The great Belzone
Giovanni Battista Balzone lived a life as outsized as he was. An adventurer, a soldier, an engineer and circus strongman, he was also one of the most important figures in early Egyptology who still divides opinion almost two hundred years after his death. Regardless of whether you think he was a legitimate archaeologist or just a simple tomb raider, all accounts agree that he was a genuine strongman. Even this giant of a man is dwarfed by the achievements and adventures that shaped his life.
Giovanni was born on the 5th of November 1778, to a barber in the city of Padua, part of the then independent Republic of Venice. He was one of 13 children and his father trained him to enter the family trade. ‘Giobatti’ already showed a great inclination for rebellion in his youth, and by the time he was 13 ran away from home according to some sources. He hoped to make Rome and to escape the work of his father. Accompanying him on this trip was his 9 year old brother. Although they did not make it to Rome, they managed to settle in Bologna, where they would dwell for the next three years. By the time he was 16, having spent the last few years ironically working as a barber, he developed an interest in hydraulics and science that was to shape his life. This intellectual growth was in proportion with the physical changes he was going through and by the time he was 18 Giovanni was described as ‘ He was then a remarkable figure, six feet seven inches high and broad in proportion, with winning manners and a decidedly handsome countenance’. In 1796 he had joined a monastery as his girlfriend had broken up with him and he had decided to swear off women forever. In 1798 however, in the cultural and military tumult that Napoleon’s Europe was, all religious orders were dissolved.
Battista joined the Prussian army and travelled across Europe with them. Although he attended many circuses displaying his hydraulic inventions and artisanal lanterns, people seemed far more interested in the size and power of the man himself. This meant that once he left the army, he exhibited himself as a strongman and worked once again as a barber, although he tried to retain elements of his inventions within his shows. This came to a head when he got involved in a physical dispute with some French soldiers in the Netherlands. He came off very much the better in the fight, meaning that he had to flee to the only place where Napoleon’s forces could not reach.
In 1803 Giovanni Balzoni was recognised as the strongest man in London. Here his show name was the Patagonian Sampson, and later the Roman Hercules. The continental colossus was extremely successful and for ten years toured Europe displaying his power including some quite major venues. In these theatres he paid tribute to the Classical tradition which Victorian society was so enamoured of ‘he obtained an engagement at Astley's Royal Amphitheatre, where he acted the rôles of Apollo and Hercules with succes’. His signature acts were juggling flags whilst carrying 7 men around the stage and lifting cannons. What he was most well-known for however was his human pyramid. Here he would take the weight of 12 men on his back, across an iron frame, and hold them as his wife climbed to the top and waved a crimson flag. His wife, Sarah Banne, was herself a remarkable woman who experienced many adventures with her husband.
Whilst travelling Europe, by chance, he met the envoy of Muhammed Ali, the viceroy of Egypt in 1815, in the city of Naples. Ali had been a major factor in the modernisation of Egypt and Belzoni claimed that his hydraulic inventions could exponentially accelerate the irrigation system of the country. He was invited to Cairo, taking with him and his wife his assistant James Curtin. Here the Italian found out that although his hydraulic wheel was in fact more effective than anything Egypt had at the time, that Ali was going to use it to feed the viceregal garden. On top of that, it is alleged that the giant wheel escaped from the bindings and came crashing towards Curtin. The unstoppable force swiftly met an immovable object as Belzoni stopped it with nothing but his hands and sheer power. Although this engineering venture did not work out as planned, Giovanni’s adventures had only just begun.
He was introduced to the British consul-general Henry Salt. At the time Egypt was an incredibly competitive zone between the two colonial powers of France and Britain, the leading powers on the world stage. North Africa was a wild west as the two countries raced to see who could collect more artifacts and fill their museums quicker. These men were not archeologists as they had little respect or interest in the culture they were plundering and it was an incredibly cutthroat business. Salt saw this charismatic giant as a man who could lead and gave him an almost impossible mission. To retrieve the statue of Ramses II’s head.
This monolith was 9ft tall and weighed around 7 tons, and was to be found in far off Thebes. Every attempt to shift it thus far had failed. Belzoni however went for a very simple plan. Drag it across 5 miles of sand, using his own great strength and that of his work force. Allegedly his men had been infiltrated by the French who disseminated discontent. This led to the men rebelling and attacking Belzoni. If some accounts are to be believed, he disarmed the first assailant, knocked him unconscious and then used the man as a flail against the attack, swinging him by the ankles. Despite this turbulence Ramses II’s head finally made Cairo after 17 days and can still be found in the British Museum.
In 1817 he made a major discovery and unearthed the temple of Abu Simbel. This took six weeks of digging and was one of the greatest finds of Egyptology. Although there was no treasure, and this counted as a disappointment to the British, Belzoni took detailed and intricate measurements of the inside of the temple, perhaps demonstrating some interest beyond simple raiding and looting.
His fame almost as large as he was, Giovanni’s physique made him an easy target for the French from whom he received many threats and dodged many bullets. In Cairo he was stopped and struck by an Egyptian officer, possibly in the pay of the French. Apparently the punch did very little to the Roman Hercules and ‘not being accustomed to put up with such situations, I returned the compliment and struck him with my whip across his shoulders’, before dodging a bullet intended for him. He even had an obelisk stolen from him at gunpoint by the French, and in his biography consistently mentions fending off aggressors. Despite his demands to be given armed protection by the British crown, he was refused it and became frustrated at being seen as little more than a foreman of excavation rather than a legitimate archeologist.
He then went down south to the Valley of the Kings and made a massively important discovery when he came across the tomb of King Ay. As hieroglyphs had not yet been cracked, the significance of the find was not yet appreciated and he named it the Tomb of the 12 Baboons. As might be expected from such a huge man, a light tread was not his and his heft may have cost us many discoveries ‘I sought a resting place and contrived to sit; but when my weight bore down on the body of an Egyptian, it crushed it like a band-box..I sunk amongst the broken mummies with a crash of bones, rags and wooden cases...every step I took I crushed a mummy in some part or other’. Although not quite as hefty as many modern strongmen, he would still have been a giant of his time and would certainly have dwarfed anything made for the Ancient Egyptians. This is perhaps why he employed delicate archeological tools such as battering rams to get through walls. Acts like this are reasons why he still divides the historical and archeological communities.
On the 6th of October 1817 he discovered the tomb of Seti I, also known as Belzoni’s chapel. This huge discovery was the snapping point of his relationship with Salt whom he found had been taking credit for many of his finds and selling them for personal profit rather than sending them to the British museum. Quite how one sided this was is unknown but Giovanni certainly felt personally victimised by the Brit. He put any doubts to rest over who had found his next major discovery. He found a secret passage into the pyramid of Khafre. This was one of the largest pyramids in Egypt and had been impenetrable for thousands of years. He scrawled his name across the walls, leaving it clear it was his.
In 1820 Giovanni returned to London. Before that though he went home to great praise ‘On his return to Europe in 1819 he revisited his native city, and the Paduans struck a gold medal in commemoration of his discoveries’.
In London he used his drawings to build replicas of tombs and wrote the first anglophone work about Ancient Egypt with the incredible title ‘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 Another to the Oasis of Jupiter Ammon’.
Eventually, growing restless, he decided he wanted to discover the source of the river Niger and the semi-legendary city of Timbuktu. He began his journey from the Cape and whilst crossing Benin (now Nigeria) contracted dysentery. The Italian giant could not recover and died on the third of december 1823, where he was buried beneath a tree.
‘Belzoni was no scholar, but as a discoverer he stands in the first rank. His important excavations in Egypt paved the way for the later explorations of Bonomi, Wilkinson, Lepsius, and Mariette. Personally he was brave, ardent in the cause of discovery, ingenious and full of resource, and very persevering in working out any scheme he had entered upon. His character was gentle, as a giant's usually is; he was trustworthy and honourable, but unduly suspicious of others. The jealousy he displayed towards his benefactor, Mr. Salt, was not creditable to the man; but it is allowed that Belzoni was eccentric. and his apparent ingratitude was not typical of his character in general. When his origin and first steps in life are considered, it must be allowed that he is one of the most striking and interesting figures in the history of eastern travel.’ - Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900
He left behind him a complicated legacy. On the one hand he was an incredibly brave and intrepid explorer, a man whose great strength was matched by his courage and joy for life. On the other, he is remembered as a tomb robber, as someone who destroyed things of great value and was a vassal to an imperialist power. Many see him as the inspiration of the most famous archeologist of all time, Indianna Jones. What cannot be doubted however was that he lived up to his most famous sobriquet: The Great Belzoni.