"Though, fortunately, I am destitute of the sense of smelling, I could taste that the mummies were rather unpleasant to swallow." I fancy that few modern travellers to Egypt, whether or not devoid of a sense of smell, can record such a comment in their journals, and yet Giovanni Belzoni's account of his travels is full of such asides.
Belzoni (1778-1823) was, in all respects, larger than life. A man of colossal stature, he appeared at Sadler's Wells as a "Patagonian Samson" (despite being from Padua), before going to Egypt in the hope of selling hydraulic machinery to Muhammad Ali. The venture failed, but while there he was introduced to Henry Salt, the British consul, as just the man to remove a colossus of Ramesses II from its resting place at Thebes to Britain. In 1816, he undertook the task, moving the enormous statue two miles to the river, so that by 1817 it was in London. This, despite making an excursion to the newly discovered temple at Abu Simbel while awaiting transport for the statue.
Belzoni was observant, and he had the gift of dealing with people, particularly the Egyptians who worked with him in his enterprises and who took him to remote sites.
In his wanderings, he became fascinated by Egypt and its antiquities. Although many regard him as a treasure-hunter, even a plunderer, he developed an unrivalled knowledge of the landscape, which allowed him to discover six royal tombs at Thebes, more than anyone before or since. These included the tomb of Seti I, the sarcophagus of which Belzoni removed to London, around which he built a replica of the tomb and which - along with his account - led to the first wave of "Egyptomania" in England.
Belzoni's book, Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries within the Pyramids, Temples, Tombs and Excavation, in Egypt and Nubia ; and of Journey to the Coast of the Red Sea, in Search of the Ancient Berenice ; and another to The Oasis of Jupiter Ammon , was published in London in 1820, the year before the Seti I exhibition. It is this book, with some 80 pages of background by Alberto Siliotti, that has been re-published by the British Museum. The introductory material provides useful context for the work, but it is Belzoni's words that will make this book fascinating reading for armchair travellers and archaeologists alike, for here we see Egypt as it was, unaffected by mass tourism, and here that we witness the early phases of Egyptian exploration.
This large-format book is well illustrated with a mixture of original and modern material, but many pictures are very small. More annoying is the index, which is extremely poor. This is a substantial work and a detailed index would have made it a very useful resource, but the one provided limits it to the coffee table.
Paul T. Nicholson is head of archaeology, Cardiff University.
Author - Giovanni Belzoni
Editor - Alberto Siliotti
ISBN - 0 7141 1940 7
Publisher - British Museum Press
Price - £40.00
Pages - 336