Gaston Maspero

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Gaston Maspero (born Gaston Camille Charles Maspero) was born on 23rd June 1846 in a family of poor Italian immigrants in France. Two decisive events excited his interest in the Orient and Egypt.

When he was eleven, Gaston Maspero came in the bookstore, where he went pretty frequently. He wanted to buy a book about Egypt, but the price was too high for a child with only few francs in his pocket. The bookseller was both amused and surprised by his maturity and sold him the book at a deep discount. Further roles in this story played wise teacher, a rain shower and the closeness to the Louvre. So Gaston Maspero got into the halls devoted to Egypt, and it became the love of a lifetime.

Maspero and his meeting with Marietto

The second meeting with Egyptian civilization came through the Egyptologist Auguste Mariette, who had been leading the Egyptian Antiquities Service for the tenth year.

In 1867, when Gaston Maspero was 21, he got the degree at the Faculty of Philosophy. During the study he didn’t miss any lecture of Emmanuel de Rougé, the curator of the Egyptian collections. However, most of knowledge Maspero gained by self-study – he diligently visited Louvre and studied the writings of Champollion. But he was satisfied enough even with these works, so he compiled his own vocabulary and grammar.

August Mariette heard about this young man from Emmanuel de Rougé, but at first he was skeptical of his abilities. But Maspero convinced Marietto, when he sent him a translation of the stele from Gebel Barkal (also Jebel Barkal). Then Mariette acknowledged that this young man is a great Egyptologist – at least from a philological point of view

Maspero and his beginnings in Egypt

Maspero worked as an educator in Latin America for some time, but he soon returned to France. In 1870 he got French nationality and renewed contacts with local Egyptologists. The end of 1880 brought to Maspero a major breakthrough. Auguste Mariette was getting old, suffered from illnesses, so it was necessary to find his replacement for leading the Egyptian department of the new museum at Bulak. On 28th December 1880 a permanent mission was formed in Egypt and Gaston Maspero was appointed as a head of it. Finally he got into the dream land – Egypt.

His first big success was the revelation of a tomb robbers group, who were gathered around al-Rasul family on the west bank of Thebes (Waset). The thing it that Ahmad Abd al-Rasul found a rich hiding place of New Kingdom royal mummies, when he was looking for a stray goat. He had been taking antiques away for 10 years and had been selling them on the black market. Maspero revealed whole group in 1881 and rescued the antiques for the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

Auguste Mariette

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French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette (full name François Auguste Ferdinand Mariette) was born in Boulogne-sur-Mer in February 1821. Mariette came from a family of a city archivist. His talent for mathematics and literature amazed all of his teachers since his early youth. He studied at the Faculty of Philosophy in Douai and worked as a private teacher at an English family.

Giovanni Battista Belzoni

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Giovanni Battista Belzoni, an Italian adventurer, was born in 1778 in Padua. He was special since he was a child, because of his height (almost 2 meters) and surprising strength. At sixteen he lived in Rome for a while and considered taking monastic vows there. After the arrival of Napoleon, he fled from Italy to avoid the compulsory draft.

Giovanni Battista Belzoni in Abu Simbel

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First (and truly cyclopean) Belzoni’s work was relocation of a Ramses II colossal statue, which was found in Ramesseum. On this occasion Belzoni visited both tombs in the Valley of the Kings and the island of Philae. He later went to Abu Simbel and (as well as Buckhardt) noted that the entrance into it is hopelessly buried. He promised to himself that he would return as soon as possible and would be the first, who would gain entrance to the temple with possible hidden treasures formerly placed there.

He returned to Luxor, where he worked on excavations in Theban temples. He revealed a total of 18 statues, some of them with a lion head and several sphinxes. Thanks to this success, Henry Salt commissioned Belzoni to do another big challenge – get the temple in Abu Simbel out of sand, so after a year Belzoni returned to Nubia.

It took three weeks before they managed to dig a hole wide enough for a man to go inside a stunning temple. Belzoni was captivated by the vastness of underground space, but the biggest surprise was to be surrounded by magnificent works of art – paintings, reliefs and colossal statues.

Tomb of Seti I

Belzoni was a treasure hunter rather than a real archaeologist, but he owns several first places. He discovered the entrance to the pyramid of Pharaoh Khafre – one of the builders of the three great pyramids of Giza - and the tomb of Seti I (the famous father of the famous pharaoh Ramesses II).

In October 1817 Belzoni got into the tomb of Ramesses I and he was so enchanted by this success that on 16th October he ordered the fellahin to dig near the tomb in places, where was a small ravine at the foot of a steep cliff. Fellahin were convinced that the Italian was wrong, but two days later at the sunset, Belzoni noticed that there is a hole carved into the rock.

In the morning fellahin found an entrance more than five meters below the ground level and after clearing it from debris and stones, Belzoni crawled inside. By the light of torches he discovered there a corridor 10 m long and 2,5 m wide. The first surprise for him was excellent condition of wall painting that was visible even by the light of a torch. He also discovered a staircase at the end of the corridor that led him to another corridor decorated with reliefs with hieroglyphs and paintings.

Unexpected obstacle by uncovering the tomb of Seti I

Further steps were stopped by an unexpected obstacle. The second corridor ended in a very wide shaft approximately 10 meters deep. Although remains of ropes (left there by tomb raiders long ago) lay on the floor, they crumbled to dust when touched. However, Belzoni noticed a hole approximately 60 cm wide on the opposite side of the shaft, so he let lay a long beam over the shaft and overcame the unexpected obstacle over this „bridge“.

When his men made the hole in the wall wider, they got into a large room of size 9 x 8 m that was decorated with extraordinarily well-preserved paintings and was supported with four columns of a diameter almost one meter. From this room (later he called it the "vestibule") started Giovanni Battista Belzoni to explore other corridors. He went downstairs and looked at the other rooms, which he named:

  • "Hall of paintings" because of the wonderful drawings
  • " Hall of beauty" by perfect paintings
  • " Mysterious room" by the symbolic figures
  • "Dining hall "
  • "Isis hall"
  • "Apis hall" with embalmed mummy of a bull

Belzoni found the royal sarcophagus there, located in the centre of the room. The sarcophagus tub was almost 3 m long and 1 m wide. Inside and outside it was decorated with relief paintings of figures that were up to 5 cm high. However, the cover of the tub was smashed and removed before and the sarcophagus itself was empty of course.

Belzoni’s dispute with Henry Salt

Giovanni Battista Belzoni and a painter Alessandro Ricci made together wax casts of relief decoration of the tomb of Seti, which were later exhibited in the Egyptian Hall in London. The exhibition met with great acclaim and the irascible Italian wanted his share of the findings. But Henry Salt came out against it and later sold a part of his collections for 10.000 pounds to the Louvre Museum. The dispute between Belzoni and Salt culminated and Belzoni’s permission to excavate was taken away, he also lost all incomes and had to leave Egypt in November 1819.

After his return to London Belzoni wrote a book „Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries within the Pyramids, Temples, Tombs and Excavations in Egypt and Nubia“, which was published several times. On 27th September 1822 was the replica of Seti’s tomb transported to Paris and the same day Champollion announced that he deciphered hieroglyphics. It also enabled to find out the name of the owner of the tomb that was discovered by Giovanni Battista Belzoni.

Message from the Nile

  • History of Czech institution of egyptology

    The Czech egyptology founder is Frantisek Lexa, the author of up to now evaluated work about ancient Egypt magic and Demotic grammar. Seminar for egyptology started thanks to him in Faculty of Philosophy and Arts of Charles University in Prague in 1925. Two years later Lexa became the first regular professor of egyptology in then Czechoslovakia.

  • Abusir - outstation of Czech egyptology expedition

    Abusir is an archaeological locality in Egypt named after nearby recent village Abusir. It is situated on western Nile bank on the edge of Libyan tableland approximately 20 kilometers to the south-west of Cairo. The name of this locality is derived from ancient Egypt god Osiris, from Per Usir (Busiris), "(cult) place of Osiris" (Busiris in Greek).

  • Researches in Western desert

    Czech egyptology is successful in researching not only on pyramidal fields in Abusir recently, but also in supporting and organizing smaller expeditions into egyptian Western desert. Czech expedition has been working even in slowly evanescent oasis El-Hajez since 2003, which is situated about 400 km to the south-west from Cairo.

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