Monday, April 20, 2009

Raiding ancient Egypt

Giovanni Battista Belzoni (1778-1823) was an Egyptian explorer (or tomb-robber, according to your point of view). He is best known for removing a 7-ton statue of Rameses II from the Ramesseum, a mortuary temple at Thebes. He succeeded where Napoleon had failed because of his knowledge of engineering and hydraulics, although the feat took 130 men 17 days to accomplish - and Belzoni deliberately broke the bases of two columns to clear the way for the statue. The "Younger Memnon," as it became known, was transported via the Nile to Cairo in 1816, and was installed in the British Museum two years later. Its arrival in London is said to have inspired the poem "Ozymandias," by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822):

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Belzoni carried out a number of excavations in Egypt, but is remembered for being heavy-handed - which cannot be wholly attributed to the fact that in an earlier career, he was a circus strongman. Here he describes his penetration of an ancient tomb:

"After the exertion of entering into such a place, through a passage of fifty, a hundred, three hundred, or perhaps six hundred yards, nearly overcome, I sought a resting place, found one and contrived to sit; but when my weight bore on the body of an Egyptian, it crushed it like a bandbox. I naturally had recourse to my hands to sustain my weight, but they found no better support; so that I sunk altogether among the broken mummies, with a crash of bones, rags, and wooden cases, which raised such a dust as kept me motionless for a quarter of an hour, waiting till it subsided again. I could not remove from the place, however, without increasing it, and every step I took I crushed a mummy in some part or other. Once I was conducted from such a place to another resembling it, through a passage of about twenty feet in length, and no wider than that a body could be forced through. It was choked with mummies, and I could not pass without putting my face in contact with that of some decayed Egyptian; but as the passage inclined downwards, my own weight helped me on: however I could not avoid being covered with bones, legs, arms, and heads rolling from above. Thus I proceeded from one cave to another, all full of mummies piled up in various ways, some standing, some lying, and some on their heads."

Speaking of damage to antiquities, it is not true that the nose of the great sphinx was shot off by Napoleon's men.

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