The Italian son of a barber. A failed hydraulic engineer. A giant who performed feats of strength and agility in the circus. Giovanni Belzoni (1778-1824) was all of these before going on to become one of the most controversial figures in the history of Egyptian archaeology.
A man of exceptional size with an ego of comparable proportions, he procured for the British Museum some of its largest and still awe-inspiring treasures. Today, however, the typical museum visitor knows nothing of Belzoni, and many modern archaeologists dismiss him as an ignorant vandal.
An excerpt from a review of the book by Rob Hardy:
At a time before Egyptian antiquities were valued as historical specimens, the rulers were willing to let anything go. In putting his proposal to dig at Abu Simbel, Belzoni faced the ruler of its district, who thought digging to find a temple could simply not be done. But if it could, asked Belzoni, what then? The ruler laughed and said, "If you find the temple full of gold, half of it is to be mine." This was fine with Belzoni, who said, "But if it is only full of stones, they are all my property." The ruler had no interest in any stones. Similarly, when Belzoni had opened the sepulcher of Seti I (still known as Belzoni's Tomb), the aga in charge of the area was eager to see the excavations, and wanted to know where the treasure had been put. There was no treasure, Belzoni had to say, but wanted to know what the aga thought of the magnificent painted figures on the walls all around. The aga barely looked at the murals, but then allowed, "This would be a good place for a harem, as the women would have something to look at.