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The pyramids, temples, tombs, and excavations, in Egypt and Nubia – a book review

March 26, 2013

Book cover - Belzoni
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Back in the 19th century a long title like this one was quite normal. And I can assure you that the book itself is a lot easier to read than the title may suggest (considering the length and the number of comma’s).
The pyramids, temples, tombs, and excavations, in Egypt and Nubia by Giovanni Battista Belzoni is a very easy read.

For anyone with the slightest bit of insight in Egyptology the name Belzoni will likely ring a bell. An alarm bell.
Wasn’t he the man who blew up entrances to tombs? Wasn’t this the uneducated fool who was only doing it all for the money? Yes, he was that man…if we should believe those stories. At the same time I can and should wonder if I should believe Belzoni’s story. After all, when someone writes their own story wouldn’t they want the reader to see them in the most positive light?
This is always a difficult question, but there is one thing that I sensed throughout the book. Even though Belzoni started out without any knowledge and was only hired to move a statue, he eventually started to care deeply for the artefacts he was after and the history they represent.

I found the book quite thought-provoking. So much so, that I decided to take notes while reading it. After all, this book was first published in 1821 at which time the hieroglyphs were not translated yet, Flinders Petrie hadn’t set up his dating system yet, in short: archeology and Egyptology as we know it did not exist. This book gives a modern reader an insight into the mind of a 19th century traveller.

One thing I regret about the book I bought: I have a version without Belzoni’s ‘plates’ – drawings he made which were included in the original. As he uses names which have since gone out of use it’s sometimes difficult for me to determine which location he is talking about. I also happen to know his drawings are quite beautiful and would have provided a lot of extra information. So, if you think about buying this book, try to find an edition which has the plates!

One of the things I enjoyed was the simple method of deduction he used. Simply because the reliefs on one temple or tomb wall are in a better condition than the reliefs on another wall they must be younger. If only everything really was that simple…

You may have noticed that Egyptian art is a bit strange: some parts of the body are viewed from the side, others from the front. Because of this Belzoni concluded the Egyptians knew nothing of perspective.
He also believed granite gets harder over time – so when the Egyptians used it for their statues etc it was softer than it was when Belzoni lived. As I know nothing of granite I think I shouldn’t comment on that one.

One thing that stood out, I think, was the statement that educated people don’t research things properly because they think they already know everything. Belzoni therefore believed he, as a relatively uneducated man, was much more thorough in his research, because he believed himself to be quite ignorant. He believed humble is the best way to be when trying to do serious research. I find this an interesting conclusion as Belzoni seems to have based all his conclusions purely on observations (the reliefs in various states of preservation) and speculation (granite gets harder over time).
Having said this, I have to admit that anything he concluded and researched may still be considered. After all, Egyptology is still fairly young and any view can be correct. We just need to find the way to prove it (or not, as the case may be).

In the edition I read there is also an account written by Mrs Belzoni about the women she encountered while travelling with (and also quite often without) her husband. If you put the stories of both Giovanni and Sarah together you get a reasonably complete idea of the difference between European people and Arabs, Turks and the tribes living in Egypt. The views the couple held were of course quite coloured by their own background and the times they lived in. But again, this can only be interesting to the modern reader, as it is a view we possibly can’t understand, influenced as we our by our own background and the modern age.

It did take me a while to read the book as, at times, it’s a bit dry – almost purely listing where they went without much story being told. Now I’ve finished it I am glad I read it. It’s entertaining and insightful. I will follow this up at some point with a biography on Belzoni so I can compare his own tale with an outsider’s view, hoping to get the most complete picture of this fascinating man as possible.

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