Belzoni - Tomb Raider and Archaeologist: Part 2 Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Belzoni - Tomb Raider and Archaeologist: Part 2

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Matthew Kelly as Giovanni Belzoni seen here at Abu Simbel in 'Egypt: The Temple Of The Sands.'

Belzoni had worked now as a strongman and showman, a hydraulics engineer, and for half a year as a collector of antiquities. This latter job now occupied all his attention.

The Second Trip Up the Nile

Belzoni was anxious to get back to Upper Egypt. He had left quite a few artefacts lying beside the Nile, and he was determined to be the first to enter the temple of Abu Simbel. The fame bug had really bitten him. No longer thinking of himself as a hydraulics engineer, he was now the fully-fledged archaeologist, ready to make his name famous around the world.

He organised a second trip up the river, and once again, Salt agreed to pay the expenses. The full team consisted of Belzoni himself, an artist called Henry Beechey, a Turkish soldier, an Arab cook and a Greek bureaucrat called Yanni Athanasiou. Sarah had not enjoyed the squalid conditions in Luxor, so she stayed in Cairo. Belzoni had by now grown a huge beard, and some time around then adopted full oriental dress with turban and flowing cloak. This suited the Egyptian climate much better. With anybody else, it might have made them more inconspicuous, but with Belzoni's great size, he was always going to be noticeable. The Turkish soldier was incompetent so they sent him home after a few days.


When they got to Luxor, they found that Drovetti was already there, and that he had hired all the available workforce to dig in the temple of Karnak, a vast site on the east bank.

Belzoni went instead to the Valley of the Kings (a rocky valley set into cliffs at the edge of the Western Desert), where the locals were experts at tomb raiding, making a living from selling artefacts on the black market. Belzoni was a likeable character and they made friends with him. He learnt many techniques from them.

Belzoni became an expert at finding 'mummy pits', simple graves which were stacked with mummies. The locals made a living from grinding these up into dust and selling the mummy dust as a panacea, a recognised cure for all ills.

In addition to the mummies, Belzoni assembled a small team of workers and amassed a colossal head of red granite, a beautiful altar with six divinities, and four statues of Sekhmet. He 'parked' these beside his sarcophagus lid at the side of the Nile and left them to go upstream.

The Temple of Abu Simbel

Nubia is far from the sea and has a fully African climate. It now being June, Belzoni's thermometer went off the scale at 124°F (51°C).

At Philae, he met two British Navy officers, James Mangles and Charles Irby. They were interested in travelling up the river as far as the Second Cataract, so they agreed to accompany Belzoni. Then a man called Giovanni Finati arrived - he had converted to Islam and was now known as Muhammad. Salt had sent him to act as a bodyguard for Belzoni. Finally, Sarah arrived, along with James, her Irish servant. She was not happy in Cairo and wanted to be with Belzoni. He, however, refused to take her up to Abu Simbel, so she built a home for herself in the roof of the temple of Isis in Philae, and she and James holed up there for the next two months. Sarah traded with the local women, exchanging beads and small hand mirrors for food, and kept the local men at a distance with her pair of pistols.

At Abu Simbel, Belzoni relied on local labour to clear the sand from in front of the temple, but this was very unreliable. They required continuous bribery, were distracted by fights with neighbouring clans and stopped all work after a week for the month of Ramadan. Belzoni gave up on them and vowed that he and the other Europeans would clear the sand themselves. When they realised there was pay involved, the crew of his boat joined in as well. For two weeks they worked a seven-hour day, three hours in the morning and four in the evening, against constant heckling by the locals. On Monday 21 July, 1817, they reached the elbow of one of the statues. This heartened Belzoni, because it proved that the statues were in fact seated as he had thought, so there wasn't too much further to go. On 31 July at sunset, they finally opened the doorway. They decided to wait until the next morning, so on 1 August, 1817, Belzoni's group were the first Europeans to enter the Temple of Abu Simbel.

Egyptian temples are all built along similar lines, with a succession of rooms, gateways and pillared halls all lined up along a single axis, and ending with the sanctuary or 'holy of holies'. The more important the temple, the more halls and gates there are. The temple of Abu Simbel must surely have been in an out-of-the-way spot, but it was still amazing. The seated figures outside were 62 feet tall from the base to the tip of their crowns. Inside, there was a giant hall with four colossal figures on each side, leading to further rooms in a line at the far end. The sanctuary contained four seated figures, of three gods and of the pharaoh himself. Much of the walls were decorated with pictures of the exploits of the pharaoh who had built it, once again Ramses II1. There was, however, very little that could be taken away, so Belzoni got nothing tangible for his efforts. The artist Beechey, assisted by Belzoni who was himself a fine artist, drew many pictures of the inside of the temple. However, it was so hot that their own sweat caused the ink in the drawings to run and blur.

Minor Tombs

They started the return journey on 4 August, 1817, picking up Sarah and James along the way and arriving back in Luxor by 17 August.

The French were now digging at Qurna on the west Bank, where there are many fine mortuary temples. Belzoni went to the Valley of the Kings. According to Strabo2, there were about 40 royal tombs; the Egyptian priests of his day had claimed that there were 47. However, by Belzoni's time, only 11 had been discovered, so he was sure there must be some more just waiting to be found. If he could find a royal tomb and it was undisturbed since the time of the pharaoh, then his fame would be established forever. (Today we are almost completely sure that there was only one intact tomb left to be discovered, the tomb of Tutankhamun, which was opened about a century later by Howard Carter).

Belzoni started in the Western Valley, a sort of annexe of the main Valley of the Kings. He studied the shape of the valley carefully and decided that there was only one place there could be a tomb - he got his permit to employ 20 men, and they set to work. Sure enough, exactly where he had predicted, they found the entrance to a tomb. There was no way to enter other than to break down the door, so Belzoni devised a simple battering ram using the trunk of a palm tree swinging from ropes. The tomb turned out to be an unadorned room with eight sarcophaguses3, each containing a mummy. There were no names and no grave goods, indicating that the people concerned were only minor royals.

Next he went to the main Valley of the Kings. On 9 October, he found the tomb of Mentuherkhepeshef ('Mentoo-her-khepesh-ef'), a prince and scribe. The mummy of the prince was there, but there were no grave goods, indicating that the tomb had been looted in antiquity. There were some good wall paintings, but the tomb looked unfinished. This was a common occurrence in Ancient Egypt - during life a rich man would pay to have a tomb made, but the tomb was often not finished when the man died, so he was buried in an unfinished tomb. The same day, Belzoni's team discovered a second tomb: this one was unadorned and completely empty except for two naked mummies.

The following day, Belzoni found his first royal tomb - that of Ramses I, the grandfather of the Ramses II depicted in all the giant statues around Egypt. The elder Ramses had only ruled for two years so his tomb was small and unfinished. Again, the wall paintings were good, but the tomb had been raided in antiquity and there were no grave goods.

The Tomb of Seti I

On 16 October, Belzoni returned to the Valley and, using his knowledge of hydraulics, studied the paths of the occasional torrents in the valley. He reckoned there was a sink-hole at one point, where more water flowed in than flowed out. He directed his workers to dig in the rubble there. Two days later, they uncovered a cut stone passageway and a doorway. This led to the most amazing tomb ever discovered in Egypt - the tomb of Seti I, the son of Ramses I and father of Ramses II. Although it had been raided in antiquity, it had the most amazing wall carvings ever seen, and they all still bore their original paint, making them vibrant and bright. There was also an amazing sarcophagus made from alabaster and inscribed in great detail with hieroglyphs. Until the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb, this was considered the finest single work to come out of Egypt. The lid of the sarcophagus was gone, and the smashed remains of it were later found near the entrance among some rubble - the thieves had obviously failed to remove it.

There was no mummy. Records show that the priests of the day had been worried about the tombs being raided; they took the mummies of many of the pharaohs and hid them in a cleft in the cliff, where they weren't discovered until 1881, long after Belzoni's time. The mummy of Seti I was among the cache, and it is now on display in the museum in Cairo.

Egyptian rock tombs are carved directly into the face of the cliffs at the west side of the Nile Valley. They are basically a passageway leading downwards into a room where the mummy is placed in a sarcophagus. However, there are three factors which make the tombs more elaborate. Firstly, the longer the tomb, the more impressive it is, so rich people will pay for tombs with longer entranceways and more rooms than the less well off. Pharaohs will have the biggest tombs of all. Secondly, the tomb is normally commissioned while the person to be buried is alive. If the tomb is finished, he may pay to extend it, and this process continues until the person dies. In the case of a long-lived pharaoh like Ramses II, the tomb can be many hundreds of feet long, with numerous rooms and passages all proceeding in a general straight line into the cliff face. Thirdly, to deter tomb raiders, there are a number of false walls and hidden doors in the tomb, in the hope that the raiders will think they have reached the end of an unused tomb and will give up. Such wishful thinking always turned out to be false. As far as we know, all the ancient tombs except one were stripped of their grave goods by the raiders and none of the anti-theft devices were successful.

The tomb of Seti shows all these features. It is 328 feet long from the door in the rock face to the very furthest extremity. In every passage and in every room except two, all available vertical surfaces are covered in brightly painted relief pictures: the pharaoh, the gods, hieroglyphic passages from the Book of the Dead and so on. There are a number of rooms along the way which could have served as the final resting place of the pharaoh had he died earlier. There is an unfinished and unpainted section beyond the burial chamber, which would probably have been expanded into an even more impressive burial chamber if the pharaoh had lived longer.

There are false walls and secret passages too: the main descending passage comes to a deep pit, the far wall of which is flat without an opening. However, thieves broke through it at the level opposite the passage, and found that the tomb continues on. Belzoni could still see the remains of their ropes descending into the pit and up the other side, although they crumbled to dust when he touched them. Further along there is an unfinished room which appears to be the end of the tomb, with wall paintings only sketched out. In the penultimate room, offset from the centre, there is a passage down into the floor, which was presumably originally covered by a false floor. This leads into the actual burial chamber.

Belzoni received great kudos from discovering the tomb. He took many visitors on tours of it, although the Arabs and Turks lost interest when they found there was no treasure. Salt himself arrived in Luxor on 16 November, with some English visitors. Belzoni showed them all around the tomb; he was somewhat peeved to find the visitors congratulating Salt for the discovery of the tomb. Nevertheless, there was work still to be done. Belzoni had collected a large number of antiquities and all these had to be shipped to Cairo, so he and Sarah headed back downstream.

A New Year Arrives

Early in the new year of 1818, Sarah decided she had had enough of Egypt. It was clear that Belzoni was going to have to go up to Luxor again, and she did not want to endure the squalid conditions there, so she went on a trip to visit the Holy Land (Palestine). Belzoni lived at the Consulate in Cairo.

The Pyramid of Khafre

Some English people had come to visit Salt, but he was still up in Luxor. Belzoni accompanied them to the pyramids on a sightseeing trip. While the others went inside the Great Pyramid, Belzoni stayed outside and spent the time looking carefully at the second pyramid, the Pyramid of Khafre. This is almost as tall as the Great Pyramid but not as wide at the base. Although ancient Egyptian histories listed it as the tomb of the Pharaoh Khafre, no entrance to it was known to exist in modern times. By now, Belzoni had developed a remarkable eye for where to dig, and he applied it to the pyramid. He saw that the outer casing had fallen off and formed a mound of rubble around the base of the pyramid, and that if the entrance to the pyramid was in the same place as that on the Great Pyramid, then it would be covered by the rubble. He decided to do some digging, but not under the employ of Salt. This one he would do at his own expense, and claim all the credit.

Next day, he wrote to Salt to say that he had some private business to attend to in Cairo. He approached the necessary officials and got his digging permit, then hired some workers. They started the excavations at the point where Belzoni reckoned the entrance might be found. After two days they had found nothing. Then Belzoni noticed that the entrance on the other pyramid was offset slightly from the centre line on the pyramid, by about 30 metres, something he hadn't noticed before. Hacking into the Pyramid of Khafre at the equivalent point, his team quickly found a passageway in the surface of the pyramid, and Belzoni was the first to enter.

Inside the pyramid he found a couple of chambers, one with a giant sarcophagus set into the floor, but no sign of any mummy. Then he found some graffiti in the pyramid in Arabic. Belzoni didn't understand the Arabic script, but it was clear that some Arabic-speaking person in the past had opened the pyramid. Whether it was they who had rifled the tomb, or whether it had been done thousands of years earlier, it is now impossible to say. Belzoni carved his name in giant letters in the main chamber, so that nobody would forget that this was his discovery and his alone.

An Argument with Salt

Salt now returned from Luxor. When Belzoni and he met, there was a furious argument. Belzoni wanted fame - he was eager to collect antiquities because he thought his name would be recorded as the discoverer when they went on display in the museum. Salt, on the other hand, considered Belzoni as an employee. He likened him to an architect who uses his skill to design a house, but at the end of the day, the house would belong to Salt.

Belzoni had originally thought he was being employed to collect for the British Museum directly, but he had gradually realised that he was collecting for Salt on a personal basis, and that Salt would sell his collection to whatever museum gave him the best price. The objects would then be listed in the museum as 'from the Henry Salt collection' without any reference to Belzoni. The great Italian was worried that his genius for discovering the ancient treasures would be forgotten and he'd have nothing to show for it at the end except a meagre salary.

Salt for his part couldn't understand Belzoni's point of view, which is a pity, because they could have gone on to make many more discoveries together. Eventually, he hammered out a written agreement with Belzoni, paying him for his services partly in cash and partly in antiquities. Belzoni got some of the statues of Sekhmet, half shares in the alabaster sarcophagus and the right to do further digging for a private collection of his own.

The story of Belzoni is concluded in Part 3.

1Egyptians didn't record vowels in their hieroglyphic script, so Ramses may equally have been Ramesses and his name is often written this way.2Strabo was the Roman geographer who invented geography.3A sarcophagus is a giant stone coffin shaped like a person.

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