Ivor Noël Hume


On his book BELZONI: The Giant Archaeologists Love to Hate

Cover Interview of December 26, 2011

The wide angle

One might wonder why a twenty-first century reader should want to delve into a biography of someone so distant and so out of tune with the modern world.

At one level it provides escapism at its dramatic best, but at another it weaves a tale as complex as a novel by Henry James. In the end one realizes that the greed, jealousies, snobberies of academics, distrust of foreigners, and the desire to be accepted and honored are as alive today as they were in 1823 when Giovanni Belzoni died alone and forgotten in the Benin jungle of West Africa.

I am often asked what drew me to Belzoni. Although I am no giant, we had something in common. I spent four years in the British theater before turning to archaeology, a profession for which I had no previous experience and so was vilified by academic critics. In essence, therefore, I was a short Belzoni.

In the course of what proved a long and successful career my archaeologist wife Audrey (not Sarah) and I traveled three times up and down the Nile. Each time we found the name Belzoni carved onto columns and into frescos. Simple curiosity made us want to know and understand a man who would do something so destructive.

It turned out that Belzoni was only adding to generations of scribes who felt impelled to put their stamp on the past. Beginning in the fourth century B.C. Greek mercenaries were followed by Romans, Coptic Christians, French and British soldiers, countless 19th century tourists and eventually a Soviet dam-building engineer. In short, Belzoni merely did what others had done before him.

Belzoni was not only a graffitist but also an artist of considerable talent who in the space of three years assembled a folio of drawings that rivaled those of Napoleon’s military artist Dominique Denon. In 1820 Belzoni published his work to illustrate the book that was to be his enduring cenotaph. I was able to buy both and resolved, one day, to republish examples of his hand-colored lithographs. But as Belzoni himself knew, the illustrations meant little without his narrative—which therefore remains the cornerstone of this book.

Every story needs a villain and Belzoni had his in the person of French Consul Bernardino Drovetti who was treasure hunting for France while Salt was collecting for the British Museum. Caught in the middle, Belzoni narrowly escaped being murdered by Drovetti’s men amid the ruins of Karnak (Luxor).

When Belzoni sat down to draw the Karnak temple, he was awed by the scale of the ruins. Today, partially reconstructed, its great hypostyle hall is even more breathtaking. As I have told many a student, until you have stood amid the columns of Karnak you have no yardstick against which to judge the achievements of the human race. Without iron tools or computer-aided projections the Egyptians turned monumental ideas into glorious reality.