Ozymandias and the Circus Strongman
21 May, 2008
At the beginning of the nineteenth century Europe was in turmoil. Napoleon had marched his army across the continent and in 1798 had invaded Egypt. The French had marveled at the Pyramids and looked on the antiquities that seemed to be everywhere in this ancient land. It became a matter of national pride to ‘rescue’ much of the ancient gold and gemstones from this barbaric land and bring them back to Europe. Meanwhile in Italy, the French had taken Rome and a young Italian by the name of Giovanni Belzoni fled north to escape being drafted by the French army. He studied hydraulics in the Netherlands before moving to Britain in 1803. It was here that he met Sarah Banne who was to become his wife, and here that he embarked on his career in the circus.
Belzoni (known as The Great Belzoni on flyers for the circus) was a great showman. He performed many strongman acts and his prodigious strength and size served him well in attracting the crowds. He also acted (including a stint as Macbeth), played the glass harmonica and went on stage with a live bear. After over a decade of entertaining in Britain Belzoni, his wife Sarah, and their servant James Curtin left England to seek a better fortune. Belzoni was drawn to Cairo where he built a new and efficient water-wheel which he presented to the Pasha. His demonstration did not go well – the wheel was deemed ‘too dangerous’ after some locals played a prank with the machine which nearly killed James Curtin. Looking for work again, Belzoni was employed by the British Consul to travel up the Nile to Luxor and retrieve the head of a statue that no one had been able to move.
The head and upper torso of a once complete statue had broken off long ago and lay in the sand near a temple complex. The head, known as “The Younger Memnon” by those who had recently found it, weighed over 7 tons – one of the reasons no one had been able to move it. The French a few years ago had bored a hole into the chest of the statue and planned to use dynamite to separate the head from the torso, but fortunately they did not go through with the plan. The French were still in Luxor when Benzoli arrived in 1815 and one in particular, Bernadino Drovetti, the French Consul-General and antiquities collector, was to become a rival of the strongman. Belzoni set to work on transporting the head – hiring local workmen proved difficult, but eventually a team was assembled. Moving the statue required reusing ancient techniques – a wooden sledge was built on top of logs and the statue pushed over onto the sledge. Then the sledge would be pulled over the logs in a painstakingly slow process. After much work and many trials (labour shortages, bribery, blackmail) the head was brought to the Nile and ready for transport.
The temple where the statue had lain for thousands of years was once visited by Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian who wrote in the first century BCE about one of the statues in the area:
It is … marvelous because of its artistic quality and excellent because of the nature of its stone, since in a block of so great a size there is not one single crack or blemish to be seen. The inscription on it runs: ‘King of Kings I am, Ozymandias. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass my works.’
Not much was known about this Ozymandias even in Belzoni’s time. But Belzoni now had a few weeks on his hands before the boat would arrive to take his statue back to Cairo and on to the British Museum. Searching the local area for more finds for the Museum was proving difficult – Drovetti had claim to almost anything that appeared – so instead Belzoni and his wife traveled even further south. They passed beyond the ancient temple at Philae and into Nubia where, on a tip from the explorer Burckhardt, they found the ancient Temple of Abu Simbel. And it was here that Belzoni went further than Burckhardt and managed to uncover the entrance to the Temple which had been buried by sand for hundreds of years. Previously only the tops of 20m tall statues were visible. Inside was truly a masterpiece of engineering. It had been built to celebrate the military victory of the same Pharaoh who was represented by the Younger Memnon statue. At the spring and autumn equinoxes the sun shines right through the massive Temple, which was carved out of the rock-face itself, and illuminates three gods sitting in the depths of the building. One of these gods is the Pharaoh himself. The greatest of all the Pharaohs, he built and restored temples, made war and forged peace treaties with other superpowers, and reigned for longer than any other known ancient Egyptian ruler. His works had been forgotten for thousands of years, but now he would be revealed to the world. Ramses the Great had returned, brought on the back of a circus strongman.
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”