EMINENT FIGURES | Sarah Belzoni, love and adventure in the shadow of the pyramids

The Belzoni couple portrayed in oriental clothes

Sarah Belzoni was an artist, archaeologist and explorer. Wife of the eclectic Paduan antiquarian and explorer Giovan Battista Belzoni, she continued to conduct research and edit publications even after the premature death of her husband.

Love at first sight with the beautiful Italian guy

Little is known about the youth of Sarah Belzoni, born Sarah Banne in Bristol in 1783. She probably did not attend any classical studies, but she was a woman of discreet culture.

In 1803 she met Giovan Battista, who had recently moved to England. Here the eclectic Italian traveller was performing in a circus, taking advantage of his mighty physical appearance (he was over two metres tall!). It seems that it was love at first sight. Sarah, described by Charles Dickens as a “delicate and good-looking” woman, sometimes performed together with her husband: the couple spent their first years of marriage in England, following travelling shows.

However, Belzoni, who had studied archaeology and engineering in Rome, wanted to be much more than a circus performer and, certainly, Sarah encouraged him to resume his aspirations and become an explorer and an antiquarian.

Egypt, at last!

In 1815 the couple reached Egypt, where Giovan Battista found employment as a hydraulic engineer in the service of Governor Alì Pasha. Soon, however, the Italian was hired by the English consul Henry Salt to recover Egyptian antiquities for the British Museum. At this point, a series of journeys and expeditions began which, however, did not include the presence of Sarah, punctually left in the nearest large city (Cairo, Rosetta, Aswan).

In the absence of her husband, the young Englishwoman devoted herself to deepening her knowledge of the customs and traditions of her host country, especially as far as women were concerned. This is testified by one of the very few writings we have left of Sarah Belzoni, a chapter entitled “Mrs. Belzoni’s trifling account of the women of Egypt, Nubia and Syria”, published in Giovan Battista’s “Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries Within the Pyramids, Temples, Tombs and Excavations in Egypt and Nubia”.

During her stay in Egypt, Sarah showed great sagacity, intelligence and a spirit of adaptation, as well as being an acute observer of the civilization around her. The cultivated relationships with Egyptian, Arab and Nubian women are told to us with perspicacity and wit by Mrs Belzoni herself. Interesting is the story of how Sarah had begun to exchange artefacts and English costume jewellery, especially beads, with ancient necklace beads that the local inhabitants brought her as a gift.

At the front line, alone

Tired of being on the margins of the scene, at the beginning of 1818 she left alone, dressed as a man, for Palestine and visited, as the first European woman to do so, the esplanade of mosques in Jerusalem. Accompanied only by a local guide, always dressed as a young Turkish man, Sarah travelled along the Jordan Valley to Jericho.

Back in Egypt, she helped saving the wall paintings of the tomb of Sethi I, threatened by a flood; in the first months of 1819, she was stuck for a period of time in Rosetta, while her husband was in Libya, due to a plague epidemic. Here she spent the time of quarantine raising chameleons, which she apparently loved very much and even kept them as pets.

Sarah Belzoni at old age
Bitter return

In 1919 the Belzoni family returned to England, where two years later they set up a large exhibition at the Egyptian Hall in London with casts of the tomb of Sethi I, some scale models of the pyramids and Abu Simbel temple and a large collection of mummies and small finds.

In 1823 Giovan Battista Belzoni returned to Africa, where he found death, probably in Benin, while searching for Timbuktu and the springs of Niger. Sarah, who remained in England, continued to take care of her husband’s work, trying to show her discoveries in an exhibition in 1925, which however had very little success.

She spent the last years of her life first in Brussels and then on the Channel Islands, where she died in 1870. From 1851 the English Parliament granted her a modest pension for her husband’s cultural merits.

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