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A project of the American Research Center in Egypt

Belzoni, Giovanni Battista


Belzoni was the son of a barber in Padua, Italy, and was born on 15 November 1778. He made careful studies (by the standards at that time) of the Valley of the Kings and is noted for finding and recording KV 17 (Sety I).

Belzoni discovered his love for travel at the age 16 when he walked to Rome to study hydraulic engineering at a monastery. After gaining a substantial knowledge of hydraulics, he set off for work in various European countries. His travels brought him to England where he became a strongman and performer in the circus, as he was an individual of immense strength. Wherever he performed, he would also have his hydraulic creations displayed. When he learned of Mohammed Ali's interest in Egypt's modernization and technological advancement, Belzoni decided to try his luck in Egypt. On 9 June 1815, he and his wife Sarah reached Alexandria and traveled to Cairo to meet Mohammed Ali.

The invention that Belzoni was to introduce to Egypt involved using only one ox to do the normal crop irrigation work of four by aid of hydraulic engineering equipment. When it came time to present the contraption, the trial failed and Ali was unimpressed. This left Belzoni stranded in Egypt without a job. Belzoni went to the British Consulate seeking employment suited for a person with his hydraulic education and physical strength. John Lewis Burkhardt, an Arabic scholar, was looking for someone to move the head and shoulders of the broken colossal statue of Rameses II from the king's mortuary temple, the Ramesseum. The piece was to be moved to the Nile and made ready for transport to London as a gift to the British Museum. After completing this complicated task, Belzoni began to make important contributions to the new field of Egyptology.

In the Valley of the Kings, he made valuable observations about the flood patterns that had affected the area for thousands of years. These led him to understand that many of the tombs had been deliberately dug in locations where they would be covered by flood debris and be protected from both looters and the elements. In his studies of the Valley, he discovered the tomb of Sety I, which was nicknamed "Belzoni's Tomb." Belzoni took note of everything he saw and made drawings of the different chambers of the tomb. He was the first person ever to collect such information. The decoration in the tomb of Sety I has deteriorated, and without Belzoni's records we would not know what was on some walls.

Belzoni also made a general map of the Valley of the Kings and the tomb entrances known at the time. The tomb we now know as KV 5 was among the tombs noted on this map. He visited other sites and continued to document them on paper, as well as making casts of what he saw. He journeyed to Abu Simbel where he and his workmen dug up temples from under centuries of blowing sand. He discovered the entrance to the second of the great pyramids of Giza, belonging to Khafre. He entered the pyramid and left his name on the wall of the burial chamber. After gaining the title of "The Celebrated Traveler,” Belzoni decided he should live up to the title by traveling extensively in Africa. He set off for Timbuktu, but not far into his trip he contracted severe dysentery and died in Gato on 3 December 1823.