Karavansara

East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Mister and Miss Belzoni

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I was absolutely sure I had done a post about The Great Belzoni, but I was unable to find it.
It’s becoming unnerving, this thing that I get an idea for a post, plan it and write it in my mind, and then forget about actually writing it. I am damn scared of Alzheiner, you know…

Portrait_of_Giovanni_Belzoni_by_Jan_Adam_Kruseman,_1824Anyway, here’s the guy, portrayed in all his barbaric style and Oriental mystery.
Giovanni Battista Belzoni was born in Padua in 1778, but his family was from Rome, and in Rome he studied hydraulics. He flirted with the idea of joining a monastery, fled when Napoleon conquered the city and ended up as a barber in the Netherlands.
From there he moved to London, met and married a woman named Sarah Bane, and they both joined a circus – Belzoni was 6 foot 7 inches, and got a gig as a strongman, but he later got into phantasmagorias and light shows.
During a tour of southern Europe in the early 1810s, Belzoni became acquainted with Muhammad Ali, and went to Egypt to demonstrate a hydraulic machine of his own devising, that would be used to pump water from the Nile.
The machine worked but he was not hired, and therefore he found himself in Egypt, and without a job.
Someone suggested he should look into the local antiques.

Belzoni’s first job as an “antiquarian” (that is, a cross between an archaeologist and a grave robber) was the recovery of the “Young Memnon”, a 7-tonnes bust of Ramses the Second that the Italian adventurer was able to move by devising a series of machines and contraptions that harnessed the strength of 130 men.

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The Great Belzoni had found a new gig.
He took to Egyptology like a fish to the water – and if his excavation techniques were very much in the Indiana Jones school of archaeology, and included hydraulic sledgehammers and explosives, it is a fact that he discovered and investigated a number of locations, he opened the tomb of Seti I and was the first man to enter the second pyramid in Giza. He traveled extensively,m and was the first modern European to reach the Oasis of Bahariya.

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His wife – that is often left out of the picture – traveled with him, and while her husband was busy detonating some old tomb’s gateway or using hydrostatic overload to crack some pyramid open, she spent her time meeting and researching the women of Egypt. She also dressed as a man in order to visit a Muslim temple.
And so, when Belzoni published his Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries within the Pyramids, Temples, Tombs and Excavations in Egypt and Nubia, and of a journey to the coast of the Red Sea, in search of the ancient Berenice, and of another to the oasis of Jupiter Ammon, the volume included Mrs. Belzoni’s trifling account of the women of Egypt, Nubia, and Syria – and if you are interested, you can find both in a handy 500-pages volume in the Internet Archive. A beautiful edition was also reprinted by National Geographic, and might be worth tracking down.

DrovettiBelzoni’s success came to a price – both his former employer Henry Salt, the British consul in Egypt, and Bernardino Drovetti, the Italian-born French consul (and a man with a face like a bad guy from a novel), tried to put a stop to Belzoni’s travels and discoveries.
By hiring killers.
And his wife notes in her account of their travels

Mr. B. arrived two days before Christmas, and on St. Stephen’s day he crossed to Carnak to review the various spots of earth he had to excavate, when an attempt was made to assassinate him.

And if we are to believe sir Richard Burton, in the end they made it, and Belzoni died, at the age of 45, while en-route to Timbuktu. But maybe Burton was full of hot air as usual, and Belzoni really died of dysentery.

His wife returned to England, and tried to make ends meet by exhibiting her late husband’s finds, and later by selling the lot.
She survived thanks to the help of her supporters, that finally were able to get her a 100£ pension.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

10 thoughts on “Mister and Miss Belzoni

  1. There is an interesting graphic Novel about this lovely couple. The tutte is “il Grande Balzoni”, its a fascinating mélange of fiction, historical data and Indiana Jonesesque brawls and adventures. It reads like a cross between John Milius and Milton Caniff. I think it could be right up your alley 😉

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  2. Belzoni was really one of those larger-than-life persons, his story really seem to belong to an Indiana Jones movie, and it is fun to think that very likely it is the other way round.

    I have the Italian edition of the National Geographic volume, if I remember correctly it was part of a series about great adventurers, along with Howard Carter, Schleimann, and other.

    I also wrote about Belzoni in the Sick Building Syndrome round-robin that we had many years ago…

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    • I remember the round-robin and Belzoni!
      And I have the Italian NatGeo edition too, with its blue and yellow cover.
      I also have two other volumes in the series (Darwin and Marco Polo) – it would be nice to get the others, too.

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      • That round-robin was a lot of fun indeed.
        I still remember that I was pretty late in the writing order, and I was thinking that someone would have “stolen” me the part of the original story that intrigued me the most but that was secondary on the news, the rich guy that went adventuring and never came back home. I was lucky enough to have the other guys write more about the molded house itself than the previous owners 😉

        It seems that is still online, I’m going to re-read it!

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  3. Thanks for the link to the book- I’m a great fan of his even if his archaeological “methods” left a lot to be desired!

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  4. When studying in Padova I lived, for few years in “via Belzoni”, after few years – as wikipedia gained popularity- I learned about the story of this character, and I was already amazed. These additional details make him (and his wife) be even more interesting.

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