Giovanni Battista Belzoni was born in Padua, Italy, in 1778. In 1803, at the age of 25 he moved to England, met his wife Sarah, and joined a travelling circus. At 6′ 7″ he soon became a big draw in his strongman act billed as The Great Belzoni. But he had always been interested in engineering and in 1815 travelled to Egypt to try to sell a water-lifting machine he had invented to the country’s ruler, Muhammad Ali. However, he soon turned his attention to the country’s antiquities and during the course of a remarkable four-year career made startling discoveries in the Valley of the Kings and the Temple of Karnak and made the first entry into the massive rock-cut temple of Abu Simbel.
Though perhaps best remembered for his audacious recovery of a colossal bust of Ramesses II for the British Museum, his writings reveal a man of great sympathy for the Egyptian people he encountered and a desire to understand his discoveries that was far ahead of his time. His was a remarkably unconventional yet spectacular career. I like that.
In my opinion Belzoni’s Travels in Egypt and Nubia (1820) is one of the best books of its type ever written and it is regrettable that his reputation suffered for so long due to his being lumped in with so many less scrupulous antiquities hunters of that time. His gradual rehabilitation started with the publication of a biography by Stanley Mayes in 1959 and was given a huge boost by the BBC TV series “Egypt” (2005) in which Belzoni was played by the English actor Matthew Kelly (it was through this programme that I first encountered the man who was to become the inspiration for my own adventures). A new biography by British archaeologist Ivor Noel Hume promises to complete the process.