Belzoni, the pioneer of Egyptology who unearthed the temples of Abu Simbel and opened an entrance to the pyramid of Khafre

The beginnings of archeology in general and of Egyptology in particular, beyond the curiosity that the ruins unleashed in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, arrived between the end of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century, being structured by a series of names that are almost familiar to fans. We are talking about some 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, at that time belonging to the Republic of Venice, was born in 1778. He had no less than fourteen siblings and, as his father was a modest barber who had the consequent difficulties to maintain such a large offspring, an adolescent Giovanni was sent to Rome, the city from which his paternal family came – which was also better situated economically – to earn a living. However, his idea was different: 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 consummated it. However, an unforeseen event occurred: in 1798 French troops occupied the city, revoked the authority of the Pope and proclaimed the Roman Republic; Belzoni, apparently, took part in some intrigues and, threatened with jail, decided to put land in the middle.

Thus, in 1800 he tried to start over in the Netherlands exercising the trade learned from his father. It didn’t last long; after all, Napoléon had turned that territory into the Batavian Republic and the danger of being recognized and arrested was always present even if he avoided going unnoticed thanks to his northern appearance and red hair, so three years later he moved to England. It was in that country where he met what would be his wife, Sara Bane, the architect of the change in his life that was coming. Because Sara had a restless spirit and she convinced her future husband -they would marry in 1813- to join a traveling circus with which they toured the country.

Belzoni was over two meters tall and had a robust constitution, so his circus contribution consisted of demonstrations of strength -the classic strongman- and he even performed in the Astley’s Amphitheater, a prestigious permanent circus located in the London Borough of Lambeth. There he began to be 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 became fond of it and began to study mechanical engineering, something that he had already begun during his stay in Rome, designing hydraulic devices himself that he applied in the functions of Covent Garden. He would come in handy for her in the future.

And it is that in 1812 he left England to make a European tour. He visited Spain, Holland, Portugal and Malta, giving performances but also trying to sell a waterwheel design that he had conceived. That was precisely what allowed him to contact an Egyptian diplomat, Ismael Gibraltar, interested in it because the pasha of Egypt, Muhammad Ali, was applying a policy of modernization and wanted to expand the cultivation areas. This is how Belzoni visited the country of the pharaohs for the first time and, although the experience was not as satisfactory as he expected – the pasha finally dismissed the invention – the Italian decided to stay.

Astley’s Amphitheater around 1808/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

To do this, he devised new devices, this time aimed at facilitating the transport of large blocks of stone, since it was customary to remove them from ancient monuments to reuse them in modern constructions. Likewise, through the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt, who was visiting Egypt and with whom he struck up a friendship, he agreed to the office of Henry Salt, the British consul, who assigned him a mission: to go to Thebes to take away the enormous bust of Ramses II (which was called Young Memnon by mistake) that decorated his temple, the Ramesseum, and transfer it to the British Museum, as authorized by a signature (order) of the pasha. The statue weighed seven tons and Belzoni had to rack his brains to move it; he did it by lifting it with levers and then using rollers, the way it was done in Ancient Egypt. An arduous job in which he used seventeen days and one hundred and thirty men to reach the river, where they embarked the piece.

The success of that work opened the door to other similar commissions, almost all of them having to overcome complex difficulties. For example, an obelisk that was taking a boat to Alexandria sank with the ship in the middle of the Nile and had to be rescued by setting up an aquatic scaffold. He was already fully into that world and in 1815 he accompanied William Beechey, the secretary of Salt, on a trip to Abu Simbel to see how they could unearth the speos (rock-cut) temples discovered by Jacob Burckhardt a couple of years earlier. Indeed, thousands of tons of sand covered them making access to their interior impossible.

Transfer of the Young Mennon, actually a bust of Ramses II/Image: public domain in Wikimedia Commons

The Italian had to resign disappointed but returned in 1817 accompanied by his wife, who took the opportunity to leave written testimony of the life of Egyptian women and overcame, helped by them, an eye condition. On the second try and based on effort and patience, Belzoni managed to remove enough sand to partially uncover the entrance and get inside in search of pieces for collectors. He hardly found anything and that is why the temples, both that of Ramses II and that of Nefertari, fell back into oblivion for a while.

That same year, Belzoni was excavating in the Valley of the Kings, where he discovered, among others, the tombs of the pharaohs Ay and Ramses I, and extracted all the objects to sell them. This attitude should not be surprising, since in that first half of the 19th century archeology was fundamentally a collection of pieces and looting was seen as normal for the sake of science, which, of course, had its headquarters in Western Europe. That’s why he didn’t hesitate to take things away, leaving them without their context and bursting sarcophagus lids in search of jewels, a bit along the lines of Giuseppe Ferlini although not as brutally as him. In fact, he was a mixture of adventurer and collector, more than a scientist, but thanks to his work, Egyptology was beginning to take shape. Because he also found the tomb of Seti I (who was baptized as Belzoni’s tomb because, as Champollion had not yet translated the hieroglyphic writing, it was not known to whom it belonged), he studied the temples of Philé, Edfu and Elephantine, he carried out excavations at Karnak.

In 1818, after a trip to the Holy Land accompanied by Sara, he turned his attention to the pyramids of Giza, convinced that, contrary to what his companions thought, he would find things of interest inside them and, thus, he became the first to enter Khafre’s (in which he left an inscription saying Scopert 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 built a temple there), and in investigating the ruins of Berenice Troglodytica, a seaport. Red 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 him the sarcophagus of Seti I.

Belzoni entering the pyramid of Khafre (left) and discovering its Great Chamber (right)/Image 1: public domain on Wikimedia Commons – Image 2: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Once in London and well into the year 1820, Belzoni published a book recounting his Egyptian experience. It is title Narrative of the operations and recent discoveries within the pyramids, temples, tombs and excavations in Egypt and Nubia (Narrative of the operations and recent discoveries within the pyramids, temples, tombs and excavations of Egypt and Nubia). That work included a contribution from Sara, Mrs. Belzoni’s trifling account of the women of Egypt, Nubia, and Syria (Mrs. Belzoni’s little story about the women of Egypt, Nubia and Syria), integrated into the set.

The book was a best seller and was translated into several languages, serving as the introduction for a public exhibition of the aforementioned sarcophagus and other pieces in the egyptian halla room expressly dedicated to this type of event that in the last quarter of the 19th century would redirect its activity to spiritualism and magic shows (the illusionist John Nevil Maskelyne performed there, as we saw in another article).

The facade of the Aegyptian Hall in 1815/Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1822 the exhibition crossed the English Channel to settle in Paris. But three years of quiet life were too many for a spirit as restless as that of the Belzoni and even more considering that he had several confrontations with Henry Salt and the British Museum, who claimed the pieces he had kept, so in 1823 they packed a 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 that they had tried something like this, since during her stay in Palestine, Sara had come to disguise herself in men’s clothing in order to enter a Muslim temple. However, things did not go as expected.

If the African continent is too vast and unpredictable today, at that time it was even more so 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. His adventure ended in the Kingdom of Benin, in a village called Gwato that today belongs to Nigeria.

Belzoni was imprisoned and had a sad end, ill with dysentery (killed to rob him, according to Sir Richard Burton). Sara was able to escape and return to England but she was left alone and without means. An exhibition that she organized with the drawings that her husband had made in Thebes totally failed and she was forced to sell off the archaeological collection that she and Giovanni had assembled. Still, her friends had to campaign for a pension in 1851. She died in 1870.


Narrative of the operations and recent discoveries within the pyramids, temples, tombs and excavations in Egypt and Nubia (Giovanni and Sara Belzoni)/The Great Belzoni. The Circus Strongman Who Discovered Egypt’s Ancient Treasure (Stanley Mayes)/Travelers in Egypt (Paul Starkey and Janet Starkey)/Pillage. The art of stealing art (Sharon Waxman)/Wikipedia

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