Giovanni Belzoni, Mummy Excavator
Giovanni Belzoni (1778-1823) was one of the first western mummy excavators (otherwise known as a tomb robber) in Egypt. He was a very colorful character. Born in Italy, he was a circus strongman called "The Patagonian Sampson" before be began his work in Egypt.
He was not particularly a good writer (or speaker of English), but his book Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries within the Pyramids, Temples, Tombs and Excavations in Egypt and Nubiaincludes a fascinating description of Belzoni's work in one tomb of mummies.
Here is his account of the expedition to an area west of Thebes named Gournou. He attempts to recruit local people to help him explore the many tombs that are built into the rocky landscape:
"It took us three days to reach Thebes, when we moored our bark at Luxor, and I recommenced my operations with what fellahs I could obtain. . . . Could it but be accurately known, with what a wretched set of people in these tribes travelers have to deal, their mean and rapacious dispositions, and the various occurrences that render the collection of antiquities difficult, whatever came from thence would be the more prized, from the consideration of these circumstances. . . .
"Gournou is a tract of rocks, about two miles in length, at the foot of the Libyan mountains, on the west of Thebes, and was the burial-place of the great city of a hundred gates. Every part of these rocks is cut out by art, in the form of large and small chambers, each of which has its separate entrance; and, though they are very close to each other, it is seldom that there is any interior communication from one to another. I can truly say, it is impossible to give any description sufficient to convey the smallest idea of these subterranean abodes, and their inhabitants. There are no sepulchers in any part of the world like them; there are no excavations, or mines, that can be compared to these truly astonishing places; and no exact description can be given of their interior, owing to the difficulty of visiting these recesses. The inconveniency of entering into them is such that it is not everyone who can support the exertion. . . .
"Of some of these tombs many persons could not withstand the suffocating air, which often causes fainting. A vast quantity of dust rises, so fine that it enters into the throat and nostrils, and chokes the nose and mouth to such a degree that it requires great power of lungs to resist it and the strong effluvia of the mummies. ... In some places there is not more than a vacancy of a foot left, which you must contrive to pass through in a creeping posture like a snail, on pointed and keen stones that cut like glass. After getting through these passages, some of them two or three hundred yards long, you generally find a more commodious place, perhaps high enough to sit. But what a place of rest! surrounded by bodies, by heaps of mummies in all directions; which, previous to my being accustomed to the sight, impressed me with horror. The blackness of the wall, the faint light given by the candles or torches for want of air, the different objects that surrounded me, seeming to converse with each other, and the Arabs with the candles or torches in their hands, naked and covered with dust, themselves resembling living mummies, absolutely formed a scene that cannot be described. In such a situation I found myself several times, and often returned exhausted and fainting, till at last I became inured to it, and indifferent to what I suffered, except from the dust, which never failed to choke my throat and nose: and though, fortunately, I am destitute of the sense of smelling, I could taste that the mummies were rather unpleasant to swallow. After the exertion of entering into such a place, through a passage of fifty, a hundred, three hundred, or perhaps six hundred yards, nearly overcome, I sought a resting place, found one and contrived to sit; but when my weight bore on the body of an Egyptian, it crushed it like a bandbox. I naturally had recourse to my hands to sustain my weight, but they found no better support; so that I sunk altogether among the broken mummies, with a crash of bones, rags, and wooden cases, which raised such a dust as kept me motionless for a quarter of an hour, waiting till it subsided again. I could not remove from the place, however, without increasing it, and every step I took I crushed a mummy in some part or other. Once I was conducted from such a place to another resembling it, through a passage of about twenty feet in length, and no wider than that a body could be forced through. It was choked with mummies, and I could not pass without putting my face in contact with that of some decayed Egyptian; but as the passage inclined downwards, my own weight helped me on: however I could not avoid being covered with bones, legs, arms, and heads rolling from above. Thus I proceeded from one cave to another, all full of mummies piled up in various ways, some standing, some lying, and some on their heads. The purpose of my researches was to rob the Egyptians of their papyri; of which I found a few hidden in their breasts, under their arms, in the space above the knees, or on the legs, and covered by the numerous folds of cloth that envelop the mummy. The people of Gournou, who make a trade of antiquities of this sort, are very jealous of strangers, and keep them as secret as possible, deceiving travelers by pretending that they have arrived at the end of the pits, when they are scarcely at the entrance...."