Regency Bicentennial:   Belzoni Sets Off to Find the Ruins of Berenike

Two hundred years ago, this Sunday, the one-time circus performer turned archaeologist, Giovanni Belzoni, set off to seek the real ruins of the Ancient Egyptian port city of Berenike, or, as it is more commonly known today, Berenice. An important trading port in ancient times, the city had been abandoned for centuries, and many people believed it had been swallowed by the sands of the desert or inundated by the Red Sea. A French explorer had claimed he found the site of the city the previous autumn, but Belzoni believed that the Frenchman was mistaken. As it happened, this discovery occurred near the end of Belzoni’s third trip through Egypt. The following year he would return to England and write a detailed book about his travels and explorations there.

Belzoni finds the real Berenike . . .

Giovanni Battista Belzoni was born in the Italian province of Padua, in November of 1778. His father, a barber, was from Rome, and when he was sixteen, Giovanni went to Rome to study hydraulics. The young man also had plans to enter a monastery, but those plans were dashed in 1798, when troops of anti-religious, revolutionary France entered the city. Travelling north, to the Netherlands, in 1800, the young Belzoni found work as barber. But, once again, in 1803, he felt the need to further distance himself from the grasp of the French. Accompanied by one of his brothers, Francesco, he crossed the English Channel to Britain.

At some point after his arrival in England, Belzoni met Sarah Bane or Banne, a young Englishwoman, probably from Bristol, whom he soon married. The date of their marriage is unknown, and even his wife’s original surname and home country are uncertain. Nevertheless, Belzoni now had to provide for both himself and his new bride. Giovanni Belzoni was a big, powerful man, who stood at least six feet, seven inches tall. Rather than take up barbering once again, in Britain, he and his wife joined a travelling circus, where he performed as a strong man for a few months. Having gained some notoriety, he then performed for a time at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre, under the title of the "Patagonian Sampson." In his act at Sadler’s Wells, he wore an iron harness which enabled him to carry twelve people around the stage, with one of them usually holding the British flag. This part of his act, known as the "Human Pyramid," was very popular with his audiences and helped to increase his fame.

By 1804, Belzoni had gained so much public recognition that he was able to become a member of the highly successful and long-running circus show at Astley’s Amphitheatre in London. Belzoni seems to have taken an interest in the shows beyond his own strong-man routine. He regularly experimented with the use of magic lanterns to project a series of images during many of his performances. He also worked very hard to perfect his English. In his spare time, Belzoni continued his study of the science of hydraulics. He remained in England until 1812, during which time, he had become fluent in English and he became a British citizen. Perhaps Napoleon’s defeat in Russia, along with his British citizenship, emboldened Belzoni to believe he could travel safely on the Continent. In addition, he and his wife had no children which required their constant care. Regardless of the reasons, in 1812, Belzoni and his wife left England and he toured several of the major cities of Portugal, Spain and Sicily with his strong-man show, which drew large crowds.

By the early spring of 1815, the Belzonis had arrived in Malta. They were planning to journey on to Constantinople to see if there might be any opportunities for them there. But while still in Malta, they made the acquaintance of Ismael Gibraltar, an agent of Muhammad Ali, the Ottoman Pasha of Egypt. At that time, Ali Pasha was embarking on a plan of agricultural improvement and land reclamation. Belzoni had never abandoned his study of hydraulics and had even invented a machine which he believed would be useful in raising the waters of the Nile River. With Gibraltar’s encouragement, the Belzonis traveled to Egypt, in May of 1815. There, Belzoni’s machine was built and the demonstration was completely successful. Nevertheless, the construction and widespread use of Belzoni’s machine was not approved by Ali Pasha and the Belzonis found themselves stranded in Egypt with no immediate source of income.

Once again, one of their new acquaintances came to their aid. The famed Swiss scholar of the Middle East, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, recommended Giovanni Belzoni to Henry Salt, the wealthy antiquarian and the current British Consul to Egypt. Aware of Belzoni’s great physical strength, as well as his knowledge of hydraulics, Salt commissioned Belzoni to travel to Thebes to acquire the enormous bust of Ramesses II. At the time, the bust was more commonly known as the "Jupiter Memnon," since the temple in which it was located had not yet been identified as the mortuary temple of Ramesses II. The colossal sculpture was nearly nine feet high and weighed over seven and a half tons. Yet, within seventeen days, Belzoni had organized a team of about one hundred and thirty men who carefully and efficiently removed the bust, then delivered it to the river, where it was loaded onto a boat for shipment to Britain. The bust is still on display at the British Museum to this day. After his success with the Jupiter Memnon, Salt commissioned Belzoni to collect other important Egyptian sculptures for shipment to Britain. Though many people believe that Salt and Belzoni looted these objects, they did have official permission from Muhammad Ali Pasha to take them.

After his initial success in collecting Egyptian artefacts, Belzoni was determined to continue the work, which he found both fascinating and financially rewarding. He made other trips through various regions of Egypt, seeking ancient ruins and artefacts, sometimes on commission and sometimes on his own. Due to the ever-increasing popularity of Egyptian artefacts, Belzoni expected to be able to sell whatever he recovered at good prices. His wife, Sarah, accompanied him on his first journey, to get the Jupiter Memnon. However, aware that it might be dangerous to travel as a European woman, even a married one, Sarah typically disguised herself as a young Mamaluke boy on these journeys. Her husband found her help invaluable, and was constantly amazed by her spirit of adventure and willingness to help him in his endeavors, regardless of the difficult conditions in which they frequently found themselves. During one period, after their discovery of what is now known to be the tomb of Seti I, in the Valley of the Kings, unable to find other accommodation, the Belzonis actually lived for a time in the tomb.

Through February and March of 1818, Belzoni was at Giza, working on opening the entrance to the Pyramid of Khafre. He was successful, and cleared a passageway of many large stones, finally coming to what he called the center chamber, in which he found a granite sarcophagus. Though the lid of the sarcophagus was very heavy, he was able to raise it. Inside, he found several human bones, but not a complete skeleton. Belzoni was the first European to enter the Pyramid of Khafre in modern times. He assumed that the tomb had been opened and robbed centuries before. Despite his disappointment at finding no significant artefacts in the pyramid, he had enjoyed the experience of exploring it. To commemorate his efforts, he inscribed his name and the date above the entrance which he had opened. However, by this time, Belzoni was once again low on funds. He therefore planned to set out on another journey of exploration through Egypt, this time, south, along the Nile, to locate and acquire artefacts he could sell. Knowing this could prove to be a very dangerous journey, he found accommodations for his wife, Sarah, with friends in Cairo.

Before he set out on his third journey into Egypt, Belzoni paid a visit to the Bey who had jurisdiction over the area in which he planned to travel. During the visit, the Bey renewed Belzoni’s firman, the document which allowed Belzoni to excavate where he pleased and to keep any of the artefacts which he recovered. Belzoni set out on his journey, traveling initially by boat, up the Nile. By mid-May of 1818, he was in Thebes, a city he had visited before, when he acquired the bust of the Jupiter Memnon. He was very disappointed to discover that other antiquarians had already set boundaries on the most promising places in the city in which they planned to dig for artefacts. So as not to waste his time in the ancient city, Belzoni made casts of a number of stone carvings, and studied many of wall paintings in one of the temples. During that time, a number of locals brought him various artefacts which they had discovered, so he was able to accumulate a number of items he would be able to sell for much higher prices when he returned to Cairo.

Belzoni was aware that the French explorer, Frédéric Cailliaud, had located the lost emerald mines of Cleopatra the previous fall. During his explorations, Cailliaud also claimed to have located the ruins of the lost city of Berenike in the same general area. However, based on his own research, Belzoni was not convinced that Cailliaud had actually found the correct site. Instead, Belzoni was convinced that another Frenchman, the classical cartographer and geographer, Jean Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anville, who had marked the location of Berenike much farther south on his maps, was correct. Belzoni had used D’Anville’s maps on several other occasions when exploring ancient sites and had found them very accurate and reliable. He was determined to make a trip further south in the hope of finding the true location of the ancient port city of Berenike.

In early September of 1818, one of the Arab miners who had been hired to dig out any remaining emeralds in the ancient mine became ill. The miner came to find a Christian doctor in the same village in which Belzoni was staying. It seems that the doctor introduced the two, knowing that Belzoni might be interested in information about the mine and the general area in which it was located. The miner told Belzoni everything he knew of the region in which the emerald mine was located and Belzoni began to believe he might find real Berenike there. The miner even agreed to take Belzoni there once he was well again. Since he had amassed a significant quantity of artefacts by that time, Belzoni loaded them on his original boat and sent it back to Cairo. He then hired a smaller boat to take him and his party upriver to the area where he believed he would find Berenike. They set sail on Wednesday, 16 September 1818. Their first few days were very difficult, as the Nile was in an extreme and historically high flood stage. When they came to the island of Hovasee, near the village of Edfu, they could travel no further by boat.

At Edfu, Belzoni and his party arranged for camels and drivers to carry them further south. There was a delay, as the local Sheik observed that one of the Arab miners was traveling with Belzoni. The Sheik came to believe the party was after emeralds from Cleopatra’s emerald mine, despite their protestations they were seeking antiquities. Eventually, on the evening of 22 September 1818, Belzoni refused to be delayed any longer and he and his party set out, with the Sheik coming along as their guide. There were other delays along the road, sometimes for water or camel fodder, and other times to stop and inspect the ruins of ancient buildings. At most of these sites, Belzoni measured the structures, noted any points of interest and made drawings of them. Another chronic cause of delay was the search for water. They could only carry so much water with them, which meant they regularly needed to seek out wells to replenish their supply. The Europeans had more difficultly with the local water than did their Arab guides and camel drivers. Several of the wells contained water that was very bitter to the taste, or was quite brackish. The taste, and no doubt, the safety, of the brackish water was improved by boiling, but no amount of boiling could improve the taste of the very bitter water they found in some wells. The Arabs and the camels were able to drink it with no problem, but the Europeans found it not only made them feel ill, worse, it also made them feel even more thirsty.

After a couple of weeks, food also became an issue. They were carrying quite a lot of what Belzoni called "biscuits," which were probably a form of hardtack. But the constant heat made it impossible to carry fresh meats and vegetables, so they had depended upon acquiring those provisions from the locals as they traveled along. Unfortunately, the lands through which they traveled were not well-known and they discovered that they often had to travel considerable distances through barren and inhospitable lands with few inhabitants. And when they came upon groups of local inhabitants, they might be hostile, or so fearful of the strangers that they ran away. One evening, as they came to the end of the day’s journey, Belzoni’s party saw an encampment in the distance. Hoping to acquire some food, they went to the camp, only to see all of the inhabitants flee into the hills. The fleeing residents had left behind a meal of roasted fish and vegetables, done to a nice turn, to which Belzoni and his party helped themselves. During the course of their travels, they had discovered that even so deep in the desert, nearly everyone could use hard currency. So, they left behind some cash on the top of a water jar to pay for their purloined, but much-appreciated, hot and tasty meal.

Another delay ensued early in October, when their guide balked at the idea of leading them further on, as they were once again short of water. But Belzoni felt that he was very close to the site of Berenike which D’Anville had marked on the map. He insisted they continue on despite the objection of the guide and the camel drivers. A couple of hours later, they saw the Red Sea in the distance and made their way to its shores. Hot, tired and thirsty, they all jumped into the water, to drink, as well as to cool and clean themselves. It was only after they had bathed and slaked their thirst, that, as Belzoni wrote in his book, " . . . to our agreeable surprise, we found ourselves all at once on one of those moles of ruins which show the spot of ancient towns, so often seen in Egypt." As he walked over the area, Belzoni saw that there were many houses, placed at regular intervals along wide streets, and near the center of the ancient city was an Egyptian temple, nearly buried in sand. He soon realized that he had found the true site of the ancient port city of Berenike.

Berenike, or, as it is better known today, Berenice Troglodytica, was a major port on the Red Sea in ancient times. The city was built by the Pharaoh Ptolemy II, and named for his mother, Berenice I, Queen of Egypt. The city was one of the most active and prosperous ports in all antiquity, and remained so even when Rome conquered Egypt. Berenike had a harbor which provided safe anchorage, and the city was also the terminus of the great road which ran across the desert between Coptos, on the Nile, then through the mountains, to the Red Sea, a distance of at least 270 miles. For more than four centuries, it served as one of the primary trans-shipping points for traders carrying goods to or from India, Arabia and Upper Egypt. During the sixth century, when trade diminished, the port was abandoned and gradually forgotten.

However, nearly every ancient historian wrote about Berenike, so it was not unknown to Europeans living in later centuries. Based on the writings of Strabo, Pliny and Herodotus, among others, the French geographer of the eighteenth century, D’Anville, who had a passion for ancient geography, determined the most likely location of Berenike and plotted it on a map of the area of Egypt. It was a copy of that map which Giovanni Belzoni used to find the ruins of the ancient port, because he did not believe that Frédéric Cailliaud had found the ruins of Berenike when he found Cleopatra’s ancient emerald mines. Belzoni came to the conclusion that what Cailliaud had actually found was not Berenike, but the village occupied by the miners who worked the nearby emerald mine. Through his diligence and determination, Belzoni proved one Frenchman, Cailliaud, wrong; and another, D’Anville, right, when it came to the location of ancient Berenike. He had also significantly enhanced his own reputation as an explorer who made important and interesting discoveries, something which meant a great deal to him.

The party camped nearby so that Belzoni could walk the site and make careful studies of it. The Arabs were concerned that their water was low, and wanted to leave. Therefore, to increase his time at the site, Belzoni did much of his work at night, since there was a full moon. He measured the city and found it extended about 2000 feet inland from the Red Sea, on an east to west axis. He also determined that on a north to south axis, the city measured about 1600 feet. Belzoni investigated several of the houses in the town, making note of the manner of their construction and the materials that were used. The average house measured about forty by twenty feet and he estimated that there were at least 2000 of them. Based on the number of houses, he estimated that the population of Berenike had once been more than 10,000, when it was an active trading port.

A temple was discovered, situated near the center of the city. This was the first of its kind to have been found along the shores of the Red Sea. Belzoni drew a plan of the temple, which, he noted, though built by Ptolemaic Greeks, still retained the basic architecture of an Egyptian temple. Belzoni had one of the Arab boys in the party dig around the base of the temple. Though they did not have any shovels, the boy used a large shell and was able to make steady progress in his excavation, since the temple was surrounded mainly by sand. At a depth of about four feet, the impromptu excavation revealed several bas-reliefs and part of a hieroglyphic inscription on one of the walls. They also found a sand stele of red breccia engraved with hieroglyphs and figures, which Belzoni took away, as a souvenir of the discovery. Belzoni measured the temple structure and found it was one hundred and two feet long and forth-three feet wide and consisted of four large chambers. Much of the information he recorded at Berenike was eventually included in the book he published upon his return to England. But, as it turned out, the site was not nearly as intact or exciting as he had hoped. In addition, their need for water was once again becoming acute, so he and his party moved on after only a couple of days.

Belzoni found many hieroglyphic writings as he explored the ancient city of Berenike, but he was unable to interpret them. The Rosetta Stone had been found by Napoleon’s troops, in Egypt, in 1799, and was at that time in the possession of the British Museum. In addition, several copies had been given to noted scholars in Europe. Yet, in 1818, no one had yet been able to fully comprehend the meaning of this ancient form of writing. That would not happen until 1822, when the French scholar, Jean-François Champollion, make the final breakthrough, which unlocked the secrets of the Egyptian hieroglyphs. Nevertheless, Belzoni’s discovery of Berenike had a strong, if mainly serendipitous, link to the work of the English scholar, Thomas Young, who, at that time, was also working on deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Thomas Young had determined that the characters which represented the names of Egyptian royalty were always enclosed in a cartouche, an oval with a straight line below, which encircled the characters for a given name. The term seems to have derived from the fact that several observant French soldiers noted that these ovals resembled the paper powder cartridges they used in their muzzle-loading rifles. The term for cartridge was cartouche in French. Young had determined that the characters within a cartouche incorporated phonetic elements in order to depict foreign names, such as Cleopatra, Ptolemy or Berenice. Those names appeared often in hieroglyphic cartouches of the late Egyptian period, including on the Rosetta Stone. Young’s leap of understanding, that hieroglyphics were not simply pictures which represented complete words, was published in an article he wrote on Egypt, for the Encyclopedia Britannica, in 1819. This new understanding informed and advanced the work of several scholars, including Champollion, who were working on translating Egyptian hieroglyphs.

That same year, 1819, the Belzonis returned to England, where they began work on a grand exhibition of their discoveries. During that same period, Giovanni also set to work writing a book about his travels in Egypt. Within a year, Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries Within the Pyramids, Temples, Tombs, and Excavations, in Egypt and Nubia, and of a Journey to the Coast of the Red Sea, in Search of the Ancient Berenice; and another to The Oasis of Jupiter Ammon, was published by John Murray, in two volumes. The first volume was the text of Belzoni’s description of his experiences in Egypt, while the second volume was a set of forty-four plates, containing images which he had carefully copied from many of the Egyptian tombs and temples he had explored. The book was a great success, and was soon translated into both French and Italian. In addition, John Murray also issued an abridged version, intended for the general public.

However, it must be noted that this book was not solely the work of Giovanni Belzoni. The final section was written by Sarah Belzoni. During those times when she was not able to accompany her husband on his travels in Egypt, she made it a point to visit the local women in the area where she was staying. In fact, she was often the first westerner that many of these native women had ever encountered. Sarah took many detailed notes of these experiences and used them as her source for a lengthy essay entitled Mrs. Belzoni’s Trifling Account of the Women of Egypt, Nubia and Syria, which was included at the end of her husband’s book. Her tale is quite vivid and was probably the first detailed information anyone in Britain had ever had of the women of the Middle East.

[Author’s Note:   There are two digital copies of the first volume of Belzoni’s book available online. There is a copy at Google Books, scanned from the copy in the Fogg Museum at Harvard University. It is available from Google Books in either .PDF or .EPUB format and can be found here. There is another copy online, which has been scanned from the copy owned by the Institute of Fine Arts of the New York University. This copy has very few distortions and can be read full screen, but it is only available for download in .PDF format. This copy can be found here. There does not appear to be any digital copies of the second volume of Belzoni’s book, with the images, anywhere online.]

In 1821, not long after the book was published, the Belzonis completed their exhibition, which was set up in London, in the Egyptian Hall, in Picadilly. In addition to displaying many of the artefacts that Belzoni had acquired during his travels, the exhibition also included a model of the tomb Belzoni had discoverd in the Valley of the Kings. Though it is now known as KV17, the tomb of Seti I, Belzoni’s imperfect understanding of what he had found caused him to claim it was the tomb of Psammis, son of Nechois. However, it was also known as "Belzoni’s Tomb" by most people in Britain, and still carries that name, even today. It was in this tomb that Mr. and Mrs. Belzoni lived for a time when they could not find suitable accommodation in Egypt. Therefore, they were both very familiar with the tomb and had no difficulty constructing an accurate model of it. The exhibition was a great success and was attended by nearly anyone who came to London.

Sadly, Giovanni Belzoni died while on an expedition in West Africa, in 1823. It was officially reported that he died of dysentery, in Benin, but several people claim he was actually attacked and robbed. During that expedition, he had hoped to locate the fabled city of Timbuktu, as well as the head waters of the Nile River. A few years later, in 1825, to raise money, Sarah Belzoni tried to mount another exhibition of Egyptian antiquities, but it was not a success. Her collection of artefacts was seized and sold at auction to pay her debts. She was left with no source of income and became destitute for a time, surviving on the charity of friends. Eventually, her friends and supporters were able to prevail upon the government to provide her a civil list pension of £100 per year. Sarah Belzoni outlived her husband by nearly a half century. Later in life, she moved to Jersey, one of the Channel Islands, where she died in January of 1870.

Dear Regency Authors, though Giovanni and Sarah Belzoni did not spend much time in Britain during the Regency, they were well known by most people in the last years of our favorite decade. Their exhibition at the Egyptian Hall drew many visitors with an interest in Ancient Egypt. In addition, Belzoni’s book was one of the most detailed accounts of expeditions though Egypt that had ever been published in English and was essentially a best-seller. Will you include Giovanni, and maybe, Sarah Belzoni, as historical characters in an upcoming romance? Perhaps some English officers attend one of Belzoni’s performance when he is touring Portugal and Spain? Might your fictional characters visit the exhibition at the Egyptian Hall, or will they eagerly read Belzoni’s Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries Within the Pyramids, Temples, Tombs, and Excavations, in Egypt and Nubia? Then again, might one or more of your fictional characters mount their own expedition to Egypt, perhaps modeled on those described by Belzoni in his book? Are there other ways in which Mr. and Mrs. Belzoni might enrich an upcoming Regency romance?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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