As if you needed an excuse to go and visit one of London’s best-loved museums, but I’m about to give you one. Over at the Soane Museum in Holborn, you can meet an Italian circus strongman turned Egyptologist, and discover tales of robbed tombs and a celebrity Pharaoh. Add to that a three-day candlelit Sarcophagus party with a guest list which included the who’s who of Georgian London, and you get Egypt Uncovered – Belzoni and the Tomb of Pharaoh Seti I.
The Great Belzoni
Giovanni Battista Belzoni, also known as the Great Belzoni, was born in Padua in 1778. Circus strongman come hydraulics engineer, Egyptian tomb excavator, writer and explorer, this colourful character made a remarkable discovery: the tomb of Seti I in the Valley of the Kings. Seti I wasn’t the only Belzoni Pharaoh to traverse the seas to England: a striking seven-ton bust of Ramesses II came before him, and he now sits in the British Museum in London.
On the 17th October 1817 and in the employ of the British Consul-General Henry Salt, Belzoni discovered the royal tomb of Ramesses II’s father, Seti I. The tomb was spectacular and contained one of the most exquisite and significant objects ever to be discovered in Egypt: Seti’s sarcophagus. The mummy had already been robbed and was discovered years later in Deir el-Bahri.
A Pharaoh comes to London
After years of negotiating with the British Museum, Henry Salt’s transaction to sell the Seti sarcophagus fell through. John Soane, the neo-classical architect (and the man behind the Bank of England and the Dulwich Museum) stepped in and bought it for a whopping £2000.
Soane had to knock the back wall of his home at No 13 to get the calcite sarcophagus in. It is on permanent display at the Soane Museum, in its original location.
Fragments of the sarcophagus lid, probably broken by tomb robbers. John Soane used to display these on top of the sarcophagus.
Using wet paper pulp, tourists and scholars would make ‘Squeezes’ or facsimiles from the wall of the tomb, damaging the walls forever. Belzoni made this squeeze and also recorded scenes from the sarcophagus hall in several watercolours.
Party of the century
In March 1825, John Soane held parties on three consecutive nights so that London could take a peep at the Belzoni sarcophagus. He designed the lighting himself, using candlelight to show off his prized possession. The 890-person guest list included the crème de la crème of Georgian society: J.M.W, Turner, Robert Peel. Prime Minister Robert Jenkinson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Lawrence (President of the Royal Academy of Arts) and Prince Augustus Frederick. The guests ate cake from confectioners Robinson and Todd, washed down with copious amounts of tea and Turkish coffee.
Here is an invitation to one of the Sarcophagus Parties, flanked by the bills for lighting and food and drink. Soane used wax lights, candles and gas lamps to create a romantic atmosphere. Now if only they would make a film about the Great Belzoni and Soane’s Sarcophagus party! I see Thomas Hardy in the title role, what do you think?
Egypt Uncovered: Belzoni and the Tomb of Pharaoh Seti I is on at the Soane Museum until 15 April 2018. Admission is free.
Feature Image: Giovanni Belzoni/Alessandro Ricci, 32 columns of hieroglyphs and scenes form the Ritual of the Opening of the Mouth c. 1820 (Bristol Museum and Art Gallery)
About the Soane Museum
The Soane Museum, 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London WC2A 3BP. Nearest tube: Holborn
Opening Times: Wednesdays to Sundays 10.00 – 17.00 (now open on bank holidays). Admission to the museum is free.
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