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Exploring the Valley of the kings

Giovanni Belzoni 1817

 One of the most famous early explorers of Egypt - the ex-cricus strongman who made his name travelling Egypt to gather artifacts for the museums of Europe (the statue from the British Museum of Ramesses II - the link at the bottom of this page - is one such example).

This is Belzoni's own account of his discovery of the magnificent tomb of Seti I in the Valley of the Kings.


ON THE 16TH [OF OCTOBER, 1817] I recommenced my excavations in the valley of Beban el Malook, and pointed out the fortunate spot, which has paid me for all the trouble I took in my researches. I may call this a fortunate day, one of the best perhaps of my life; I do not mean to say, that fortune has made me rich, for I do not consider all rich men fortunate; but she has given me that satisfaction, that extreme pleasure, which wealth cannot purchase; the pleasure of discovering what has been long sought in vain, and of presenting the world with a new and perfect monument of Egyptian antiquity, which can be recorded as superior to any other in point of grandeur, style, and preservation, appearing as if just finished on the day we entered it; and what I found in it will show its great superiority to all others.... I caused the earth to be opened at the foot of a steep hill, and under a torrent, which, when it rains in the desert, pours a great quantity of water over the very spot I have caused to be dug. No one could imagine, that the ancient Egyptians would make the entrance into such an immense and superb excavation just under a torrent of water; but I had strong reason to suppose, that there was a tomb in that place, from indications I had observed in my pursuit. The Fellahs who were accustomed to dig were all of opinion, that there was nothing in that spot, as the situation of this tomb differed from that of any other. I continued the work, however, and the next day, the 17th, in the evening, we perceived the part of the rock that was cut, and formed the entrance. On the 18th, early in the morning, the task was resumed, and about noon the workmen reached the entrance, which was eighteen feet below the surface of the ground. The appearance indicated, that the tomb was of the first rate: but I did not expect to find such a one as it really proved to be. The Fellahs advanced till they saw that it was probably a large tomb, when they protested they could go no farther, the tomb was so much choked up with large stones, which they could not get out of the passage. I descended, examined the place, pointed out to them where they might dig, and in an hour there was room enough for me to enter through a passage that the earth had left under the ceiling of the first corridor, which is thirty-six feet two inches long, and eight feet eight inches wide, and when cleared of the ruins, eight feet nine inches high. I perceived im-mediately by the painting on the ceiling, and by the hieroglyphics in basso relievo, which were to be seen where the earth did not reach, that this was the entrance into a large and magnificent tomb. At the end of this corridor I came to a staircase twenty-three feet long, and of the same breadth as the corridor. The door at the bottom is twelve feet high. At the foot of the staircase I entered another corridor, thirty-seven feet three inches long, and of the same width and height as the other, each side sculptured with hieroglyphics in basso relievo, and painted. The ceiling also is finely painted, and in pretty good preservation. The more I saw, the more I was eager to see, such being the nature of man: but I was checked in my anxiety at this time, for at the end of this passage I reached a large pit, which intercepted my progress. This pit is thirty feet deep, and fourteen feet by twelve feet three inches wide. The upper part is adorned with figures, from the wall of the passage up to the ceiling. The passages from the entrance all the way to this pit have an inclina-tion downward of an angle of eighteen degrees. On the opposite side of the pit facing the entrance I perceived a small aperture two feet wide and two feet six inches high, and at the bottom of the wall a quantity of rubbish. A rope fastened to a piece of
wood, that was laid across the passage against the projections which form a kind of door, appears to have been used by the ancients for descending into the pit; and from the small aperture on the opposite side hung another, which reached the bottom, no doubt for the purpose of ascending. We could clearly perceive, that the water which entered the passages from the torrents of rain ran into this pit, and the wood and rope fastened to it crumbled to dust on touching them. At the bottom of the pit were several pieces of wood, placed against the side of it, so as to assist the person who was to ascend by the rope into the aperture. I saw the impossibility of proceeding at the moment. Mr. Beechey, who that day came from Luxor, entered the tomb, but was also disappointed of advancing any farther.

The next day, the 19th, by means of a long beam we succeeded in sending a man up into the aperture, and having contrived to make a bridge of two beams, we crossed the pit. The little aperture we found to be an opening forced through a wall, that had entirely closed the entrance, which was as large as the corridor. The Egyptians had closely shut it up, plastered the wall over, and painted it like the rest of the sides of the pit, so that but for the aperture, it would have been impossible to suppose, that there was any farther proceeding; and any one would conclude, that the tomb ended with the pit. The rope in the inside of the wall did not fall to dust, but remained pretty strong, the water not having reached it at all; and the wood to which it was attached was in good preservation. It was owing to this method of keeping the damp out of the inner parts of the tomb that these apartments are so well preserved. I observed some cavities at the bottom of the well, but found nothing in them, nor any communication from the bottom to any other place; therefore we could not doubt their being made to receive the waters from the rain, which happens occasionally in this mountain. The valley is so much raised by the rubbish, which the water carries down from the upper parts that the entrance into these tombs has become much lower than the torrents; in consequence, the water finds its way into the tombs, some of which are entirely choked up with earth.

When we had passed through the little aperture, we found ourselves in a beautiful hall, twenty-seven feet six inches by twenty-seven feet ten inches, in which were four pillars three feet square.... At the end of this room, which I call the entrance-hall, and opposite the aperture, is a large door, from which three steps lead down into a chamber with two pillars. This is twenty-eight feet two inches by twenty-five feet six inches. The pillars are three feet ten inches square. I gave it the name of the drawing room; for it is covered with figures, which, though only outlined, are so fine and perfect, that one would think they had been drawn only the day before. Returning into the entrance-hall, there is on the left of the aperture a large staircase, which descended into a corridor. It is thirteen feet four inches long, seven and a half wide, and has eighteen steps. At the bottom we entered a beautiful corridor, thirty-six feet six inches by six feet eleven inches. We perceived that the paintings became more perfect as we advanced farther into the interior. They retained their gloss, or a kind of varnish over the colours, which had a beautiful effect. The figures are painted on a white ground. At the end of this corridor we descended ten steps, which I call the small stairs, into another, seventeen feet two inches by ten feet five inches. From this we entered a small chamber, twenty feet four inches by thirteen feet eight inches, to which I gave the name of the Room of Beauties; for it is adorned with the most beautiful figures in basso relievo, like all the rest, and painted. When standing in the centre of this chamber, the traveller is surrounded by an assembly of Egyptian gods and goddesses. Proceeding farther, we entered a large hall, twenty-seven feet nine inches by twenty-six feet ten inches. In this hall are two rows of square pillars, three on each side of the entrance, forming a line with the corridors. At each side of this hall is a small chamber: that on the right is ten feet five inches by eight feet eight inches; that on the left, ten feet five inches by eight feet nine inches and a half. This hall I termed the Hall of Pillars; the little room on the right, Isis' Room, as in it a large cow is painted . . . that on the left, the Room of Mysteries, from the mysterious figures it exhibits. At the end of this hall we entered a large saloon, with an arched roof or ceiling, which is separated from the Hall of Pillars only by a step; so that the two may be
reckoned one. The saloon is thirty-one feet ten inches by twenty-seven feet. On the right of the saloon is a small chamber without any thing in it, roughly cut, as if unfinished, and without painting: on the left we entered a chamber with two square pillars, twenty-five feet eight inches by twenty-two feet ten inches. This I called the Sideboard Room, as it has a projection of three feet in form of a sideboard all round, which was perhaps intended to contain the articles necessary for the funeral ceremony. The pillars are three feet four inches square, and the whole beautifully painted as the rest. At the same end of the room, and facing the Hall of Pillars, we entered by a large door into another chamber with four pillars, one of which is fallen down. This chamber is forty-three feet four inches by seventeen feet six inches; the pillars three feet seven inches square. It is covered with white plaster, where the rock did not cut smoothly, but there is no painting on it. I named it the Bull's or Apis' Room, as we found the carcass of a bull in it, embalmed with asphaltum; and also, scattered in various places, an immense quantity of small wooden figures of mummies six or eight inches long, and covered with asphaltum to preserve them. There were some other figures of fine earth baked, coloured blue, and strongly varnished. On each side of the two little rooms were some wooden statues standing erect, four feet high, with a circular hollow inside, as if to contain a roll of papyrus, which I have no doubt they did. We found likewise fragments of other statues of wood and of composition.

But the description of what we found in the centre of the saloon, and which I have reserved till this place, merits the most particular attention, not having its equal in the world, and being such as we had no idea could exist. It is a sarcophagus of the finest oriental alabaster; nine feet five inches long, and three feet seven inches wide. Its thickness is only two inches; and it is transparent when a light is placed in the inside of it. It is minutely sculptured within and without with several hundred figures, which do not exceed two inches in height, and represent, as I suppose, the whole of the funeral procession and ceremonies relating to the deceased, united with several emblems. I cannot give an adequate idea of this beautiful and invaluable piece of antiquity, and can only say, that nothing has been brought into Europe from Egypt that can be compared with it. The cover was not there: it had been taken out, and broken into several pieces, which we found in digging before the first entrance. The sarcophagus was over a staircase in the centre of the saloon, which communicated with a subterraneous passage, leading downwards' three hundred feet in length. At the end of this passage we found a great quantity of bats' dung, which choked up the way so that we could go no farther without digging. It was nearly filled up too by the falling in of the upper part. One hundred feet from the entrance is a staircase in good preservation; but the rock below changes its substance, from a beautiful solid calcareous stone, becoming a kind of black rotten slate, which crumbles into dust only by touching. This subterraneous passage proceeds in a south-west direction through the mountain. I measured the distance from the entrance, and also the rocks above, and found that the passage reaches nearly halfway through the mountain to the upper part of the valley. I have reason to suppose, that this passage was used to come into the tomb by another entrance; but this could not be after the death of the person who was buried there, for at the bottom of the stairs just under the sarcophagus a wall was built, which entirely closed the communication between the tomb and the subterraneous passage. Some large blocks of stone were placed under the sarcophagus horizontally, level with the pavement of the saloon, that no one might perceive any stairs or subterranean passage was there. The doorway of the sideboard room had been walled up, and forced open, as we found the stones with which it was shut, and the mortar in the jambs. The staircase of the entrance-hall had been walled up also at the bottom, and the space filled with rubbish, and the floor covered with large blocks of stone, so as to deceive any one who should force the fallen wall near the pit, and make him suppose, that the tomb ended with the entrance-hall and the drawing room. I am inclined to believe, that whoever forced these passages must have had some spies with them, who were well acquainted with the tomb throughout. The tomb faces the north-east, and the direction of the whole runs straight south-west....
The Arabs made such reports of this discovery, that it came to the ears of Hamed Aga of Kenneh; and it was reported to him, that great treasure was found in it. On hearing this, he immediately set off with some of his soldiers to Thebes, generally a journey of two days, but such was his speed in travelling, that he arrived in the valley of Beban el Malook in thirty-six hours by land. Before his arrival some Arabs brought us intelligence, that they saw from the tops of the mountains a great many Turks on horseback entering the valley, and coming toward us. I could not conceive who they could be, as no Turks ever came near this place. Half an hour after they gave us the signal of their approach, by firing several guns. I thought an armed force was sent to storm the tombs and rocks, as no other object could bring the Turks there; at last, when this mighty power reached us, I found it to be the well-known Hamed Aga of Kenneh, for some time commander of the eastern side of Thebes, and his followers. Accordingly I was at a loss to conceive what he wanted there, as we were on the west, and under another ruler; but I suppose, in case of a treasure being discovered, the first that hears of it seizes it as a matter of privilege. He smiled, and saluted me very cordially; indeed more so than usual, I presume for the sake of the treasure I had discovered, of which he was in great expectation. I caused as many lights to be brought as we could muster, and we descended into the tomb. What was on the walls of this extraordinary place did not attract his attention in the least; all the striking figures and lively paintings were lost to him; his views were directed to the treasure alone; and his numerous followers were like hounds, searching in every hole and corner. Nothing, however, being found to satisfy their master or themselves, after a long and minute survey, the Aga at last ordered the soldiers to retire, and said to me, "Pray where have you put the treasure?" "What treasure?" "The treasure you found in this place." I could not help smiling at his question, which confirmed him in his supposition. I told him that we had found no treasure there. At this he laughed, and still continued to entreat that I would show it to him. "I have been told," he added, "by a person to whom I can give credit, that you have found in this place a large golden cock, filled with diamonds and pearls. I must see it. Where is it?"
I could scarcely keep myself from laughing, while I assured him that nothing of the kind had been found there. Seeming quite disappointed, he seated himself before the sarcophagus, and I was afraid he would take it into his head, that this was the treasure' and break it to pieces, to see whether it contained any gold; for their notions of treasure are confined to gold and jewels. At last he gave up the idea of the riches to be expected, and rose to go out of the tomb. I asked him what he thought of the beautiful figures painted all around. He just gave a glance at them, quite unconcerned, and said, "This would be a good place for a harem, as the women would have something to look at." At length, though only half persuaded there was no treasure, he set off with an appearance of much vexation.

From Belzoni's 'Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries within the Pyramids, Temples, Tombs and Excavations in Egypt and Nuibia' (1820).