Giovanni Battista Belzoni ranks as one of the most unexpected and fascinating of European travelers. With little formal experience and education, he managed not only to explore and document various parts of the Arab world, but also to carry out engineering and logistical feats that would have daunted even the trained professionals of his era. This fearless Italian was born in Padua in 1788. He was but one of fourteen children, and the son of a barber; finding few career prospects in his native city, he set out for Rome at the age of sixteen with the intention of pursuing a monastic career. The Church at least could offer him food, drink, and a roof over his head; and for a poor youth, these inducements were considerably attractive.
Yet he found he possessed a facility for mechanical contrivances, and this led him to prefer hydraulics to theology. As often happens, external circumstances decided his fate for him; in 1800 he was forced to leave Rome as a consequence of the disorder created by French military incursions. He tried his hand as a barber in The Netherlands for a short time. For about two years he wandered through Europe, earning his living through his wits and his tongue. In this respect he was singularly well-placed. Belzoni was an enormous man; he stood 6 feet 7 inches, which in those days was an immense frame; and when we combine this with a persuasive personality, a natural intelligence, and a facility for foreign languages, the admixture was irresistible. In 1803 he emigrated to England and married there, supporting himself by performing circus feats of strength. A fiercely independent man with an intimidating personal presence, he refused to accept money sent from his family, and never stooped to involve himself in disreputable activities; he was patient, and knew that opportunities would present themselves in time.
After nine years in England, Belzoni decided to explore Portugal, Spain, and Malta with his wife. In Malta in 1815 he was introduced to one Ismael Gibraltar, an admiral in the service of Muhammad Ali, the famous Ottoman governor of Egypt from 1805 to 1848. He apparently convinced Gibraltar of his experience and abilities in engineering and hydraulics; the result was an invitation to work in Egypt. That a gigantic circus strong-man with little or no experience in practical engineering would be able to convince an Ottoman admiral of his expertise in this field, seems too incredible to believe: but this apparently is exactly what happened. Even more incredibly, Belzoni turned out to be a mechanical genius, and was able to do exactly what he claimed he could do.
In June 1815 Belzoni arrived in Alexandria, Egypt with his wife and an Irish assistant named Curtain. On June 24, his party set out for Cairo to petition Muhammad Ali directly. He was not able to see the pasha, and visited the Pyramids instead. Bad luck then intervened: he became involved in a fracas with an ill-tempered Turkish soldier and was wounded. Nevertheless Belzoni’s proposal for a hydraulic irrigation machine was approved by the Egyptian authorities; he became a favored guest of the pasha, who must have been impressed by this bizarre Italian giant who could work wonders with water. Belzoni was not the type to accept insults, however; he soon got involved in another fight with a Turkish soldier who slapped him in the street. Belzoni hit him back, upon which the Turk drew a pistol and fired; the bullet missed Belzoni, but killed another man. When Muhammad Ali heard of this incident, he had the Turk arrested; the man was never seen again. When Belzoni’s hydraulic machine was completed, it was demonstrated to Muhammad in person; the pasha was not satisfied with the trial runs, however, and refused to pay Belzoni. Disillusioned by these developments, Belzoni resolved to strike out on his own; he would explore the unknown regions of Egypt and document his findings. It is a testament to his iron character that he refused to slink home to England or Italy in defeat; he was in Egypt now, and he would find a way to make things work, just as he always had during his life.
Fortune smiled on him. Here again, a chance meeting with a stranger would change the course of Belzoni’s life. He became acquainted with the famed Orientalist and traveler Jacob Burckhardt, and with the British consul in Egypt, Henry Salt; these experienced men saw in Belzoni the kind of swashbuckling adventurer perfectly suited for antiquities-hunting. The job they wanted him to perform was to remove a colossal buried head of Memnon (i.e., a bust of Ramesses II) from the interior of Egypt to Alexandria, for eventual transportation to the British Museum. This huge piece weighed more than seven tons. Having secured the required financing, Belzoni set out for Thebes. He describes his impressions of the ruins:
It is absolutely impossible to imagine the scene displayed, without seeing it. The most sublime ideas that can be formed from the most magnificent specimens of our present architecture would give a very incorrect picture of these ruins; for such is the difference, not only in magnitude, but in form, proportion, and construction, that even the pencil can convey but a faint idea of the whole. 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 proof of their existence.
At the Memnonium in Thebes, he found the gigantic sculpture that he was to remove and transport to Alexandria. The engineering task was even more difficult than he had imagined it would be; he had only fourteen thick poles, ropes, and rollers, but no tackle of any kind. Yet organization, discipline, and efficient use of available resources won the day, and by August 1816, Belzoni had succeeded in removing the ancient sculpture from the ground and sliding it to the shore of the Nile. The task had taken him 17 days of brute labor, using over 100 men. In the mountain of Gournou he found, but was unable to remove, a stone sarcophagus; he also made a short visit to Aswan around this time. After incredible difficulties, all of which he solved, Belzoni was able to transport the head of Memnon down the Nile in November and December of 1816. It was an incredible feat of engineering, especially for a man with only the barest of experience in such matters; but he was organized, he was a good leader of men, and he was utterly determined to accomplish his mission.
Nineteenth-century depictions of Belzoni’s excavations
Further adventures in archaeology followed. Here are his comments on visiting the Necropolis at Thebes, at the mountain of Gournou. The site was honeycombed with sepulchers and dark chambers. He further describes them:
In some places there is not more than the vacancy of a foot left, which you must contrive to pass through in a creeping posture, like a snail, on pointed and keen stones that cut like glass. After getting through these passages, some of them two or three hundred yards long, you generally find a more commodious place, perhaps high enough to sit. But what a place of rest! Surrounded by bodies, by heaps of mummies, in all directions, which, previous to my being accustomed to the sight, impressed me with horror. The blackness of the wall; the faint light given by the candles or torches for want of air; the different objects that surrounded me seeming to converse with each other; and the Arabs with the candles or torches in their hands, naked and covered with dust, themselves resembling living mummies,—absolutely formed a scene that cannot be described. In such a situation I found myself several times, and often returned exhausted and fainting, till at last I became inured to it, and indifferent to what I suffered except from the dust, which never failed to choke my throat and nose; and though fortunately I am destitute of the sense of smelling, I could taste that the mummies were rather unpleasant to swallow. After the exertion of entering into such a place, through a passage of fifty, a hundred, three hundred, or perhaps six hundred yards, nearly overcome, I sought a resting-place, found one, and contrived to sit; but when my weight bore on the body of an Egyptian, it crushed it like a bandbox.
In April 1819 he set out to explore the vicinity of Fayoum. One of Belzoni’s skills was diplomacy and negotiation; he always seemed able to assuage the suspicions of the Arab villagers he encountered in remote parts of Egypt, who naturally assumed Belzoni was intent on plunder. There were times when he was able to defuse tense situations through a deft combination of friendliness, financial inducement, and feats of personal strength; his days as a circus performer and showman had not been wasted. Here, in his memoirs, he reflects on some of his dealings with local Egyptians:
It is well known that the people fear you when they know you do not fear them…I was visited every day by the women inhabiting the different villages on the other side of the Nile; they used to cross on a ramouse, bringing sometimes one or two beads of cornelian antiques, or a little barley, some eggs, and onions, getting in exchange glass beads or small looking-glasses. My old acquaintance from the first year came to see me, particularly the friendly Zara, with the good old woman, who hailed me affectionately, and continued so to the last. The old woman was the merriest and best-natured simple creature I ever met with: she would not have disgraced England itself; she used to make many sensible remarks upon our customs… One day, on seeing some of our coarse cloth, she, in a very humble tone, asked me, if I had got an old piece of the same kind to put on her head, as she had not got anything, she should be very happy. I told her I would look if I possessed such a thing, for I made it a rule, from dear bought experience, never to give anything on the moment it was asked for: on the next day I gave her a piece. I cannot describe the joy she expressed on receiving this present; but after examining it some time, she said it was too clean, and would spoil her head, and she must make it dirty before she could use it. The reason she gave was, that being clean it would draw all the grease out of her hair, and particularly as all kind of fat, butter or oil, was very scarce and hard to be got: besides the beauty the glitter of the fat gives, it preserves the head against the burning heat of the sun.
Belzoni returned to England in 1819, visiting his family in Italy along the way. He had not seen them in twenty years. Collecting his notes from his travels, he then published his multi-volume memoirs under the title Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries within the Pyramids, Temples, Tombs and Excavations in Egypt and Nubia. He rested for several years, then decided in 1823 to make a journey to Timbuktu in West Africa; but good fortune deserted him, and he died of either a fever or dysentery in Benin that same year. His importance in the history of exploration lies in his demonstration of what one determined man can accomplish. That a man of his seemingly unsuitable background (a circus strong-man!) was able to transport colossal ancient monuments, penetrate unknown ruins, negotiate with locals in their native languages, and lead a group of men in a hostile environment, is a stirring testament to the power of will and intelligence.
Read more in the landmark Thirty-Seven: