Giovanni Batista Belzoni – Tomb Raider

Hi all welcome to this month’s YouChoose topic. Raiders of the Lost Ark, the first of the Indiana Jones films had just turned 40 the day I was scrambling for a topic – the film released June 12 1981. Influenced by the serial films of his youth – boys-own adventures with cliffhanger endings which played before the main feature – George Lucas began spitballing the idea in 1973. While the fictional characters are interesting – just look at the picture of Charlton Heston below, as the proto-Jones character Harry Steele in the 1954 film Secret of the Incas – that line of enquiry is possibly best saved for a Tales of Movies and Imagination? In 1973 Lucas worked with fellow writer and director Philip Kaufman to develop a script, The Adventures of Indiana Smith. They discussed real life figures with more than a passing resemblance to Indy. 

Today we’re going to take a brief look at one of these characters. 

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

These are the words of the British Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley – in his poem Ozymandias, published 1818. There’s no doubt Shelley had his own reasons for the piece – for one, it’s a not so subtle dig at the British Empire – perhaps a little smug in their defeat of Napoleon and rapidly accumulating a massive empire – ‘this guy thought he was pretty hot too’. It reflected a trend among the Romantic movement, and in Britain on the whole at the time. Orientalism, a fascination with the East, was very in vogue. Thirdly, Shelley was in competition with another poet named Horace Smith to write the best poem on Ozymandias. Smith’s poem, by the way, is mediocre by comparison.  

Finally, a giant stone bust – seven and a quarter tons of solid rock – 2.6 metres tall, over two wide had recently arrived in the UK. It had been uplifted from the Ramesseum mortuary temple; Thebes, Egypt. Like the poem, it was once part of a larger, 20 tonne statue before it broke in half, leaving it’s legs ‘two vast and trunk less legs of stone’. It’s subject, Ramesses II – a 19th Dynasty ruler of Egypt from 1279 to 1213 BCE.

 Considered Egypt’s greatest king, he ruled long, at the height of the country’s power. Ramesses II, it’s fair to say, had every right to sneer – to invite onlookers to view his empire and despair. The Greeks called him Ozymandias having misheard his full title. The giant bust, also known as the younger Memnon, stood in his tomb – one of a matching pair. 

As far as I can tell we don’t know how the statue broke in half, or how long it lay in the sand. It was broken when France invaded Egypt in 1798. They attempted to steal the bust themselves – but couldn’t work out how to move it to the River Nile. The younger Memnon lay in the sand, a long way inland for the duration of the Napoleonic wars – a hole in it’s chest testimonial to it’s mistreatment by Napoleon’s army. 

In 1815 an Italian giant landed in Egypt on a whole other matter, and on being asked, undertook to steal the statue for Britain. This man, Giovanni Batista Belzoni, is our Indiana Jones. 

Giovanni Battista Belzoni was born in Padua, modern day Italy – November 5th 1778. One of fourteen children, he trained to become a monk, then studied hydraulic engineering. His studies were interrupted by Napoleon’s invasion of the Papal States between 1796- 98. Possibly becoming embroiled in local politics, an order was made for his arrest – so he fled. Belzoni worked in the Netherlands as a barber – his father’s profession – till the Netherlands too became too dangerous. He then packed up and fled to Britain, in 1803.

Napoleon crosses the Alps- Jacques Louis David’s painting cartooned.

While in Britain, the powerfully built, 6 foot 7 tall Belzoni found work as a circus strongman – billed as The Great Belzoni, or sometimes The Patagonian Samson 

Sidebar: (Reports of Ferdinand Magellan’s alleged 1520 encounter with a tribe of giants up to ten feet tall, in Patagonia clearly still had some currency – will probably cover this Tale at length in the future). 

He met his future wife Sarah Bane, who would accompany him on many of his adventures. With the Napoleonic wars on the wane, he left England to resume his career as an engineer – travelling to Spain, then Malta – where he met the Ottoman admiral Ismael Gibraltar (b Ismael Djebel Akhdar, who achieved some degree of fame fighting for the Ottomans in the Greek war of independence). Gibraltar served the Egyptian Sultan Muhammad Ali – an Albanian mercenary who rose through Ottoman ranks – till he had the chance to make himself Sultan of Egypt. Ali was looking to improve irrigation in the fields. Belzoni knew how to build an efficient water wheel, so he made off for Egypt, accompanied by Mrs Belzoni and their servant – a young Irishman named James Curtain.

Belzoni as the Patagonian Samson.

The water wheel in a paragraph- Belzoni arrived, and built some kind of ‘crane with a water wheel’ . It was powered by oxen, and alleged to be four times more efficient than older methods. Ali was impressed by the demonstration … at least until he asked if men could power the wheel, rather than beasts of burden. A group of locals jumped on, with James Curtain – then suddenly let go – whether out of fear or bedevilment we don’t know. Curtain held on, and was thrown by the machine, breaking a leg. If you’re a little lost as to the specifics of this machine – me too. I couldn’t find a diagram for this machine. Belzoni himself, possibly protecting his intellectual property, doesn’t adequately explain it. Whatever this machine was, it was history – Ali wanted no part in the machine, seeing the injury as a bad omen.     

At a loose end, Giovanni took up an offer from the recently appointed British Consul General to Egypt, Henry Salt… There’s a giant statue in the desert, we’ve got a short window of time to grab it before rising waters make it impossible for another year. As the removal was to be done with Sultan Ali’s approval, he jumped at the opportunity.  

The Belzonis and their party left, by boat for Luxor, 30th June 1816. On arrival, 22nd July, Belzoni was blown away by the scene greeting him. He wrote

“It is absolutely impossible to imagine the scene displayed, without seeing it. 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… 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 the only proofs of their former existence” 

And so planning for the removal of the statue began. After viewing the bust within the temple he came up with a pretty basic plan. He brought 14 heavy duty poles with him, He built a cart eight of them. The other poles would be used under the cart as rollers. Using his knowledge of levers, Belzoni manipulated the statue onto the cart – then with a large crew of local men and some strong ropes, they would drag the cart through the sand till they reached the boat – a long, difficult trek, considering the weight they were pulling. The first few steps were no big deal. Finding a trustworthy crew would prove far more difficult.

On approaching the Cacheff of Erments, with his orders to collect 80 men to help him, Belzoni was stonewalled. The Cacheff would do his best of course, but all the men were very busy. Belzoni pointed out he’d spotted many men around town not engaged in work. The Cacheff claimed without help from the prophet Muhammad himself these men wouldn’t take on the task. The statue is too heavy to move naturally. Belzoni insisted he would go find men himself then. The Cacheff promised him a crew- who no-showed the following day. 

The following day, he got another promise, then went over the Cacheff’s head to ensure they showed – and yet another no-show. He finally got his crew, referred to as Fellahs, on the 27th. With his 80 Fellahs in tow, and the magic of physics – four carefully placed levers- he got the statue onto the cart. The Fellahs dragged the bust out of the temple – Belzoni smashing two columns that were in the way – something which would horrify modern archeologists. The statue’s slow journey to the edge of the Nile had begun. 

The 80 Fellahs were doing the heavy lifting, but Belzoni – not yet accustomed to the unforgiving environment – which could get to 50 degrees Celsius – soon became quite ill. He described the daytime heat as ‘inflamed’, the nighttime winds as hardly any better. The rocks around the Ramesseum were hot to the touch and radiating heat up at him. He was ill for days, barely sleeping, and unable to hold down food. By the third day, Giovanni couldn’t even stand, and sent the Fellahs home for the day. On the 30th they were back at it, moving the statue 150 yards. 

They ran into some trouble on the 31st, hitting a spot too sandy to move the statue through, so a change of course to rockier ground was made.

 By 2nd August the statue was close to the pick up point, though now in a danger zone. Every year the Nile flooded and would remain at it’s new height for several months. The statue would be deep under water if they didn’t move it from here quickly. If stuck here they would have to wait atill next year, and have to dig it out before they resumed. At the end of 5th August work stopped with the statue a day’s work from the safety of the banks – but only a few days from the coming flood. 

The next day no-one showed up to work. Word went round the Caimakan, another of the Sultan’s bureaucrats, ordered the Fellahs “not to work for the Christian dogs any longer”, according to Belzoni. Accompanied by a Turkish Janissary, Belzoni left for the town to confront the Caimakan. 

Loud voices soon escalated to the two men coming to blows. The heavily armed Caimakan drew his sword on Belzoni. Belzoni wrested the sword away from him and pinned the Caimakan against the wall, before he could go for his pistols. He shook the Caimakan violently till he begged him to stop, and admitted the stop work order came from the Cacheff. Belzoni immediately left for the Cacheff’s home, up river in Erments – Caimakan’s sword and pistols – in hand. 

His visit with the Cacheff was far more civil. It was just after sunset when he arrived, finding a room full of guests seated for a meal. The Cacheff invited Belzoni to join him. He claimed the men couldn’t be spared from the fields at this time of year. Belzoni countered he would go and get men from the next town to finish the job. The Cacheff would lose all the honour of moving the unmovable statue, to the neighbours who completed the task. Did he want to lose face like this? Whether this argument – or an understandable fear of the furious, heavily armed giant at his table won him over – Belzoni was given his Fellahs back. They would resume the following day. 

The boat ride home was eventful. The boatman nearly crashed the boat into some rocks, and Belzoni feared they would drown. The boatman regained control at the last minute and they proceeded back to the site. 

The Fellahs returned the next day, moving the statue into safe territory. Work was paused 9th August, when Belzoni was struck with vertigo and started bleeding profusely from his nose and mouth. They returned to work on 10th August and had the Younger Memnon safe, and ready for collection on 12th August 1816. 

This was hardly Giovanni Batista Belzoni’s only adventure in Egypt. While waiting for the boat to arrive, he travelled down river, looking for other treasures. Over the following three years, employed by Henry Salt, he raided a number of tombs – removing several large treasures.  Destroying several artefacts he deemed of less value in the process. This includes the mummies he crawled over in one tomb raid, which turned to dust beneath his weight. Belzoni commented their taste was less than pleasant. 

He was the first modern explorer to enter the burial tomb of the Pharaoh Khafre. He discovered to the tomb of Tutankhamen’s successor, a man known as Ay, of whom little is known – another later pharaoh chiselling his name off all monuments. In 1817 he completed a mammoth task of clearing many tonnes of sand from the blocked entranceway to the Temple of Abu Simbel. Belzoni wrote

“From what we could perceive at the first view, it was evidently a very large place, but our astonishment increased when we found it to be the most magnificent of temples, enriched with beautiful intaglios, painting, colossal figures…” He goes on to describe, as the first person to enter this temple in at least a thousand years, it’s scale and adornments – the ceiling 30 feet high, held up by pillars five feet thick. The walls covered in art depicting wars with their Southern neighbours. 

He entered the tomb of Ramesses I, the founder of the 19th dynasty. While on this mission he discovered the far more richly adorned tomb of Seti I, long buried under the sand and forgotten. In the tomb, besides all manner of treasures and a mummified bull, was an exquisite alabaster sarcophagus. Of course he stole this Egyptian treasure for his English boss – under the tacit approval of the Albanian warlord who declared himself Pharaoh..  

The Belzonis returned to Britain in 1819, where they exhibited some of their ill gotten gains. They became instant celebrities, who publicly lectured about their adventures, on a stage set out to look like an Egyptian tomb. In his show Belzoni would tell his tales of audacious engineering feats, conflicts with the locals, and grave robbing in unhealthy temperatures. He would perform stunts like unwrapping a real mummy for the crowd. Giovanni wrote a book on his adventures in Egypt and Nubia. Soon bored, however, he set off for Timbuktu. When Morocco refused him entry, he landed off the coast of Guinea, West Africa, with a plan to trek through Benin

Giovanni Batista Belzoni died December 3rd 1823 in Gwato, Benin – most likely of dysentery, though fellow adventurer Richard Francis Burton claimed he was robbed and murdered by locals. 

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