Visitors to the British Museum in London are often captivated by a massive statue that dominate the museum’s section of Egyptian artifacts. A 3-metre tall bust of the Pharaoh Rameses II keeps an eternal watch over the rest of the collection. Weighing 3.6 metric tons, the 3200-year-old statue is an impressive sight that has called the museum home since 1821.
The bust was originally part of a larger statue, one of two that flanked the entranceway to the Ramesseum memorial temple in Egypt, dedicated to the Pharaoh. It was originally discovered during Napoleon’s 1798 invasion of Egypt. Originally launched to defend French interests in the area, the expedition also led to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone alongside Ramesses’ head and other Egyptian treasure, kickstarting interest in the field of Egyptology with the publishing of a record of the treasures that were found.
However, due to the statue’s size, the French were unable to find a way to transport it back to France, and were forced to leave it behind. Eventually, Napoleon’s forces were defeated by the British and pushed out of Egypt; the statue was not forgotten, however. The British Consul in Egypt, Henry Salt, wanted the bust for his collection of Egyptian antiquities, and financed a workforce for the task of bringing the bust back to London.
At the head of this team sent to secure the massive statue was one of the greatest explorers of his time: The Great Belzoni.
Giovanni Battista Belzoni was born in Padua, Italy on November 5, 1778, one of fourteen sons of a local barber. Not much is known about his early life except that he showed an interest in hydraulics and worked in his father’s barber shop until he was 16, when he decided to move to Rome. He intended to take monastic vows and join a monastery there, but Napoleon’s invasion and capture of the city in 1797 caused him to flee as a result of le petit caporal’s decision to disband all religious orders. He wandered around Europe, joining the Prussian army, pursuing his interest in hydraulics until he made his way to London around 1802, hoping to turn his interest into a career.
Unfortunately, while he was unable to turn his passion into a profitable career, he did manage to earn a career as a circus strongman thanks to his most distinguishing physical feature; standing at 6 feet 7 inches tall, Belzoni cut quite the imposing figure. During this period, he also married an English woman, Sarah Bane, who joined the circus with him and would prove to be his constant companion. A biography written by the Jane Austen Center states that one of Belzoni’s most famous acts in the circus had him strolling across the stage carrying a platform with twelve men on it. It was this feat which would earn him the name “The Great Belzoni” along with fame across Europe. For a decade, Belzoni toiled in the circus, augmenting his performance with waterfalls, weights, levers and balancing acts, always harboring greater dreams of making his mark.
He finally got his opportunity in 1816, when he and his wife were touring Europe and met Ismail Gibraltar, an agent of the Egyptian ruler Muhammed Ali Pasha on a stop in Malta. Gibraltar explained that the Pasha wanted to undertake a program of agrarian irrigation in Egypt and was looking for a hydraulic engineer. Sensing an opportunity to finally be taken seriously, Belzoni pitched his idea for a hydraulic system that would raise the water level of the Nile River to aid in irrigation. He accepted Gibraltar’s terms and was hired to design the system. Belzoni travelled to
Alexandria to gain an audience with the Pasha and explain his invention. Tom Verde of AramcoWorld explains that Belzoni’s machine was a water-bearing “crane with a walking wheel,” which successfully demonstrated it could draw far more water than the traditional water wheel design. Unfortunately, an accident injured one of the workers operating the wheel during its demonstration, resulting in the Pasha summarily dismissing the design, but providing Belzoni with a moderate allowance to continue living in Egypt.
During his time spent living in Egypt, Belzoni met Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, who showed him around the county, with Belzoni becoming fascinated by it, adopting local dress, and growing out his beard. Burckhardt also told Belzoni about a temple located at Abu Simbel, and about the famous bust of the Pharaoh. He also met Henry Salt, British consul to Egypt during this period, a fateful meeting that would shape Belzoni’s future. At the time, Salt had a mandate from the British Museum to collect antiquities for their national collection; one of the most sought-after prizes was the famous bust of Rameses II described to Belzoni by Burckhardt. Salt was also competing against the French in this endeavor, who had been trying to collect more and more relics since their original discovery by Napoleon’s expedition in 1797.
Sensing another opportunity to prove his engineering mettle, Belzoni petitioned Salt for permission to retrieve the colossal bust, an opportunity that was granted with Salt’s financial help. He arrived in Thebes on July 22 and was immediately awestruck by the temples around him. “It appeared to me like entering a city of giants, who, after a long conflict, were all destroyed, leaving the ruins of their various temples as the only proofs of their former existence,” he later wrote. After an examination of the enormous bust, he developed a plan: he would use his knowledge of weights and levers, hones during his time in the circus, to lift the statue onto a cart made from poles, then use rollers to get it 1200 feet over land to the Nile. Once there, it had to be loaded onto a boat by hundreds of workers-a boat which Belzoni didn’t initially have, and was forced to send workers down the river to grab one. Unfortunately, it was here where Belzoni’s negative reputation began-when moving the bust out of the temple, he was forced to break the bases of two columns so that the bust could fit through the door-an act that would horrify any modern archeologist. In total, it took 17 days just to get the bust secured for travel, but in the end, Belzoni got his prize.
While he waited for the boat to arrive, he travelled to the island of Philae in the middle of the Nile (it has since been relocated to preserve it) and made note of several treasures he would return to claim: a frieze of the Egyptian god Osiris and a large obelisk, today displayed in the gardens of Kingston Lacy in England. He then made his way to the temple of Abu Simbel, 500 kilometres north of the city of Luxor. The purpose of his trip was to investigate four statues of a seated Rameses II, each roughly 20 metres tall. Unfortunately, he found the temple’s entrance obstructed by sand. Realizing that excavating the sand would prove to be an endless task, he turned once again to his engineering skills. He was able to calculate that the temple’s entryway “could not be less than thirty-five feet [10 meters] below the surface of the sand,” and the front of the temple was likely proportionately “one hundred and seventeen feet [36 meters] wide”-calculations which proved to be correct.
Using palm logs and some hired local labor, Belzoni managed to drive a palisade into the sand in front of the temple. He then proceeded to wet the sand close to the wall over where the door was located to stop the sand from sifting back down into the hole. He manages to expose the face and shoulders of one statue, but unfortunately had to stop to return to Luxor at the time as the boat had arrived to ferry the bust of Rameses II, vowing to return to finish the temple’s opening. Getting back to Luxor, he hired a boat and went to retrieve his previous discoveries at Philae.
Salt was incredibly happy with Belzoni’s progress; so much so that he decided to sponsor a second trip to allow Belzoni to collect even more artifacts. Of course, the profession of taking priceless artifacts made Belzoni numerous enemies, and thus he was the subject of several assassination attempts. Unfortunately, Belzoni’s expeditions had infuriated Salt’s French counterpart, Bernardino Drovetti, who wanted the artifacts for himself. Drovetti would do his best movie villain impression, putting obstacles in Belzoni’s way and sending his men to each place Belzoni went to stir up public opinion against him, which didn’t stop the giant explorer from continuing his travels.
In fact, it might be due to the influence of Drovetti that some of my favorite anecdotes about Belzoni occurred. Some of the workers Belzoni hired to help him move the bust of the Rameses II rebelled against him, with the leaders trying to attack Belzoni head-on with daggers. Unfazed, Belzoni quickly disarmed them, knocked them out, picked them up by their ankles and began swinging them at their comrades to inflict damage. This wasn’t the only time his life was in danger, however. In another incident, his local guides tried to kill him in his sleep while exploring the oasis of El-Kassar-Belzoni was quick to react and strangled his attackers with his bare hands.
Another example of Belzoni’s brashness occurred one day while he was riding through the city of Cairo. He was stopped by an Egyptian officer who demanded passage; he didn’t even give Belzoni a chance to reply before punching him in the stomach. Belzoni, however, didn’t even flinch. “Not being accustomed to put up with such situations, I returned the compliment and struck him with my whip across his shoulders,” he later wrote of the incident. The officer quickly pulled his pistol and fired a shot, but Belzoni dodged, with the bullet hitting another soldier approaching from behind.
His next major endeavor was a visit to the Valley of the Kings in 1817, where he started literally poking around to see what he could find. His eye was drawn to a collection of stones separated from a mass; when he poked a stick between the rocks, he found a hollow passage. He proceeded to clear the hole and discovered the entrance to the tomb of the Pharaoh Ay from the 14th century BCE. Noting a wall painting depicting twelve baboons, he christened his discovery as the “tomb of the twelve monkeys.” He would go on to make other discoveries in the Valley of the Kings, with his most famous discovery being the tomb of Sethi I, one of the best-decorated tombs in the Valley (today called “Belzoni’s tomb” in his honor) and force his way into the second Pyramid of Giza. He proceeded to add the discoveries of the tombs of Amenhotep III, Ramses I and Merneptah to his archeological resume. He was also the first to discover the ruined city of Berenice on the Red Sea.
During this period, he also returned to the temple at Abu Simbel, finishing the opening of the entranceway. On the evening of July 31, he dug a small hole to be able to enter but chose to wait until dawn after observing that the rising sun would pierce directly into the temple’s doorway. That morning, for the first time in a thousand years, sunlight reached the temple’s interior, revealing colossal figures and paintings. In addition to making all these incredible discoveries, he would go on to add to his legacy by documenting his findings at the temple in drawings, measurements and detailed records which would prove invaluable to future researchers.
He proceeded to return to England in 1819 and would go on to publish his experiences the following year in a book titled Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries Within the Pyramids, Temples, Tombs, and Excavations in Egypt and Nubia. His book is credited as being the first Egyptology research to be published in English. Belzoni was presented with an opportunity to showcase his discoveries in an exhibit called the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly during 1820-21. He was celebrated as a great explorer and here earned the name “The Great Belzoni”.
As a result of his adventures in Egypt, Belzoni has sometimes drawn comparisons to legendary movie hero Indiana Jones. While it’s not known for certain exactly who inspired George Lucas’ legendary explorer, it’s highly likely Belzoni was at least a partial influence on the character. He raided Pharaohs’ tombs, discovered their ancient secrets, fought off assassins with his bare hands and managed to fill an entire wing of the British Museum with his treasures. If all the expeditioning for lost treasure wasn’t enough to make the comparison, Belzoni also carried a whip, and, just like Indiana Jones, also had a French rival. His last expedition even sounds like the plot of an Indiana Jones movie: he set out to find the legendary city of Timbuktu in Africa. Unfortunately, he would never make it; he died of dysentery in 1823 in the small town of Gwato, located in the Gulf of Benin. He was buried beneath a tree under a tombstone. Today, it is unknown where his burial place is-the tombstone has been lost to time.
Belzoni is considered to be one of the most controversial figures in archaeological history. As the field of archeology developed over the course of the 19th century, Belzoni’s reputation took a hit because of his roughshod methods of obtaining antiquities; he is often viewed more as a vandal than a true archeologist. According to the University of Chicago Press Journals, Belzoni has been variously described as “the greatest plunderer of them all”, a “tomb robber” and “a villain of archeology.” Most criticism tends to focus on these methods (or lack thereof), which were often destructive, something that can be observed even in his own accounts, making for painful reading.
While exploring a tomb in Qurna, he was forced to climb over stacks of mummies; being a giant didn’t make his life easy: “Every step I took I crushed a mummy in some part or other…and when, exhausted, I sought a resting place, and found one, my weight bore down on the body of an Egyptian, it crushed it like a band-box … so that I sunk altogether among the broken mummies, with a crash of bones, rags and wooden cases, which raised such a dust as kept me motionless for a quarter of an hour, waiting till it subsided,” he wrote. The crushed mummies were “rather unpleasant to swallow.”
In another incident, he used the extremely precise and scientific tool of the battering ram to break through a wall into a tomb located near the site of his previous discovery of Ay’s tomb. Inside, he found eight mummy cases, including one draped in painted linen, which disintegrated when he touched it. Today, the identities of the mummies remain unknown as a direct result of Belzoni’s break in-he destroyed the seals that contained the names of the dead.
The destruction of such priceless historical artifacts and loss of knowledge is enough to make any archeologist angry. Despite this, Ivor Noël Hume, who published a biography of Belzoni titled Belzoni: The Giant Archaeologists Love to Hate, believes that much of the criticism levelled at Belzoni is unwarranted. An article by Gerard Helferich on elginism.com explains Hume’s view that Belzoni was no better or worse than those who came before him; raiding of Egyptian tombs and artifacts had been occurring since the time of the ancient Greeks, with Egyptians themselves more than happy to plunder tombs and sell their own country’s cultural artifacts for a price. By the time Belzoni was plundering tombs, so much had already been lost or destroyed over the ages along with innumerable amounts of information we will never get back.
When considering Belzoni’s reputation, it’s important to keep in mind that there was no such thing as Egyptology in this period; there were no rules or regulations on how to properly excavate sites or obtain treasures-all that mattered was finding something exciting and getting an artifact you could sell. Belzoni was not a scholar or a professional in his craft, merely an amateur archeologist with little real understanding of the culture whose treasures he plundered. His primary motivation for cracking open tombs lay in finding hidden treasure that he could sell to Salt. Belzoni was only doing what he was hired to do; there was nobody looking over his shoulder, supervising him, or critiquing his methods-he was responsible for getting in, grabbing treasure, and getting it out safely. When considered this way, it is much easier to think of Belzoni’s reputation in a better light.
On the other hand, Belzoni has been described as one of the greatest pioneers of archeology and has undoubtedly exerted a huge influence on the field through his discoveries. One positive aspect of Belzoni’s raids is supported by Hume: Belzoni showed a greater interest in the context of the sites he found than other explorers of the time, as shown by his meticulous drawings and note-taking; the fact that he took the time to painstakingly detail every measurement showed a desire to learn and understand more about the places he uncovered. As mentioned previously, these records would prove invaluable as the field developed and Belzoni’s sites were investigated by other archaeologists, contributing to their understanding of these monuments.
Ultimately, regardless of his reputation, Belzoni’s fame, numerous incredible finds, published work and his status as an adventurer laid the foundation for our modern studies by exposing the secrets of ancient Egypt to a wider audience. Whether you view Belzoni as a destroyer of artifacts or a pioneer of early archeology, there is no doubt that our modern world owes him a great debt; without him, we might still be foraging through the sands, having let some of the greatest archeological discoveries slip through our fingers, just like the grains of sand that kept them hidden from us for all those centuries.