By Megan Price
Sarah Belzoni was an extraordinary woman. Between 1815 and 1819 she travelled to Egypt, supporting her husband Giovanni Battista Belzoni who was attempting to find employment in Cairo. Their voyage to Egypt was a symptom of the early nineteenth century ‘gold-rush’ to North Africa where a new and exotic world was being discovered. For Sarah it brought independence, adventure and experience of the exotic world that fascinated and terrified most nineteenth-century Europeans.
In the past, only the wealthy were able travel for pleasure. Their sensibilities were enriched by the experience of the Grand Tour of classical Greece and Rome and their fine houses filled with treasures from their exploits. Unlike the wealthy with their entourage of servants and their social networks, Sarah travelled only with her husband on his many escapades in Egypt, with no letters of recommendation, no family background or social connections.
Born in Bristol in 1783, she met and married the Italian hydraulics engineer Giovanni Battista Belzoni in London, where he was earning a living as a strong man in Sadler’s Wells Theatre, and had become a familiar figure as ‘The Great Belzoni’. In 1815, the couple crossed the Mediterranean and experienced their first taste of Egypt – in quarantine at Alexandria because of an outbreak of plague. By the time they moved south to Cairo, Sarah was becoming extremely resourceful and used to the unexpected. She calmly dealt with a knife wound that her husband received from a Turkish soldier and was not shocked by a performance of the ‘Ghawazi’, a group of professional female belly dancers engaged to entertain at their neighbour’s wedding.
In Cairo Belzoni was introduced to Henry Salt, the British Consul General who was collecting antiquities for the British Museum. He sent the Belzonis to Upper Egypt to remove the head from a statue of Memnon from a temple at Thebes (Luxor) about ten days sail south of Cairo. From there they sailed on up the Nile towards Aswan and the first Cataract. They fought off a group of natives who attempted to board their ship at Philae, they continued on to Abu Simbel where Belzoni had heard of an immense temple with four colossal statues at its entrance buried in the sand. After narrowly escaping shipwreck below the second cataract, Belzoni began to clear the sand from the temple, leaving Sarah alone on board. One morning she was attacked by two labourers but with presence of mind she waved a pistol at them. By then she was learning the essential art of survival.
In June 1817 she camped for two months in the temple of Isis of Philae with only a servant, the luggage and a pair of pistols, where the temperature reached 140 degrees Farenheit in the shade, when Belzoni and his working party went south to re-visit Abu Simbel. When Arab women often came across to the island to view this curiosity, and Sarah was able to trade beads and small mirrors in exchange for eggs, arrows and little ‘anticas’. Sarah apparently relished this taste of independence. In 1818 she decided to visit the Holy Land with her servant and an Italian traveller Giovanni Finati. But alongside her daring, her prudence never failed her. She dressed as an Arabian merchant in Jerusalem to visit the Dome off the Rock, but when an Arab workman attempted to show her round she decided to leave before being discovered.
The Belzonis left Thebes and Egypt for the last time in January 1818. They brought back an assorted cargo including an obelisk, a sarcophagus, various mummies, small objects and Belzoni’s notes and drawings. These they displayed in the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, in 1821.
In 1820 Belzoni published a book about his exploits in Egypt with the lengthy title ‘Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries within the Pyramids, Temples, tombs and Excavations in Egypt and Nubia; in search of the Ancient Berenice; and another to the Oasis of Jupiter Ammon’. In the back of the book was Sarah’s own account of her travels and experiences. She called it A Trifling Account but it was far more than that. Her sharp turn of phrase and observant eye adds much colour and individuality to Belzoni’s lengthy descriptions the way he transported monuments and his problems with government officials. Although he claimed in the preface that the Narrative was his own work, its style displays marked differences with his written letters. Quite possibly Sarah had more of a hand beyond her own ‘trivial account’ and today it offers valuable information about the way the ‘other’ was perceived.
The Belzonis often felt hampered by being viewed both as foreigners by the Egyptians or the wrong class by the Europeans. However, Sarah’s lack of social standing possibly allowed her more freedom than those shackled by ‘middle class morality’. She could travel as a woman or a man, according to her own choice or circumstances, though according to her ‘trifling account’ she always wore her ‘stays’ underneath, whether as an Arab merchant or European female. Unlike most travellers she could visit the harems and women’s quarters of Arab households. When the exotic, the erotic, the forbidden, often pervaded white male literature of the period, her homely and down to earth account seems to de-mythologise the orientalists’ hints of ‘something nasty in the woodshed’.
In 1823 Sarah was left alone and poverty-stricken in London after her husband died of dysentery on an expedition to Timbuktu to trace the source of the Niger. Her attempts to hold another exhibition and sell objects belonging to her husband met with little success. In 1827, she moved to Brussels and after petitions to Parliament in 1852 was granted a pension of £100 a year. Sarah died in St Helier, Jersey, on January 12 1870. There is no trace of her grave; her only epitaph is her account in her husband’s book – and perhaps this is the most fitting tribute to Sarah’s devotion, determination, and wryly independent spirit.
Belzoni G.B, Narrative of the operations and recent discoveries within the pyramids, temples, tombs, and excavations in Egypt and Nubia; and of a journey to the coast of the Red Sea in search of the ancient Berenice; and another to the oasis of Jupiter Ammon(London, 1821)