Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Belzoni and the Obelisk

As I have previously mentioned, obelisks appear to have a particular appeal to Imperialists abroad in the land of the Pharoahs.

On Belzoni's first trip up the Nile in 1816 he noticed a rather nice specimen on the island of Philae, just upstream from Aswan.  Nobody seems to have actually "claimed" it, but it had been noticed by Drovetti's team working for the French.  And a gallivanting Englishman named William John Bankes had happened by a year earlier and expressed an interest in it, but was unable to figure out how to move it.  As obelisks go this was a smallish one, only 6.5 meters tall, but it was on an island amidst the rapids that make up the First Cataract of the Nile.

Belzoni made some arrangements with the locals, including setting a guard on the obelisk so that no rivals could take it.

A couple of years later Belzoni was at loose ends after his expedition to Berenice.  All the good digging sites appeared to be occupied by rivals.  Who should turn up but Henry Salt, who had in tow none other than William John Bankes.  Everyone for once got along famously, and it was agreed that Belzoni would retrieve the obelisk for Bankes.  To understand why claim to a priceless artifact would be waived in such a cavalier fashion you need to know something about Bankes.

His father was a trustee of the British Museum.*

That was pretty much all that Salt and Belzoni needed, both men dearly wanted to have the Museum as a customer for their antiquities.  But the biography of Bankes deserves a bit more exploration.

He was an aristocrat, heir to a noble family.  He was a very engaging young man, a college chum and "traveling companion" to Lord Byron who once referred to him as "the father of all mischief".  He had been an aide-de-camp to Wellington during the Peninsular Wars, and later a member of Parliament.  At this he was somewhat less successful, he often botched his lines in speeches.  Once in advocating government funding for churches he said that this would "provide for the union of the sexes" when he meant union of the sects.  His audience found that quite funny, as they considered it to be a topic that Bankes knew very little about.....

In any case the wide traveling Bankes now had the opportunity to get possession of the obelisk that he wanted so badly for the familial estate.  Unfortunately the rival French team got wind of this and there was a mad race up the Nile by both factions, followed by a brisk round of negotiation.  The locals had apparently promised the obelisk to everyone, and considerable persuasion-and Bankes' gold watch-were required before the British claim was remembered to be the earlier one.

Belzoni had little time to spare.  Working only with palm log rollers and Nubian manpower he slid the obelisk to water's edge....only to have it fall into the shallows, apparently lost forever.  Drovetti and his entourage watching from the far shore hooted and jeered.

But Belzoni did not give up with that.  Somehow, using more Nubians, more ropes and strategically placed piles of stone he raised the obelisk and landed it precariously onto the deck of the waiting boat.

The captain of same was in despair.  To run the rapids with this cargo seemed certain to end in wreck and ruin.  As Belzoni directed teams of men with ropes to direct the fragile craft through the white water the boat's owner was less helpfully 'throwing himself on the ground, scattering dust upon his head, and hiding his face'.

But of course Belzoni pulled it off.

The French harbored a considerable grudge over this.  Downstream at Thebes with the obelisk safely berthed right under their noses, tempers flared.  There was a confrontation with the French crew, accusations and punches were thrown and  a pistol shot was fired.  Whether this was a warning or was actually aimed at Belzoni was not clear.  But his need to leave Egypt was becoming evident.

The Philae obelisk made it to England some years later, the first such object to leave Egypt since ancient times.  It was erected at Bankes' estate of Kingston Lacy where it still stands.  The Duke of Wellington spoke at the ceremony marking its installation.  Like its other relocated fellows the damp is doing it harm.

As to Bankes he accumulated quite a store of information in his travels, but was not forthcoming in publication.  But his reputation was more significantly tarnished by not one but two incidents where he was spotted in public places engaging in "indecent acts" with guardsmen.

Polite society was somewhat tolerant of homosexuality in that era, but only if you were aristocratic, artistic, and discreet.  Banned from England he settled into exile in Paris, although it is said he snuck back from time to time incognito to look upon Kingston Lacy and his obelisk.

Tomorrow: The Legacy of Belzoni

*Confusingly the Trustees included both a Bankes and the Banks I mentioned earlier as having encouraged Salt's aquisitive pursuits.

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