked between 1816 to 1819.

Caviglia explored Davison's chamber in the Great Pyramid of Khufu hoping to find a secret room, but found only solid rock. In 1817, he descended into the vertical shaft know as the well. After breathing problems halted the progress, he attempted to clear the air by burning sulphur, but that was of little help. He then went to work in the Descending Passage and, after smelling sulphur, realized he had found another opening to the well, thus demonstrating that the well was probably a shaft linked to the Descending Passage for the workmen to escape after the Ascending Passage had been sealed. He was also responsible for finding the unfinished Subterranean Chamber in the Great Pyramid.

Discovering the Open Chapel in front fo the Sphinx

Caviglia seems to have worked principally for the British. Henry Salt later paid Caviglia to excavate the Sphinx, and in the course of this work, he managed to find the small open-air chapel between the monument's forepaws, where the famous Stela of Tuthmosis IV was found. He also found fragments of the beard of the Sphinx, one piece of which is now in the British Museum.

Caviglia's carrier in Egypt came to an end after a brief collaboration with Colonel Howard Vyse, who came to Egypt in 1835. Vyse employed Caviglia to assist him in his exploration of the pyramids, but complained that the Italian spent all of his time looking for "mummy pits' instead. In 1837, Caviglia retired from Egypt and settled in Paris.

The second Italian, certainly as colorful as the first, was Giovanni Battista Belzoni (1778-1823), who was born in Padua. He was a huge man, known as the "Strong Man of Egyptology", because of his earlier carrier as a circus strongman in London, and the legends surrounding his life are equally as large. In 1816, Belzoni began collecting objects for Salt.

After his arrival in Egypt, Belzoni went to Giza and he too explored the Great Pyramid, at one time getting himself stuck in one of the passages. He also visited the pyramids of Saqqara and Dashur, but his greatest contribution to the study of the Giza pyramids was opening the previously unknown (by Europeans) upper entrance of Khafre's pyramid. After hiring local villagers to clear the rubble blocking the opening, he then made his way through the upper passage to the horizontal passage where, with great effort, he raised a portcullis slab. After almost a month, he reached the burial chamber itself, but any hopes of finding an intact burial were dashed by the sight of the half-open sarcophagus. An Arabic inscription on the wall revealed that the chamber had already been entered, probably in the 13th century.

While he worked on the Khafre Pyramid, Belzoni also had a team at the third Giza Pyramid, However, a disagreement with Salt put an end to his work. Although Belzoni's instincts were leading him in the direction of the entrance, it would be Howard Vyse, some 19 years later, who would use gunpowder to blast his way into the Pyramid of Menkaure.

Howard Vyse

Richard William Howard Vyse (1784-1853) was an English army officer who first visited Egypt in 1835. Like many other explorers of his time, his interest in the pyramids stemmed from strong religious beliefs. He met Caviglia in Alexandria in 1836, and began excavating with him at Giza that same year.

In 1837, he began collaboration with the engineer, John Shae Perring )1813-1869), with the aim of exploring and documenting the pyramids. The two established a camp in the tombs of the eastern cliff at Giza, and worked night and day with shifts of workers on several sites at once.

At Giza, Vyse cleared the lower entrance of the pyramid of Khafre by blasting apart the granite plugs that blocked it. Although Perring and Vyse carried out valuable work at the Giza Pyramids, Vyse, despite his evident admiration of these monuments, had no problems with dismantling parts of the pyramids, using boring rods in the search for hidden chambers, or blasting his way through obstacles with dynamite.

Working on the middle queen's pyramid of Menkaure (GIII-b), Vyse wrote that it "was prepared for boring by removing the stone form the top of it, as I expected to find the sepulchral chamber by penetrating through it". He drilled straight through the center of the superstructure without finding any addition to the passage to the subterranean burial chamber. Wondering if a chamber existed in the body of the Great Sphinx at Giza, Vyse ordered his men to drill straight down from the top of the back. Then, when his boring rods became stuck at a depth of 8.2 meters, he ordered them to use gunpowder to free the rod. However, he later wrote that, "being unwilling to disfigure this venerable monument, the excavation was given up and several feet of boring rods were left in it."

Vyse also drilled straight into the core of the pyramid of Menkaure itself, beginning from a chasm made by the son of Saladin in 1196 AD. Again, he found no new passages or chambers in the superstructure, though he eventually located the entrance As he made his way into the interior and the burial chamber, he took with them an artist named Edward Andrews, perhaps wishing to record this moment. However, like Belzoni in Khafre's pyramid, the Arabic graffiti on the walls immediately declared that they had been preceded. They did find the granite-lined sarcophagus, but the lid was missing and it was empty. With great difficulty, the sarcophagus was removed for transport to England, but it sank to the bottom of the Mediterranean during a storm, along with the ship transporting it, the Beatrice.

A drawing of Vyse's clearing of the Menkaure pyramid

However, there is an interesting side note to this discovery. The excavators also found human bones, linen wrappings and parts of a wooden coffin within the pyramid. An inscription on the front of the coffin does identify its owner as "Osiris [deceased] Menkaure, given life for ever, born of the sky, the sky goddess Nut above you...". However, the style of the coffin seems to date from the Saite (26th Dynasty) Period, and radiocarbon dating of the bones point to the Christian period. This appears to be a reburial of Menkaure some 2,000 years after he lived and died. It is a mystery that hints that the history of the pyramids may not always be as straightforward as Egyptologists might wish to think.

A drawing of the chambers in the great Pyramid by Perring

Vyse also dynamited the Great Pyramid of Khufu. Initially, this operation was carried out on its south side, where he thought he might blast open a second entrance at about the same level as the northern one. he gave up only after creating a large hole in the core masonry. He excavated down to the bedrock however, uncovering some of the original polished casing blocks, together with a pavement that extended out from the base.

His destructive excavation techniques did make one highly notable discovery in the Great Pyramid. Caviglia had begun to dynamite his way through the south side of the stress-relieving chamber that Davison had found in 1764, expecting to find a communication system with the southern air channel that would lead him to a secret room. Vyse came to suspect that there was another chamber directly above Davison's since he could thrust a yard-long reed through a crack and up into a cavity at its northern corner. He therefore instructed his men to dynamite straight upwards where he found, over a three and a half month period, the four additional stress-relieving chambers. They were each roofed, floored and walled with granite except for the topmost, which was gabled with limestone blocks so that the eight of the pyramid did not press down on the chambers below. It was Vyse who named these chambers after important friends and colleagues, including the Duke of Wellington, Admiral Nelson, and Lady Ann Arbuthnot.

What was really important about these discoveries was the numerous graffiti in red paint found in the chambers that dated to the pyramid's construction. Here, along with various leveling lines, axis markers and directional notations, were the names of work gangs compounded with one form of Khufu's name. Though scholars believed this might be the pyramid of Khufu, it was this find, in these previously unopened chambers, that clinched the ownership of the pyramid.

Perring's detailed plan and profile of the middle queen's pyramid

Feeling confident in his new assistant to carry on the work, Vyse returned to England in 1837. Perring continued on, drawing maps, plans and profiles of many of the pyramids, not only at Giza but also at Abu Roash, Abusir, Saqqara and Dahsur. They were published in three folio volumes, The Pyramids of Gizeh. Vyse reproduced Perring's drawings at a smaller scale in his own tree part series, Operations Carried on at the Pyramids of Gizeh in 1837.

Another contributor to Vyse's publication was the Sinologist and Egyptologist, Samuel Birch of the British Museum. Even though Vyse's work occurred a mere 15 years after the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs by Jean Francois Champollion, Birch was able to supply notes to the text and give a rough translation of the inscriptions that the team was finding in and on the mastaba tombs that surrounded the Giza pyramids. Birch's crude transcriptions of the glyphic words include their Coptic equivalents.

See also:






Reference Number

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Lehner, Mark


Thames and Hudson, Ltd

ISBN 0-500-05084-8

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Hawass, Zahi; Siliotti, Alberto


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ISBN 977 424 825 2

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ISBN 977 424 581 4

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