John Baptist Belzoni

JOHN BAPTIST BELZONI was born about 1780, at Padua, in Italy, and passed the greater part of his youth at Rome, where he was preparing himself to become a monk, when, he observes, the sudden entry of the French into that city, altered the course of my education, and being destined to travel, I have been a wanderer ever since.' In 1803, he visited England and married; when, having but scanty means of subsistence, he went to Scotland and Ireland, and exhibited, at various theatres, a series of experiments in hydraulics, a science to which he had devoted much of his time in Italy. Finding, however, that he received but little profit from these exhibitions, he determined on a public display of his strength, which he put forth in feats that astonished and attracted crowded audiences wherever he appeared. Though, at that time, very young, he was six feet seven inches in height; and such was his elephantine power, that he could walk across the stage with no less than two-and-twenty persons attached by straps to different parts of his body. In 1812, he exhibited at Lisbon and at Madrid; and sailed afterwards to Malta, whence, he set out for Cairo, for the purpose of making a machine for raising water out of the Nile to water the bashaw's gardens. Whilst on his way to the palace, he received so severe a blow on the leg, that he was confined to his bed thirty days before he could be introduced to the bashaw; who merely observed, on being told of Belzoni's wound, that such accidents could not be avoided where there were troops.'

Having concluded an agreement to make a machine which should enable one ox to raise as much water as was drawn previously by four, he, after much difficulty and obstruction on the part of those whose cattle were employed in the gardens, completed his work, and demonstrated with great success, a practical experiment of its power. The opposition, however, of the Arabs to the use of his machine, which they had materially damaged, induced Belzoni to relinquish his projects concerning it, and to undertake, at the suggestion of Mr. Salt and Mr. Burckhardt, an expedition to Thebes, for the purpose of removing an enormous bust, to which they had given the name of the younger Memnon.'

It has been erroneously stated,' says Belzoni, that I was regularly employed by Mr. Salt for the purpose of bringing the colossal bust from Thebes to Alexandria. I positively deny that I was ever engaged by him in any shape whatever, either by words or writing, as I have proofs of the case being on the contrary. When I ascended the Nile, the first and second time, I had no other idea in my mind, but that I was making researches for antiquities which were to be placed in the British Museum; and it is naturally to be supposed, that I would not have made these excursions, had I been aware that all I found was for the benefit of a gentleman whom I never had the pleasure to see before in my life.'

Our traveler, accompanied by his wife, left Boolak on the 30th of June, 1815, examined the ruins of ancient Antinoe, and arrived at Ashoumain, where he met with the first remains of Egyptian architecture, which he supposes to have been of a date anterior to those of Thebes. Having ar rived at Siout, he requested of the bashaw's physician, permission to employ the workmen necessary to remove the head of Memnon; but not receiving a favorable reply, he, by means of his interpreter, procured the requisite assistance, and after viewing the tombs of Issus, proceeded to Thebes. On his way thither, he visited, near Dendera, the Temple of Tentyra, before which he remained seated some time, lost in admiration, at the singularity of its preservation, and the extent and magnificence of its structure.' On his return to Dendera, the inhabitants insisted on detaining his interpreter, imagining him to be the same who had joined the French army, some years ago, and declaring that he had been long enough among Christian dogs.' With much difficulty he procured the man's release, and in a few days, came in sight of the ruins of Thebes, of which he thus writes The most sublime ideas that can be formed from the most magnificent specimens of our present architecture, would give a very incorrect picture of these ruins: for such is the difference, not only in magnitude, but in form, proportion, and construction, that even the pencil can convey but a faint idea of the whole. It appeared to me like entering a city of giants, who, after a long conflict, were all destroyed, leaving the ruins of their various temples as the only proofs of their former existence.' After pausing with wonder before the two colossal figures in the plain, he proceeded to examine the bust, which it was the object of his expedition to remove. I found it,' he observes, 'near the remains of its body and chair, with its face upwards, and apparently smiling on me, at the thought of being taken to England.' Finding the distance to his boat on the Nile too far to go every night, he built a small hut with the stones of the Memnonium, in which, with Mrs. Belzoni, he determined to remain till he had accomplished the removal of the bust. This, after much difficulty and persuasion, he procured sufficient men to raise from the ground; which,' says Belzoni, 'so astonished the Arabs, that, though it was the effect of their own efforts, they said it was the devil that did it.' On the 5th of August, he reached, with the head, that part of the land which he was afraid of being prevented from crossing by the rising of the water; and on the 12th, he observes, Thank God, the young Memnon arrived on the bank of the Nile.' Next day he entered acave in the mountains of Gornou, for the purpose of taking out a sarcophagus which had been mentioned to him by Mr. Drouetti; and which, after having more than once lost his way in the different avenues that led to it, he was preparing to remove, when the Arabs, who were working for him, were put into prison by the cacheff of Erments, who replied, on his complaining of such conduct, that the sarcophagus had been sold to the French consul, and that no one else should have it.'

Whilst waiting the arrival of a boat from Cairo, he made an excursion to the Temple of Ybsambul, the entrance of which, though choked up by an accumulation of sand to the height of thirty-six feet, he determined on using his utmost endeavors to open. Previously, however, to commencing his operations, he made a voyage to the second cataract of the Nile; in reference to which he says, though some authors assert that the Nile has no waves, but runs quite smooth, I can assure the reader that we were this day tossed about as if by a gale at sea.' On his return to Ybsambul, he immediately began to clear the entrance to the temple, and after five days' labor, had succeeded in uncovering twenty feet of sand, when, finding that he had neither sufficient time nor money for the completion of his undertaking, he obtained a promise from the cacheff to keep the place untouched till his return, and descended the Nile to Deboade, where he took possession of an obelisk, twenty-two feet long, 'in the name of his Britannic majesty's consul in Cairo.' On arriving at Thebes, he met two Frenchmen, who made some remarks on the head of Memnon to deter him from taking it away, and was told by their dragoman, that if he persevered in his researches, he should have his throat cut, by order of two personages.' After hiring a boat to convey the bust to Cairo, he proceeded to Carnak, where he employed twenty men to dig away the sand from a large temple, from the ruins of which he transported to Luxor six sphinxes and a white statue of Jupiter Ammon, which he subsequently conveyed to England, and are now in the British Museum. The merit of the discoveries he made here, was attempted to be taken from him by Count de Forbin, who published an account, extracted from Belzoni's letters.

After examining the extensive ruins of Medinet Aboo, which he describes best worthy the attention of the traveler of any on the west of Thebes,' and penetrating into several tombs which he discovered in the valley of Beban el Malook, Belzoni returned to Luxor with the intention of putting on board the colossal head, which, after many impediments, he effected on the 17th of November. On the 15th of December he arrived at Cairo, with the bust and other antiquities; the latter of which he left, according to the instructions of Mr. Salt, at the consulate, and with the former, departed for Alexandria, where he saw it safely deposited in a British transport. Having accomplished this important object, he proceeded to resume his operations at the Temple of Ybsambul, stopping on his way thither at Thebes, where he found the agents of Mr. Drouetti in the act of completing many of the excavations he had begun, and removing several statues and sphinxes from the ruins. With some difficulty our traveler procured sufficient workmen to pursue his excavations at Carnak, where he discovered a magnificent temple, dedicated to the great God of the creation; on entering which, he says, my mind was impressed with ideas of such solemnity, that for some time I was unconscious whether I were on terrestial ground, or in some other planet.'

From Carnak he again proceeded to Gornou, a tract of rocks two miles in length, and formerly the burial place of the city of Thebes; of which subterranean abodes, the most wonderful in the world, he thus speaks In some places there is not more than a vacancy of a foot left, which you must contrive to pass through in a creeping posture, like a snail, on pointed and keen stones, that cut like glass. Once I was conducted from such a place to another resembling it, through a passage of about two feet in length, and no wider than a body could be forced through. It was choked with mummies, and I could not pass without putting my face in contact with that of some decayed Egyptian; but as the passage inclined downwards, my own weight helped me on, however, I could not avoid being covered with bones, legs, arms, and heads rolling from above; at the same time my throat and nose were choked with dust; but, though fortunately I am destitute of the sense of smelling, I could taste that the mummies were rather unpleasant to swallow.' After collecting several papyri from the shrouds of the mummies, and purchasing a pair of beautiful brazen vessels, which he describes as two of the finest articles of metallic com position, that ever were to be found in Egypt,' he returned to Carnak, where, among other discoveries, he dug up, and sent to England, a colossal head of red granite, still larger than that of the younger Memnon. About this time he was joined by Captains Mangles and Irby, with whose assistance he succeeded in entering the temple at Ybsambul, which he found to be one hundred and seventeen feet wide, and eighty-six feet high, and enriched with beautiful intaglios, paintings, colossal figures, etc.' His next and most important discovery was in the valley of Beban el Malook, of a vast and magnificent tomb, described by him as a new and perfect monument of Egyptian antiquity, which can be recorded as superior to any other in point of grandeur, style, and preservation.' Speaking of the day on which he discovered this tomb, he says, I may call it one of the best, perhaps, of my life; it led me to the fortunate spot which has paid me for all the trouble I took in my researches.'

On his return to Cairo, he was much annoyed to hear that the credit of the discoveries he had made had been usurped by others, who had been announced, by name, in the English journals, as the means of bringing to light the principal temples which he had so long been employed in excavating. Accordingly he resolved, in future, to keep his operations as secret as possible; and with this view, went alone, to inspect the second great pyramid of Ghizeh, that enormous mass which, for so many ages, has baffled the conjectures of ancient and modern writers;' and which, whether one solid mass, or possessing any cavity in the interior, no one had yet been able to ascertain. Notwithstanding, however, the difficulty of the attempt, and the uncertainty of success, he resolved on making an effort to discover an entrance to the tomb; a project for the undertaking of which, £20,000 had been considered by Mr. Drouetti necessary, while Belzoni determined to begin it with the small sum of £200, all he, at that moment, possessed. Having procured the requisite number of workmen, he commenced his operations, and after a month's labor, to his inexpressible delight, found a passage, and penetrated into the centre of the pyramid. So unsuccessful, however, were his attempts at first, that those who came to see him at work, ridiculed the idea of his proceeding further, and the Count de Forbin, says Belzoni, requested, in a kind of sarcastic manner, when I had succeeded in opening the pyramid, (which, no doubt, he supposed I never would,) that I would send him a plan of it.' Accordingly Belzoni sent it to the count, who taking advantage of the opportunity, on his arrival in Paris, caused it to be published in the newspapers, that he himself had penetrated into the pyramid, and produced the plan as an evidence.

Having sent some account of his proceedings to England, Belzoni made a third journey to Thebes, whence, after taking models in wax of the principal tombs, he set out on a voyage to the Red Sea, principally with the intention of visiting Sarkiet Minor, said to be the site of ancient Berenice. Accordingly, on the 16th of September, 1818, accompanied by Mr. Beechey, he embarked at Gornou, and sailing down the Nile, was witness to one of the most calamitous inundations ever known; the river having risen three feet and a half higher than usual, and swept away several villages and some hundred of their inhabitants. On leaving the Nile, he proceeded across the desert to the Red Sea, the coast of which he found to have been accurately described by Bruce; and, at Cape el Golahen, he discovered the ruins of a town, which, from his own observations, and those of the geographer, D'Anville, he concluded to be the site of ancient Berenice, of which city he had found no traces at Sarkiet Minor. Returning to Gornou, he was met by Mr. Salt and Mr. Banks, the latter of whom, having been authorized to take possession of the obelisk found by Belzoni in the island of Philoe, engaged him to remove it down the Nile to Alexandria, preparatory to its embarkation for England. On reaching the spot where it lay, he, after some opposition on the part of Mr. Drouetti, who claimed the obelisk as his own, commenced his operations for putting it on board, which he effected after a delay of three days, caused by its slipping from the machine into the water. Having arrived at Luxor, he landed for a few days to visit the excavations he had commenced at Carnak, when, on his returning to the boat, he was suddenlly attacked by a large party of Arabs, headed by two Europeans and Mr Drouetti, who endeavored to force Belzoni to deliver up the obelisk. He was, however, firm in his refusal; but, on reaching the Nile, hastened on to Alexandria, determined to quit Egypt for ever, as he observes, could not live any longer in a country where I had become the object of revenge, to a set of people who could take the basest means to accomplish their purpose.'

Previously, however, to sailing for Europe, he made an excursion to Faiume, the ruins of ancient Arsinoe, Lake Moeris, and the Oasis of Am mon, near Zaboo, where he received a severe injury on his side, in consequence of his camel falling with him down a hard rock of twenty feet in depth. In this journey he tried to discover some remains of the famous Temple of the Labyrinth; visited the fountain at Ell Cassar, mentioned by Herodotus; and, after passing some time at various places, in search of antiquities, returned to Alexandria, whence, in the middle of September, 1819, he says, 'Thank God, we embarked for Europe; not that I disliked the country I was in, for, on the contrary, I have reason to be grateful; nor do I complain of the Turks or Arabs in general, but of some Europeans who are in that country, whose conduct and mode of thinking are a disgrace to human nature.' On his arrival in Italy, he visited his friends and family at Padua; to which city he presented two lion-headed statues of granite, which were placed, by his townsmen, in the Palazza della Justitia, who also struck a medal in honor of him. In 1820, he reached Eng land; and, in the same year, published an Account of his Travels and Discoveries, a work which excited the interest and attention of the whole literary and scientific world. In 1821, he exhibited, at the Egyptian Hall, in Piccadilly, a representation of two of the principal chambers of a tomb he had discovered in Behan el Malook, besides a model of the entire excavation; with several specimens of Egyptian sculpture, cases containing idols, mummies, etc., and a superb manuscript of papyrus.

In the latter end of 1822, Belzoni left England for Gibraltar, with the intention of traveling through Africa to Senaar, by way of Timbuctoo, city which, up to that time, had never been visited by an European. On reaching Fez, he was introduced to the emperor of Morocco, who, at first, gave him permission to join a caravan about to set out for Timbuctoo; but, subsequently, remanded him back to Tangiers, whence our traveler proceded to Gibraltar, determined not to relinquish his project, although he had already fruitlessly expended L1,000 in his attempt to accomplish it. Having arrived at Madeira, he continued his course to Teneriffe and Cape Coast Castle, where he resolved to take a northerly direction, from the kingdom of Benim direct to Houssa, towards the east of which country he had some hope of falling in with the Niger. On the 30th of October, he reached the Bar of Benim river; and, after making an excursion to the capital of Warra, about one hundred and twenty miles distant from Bobee, returned to the latter place, and set out, in company with Mr. Houtson, an English merchant, on his expedition to Timbuctoo. Whilst stepping into the canoe in which he departed, he evinced much agitation; and when the crew of the vessel he had just left, gave him three cheers, it was with trepidation, though with earnestness, that he exclaimed - ' God bless you, my fine fellows! and send you a happy sight of your country and friends I' He reached Gato on the 20th of November, 1823; and, on the 26th, departed for Benim, where he arrived in the evening of the same day, suffering slightly from an attack of diarrhoea, of which he had complained in the course of his journey. After some negotiation with the king of Benim, to whom Mr. Belzoni was represented as an Indian, or Malay, on his return home, it was arranged that he should be escorted as far as Houssa, whither, however, his diarrhoea, now changed to a dysentery, prevented him from preparing to proceed.

On the 2d of December, his illness increased to such an alarming degree, that he expressed a conviction of his approaching death, and begged Mr. Houtson to send him back to Gato, in the faint hope that the sea breeze might revive him. On his arrival there, though much fatigued, he appeared better for the voyage; resumed his usual cheerfulness, ate and drank, slightly, of bread and tea, and fell into a sound sleep, from which, however, he awoke with a dizziness in the head, and coldness in the extremities; shortly after he lost the power of speech, and, in the afternoon of the 3d of December, tranquilly expired.

Previously to his death, he had given directions respecting his papers, and had attempted to write to his wife; but, his strength failing him, he requested Mr. Houtson to bear witness that he died in the fullest and most affectionate remembrance of her • and begged that gentleman would write to her, and send her the amethyst ring which he then wore.' He was buried on the day following his death, the funeral service being delivered by Mr. Houtson, who placed over his grave the following inscription: - ' Here lie the remains of G. Belzoni, Esq., who was attacked with a dysentery at Benim, on the 26th of November, on his way to Houssa and Timbuctoo, and died at Gato, on the 3d of December, 1823. The gentleman who placed this inscription over the grave of this intrepid and enterprising traveler, hopes that every European, visiting this spot, will cause the ground to be cleared, and the fence around it put in repair, if necessary.'

The character of Belzoni was of an intrepid and enterprising nature; and he possessed a spirit of perseverance, in the midst of the many difficulties and dangers which surrounded him, that would have turned most men from their object. His person was as well-favored as it was tall and powerful; and his countenance was handsome and intelligent. He was accompanied by his wife in all his expeditions, except the last: she was, for a woman, as prodigious in size and strength as Belzoni was for a man; and proved of much assistance to him in the course of his researches in Egypt. The travels of Belzoni are the most interesting ever recorded; the account of them is written by himself, choosing, as he says in his preface, to tell in his own way his events and discoveries; being more solicitour about the accuracy of the facts than the manner of relating them. His narrative, however, although occasionally confused, from an over-earnestness to convey to the reader's mind an adequate idea of the difficulties encountered by the author, is written in a pure and unostentatious style, and in a tone which occasionally approaches to the poetic and sublime. Nor is his diction inelegant and, notwithstanding his want of a classical education, he displays, in his work, a very extensive knowledge of ancient history, and particularly of the classical traditions respecting Thebes and other celebrated places of Egypt.