The history of Italy and its connection with the Egyptian civilization stretches back to the Roman Empire. Egypt even became a province of Rome. This occurred in 30 BC, when Octavian, the future Roman Emperor Augustus, defeated his rival Mark Antony, deposed Cleopatra and annexed the Ptolemaic Kingdom (Egypt) to the Roman Empire. A few readers may also know that the second largest collection of Egyptian artifacts is in Italy. The Museo Egizio archaeological museum in Turin holds more than 30,000 pieces, making it the largest collection of Egyptian antiquities outside of Cairo.
It should come as no surprise that the man who is an important link between the Egypt of old and the modern study of its monuments of the past is Italian. Not only that, he was the original ‘Indiana Jones,’ putting himself at risk in his quest to discover the ancient treasures of Egypt. His name was Giovanni Battista Belzoni and this prolific Italian explorer was the pioneer/archaeologist of Egyptian antiquities. He is known as Il grande Belzoni – ‘The Great Belzoni.’
Belzoni’s family was originally from Rome, but had moved north to the Veneto region. He was born in Padua in 1778, one of 14 children. When Belzoni was 16, he traveled to Rome with the intention of taking his monastic vows. While there, he became fascinated by the study of hydraulics and rather than becoming a monk, he began to formulate his own applications and inventions. He stayed in the city for almost four years. In 1798, the occupation of the city by French troops drove Belzoni from Rome. Without yet having established himself as a hydraulics engineer, he had no formal training or even an apprenticeship, he made a swift decision to leave Italy and change careers, at least for the time being. He traveled north and earned a living as a barber, having learned the trade from his father while still a boy. By the turn of the century, his travels had taken him to the Netherlands, where he continued to earn a living as a barber. This was not for Belzoni. He was a larger than life character in every respect. First of all, he was an enormous man and a giant in his day. Standing 6’ 7” he was a foot taller than the average person and was immensely strong, with a powerful broad chest.
In 1803, he traveled across the channel to England where he soon met and fell in love with an Englishwoman named Sarah Bane. He was discovered by a fair owner who suggested that Giovanni could make a good living working as a strongman. With his love of traveling and meeting people, he accepted the offer and became the “Patagonian Samson.” The highlight of his act was to lift a specially constructed frame with 12 people sitting on it and then, still holding it, he would walk across the stage. What was intended to simply be a way of making money until he could pursue his love hydraulics engineering ultimately lasted for more than a decade.
In 1812, he left England to begin tours and performances in Spain, Portugal and Sicily. In 1815, he went to Malta and while there, he met Ismael Gibraltar, an official who ran a land reclamation and irrigation program in Egypt. Belzoni wanted to demonstrate a hydraulic machine that he had invented which could be used to raise the waters of the Nile. He was invited to Egypt to demonstrate his invention. The machine worked, but was not purchased by the Egyptian government. It was while in the country that Belzoni met Henry Salt, the British Consul General. Salt was interested in securing some Egyptian artifacts to have sent to the British Museum in London. What he needed was an explorer and adventurer; a man who could get things done. With his expertise in hydraulics, engaging personality and remarkable physique, Salt found in Belzoni the perfect candidate for the explorations.
Giovanni’s first mission was to be in Luxor. It was there that a colossal bust of Rameses II had been discovered, but no one had yet devised a way to move it. It had been tried by the French, who in their attempt to move the statue, drilled a hole in its right shoulder with the intent of using explosives to dislodge the giant statue from its resting place. At some point, the French recognized that their plan was significantly flawed and would result in the destruction of the statue from below the shoulders. It measured nine feet high and when Belzoni arrived, he was equipped with only with wooden poles and locally-made ropes. Through an ingenious use of leverage and a lot of man power, Belzoni dislodged the statue. That nearly impossible task was actually the easiest part of his endeavor. It then took him 17 days and 130 men to tow the seven ton statue to the Nile. It is now recognized that it was through his extraordinary efforts that Belzoni saved the statue from almost certain destruction. The statue is still on prominent display at the British Museum today.
During the next several years, Belzoni participated in the excavation of the great Temple at Edfu and visited Philae and Elephantine. He also made his famous discovery of the mummy of Psammethis. In 1818, Belzoni entered the pyramid of Khafre at Giza, becoming the first explorer to find the hidden entrance and enter the inner chambers. In the same year, he led several excavations on the Red Sea and was able to identify the ruined city of Berenice.
After returning to Europe in 1819, he published a book with the impossibly long title of “Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries within the Pyramids, Temples, Tombs and Excavations in Egypt and Nubia.” The book received great publicity and made Belzoni famous as the first researcher in Egyptology. During the next two years, Belzoni held several exhibitions displaying many of his findings.
In 1823, he set out for western Africa, intending to travel to Timbuktu. Having been refused permission to pass through Morocco, he chose the Guinea coastal route. He reached Benin, where one report says that he contracted dysentery and died while in a village called Gwato. According to the celebrated traveler Richard Francis Burton, he was murdered and robbed by assailants unknown.
Although Giovanni Belzoni was not a trained scholar, his excavations were state of the art for their time. He began his work when archaeology was still an infant science. He was initially motivated by the thrill of a treasure hunt, but Belzoni became one of the pioneers of Egyptology, whose work was the overture of every later exploration of Egypt, even fictional ones, including those of Indiana Jones.