When I read biographies of men who have explored exotic countries or started revolutions I’m often more intrigued by the lives of the wives who stand behind them—or don’t stand—than I am of the men themselves. One of my favorites is Sarah Belzoni, who spent her life following the Italian strongman who became an explorer of Egypt.
Giovanni Belzoni was a giant of a man. He was born in 1787, at a time when most European men were about five and a half feet tall, but he stood six feet seven inches. He was smart too. As a boy in Italy, he studied to be an engineer, but when he finished school, Napoleon’s troops were invading Italy, so he was forced to go to England to find work. It wasn’t easy to find work, but he did find a wife, Sarah, who may have been Irish, although no one knows for sure.
Instead of building bridges or roads, Belzoni had to take a job as a strong man in a circus to make money. Audiences gasped when he performed his closing act. He put on a harness fitted with a series of planks on either side of his shoulders. They formed a triangle of planks narrowing toward the top. One by one, other actors would climb up and sit on them. In the finale, Belzoni balanced ten or eleven men on his shoulders as he stood on stage.
Belzoni was ambitious and wanted to be an engineer, not a performer in a circus and Sarah agreed that he should give up the circus. Belzoni worked on his engineering ideas, but he had to keep performing in circuses and fairs to earn a living. He and Sarah traveled to Spain, Portugal and the island of Malta performing but looking for other jobs. In Malta, Belzoni met a man who worked for the Pasha of Alexandria. The Pasha had sent his assistant to Europe to find engineers and other workers who could build modern projects in Egypt. This was Belzoni’s opportunity. He had studied irrigation and had invented a water wheel that would raise water from wells more efficiently than a worker could. He was invited to Egypt to demonstrate his invention.
Giovanni and Sarah Belzoni traveled to 1814 taking with them a young Irishman named James Curtin to help with the work. Day after day Belzoni and Curtin worked building his machine. Some of the Pasha’s workmen worried that the new machine would be so efficient they would no longer have jobs. After four months, Belzoni was finally able to give his demonstration. His wheel pumped more water than the ones being used and it worked faster. It would make sense for the Pasha to install Belzoni’s wheel. Unfortunately, several workmen, who were afraid of losing their jobs, arranged an “accident” that caused James Curtin to get caught in the wheel and break his thigh. After that the Pasha gave up any idea of buying Belzoni’s wheel. Belzoni, Sarah, and James Curtin were stranded in Egypt.
As usual, Belzoni thought of a new scheme. He had heard of a gigantic head lying in the sand near Thebes, a city 700 km south of Cairo. Several European explorers had seen the head and knew how much money it would be worth in Europe, but no one could figure out how to move it. There were no roads in the desert. After the head was dug out of the sand, it would have to be dragged to the river. Then a boat could take it down the Nile River to Cairo and load it onto a ship to England. Belzoni decided he was just the man to do it, but he had to find someone to pay for equipment and workers.
Luckily for Belzoni, Britain had just sent a new representative to Egypt, Henry Salt. Part of his job was to find Egyptian objects for the new British Museum in London. When Salt met Belzoni, he realized had found a strong, adventurous man who could help him. Belzoni told him about his plans for the giant head. Salt provided money and wrote to the Egyptian leaders asking them to help Belzoni move the head.
Belzoni wasn’t sure what kind of equipment he would need for the work. He gathered planks of wood and logs to use as rollers for a cart and found a cheap boat to hire for the trip. On June 30, he set off with Sarah and James Curtin on the long trip up the Nile River to Thebes. By mid-July the group had reached the ruins at Thebes and for the first time they saw the massive head. The stone head had fallen off a statue of the pharaoh Ramses II and was half-buried in the sand. Because no one remembered the name of the pharaoh, the Europeans called the statue Memnon after a Greek hero. Historians believe the statue was toppled during an earthquake in 27 B.C.E. No one at that time knew how large the head was, but scientists later figured out that it weighs seven and a half tons and is 2.67 meters high.
Belzoni needed to hire local men to work with him, but that was difficult. Many Egyptians could not understand why the head would be valuable unless it was filled with gold. Belzoni finally persuaded them he really was willing to pay for their help in digging out the head and moving it to the river. He worked with them to build a flat platform of planks. Then he used other planks as levers to lift the front of the head far enough to get it on the platform. Gradually, using levers and ropes made of palm fiber, they got the head on the platform. Slowly lifting the front of the platform, they inserted one of the logs as a roller underneath and pulled the platform forward.
It took 80 men, working with ropes to insert four rollers under the platform and pull it forward. Each time it moved a few feet ahead, the men would pull out the roller at the back and move it to the front. Slowly, slowly, the head moved forward over the sand and rocks toward the river. Without knowing it, Belzoni had hit upon the same method the ancient Egyptians probably used to move the statue to where it stood. Finally, after twelve days of hard work, but statue was at the edge of the river and ready to begin its journey down to Cairo.
Many women would have rebelled at the idea of living in the blazing desert heat for weeks while their husband struggled with an impossible project, but Sarah didn’t complain. She was very interested in the Arab women of Egypt and spent her time getting to know them. When Giovanni finally succeeded in getting the massive head to Cairo and onto the ship to England, she celebrated with him.
For the next several years Belzoni worked with Henry Salt to collect antiquities, but the number of Europeans traveling to Egypt searching for Egyptian treasures was growing and the competition was keen. Belzoni traveled around the country trying to find objects the British Museum would be willing to buy. When he traveled he often left Sarah behind in whatever lodgings they had found in the city, but she was resourceful and had interests of her own. She took a trip to the Holy Land and she not only went to Jerusalem but traveled by mule to Jericho, Nazareth, and Bethlehem. Before leaving Jerusalem she disguised herself as an Arab merchant and visited the Mosque of Omar, which was prohibited for women and for non-Muslins.
Giovanni and Sarah finally returned to Europe in 1819. Giovanni had become famous, but they still were financially insecure. Giovanni wrote a book about his travels and mounted an exhibition of Egyptian artifacts, some genuine and some plaster copies of statues as well as sketches and pictures Belzoni had made. Sarah helped to organize and publicize the exhibit.
Sarah helped with Belzoni’s book too. She wrote a chapter, called modestly enough, a “Trifling Account of the Women of Egypt, Nubia, and Syria” in which she described the subservient position of women. She noted that Muslim and Christian women led similar lives that were far more restricted than the lives of European women. As the wife of an explorer, Arab men were willing to treat her almost as an equal, offering her coffee to drink and a pipe to smoke. But she was amused to note that they allowed their wives nothing but water to drink and locked the pipes away where women could not touch them. We can only wish that she had written more about her travels and the insights she gained.
Giovanni Belzoni worked hard all of his life, but he died young in 1823 while trying to reach Timbuktu. Sarah lived until 1860 trying to keep Belzoni’s legacy alive, but without much success. The British government finally granted her a pension that kept her from extreme poverty in her old age, but her contributions to her husband’s work and her own personal knowledge of Egyptian life were never acknowledged. She is one of the large group of women who are the indispensible but forgotten wives of famous men.
Two of the best-known women in history are the Egyptian Cleopatra and Catherine the Great of Russia. Both have been portrayed frequently in popular culture and are known to many non-historians as well as scholars although both lived centuries ago. And even though both of them spent most of their time and efforts on ruling large and tumultuous countries, they are both remembered primarily for the men they had sex with. Their two recent biographers have had to point out that neither of them was as promiscuous as the male rulers of their times and later.
Cleopatra is one of the few rulers of ancient Egypt whose name is still widely known. She has been celebrated in stories and art for century, yet she is almost always remembered as part of a couple. Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” gave way to George Bernard Shaw’s “Caesar and Cleopatra” and a series of other efforts. Even the movie “Cleopatra” starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, which finally let her dominate the title, treated the monarch as a lovestruck woman. Furthermore, that movie had a lasting impact on American culture by making the glamorous Taylor the permanent face of the less-beautiful but more powerful real Cleopatra.
Now Cleopatra has become for many people a glamorous figure suitable to be impersonated in Halloween costumes and dramatized in plays for children, but never really taken seriously. The transformation of this powerful ruler into just another femme fatale began soon after her death. As her biographer Stacy Schiff writes: “It has always been preferable to attribute a woman’s success to her beauty rather than to her brains, to reduce her to the sum of her sex life.”
For anyone who would like to get a reasonable idea of what Cleopatra was like and the story behind her misrepresented life, read Stacy Schiff’s great biography, Cleopatra, available in every public library I’m sure, and also from most bookstores.
Another woman I’ve been reading about recently who suffers from the same problem is Catherine the Great of Russia. Although she was born a German girl named Sophia and became the wife of the heir to the Russian throne almost by accident, she dedicated her life to improving her adopted country. Starting with changing her name to Catherine and her religion to the Russian Orthodox Church, Catherine studied the Russian language and history. Although she was saddled with a mean-spirited and somewhat stupid husband, she seized control of her life and of the country she had adopted.
Her husband, Peter III, had none of her love of Russia and instead tried to follow the model of Prussian military rule. He enraged his own subjects so much that no one complained much when Catherine helped to overthrow him and take the throne for herself. It was a wise move. Catherine was an intellectual who read and corresponded with some of the leading thinkers of Europe. She introduced modern enlightenment into the rigid Russian society, although even she could not completely change the pattern of serfdom and the stubborn resistance of provincial landowners.
Catherine reigned for more than thirty years and changed the country dramatically. Besides introducing Western ideas and developing closer ties with other European countries, she also extended the country to the East. It was during her reign that Russia began to explore Alaska and to establish a presence there. Yet, what is she remembered for in popular culture? It’s mostly for her lovers who helped her politically and made her personal life endurable. They were certainly close colleague and some of them were important political allies, but Catherine’s achievements didn’t depend on them.
Male monarchs are seldom defined by their lovers, but female rulers are. Anyone who reads Robert Massie’s recent biography Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman will come to understand how much more there is to know about her.
Perhaps as we enter this Mother’s Day weekend we ought to think about not only loving the mothers in our lives but looking at them as the individuals they are. Partners and children are an important part of most women’s lives, but they are not the only thing. If we love and respect our mothers, our spouses, and our daughters, we should look at them as individuals and not define them only in their relationships with the men in their lives. Cleopatra and Catherine the Great are not typical women, but they are emblematic of the problem of viewing women solely through the lens of their emotions. We certainly owe all women more than that.