Giovanni-Battista Belzoni (1778-1823)

Giovanni-Battista Belzoni was an Italian explorer and archaeologist, born in Padua (Padova). In 1803 he was working in England as a circus strong man, and exhibiting models of hydraulic engines. In 1815 he went to Cairo to try and sell his hydraulic engines to Muhammad 'Ali Pasha, and within two years had begun a new career, excavating Egyptian tombs and temples. He worked as an agent for the British Consul, Henry Salt, and helped him to amass his first collection, sold to the British Museum in 1823.

From Thebes he obtained the colossal sculpture of the head of Ramesses II ('the Younger Memnon') for The British Museum. He also discovered the tomb of Sety I in the nearby Valley of Kings, which contained the king's magnificent alabaster sarcophagus.

Belzoni explored Elephantine (Jazirat Aswan) and the Temple of Edfu (Idfu). In 1818 he became the first person in modern times to enter the pyramid of Khafre at Giza. He was also one of the first Europeans to visit the oasis of Siwa, and he identified the ruins of Berenice on the Red Sea.

He returned to England in 1819 and published a two-volume account, Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries Within the Pyramids, Temples, Tombs and Excavations, in Egypt and Nubia . . . (1820).

Belzoni's methods were crude by modern standards. He disregarded many items that did not interest him and must have damaged much in pursuit of his goal. However, although he has been accused of 'pillage' he was no worse than his contemporaries.

Related galleries