Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Legacy of Belzoni

If you were to ask a serious archaeologist about Belzoni you would get at best a mixed review.  Certainly his techniques were not ideal.  There was that cutting off of two columns to get the Younger Memnon statue out.  And that battering ram he used to smash in the wall of Seti's tomb.  And the whole array of tactics he used to obtain permission and cooperation (not at all the same thing you see) from local authorities.  Belzoni would use flattery, or bluster, or baksheesh, or truth, or semi-truth, whatever would work.  It appears that on occasion he would just grab folks by the front of their gallibayah and demand their cooperation.  It was difficult to refuse an animated, bearded giant.

Belzoni was obviously in Egypt at just the right moment.  The Napoleonic wars had opened the country to Westerners.  The local government was weak and distracted.  And Egyptology as a discipline was just getting started.  In a few more years with the decyphering of the Rosetta Stone much more was understood.  And although archaeological hi-jinks persisted through the 19th century-apparently the Third Great Pyramid was opened by blasting!-the free for all grabbing of antiquities eventually diminished.

After Egypt Belzoni's life was a bit more commonplace.  He wrote a moderately succesful account of his adventures, he arranged a display of his personal collection as well as elaborate casts made from the Temple of Seti.  He traveled a bit, he was something of a socialite.  He also expended considerable effort trying to get Henry Salt to pay monies he felt he was entitled to, especially as pertains to a remarkable alabaster sarcophagus Belzoni removed from Seti's tomb.

Restless in civilization Belzoni decided in 1824 to return to Africa.  Not this time to Egypt but to explore sub-Saharan Africa.  Specifically the course of the Niger river was in question at the time.  But in a difficulty ridden expedition Belzoni did not get far.  In the kingdom of Benin, on the way to Timbuktu, the great explorer became ill with dysentery and died.  Ironically, for a man who found fame among the most majestic tombs on earth, his grave is unmarked.

But he is not without monument.  He literally left his mark on Egypt.

On the fallen colossus of Rameses at Thebes

Also at Thebes.  Note the Salt graffiti .
Sarah Belzoni lived to be quite old, dying in 1870.  It is quite possible that when I was born there were still alive a few people who had known her.  Such is the teasing nature of history, I find myself only seperated by a very long generation from a woman who was contemporary with Napoleon, and who first came to Cairo when there were about 150 Westerners there....all still called "Franks" after the fashion of the Crusades!

Belzoni might deserve a minor credit in regards to the Percy Bysshe Shelley poem "Ozymandias".  It was published in 1818 and was apparently inspired by the impending arrival of the Younger Memnon bust excavated by Belzoni.  I did not realize that there were actually two versions of the same basic poem, one by Shelley another by a Horace Smith.  Ozymandias  In one account I read it was speculated that there was a competition for a poem on this topic, sort of a publicity stunt for the arrival of the statue.

Giovanni Belzoni was a complicated man, more motivated by a desire for recognition than by monetary gain.  So he would likely be happy to know that there is actually a city named after him, Belzoni Mississippi.

But were his restless shade to walk the earth again it would find peace in the wild places of Egypt, where the modern world still only extends a few miles on either side of the Nile.  Oh, I suppose he might choose to occasionally haunt London, a city that brought him much frustration.  But he would likely confine himself to the British Museum where his most substantial accomplishment still smiles enigmatically.

Sadly, the Museum credits Henry Salt and ignores The Great Belzoni.

Tomorrow:  Belzoni as Indiana Jones?

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