Belzoni - Tomb Raider and Archaeologist: Part 3 Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Belzoni - Tomb Raider and Archaeologist: Part 3

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Matthew Kelly as Giovanni Belzoni seen here at Abu Simbel in 'Egypt: The Temple Of The Sands.'

Belzoni's greatest discovery was the Tomb of Seti, but it was firmly rooted in the rock of Luxor. Now the showman within him came to the fore. He decided he would make a plaster copy of the tomb and put it on exhibition in London, where many people would pay to see it.

He travelled up to Luxor again, where he proceeded to make wax casts of all the carvings in the tomb. At the same time, he hired an Italian doctor, Allessandro Ricci, to copy everything down on paper, paying particular attention to the colours. Together they spent the whole of the summer of 1818 faithfully reproducing the details of the tomb. By September, he had everything he needed to make a plaster cast copy of the entire tomb.

The Lost City of Berenikë

At around this time, news came to Belzoni of a French explorer and mineralogist named Frédéric Cailliaud who had found an emerald mine and an ancient mining town dating from Greek times (330 - 100 BC) in the Eastern Desert. Belzoni decided this might be a clue to the location of the lost city of Berenikë ('beren-ee-kay'). This was a port on the Red Sea in ancient times, with a road across the desert from the Nile, but its exact location had been forgotten. If this mining town was on the route, then he might be able to continue past it and find Berenikë. Belzoni hired 16 camels and assembled a team, including Beechey, Yanni and Dr Ricci, as well as a native guide. They set out on 23 September, 1818, into the desert.

Egypt's Eastern Desert is very different from the desert of most people's imagination. There's no sand, but it is rocky, and in places mountainous. There were many precious stones to be found in these mountains and in ancient times Egypt's wealth of jewels came from mines here. However, the land is extremely inhospitable and totally lifeless. This was a different sort of adventure to anything Belzoni had tried before. Two days out from the Nile, Ricci became seriously ill, so Belzoni sent him back to Luxor. On 30 September, they reached the emerald mine that Cailliaud had found, which was now being investigated by servants of the Pasha. They vaguely remembered the ancient ruined mining town, but didn't know where it was.

A local Arabic tribesman who thought he knew it was found, so they followed his lead for a day, but when they came to the small mound of ruins, Belzoni couldn't believe this was the enormous mining town that Cailliaud had spoken of. He decided to press on to the Red Sea; a couple of days later they reached the sea, where Belzoni and Beechey went for a swim. Water was no longer a problem as there were abundant water holes, but they now only had enough food left for 17 days, including the trip home.

Belzoni's studies showed that the ancient city was built just south of a small cape known on his maps as Cape Lepte Extrema, but to us today as Ras Banas. They were now north of this cape, so they headed south. He sent the camel drivers off to get water while he continued exploring. They met some fishermen and bought some fish off them. Belzoni also stocked up on shellfish from the rocks. On 6 October, the camels returned with water. Now Belzoni split the team and sent as many as possible of the camels back to wait at the water hole. The rest continued south along the coast. On 7 October they reached some old sulphur mines, and later, the cape. On 9 October around noon, they crossed the cape and reached the sea on the south side. There beside the sea were a series of low mounds covered in sand. Belzoni immediately recognised the ruins of a city. Berenikë had been found!

They didn't have much time to look around. The camel drivers wanted to return as quickly as possible, as water was running low again. Belzoni and Beechey spent the rest of the day and half the night (by a bright moon) digging out sand and looking at the ruins. The buildings were all made from madrepore, a type of rock with very visible fossils of sea creatures in it. At the highest point of the city there was the ruin of a temple, 102 feet by 43 feet. The whole city had, in his reckoning, about 2,000 buildings. Belzoni took away one tablet of red breccia stone covered in hieroglyphs. At noon the next day it was time to leave, and they began the long trek back to the Nile. On 23 October, after a full month in the desert, they arrived back at the river. Four of the camels had died along the way. All Belzoni had got was one stone tablet; that, and the glory of being a discoverer.

The Retrieval of the Obelisk of Philae

Two years previously, Belzoni had put his name on the fallen obelisk at Philae. By the new agreement with Salt, this meant that it belonged to Salt, but he gave it a friend of his, a visiting Englishman called Bankes. Bankes really wanted an Egyptian obelisk for his estate in Kingston Lacy, Dorset, so he paid Belzoni to get the obelisk and bring it back to England.

Belzoni met Drovetti in Luxor and mentioned to him that he was going to Philae to get the obelisk. Drovetti was surprised - he had been promised it by the locals, but he graciously waived his claim when he heard Belzoni had a prior one. Not so Drovetti's agents, Lebolo and Rossignol, though. They would have got commission for transporting the obelisk if Drovetti had taken it. Lebolo rushed off to Philae immediately and got there before Belzoni; but Belzoni had placed a guard on the obelisk two years previously, and the Frenchman couldn't take it. This led to a lot of friction with the French agents.

The loading of the obelisk on to the boat didn't go quite as planned - Belzoni's workers built a pier into the Nile, but the pier collapsed and the obelisk fell into the river. He had to use levers underwater to lift the obelisk back on to land before loading it onto the boat. Then the boat had to be brought down the cataract by pulling it with ropes from the bank.

Belzoni is Attacked

Belzoni and the obelisk arrived back in Luxor in December 1818. Here he was met by Sarah, who was back from her Holy Land trip. They started to pack up and prepare for their return to England. Everything was looking rosy.

On 26 December, Belzoni went riding around the temple of Karnak. Suddenly he was surrounded by a gang of French diggers and collectors, led by Lebolo and Rossignol. They shouted at him to get down off his horse, but he wouldn't, being scared of what they might do to him. Then somebody fired a gun behind Belzoni. He jumped down immediately. Luckily, at that moment, Drovetti arrived and defused the situation. Belzoni was convinced that his life had been threatened and he was seriously shaken by the escapade.

Goodbye to Egypt

When Sarah heard about it, she wanted out of there as soon as possible. Even so, it took Belzoni a month to gather together all the things he had accumulated in Luxor over the years. Eventually, on 27 January, 1819, they sailed downstream for the last time, all the way as far as the mouth of the Nile at Rashid (Rosetta). Here they hired temporary lodgings, but, in correspondence with Salt, (who was, after all, the British Consul), he was advised to remain in Egypt and to press charges against the French for the attack.

The legalities were long and boring. While he was waiting, Belzoni couldn't sit still, so he decided to fill in the time with another little bit of exploring.

The Search for the Temple of Jupiter Ammon

Belzoni decided to explore the oases of the Western Desert and the Faiyum, that great oasis just to the west of Cairo and fed by the Nile. Possible things to be found included the Labyrinth, famed in antiquity for its size and complexity, and the Temple of Jupiter Ammon in the Siwa Oasis, where Alexander the Great was told he would rule the world.

This trip would not repeat the success of Belzoni's previous ones. He saw lots of different ruins along the way but failed to identify any of them, and walked right over the Labyrinth without seeing it (as did everyone else, to be fair). Ending up in a western oasis, (which he knew wasn't the Siwa Oasis), but claiming in his later book that he had in fact reached the Siwa Oasis, was not the most auspicious end to Belzoni's career in Egypt.

When he returned to civilisation, he found the lawyers still arguing about admissability of evidence, what court the accused could be tried under and so on. It was obviously going nowhere. Belzoni gave up. He said goodbye to Egypt for ever.

A Quick Stop In Italy

Belzoni and Sarah went from Egypt direct to Italy, arriving in Venice some time in November 1819, and proceeding to Padua just before Christmas. Here he met his family for the first time in 17 years. He introduced Sarah to them all. His father and his youngest brother, Antonio, had both died. Belzoni presented his family with a pair of gazelles!

Before he arrived, Belzoni had sent on two statues of Sekhmet, the lion-headed goddess, to the local council, asking them to put them on display in the museum. Now the city welcomed back a son they had, indeed, forgotten - the great explorer returned - and gave him a civic reception. Then it was time to go again, business in London was pressing. Belzoni never returned to Padua.

Belzoni in London

In March 1820, Belzoni and Sarah reached London. His first task was to write a book of all his travels and adventures. He had kept copious notes and a detailed journal of all his time in Egypt. He wrote the book based on these notes, refusing all offers by editors and publishers to tidy it up, so there are some places where it is far from clear what he is saying. The book was called Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries within the Pyramids, Temples, Tombs and Excavations, in Egypt and Nubia. There was also an appendix by Sarah entitled Mrs Belzoni's Trivial Account of the Women of Egypt, Nubia and Syria1. The book was published in December 1820, and was a great success. It was immediately translated professionally into French. Belzoni was so pleased with the French version (which had certain things tidied up and toned down) that he decided the Italian version should be translated from the French one.

London Society was a busy schedule of dinners and parties, and Belzoni was the sensation of the month, being invited to all the popular ones. At one such gathering he met Sir Walter Scott; but Belzoni didn't really fit into the scene - this giant who had haggled with Arabs, viewed sights unseen for millennia, and worked in temperatures closer to boiling than freezing, was out of place here. Eventually he turned down the invitations and got to work on his exhibition.

Belzoni looked around for a suitable place to put on his exhibition. Lo and behold, in the middle of Piccadilly, there was the Egyptian Hall, whose façade had been done up like an Egyptian temple, although it was somewhat a mish-mash of different styles. He spent the whole of the spring of 1821 making plaster casts from the wax moulds, and painting them to match the reproductions made by Ricci. He decided to show only two rooms of the Tomb at full scale, but he did display all Ricci's paintings, which were at 1:6 scale. He also made models of the Temple of Abu Simbel (1:30 scale), the portico of the Temple of Isis in Philae, and the Pyramid of Khafre (1:120 scale). The Tomb of Seti was advertised as the 'Tomb of Psammis' because of a misinterpretation of the hieroglyphs by Dr Thomas Young, who mistakenly thought he had deciphered them. The exhibition was a resounding success - it was just the sort of thing the masses of London were looking for. Unfortunately, the British Museum did not seem interested, and when Belzoni offered to sell them the models, they turned him down. He eventually auctioned them to the highest bidder.

Belzoni the Explorer

Belzoni was not the sort who could settle in London. He was content to live there for a while, so that his exhibition could make him some money, (which it did), but he needed adventure. He quickly set his sights on solving the problem of the Niger River.

It was known that if you headed north from the south coast of West Africa, you would reach a mighty river, the Niger, which flowed northwards. This then turned east and flowed into the fabled city of Timbuktu, but after that its course was unknown. Various theories had been put forward, such as that it flowed into a giant salt pan and evaporated2, or that it became a tributary of the Nile. We now know that it turns south and splits into thousands of 'distributaries', each reaching the sea separately. Timbuktu itself was a mysterious city - at the southern point of the only route across the Sahara, and guarded by the Arabs for centuries from foreigners, it was visualized in the minds of Europeans as a place of fabulous riches where the houses were roofed with gold. Belzoni's friend Burckhardt had always wanted to make the trip to Timbuktu, but had died before the opportunity became available. Now Belzoni had the time and the funds to make the journey himself and to put his name in the history books as a great explorer.

Sadly, it was not to be. He sank virtually all his cash into the expedition, but everything seemed to go wrong. His intended route to Timbuktu was from Morocco, but the government there wouldn't let him into the country. He ended up on the south coast of West Africa many months later, reaching the Benin River at the end of 1823. On 24 November, he arrived at the Kingdom of Benin. On 25 November, he was struck down by dysentery. On 3 December, he was dead. He was buried under an arasma tree in the town of Guato, and a wooden tablet was placed upon the grave. Nearly 40 years later, the explorer Richard Burton visited the spot. The locals could still remember the giant who had passed through so briefly, and were able to point out the tree under which he was buried, but there was no trace of the grave.


Belzoni's collection of antiquities ended up in the British Museum, but with Salt's name as the donor. There was an argument over the value of the alabaster coffin of Seti I, and the museum wouldn't take it, so it was bought by Sir John Soane and ended up in his strange house, now a museum, in Lincoln Fields, London. Sarah put on the Tomb Exhibition again in London and Paris, but it made a loss. She became destitute, and petitioned for many years for a state pension in honour of the work her husband had done for Britain. She eventually received it when she was 70. Belzoni's Italian family got very little - in light of the adventurer's fame, his mother received a small pension from the city of Padua, but it appears that she died the following year.

The days of the mass looting of Egypt were now nearly over. A new generation of Egyptologists entered the scene. Armed with the ability to read the hieroglyphs due to Champollion's discoveries, they could now reconstruct the history of Egypt. Men like Auguste Mariette (1821 - 1881) and Sir William Flinders Petrie (1852 - 1942) became the new heroes of archaeology. However, Belzoni's name must stand as one of the greatest of the pioneers.

1Syria was a name used at the time for all countries just to the east of the Mediterranean.2Such is the fate of the Okavango River in Botswana.

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