Tomb Raider: The Great Belzoni |

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Tomb Raider: The Great Belzoni

On the 200th anniversary of his greatest find, Giovanni Belzoni still delights and horrifies in equal measure. Jonny Wilkes explores the adventures of this circus strongman-turned-Egyptologist


Tutankhamun's discoverer, Howard Carter, described Belzoni as “one of the most remarkable men in the whole history of Egyptology”, while others consider him nothing better than a thief

Giovanni Belzoni stepped slowly with only a candle to pierce the darkness, the sand crunching under his feet and the air musty from being trapped for over three millennia. Sometimes the tunnels were barely tall enough for his towering, muscular frame.

He wound his way down stairways and through pillared halls, marvelling at the still-unreadable hieroglyphics on the walls or the multitude of reliefs portraying gods and goddesses, rituals, scarabs, snakes and the unknown hero buried within.

“A new and perfect monument of Egyptian antiquity,” wrote Belzoni about the tomb. “Superior to any other in point of grandeur, style and preservation.”

The deeper he went, the more relics he acquired and the more vivid the reds, blues, whites and golds became – as if freshly painted, he remarked.

Then, inside a high-vaulted chamber, Belzoni identified the tomb’s most splendid treasure: a sarcophagus cut from a single piece of alabaster.

The delicate-looking, translucent shell measured almost three metres long and had hundreds of intricately carved figures on its sides, which could be illuminated by a torch inside. Even that the lid had been broken and its occupant removed, the result of an ancient robbery, failed to spoil this most “beautiful and invaluable” artefact.


It is 200 years since Belzoni discovered the tomb of Seti I on 17 October 1817, and the Pharaoh’s unique sarcophagus. And while he is remembered for this find, plus a long list of other achievements in Egypt, there is no questioning that Belzoni’s path to becoming an archaeologist, and his methods in collecting antiquities, were hardly typical.

Only a few years earlier, he was in the theatre halls and fairs of Britain making a modest living as a travelling strongman. A giant of the time at an alleged 6ft 7in, the Padua-born son of a barber spent nearly a decade performing under the names ‘Patagonian Sampson’ or ‘Great Belzoni’. His speciality – referred to, appropriately enough, as the human pyramid – involved wearing an iron frame harness fitted with wooden benches, on which he could supposedly lift 12 punters before pacing the stage waving flags.

“He could lift 12 punters before pacing the stage waving flags”

Going to Egypt only came about thanks to a chance meeting. In 1815, Belzoni, approaching 40, and his equally daring wife Sarah, set their sights on the theatrical stages of Constantinople. In Malta, however, they met an emissary of the most powerful man in Egypt, the pasha Muhammad Ali, who sought new technologies to modernise the country, particularly irrigation of the Nile. This caught Belzoni’s attention. Smart, ambitious and fostering an amateur interest in water hydraulics since his youth in Rome, he enjoyed the idea of leaving his circus strongman days behind him and giving engineering a go.

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About BBC History Revealed Magazine

This is the December 2017 issue of History Revealed.