Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Great Belzoni

It is the rare and fortunate man who by sheer accident finds himself doing a job for which he is uniquely qualified. 

In 1816 Belzoni was given a rather vague commision from Henry Salt, the newly arrived British counsel general.  He was instructed to go upriver to Thebes and retrieve a monumental head of Rameses II from a temple.  Terms of payment and reimbursement were indistinct, and it was understood that Belzoni could do a little independent collecting if it suited him.  Salt had been encouraged to amass some antiquities by Sir Joseph Banks, a trustee of the British Museum.  But it was not even made clear to Belzoni whether the collected items were to finally go the the Museum or to Salt's private collection.

No matter, Belzoni went at the assignment with gusto.  He combined impressive physical strenth with a forceful personality and a complete disregard of danger.  In truth he also did not have much regard for preserving the cultural heritage of Egypt, but to be fair this was a time when antiquities were being casually destroyed or systematically looted for profit by the Egyptians.  And the government had little interest in the matter.  The Pasha was Armenian, and had plenty to do just keeping various rebellions in check. 

The next three years were a blur of frentic activity, with Belzoni going up and down the Nile where ever antiquities could be found.

He succeded where the French had failed, hauling the colossal bust of Ramesses II out by engineering savy and brute force.
removing the head of Ramesses II, sometimes called the Younger Memmnon
He dug out the sand covering the temple at Abu Simbel, and became the first European to set foot in it.

He found the tomb of Seti I in the Valley of the Kings.  True it had been robbed of portable treasures in antiquity but "Belzoni's tomb" as it is sometimes called had paintings and reliefs of great artistic merit. 
Tomb of Seti I
He missed the mostly undisturbed tomb of King Tut by a mere 60 yards.

He took off across the desert on a mere rumor of the mysterious ancient Red Sea port of Berenice.  He found the desolate site and confirmed its identity, limping home with water supplies gone and several of his camels dying on the return journey.

Ruins of Berenice
At one point he found himself in Cairo with a little free time on his hands.  Truth be told his relationship with Henry Salt was cooling a bit and he wanted to show he could be more than a mere employee.  So he went to the local authorities and by implying that he was working under Salt's patronage got a permit, or firman, to do some "slight excavation" around the pyramids.

The burial chamber of the First Great Pyramid had already been discovered.  But the Second Pyramid was felt by ancient authors to be solid. (Although there were local traditions that it had been entered in the middle ages).  Lesser men had been deterred, but Belzoni had a keen eye and had spotted two areas where he thought irregularities in later stone fall might be doorways.

The first proved to be a false start, with dangerous falling stones, but Belzoni's second attempt came in straight on the hidden passage.

There was no treasure to be found.  Ancient grave robbers were so efficient that it had become routine for the priests to go back and remove the mummy and whatever grave goods had not been quickly plundered.  But the glory of discovery was his.

I have not been able to discover who actually wrote this on the wall of the burial chamber.  The penmanship seems a little too good for the casually educated Belzoni, who would in any case be more likely to refer to himself as G. Belzoni.  The abbreviation in the above presumably indicates Signore.

This discovery brought Belzoni both acclaim and ill will.  He was operating in Giza on shaky authority, and right in the back yard of both his patron Henry Salt, and of an aggressive team of French antique hunters with whom he had a touchy relationship. 

Perhaps even the fringes of the civilized world were getting a little too settled for the Great Belzoni, and he began to feel a bit unwelcome in Egypt.  But he had one further adventure to undertake...

Tomorrow: Belzoni and the Obelisk

No comments: