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One of the most colorful personages in the annals of early 19th century exploration in Egypt, Belzoni trained as an engineer in his native Italy, before a brief stint as a circus strong-man in England.
Belzoni went to Egypt in 1815, intending to build hydraulic irrigation systems for Muhammad Ali, the Pasha of Egypt. To arrange contacts, he saw the former French consul at Alexandria, Bernardino Drovetti. Belzoni at length abandoned his hydraulic project, since local farmers and officials were reluctant to change long-held, traditional methods of oxen-drawn irrigation machinery.
Fig.1: Drawing of Giovanni Battista Belzoni (ca. 1815)
Belzoni also explored much of the Nile region and became devoted to archaeology. In part, this involved the collection of antiquities on commission. In this, he was often in competition with the collection agents of Drovetti.
In other ways, however, Belzoni made real accomplishments. Among the first to systematically explore the Valley of the Kings near Thebes, Belzoni discovered several major tombs. These are described in his book, Recent Discoveries in Egypt.
In 1818 Belzoni transported many Egyptian sculptures, including a large head of Ramesses II, to England. These remain in the British Museum collections.
Belzoni's exploits are chronicled (mostly, unfavorably) in a 1976 book by Brian Fagan, The Rape of the Nile. More recently, however, some archaeologists who have worked in the Valley of the Kings, including Pearson, have published favorable accounts of Belzoni's pioneering work at tombs there, in terms of both historical interpretation and accuracy of site reporting. This includes a high quality of graphic depiction of the sites, through Belzoni's own watercolors.
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