When the French were driven out of Egypt, they left chaos in their wake. The ignominious rout that was the Battle of the Pyramids had cost the Mamelukes not only 10,000 of their best soldiers but also their reputation for cruel invincibility. It had revealed the rot at the core of the storied warrior caste; no more could they hold an unquestioning populace in their thrall. Yet if not the Mamelukes, then who should rule Egypt, which was still nominally a part of the Ottoman Empire but remained as loosely overseen as ever? There was Opportunity here for an ambitious, guileful, and ruthless man.

Such a man was Muhammad Ali, an Albanian tobacco merchant who had led a regiment of his people into Egypt on behalf of the Ottomans after the French invasion. He had proved himself an able soldier then, and now proved himself an even more adept intriguer, using his wiles to fill the power vacuum that followed the final French surrender. Bowing to the reality of a rising power, the Ottomans made him their acknowledged governor of Egypt on August 7, 1803, then awarded him the rank of viceroy two years later. He would rule the country until 1848, and the dynasty he founded would last until 1952.

Muhammad Ali was a brutal ruler, who taxed his people to the ragged edge of starvation and murdered his internal enemies by the thousands. In this he resembled the Mamelukes, whose remnants he spent the early part of his reign purging from Egypt. Like most of them, he was largely illiterate, and never bothered to learn even spoken Arabic, the language of the people he ruled. He was, however, very different from the Mamelukes in other respects. He was eager to modernize the country’s lamentable infrastructure, building irrigation systems and canals at enormous expense. And he was eager as well to forge close ties with the great powers of Europe, seeing that as the best way to raise Egypt’s status in the world. Little loved by the people he oppressed, his reign nevertheless marked the beginning of a more outward-looking age for Egypt — relatively speaking, of course.

In February of 1806 — still very early in Muhammad Ali’s reign, when his chief concern was still consolidating control of the entire country — a group of British adventurers arrived in Cairo. Under a nobleman named George Annesley, they had spent the past three and a half years exploring India, Ceylon (modern Sri-Lanka), and Abyssinia (modern Ethiopia) on foot and via every other sort of vehicular contrivance. Most recently, they had traveled overland from Suez to Cairo with a caravan of pilgrims on its way back from Mecca. Among the British party was a 25-year-old from Lichfield named Henry Salt, an unsuccessful would-be portraitist whom Annesley had agreed to take along as his “secretary and draftsman” as a favor to his family. But in the field, Salt had proved himself to be unexpectedly clever and courageous in several tough scrapes, elevating himself thereby to the status of His Lordship’s most trusted lieutenant and confidant.

As was his wont with influential European visitors, Muhammad Ali received the entire party lavishly. Annesley and Salt were fetched for their first audience with the viceroy by an ornate carriage pulled by five splendid horses, and served coffee in golden cups inside the leader’s magnificent palace. There Muhammad Ali offered them a special treat: a trip out to the Giza Plateau to view the pyramids.

It was a more generous offer than it might first appear. Conflicts with the Mamelukes and other rebel groups had made it impossible for Europeans to visit the plateau safely since the days when the French savants had made their observations. To do so now would require a significant logistical outlay on the part of the viceroy’s army. “I had numerous applications from the Europeans who happened to be in Cairo, to permit them to attend with me,” wrote Annesley later, “with which, of course, I complied.” On March 5, 1806, the party of some forty Europeans, accompanied by no fewer than 2000 soldiers and even two artillery cannons, arrived on the Giza Plateau.

Annesley found the sight less than overwhelming at first:

I cannot say that I was struck with that astonishment, which many have expressed on approaching these vast masses. The idea of a Pyramid is easily conceived, and consequently surprise cannot enter the feelings of a person when he first beholds them. When, however, reason points out the prodigious labour, with which they must have been erected, and the incomprehensible motives, which could have led to such vast exertions, astonishment gradually increases, and the mind is lost in conjecture and admiration.

What impression the pyramids might have made upon the young Henry Salt went unrecorded. Still, we can assume based on his subsequent career that they made quite the impression indeed.

The British party took its leave of Muhammad Ali the next day (the viceroy bestowing upon Annesley a sabre and a sable pelisse, Annesley bestowing upon the viceroy a diamond ring). It arrived back in Portsmouth on October 26, 1806, marking the conclusion of an adventure that had lasted four years and four months in all.

A portrait of Henry Salt drawn in 1815, just before his departure for Egypt. (Public Domain)

From 1809 to 1811, Henry Salt took another extended voyage through Abyssinia. Then, on June 13, 1815 — just five days before the final defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo — he was appointed his country’s new consul general to Egypt, the happy outcome of extensive lobbying on the part of himself and his friends. He arrived in Alexandria in March of the following year, finding what had been little more than a ruin to be a transformed city under Muhammad Ali, with its ancient walls rebuilt and a hundred ships in the now-bustling harbor. In Cairo, the viceroy showered him with gifts, among them a fine house. Muhammad Ali was, Salt wrote to a friend, “much delighted that a person had been sent with whom he was in some degree acquainted, and not, as he observed, ‘a stiff, unaccommodating Englishman.'” The two men would become quite close.

Henry Salt is, at best, a controversial figure today, and not only because of his cozy relationship with a tyrant over the course of the eleven and a half years he spent as his country’s consul general to Egypt. Before he left Britain, he was encouraged to devote some of his energy while in Egypt to collecting antiquities for the British Museum. This he proceeded to do with gusto, and not without the most base of personal motivations: he didn’t give his finds to the museum, but rather sold them to it. In fact, his official status as His Majesty’s diplomat wasn’t even sufficient to make him overly particular about his buyers; when the British Museum refused to meet his price, he sold to the Louvre instead. His plunder constitutes a big chunk of both museums’ Egyptian collections to this day. In light of all this, he is often characterized — caricatured? — as the worst sort of rapacious European colonialist, literally stealing the heritage of another people and sending it back to his homeland, one of the prime villains in what a later generation would dub “the rape of the Nile.”

All facts should, however, be taken in context. As a determined modernizer of his adopted land, Muhammad Ali had no interest whatsoever in its history, and saw its antiquities only as a way to raise money and curry influence among the various European powers who were forever jockeying to acquire them. Had Henry Salt and others not removed many antiquities from Egypt, Muhammad Ali would have destroyed them without a second thought to make way for his infrastructure projects.

A more nuanced portrait of Salt himself, meanwhile, reveals him to have been something more than the crass exploiter of his reputation. He often expressed a surprising empathy for the cultures under European thumbs; on a visit to the Portuguese colony of Mozambique, he was disgusted by the brutality of the colonizers, saying of the native rebellion that was in progress at the time, “if [it is] not always successful, [it] at least deserves to be so.” In Egypt, he frequently used his friendship with Muhammad Ali to attempt to curb — admittedly, with more luck at some times than at others — the latter’s most inhumane instincts. And, whatever drive for personal profit also motivated him, it’s clear that his love for ancient Egypt was real.

Over the course of his time in Egypt, Salt cultivated relationships with many others who could carry out the practical work of excavation and recovery which his official duties precluded. What with archaeology still an unknown discipline in the world’s universities, these were often gentlemen of means who could afford to spend months at a time in the Egyptian desert in the pursuit of esoteric knowledge and curios. Among the earliest and most important of them was Captain Giovanni Caviglia, who began working on the Giza Plateau within a year of Salt’s own return to Egypt as consul general.

Not a literary man, Caviglia left it to his friend Salt to document his story. The latter’s letters and articles reveal, in frustratingly limited glimpses, a driven if slightly eccentric man with an “amiable” personality. Born in 1770 in Genoa, he made a success of himself in the seafaring trade, rising to purchase his own vessel and sailing it under the British flag. As he was doing so, he was developing a passion for ancient Egypt. By the time Salt met him, he had been visiting the country off and on for some twenty years, digging wherever time, resources, and the current state of governance in the country permitted. His approach wasn’t a particularly educated one, but was motivated by an amateur’s passion for ancient mysteries. If we insist on categorizing students of ancient Egypt in either the mystical camp of Athanasius Kircher or the scientific camp of John Greaves, Caviglia must belong firmly to the former, eager to discover secret truths and metaphysical enlightenment in the ruins he explored. But, perhaps fortunately, he lacked the formal education to elaborate on his more dubious theories in the way of Edme-François Jomard. In the end, his beliefs had little effect on the practical work he did. He was a careful and methodical excavator.

Caviglia’s zeal was reserved most of all for the Pyramid of Khufu, whose interior, he was convinced, had yet to give up all of its secrets. With native shrewdness, he zeroed in on two places that seemed ripe for further discovery. One was the well in the floor of the passage leading to what scholars had taken to referring to as the “Queen’s Chamber,” the smaller of the pyramid’s two finished rooms. For a man of Caviglia’s extravagant views about the ancient Egyptians, well-acquainted with Herodotus’s cryptic account of Khufu’s real burial chamber being an island on an underground lake well below the pyramid, this unplumbed passage into the depths had an obvious allure. His other great point of interest was the piece of the entry passage that continued to descend after it met the ascending passage leading eventually to the Queen’s Chamber and the King’s Chambers (the latter being the room containing the sarcophagus). This descending passage didn’t so much come to a definitive stopping point as peter out amidst a mass of impenetrable rubble. Caviglia expressed surprise that Jomard and the other French savants hadn’t made a concentrated assault on these points of interest when they had had such unprecedented access to the Giza Plateau; instead they had largely contented themselves with studying the pyramid’s external dimensions. What they had failed to do, he wanted nothing more than to do for himself.

So, Caviglia arranged with Salt for access to the pyramid. With Muhammad Ali having now subdued the last of the rebels against his rule, military escorts were no longer required to visit the Giza Plateau, and it was easy enough for the good consul general to broker a nearly indefinite stay there for Caviglia. He arrived on the plateau on January 8, 1817, accompanied by two European companions and a bevy of Egyptian workmen. His first target would be the well. Still possessed of a sailor’s dexterity and hardiness at the age of 46, he was determined to make the descent into it himself.

Doing so would be an act of no small courage. Stories about this window into the depths had long circulated among Egyptian natives and to some extent even among Europeans — dark stories of would-be explorers who had never been seen again, of ropes suddenly plucked out of the hands of those waiting at the top of the well by the devils that lurked in the depths of the earth. The Egyptians with the party remonstrated loudly when they learned of Caviglia’s plan, insisting he was a fool to attempt such a thing. But he remained unswayed.

Caviglia noted, as had others who had peered down into the well before him, that its sides were carved out with holes or steps, as if to aid one’s descent. Yet they were far too crumbled and precarious to trust to. He therefore tied a rope to the center of a long bar of metal, which he then laid across the top of the well. The other end of the rope he tied securely around his waist. Carrying an oil lamp to light his way, he climbed over the lip and into the well, bracing his feet against its side and descending with the aid of one of his companions above, who slowly played out the rope.

Twenty-two feet (6.7 meters) down, he arrived in a tiny grotto; this must be the surface which John Greaves’s measuring line had struck almost 200 years before, during the first attempt by a European to probe the well. But this didn’t appear to be the end of the passage downward. Underneath several large stones at the southern end of the space, Caviglia saw what appeared to be a continuation of the well shaft. He persuaded one of his Egyptian helpers — a difficult endeavor that wound up requring the offering of a substantial bonus — to descend into the grotto and help him to manhandle the stones out of the way. He did indeed find beneath them another small space, no more than five feet (1.5 meters) in depth, but with a hole in one wall giving access to another shaft, leading not quite vertically downward.

One of his European friends now came down to hold the rope, and Caviglia began his next torturous descent. After 29 feet (8.8 meters), he arrived in another grotto, from which still another shaft descended at a slightly more oblique angle. Once again, his European friends re-positioned themselves, one of them joining him in this latest grotto to hold the rope for the next stage of his descent.

This shaft, it quickly became clear, was much longer than the others. Down, down, down Caviglia slid into the depths. The air was hot and increasingly foul, making breathing difficult and causing his lamp to flicker ominously. And soon, the pyramid’s ever-present colony of bats, disturbed by quite possibly the first light to penetrate these spaces in millennia, began to screech up and down the shaft, beating against him in the narrow space.

At last, after another 99 feet (30.1 meters), concluding in a final vertical drop, he could go no further; the shaft beneath his feet was hopelessly blocked up by rubble and bat guano. He must now be, he realized, nearly 100 feet (30 meters) beneath the surface of the plateau, and yet the shaft appeared to continue yet deeper. Could Herodotus’s story of an underground lake and island be true? Caviglia could only tug on the rope to signal to his helper and begin the long, even more taxing ascent. Just as he emerged into the first grotto, the lamps borne by him and the rest of his party all gave up the ghost at once, having depleted the last of the oxygen in these confined, guano-befouled spaces. They were forced to make the final stage of the ascent in pitch darkness, gasping and choking for breath.

Henry Salt was justifiably impressed with Caviglia’s fortitude. “Those,” he said, “who have visited the pyramids and have seen the stoutest men faint in getting up even to the gallery, who have experienced the enervating effect of the air in these subterranean channels, and have heard the various histories current at Cairo of persons supposed to have formerly perished in the attempt, will know how to appreciate the firmness of nerve, undaunted resolution, and presence of mind displayed through this adventure; the rare union of which alone could have brought it to a successful termination.” Caviglia himself was more convinced than ever by the experience that there were more secrets hidden inside the Pyramid of Khufu. While his two European companions in adventure, judging their business on the Giza Plateau finished, soon departed Cairo, Caviglia made the plateau his home, pitching his tent just outside the largest pyramid’s entrance.

Caviglia first attempted to continue his assault on the well by clearing its depths of debris. This quixotic task must entail lifting bucket after bucket of rubble to the surface via ropes and pulleys. But the Egyptian workers he had hired flatly refused to enter the well at all until, through the auspices of Salt, he secured a decree from Muhammad Ali — not a man to be defied — ordering them to do so. “It still is,” said Salt, “almost inconceivable how he could so far surmount the prejudices of these people as to induce them to work in so confined a space, where a light, after the first half hour, would not burn, and where, consequently, every thing was to be done by feeling and not by sight; the heat at the same time being so intense and the air so suffocating that, in spite of all precautions, it was not possible to stay below an hour at a time without suffering from its pernicious effects.” Long before their efforts got anywhere close to clearing the blockage in the depths, one of the workmen nearly died of suffocation, while others were fainting on a daily basis. Acting on a tip from some scientific-minded friends, Caviglia tried burning sulfur in the well as a means of purifying the air, but to no avail. Decree or no decree, he had to bow to the remonstrances of his workers and give it up.

He decided instead to attack what he had long deemed to be the other weak spot in the pyramid’s armor: the descending passage from its entrance. He set his workmen to the back-breaking labor of prying away the rubble at the far end of the passage and carting it up for dumping back at the entrance. He found that this passage just kept continuing as his men cleared more and more rubble away, reaching 150 feet (46 meters) from the junction with the ascending passage, then fully 200 feet (61 meters), sloping ever downward.

The air down here was only marginally better than that in the well. By now, he was suffering badly from it; he was coughing up blood every night. But still he persisted. On or around March 15, 1817, his workers began to reveal an opening leading off one side of the passage. Peering eagerly into it, Caviglia caught the telltale whiff of sulfur — not the sulfur of Hell, as he was almost tempted to suspect, but rather that which he had once burned inside the well shaft in a fruitless attempt to purify the air. Could it be?

It was. As the workmen cleared the last of the rubble, they retrieved some baskets and pieces of rope which Caviglia had left lying at the bottom of the well shaft. They had come full circle, digging out the well from below rather than from above. Doing so all but solved the ventilation problem at a stroke by giving air a way to circulate inside the pyramid.

This was fortunate, not least because the descending passage itself continued yet further beyond its meeting with the well shaft. After another 23 feet (7 meters), the passage suddenly leveled off, proceeding to run horizontally underground for 28 feet (8.5 meters). This opened onto a chamber, which, once completely excavated by Caviglia’s long-suffering workers, would prove to measure no less than 46 feet (14 meters) by 27 feet (8.2 meters). This chamber was of a much more unfinished character than the Queen’s or King’s Chambers, with rudely carved walls, floor, and ceiling that gave it more the look of a cave than a room. Irregular blocks of stone rising out of the floor might have been seats, or pedestals for statues, or merely bits of excavation left undone by the original builders. Caviglia thought he saw writing burned into one wall — but it appeared to be Roman characters rather than Egyptian hieroglyphs, and they were hopelessly illegible anyway. He had penetrated further into the pyramid than anyone in many long centuries if not millennia, but it remained as stubbornly uncommunicative as ever.

His hopes were raised by the revelation of another passage at the far end of the chamber, just wide and high enough to admit a man crawling on hands and knees. But, after being cleared out to 54 more laborious feet (16.5 meters), it terminated in blank stone, having revealed no obvious purpose for its existence. Ditto another passage of similar dimensions in the east wall, which ran 40 feet (12.1 meters) before terminating.

This modern rendering of the Pyramid of Khufu’s interior differs only in relatively modest ways from a map which Caviglia might have drawn. Only the two small shafts ascending out of either side of the King’s Chamber and the full series of spaces above the same chamber had not yet been discovered after Caviglia’s departure from the Giza Plateau in 1817. (Jeff Dahl)

It was all just a bit anticlimactic. “I confess that I had flattered myself,” mused Henry Salt, “before it was cleared out, that [the underground chamber] would be found to correspond with the one described by Herodotus as containing the tomb of Cheops [Khufu], and into which, according to the usual interpretation of the passage, was introduced a canal from the Nile; but after the necessary examination, I was reluctantly compelled to relinquish the idea from there being no inlet for the water to enter, and from finding that the Nile, according to the late French observations, does not rise to within 30 feet [9 meters] of its level when the river stands at its highest elevation.”

Caviglia continued to probe the pyramid for some time, looking for more hidden passages. He cleared the rubble and rancid refuse out of the Queen’s Chamber, but found hidden underneath it only another frustrating crawlway leading nowhere. He also thoroughly explored the space above the King’s Chamber which had been discovered by Nathaniel Davison in 1765. Doing so involved more filthy, unhealthy labor; the floor of the place was covered to a depth of 18 inches (45 centimeters) with guano. Future visitors to the pyramid would have good reason to thank Caviglia for the much-needed sanitation work he did here and, indeed, just about everywhere inside it. But it resulted in no major new discoveries. Still, in finding the bottom of the well and excavating the full length of the descending passage, he had already discovered much.

Caviglia’s achievements were only slightly diminished when it was revealed that he was not, as both he and Henry Salt had sincerely believed, the first to make his way to the bottom of the well. In 1817, even as Caviglia was still working on the Giza Plateau, a British scholar named Robert Walpole published his Memoirs Relating to European and Asiatic Turkey. There he revealed that, according to papers which had come into his possession via Nathaniel Davison’s widow, Davison had in fact made his own way to the bottom of the well in 1765, having in the process an experience very similar to that of Caviglia — fearful Egyptian helpers included. Davison had never written publicly about his adventure, thanks largely to a bit of skulduggery involving one Duke de Chaulnes, who, according to Walpole’s account, had “contrived by means of a false key to obtain and copy Mr. Davison’s papers and drawings,” then tried to pass them off as his own. The ugly episode would seem to have soured Davison on his pyramid research.

But, even if Caviglia wasn’t the first to reach the bottom of the well, he certainly was the first to discover its link with the descending passage, and to discover the mysterious unfinished chamber in which that passage terminated — not to mention giving the whole place a desperately needed spring cleaning. In doing all this, he did more than enough to secure himself a place of honor in the history of pyramidology.

The journal Quarterly Review, writing about Caviglia’s activities, concluded optimistically that “many other secret passages and chambers yet remain to be discovered in those gloomy mansions of mystery and wonder.” In the case of the Pyramid of Khufu, time would tell that Caviglia had in fact discovered most of what lay within, at least as far as we know today. (Only one significant unexplored area remained, which we’ll address in a future chapter.) There were, however, other mansions of mystery and wonder on the Giza Plateau which had long been neglected by explorers fixated on the great pyramids alone. It was to these that Caviglia next turned his attention.

For the first time, Caviglia devoted serious effort to the many smaller structures and catacombs which surrounded the three great pyramids. His overriding purpose was to uncover a fabled underground linkage between the Giza Plateau and the other nearby ancient ruins at Memphis. One might call this a project similar in spirit to his discovery of a link between the descending passage and the well inside the Pyramid of Khufu, but on a vastly greater scale. If the link he now sought existed, excavating it would be, he freely admited, an undertaking of many years. As it happened, he would fail to discover any such thing; the underground roadway belonged only to legend, not to reality. But he would uncover many other wonders while he was about it.

Caviglia unearthed in the other ruins on the Giza Plateau much of the sort of thing explorers had so long been frustrated at not finding inside the Pyramid of Khufu. Here at last were clear signs of a living, vibrant culture rather than mere passages and chambers of bare stone. Here at last, in other words, were signs of a culture on the Giza Plateau comparable to that found at other ancient Egyptian sites, including artworks of stunning beauty and humanity. On a wall of one apparent temple were the remnants of paintings of a “sacred boat” and a “procession of figures, each carrying a lotus in his hand.” Elsewhere were scenes of deer and birds, and of men farming or engaging in other aspects of daily life: “preparing certain pieces of furniture, hewing blocks of wood, and pressing out skins either of wine or oil.” In another painting, a group of musicians played on instruments that resembled harps, flutes, and clarinets, while a group of women danced. Perhaps most striking of all for its sense of energy and realism was a scene of some boatmen on the river arguing, presumably over payment of one sort or another. It could have been a scene from the Egypt of Caviglia and Salt’s time — or, for that matter, from the Egypt of our own.

In still another ruined building was a life-sized statue of a man. Although it was broken into two pieces, its eyes of glass were intact, and bits of the paint which must once have made it look disarmingly lifelike still clung to its surface. A stone head was found, evidently broken off another statue, that was if anything yet more impressive. “This head,” wrote Henry Salt, “even in its present state, I consider as extremely valuable from its similarity in style and features to that of the Sphinx, having the same facial line, the same sweetness of expression and marking in the mouth, and the same roundness and peculiarity which characterize the rest of the features.” Indeed, the merest fragments of sculpture, which Caviglia found scattered everywhere, Salt judged to be some of the finest examples of Egyptian workmanship yet unearthed; he made comparisons to the sculpture of the ancient Greeks, and even to the masterpieces of Michelangelo.

Caviglia also unearthed from the ruins surrounding the Pyramid of Khufu that which was most obviously of all missing from its interior: he found a number of mummies, some largely complete, lying moldering in fragments of their wooden coffins. Scattered about underfoot in some of the structures were more bits of mummy wrappings and human bones. He discovered a shaft or well reaching a depth of 60 feet (18 meters) underneath the sand. Opening off near its bottom was a chamber containing a sarcophagus of the same general dimensions as the one found inside the Pyramid of Khufu, but of a “superior polish.”

Unlike the infuriatingly inscrutable pyramids, many of the surrounding structures had hieroglyphs on their walls. These could not yet be read, but raised the tempting prospect of future understanding. Clearly the builder of at least the smaller structures on the Giza Plateau was not, as had sometimes been theorized, a pre-literate civilization. Caviglia found hieroglyphs in the most surprising places, even scrawled across the forehead of one of the mummies.

In August of 1817, a British traveler named John Carne paid Caviglia a visit on the Giza Plateau. He found it to be an austere life that the genial Italian shared there with a single German assistant and his forty or fifty hired Egyptian workmen, but one not without its attractions. Carne’s memoir gives the most vivid glimpse we have of Caviglia’s life in the desert, a place that seemed to boil human existence down to its most basic elements.

In the northern climate, no idea can be formed of the exquisite luxury of drinking in Egypt: little appetite for food is felt; but when, after crossing the burning sands, you reach the rich line of woods on the brink of the Nile, and pluck the fresh limes, and, mixing their juice with Egyptian sugar and the soft river-water, drink repeated bowls of lemonade, you feel that every other pleasure of the senses must yield to this. One then perceives the beauty and force of those similes in Scripture, where the sweetest emotions of the heart are compared to the assuaging of thirst in a sultry land.

Sunset on the Giza Plateau. (Kyle Taylor)

By now, Caviglia had left his tent to set up house inside one of the smaller tombs he had excavated — evocative quarters indeed to inhabit here in this seat of ancient mysteries. For all its agedness, the tomb was remarkably like a comfortable little vacation villa, with windows, a working door, and a working well just outside. Carne paints a sensual picture of mystic evenings dripping with the allure of the ancient world — a traveling back in time to the wellsprings of the human experience.

The last evening passed here was a very lovely one: I was seated with Caviglia near the door of his rocky abode, as the sun was slowly going down over the extensive scene before, the red rays lingering on the Pyramids, the Desert, and its dreary precipices and wastes. Of all the sunsets I ever beheld, none are so beautiful as those of Egypt: a fierce redness, almost the colour of blood, is often thrown over the horizon, and then fades into the most delicate hues of yellow, green, and azure. About a mile away on the right, a small tribe of wandering Bedouins, who had just arrived, had pitched their tents: the camels were standing beside, the fires were lighted, and the Arab masters moving about in their wild and picturesque drapery — the only scene of life in that vast solitude.

We were to set out at daybreak next morning on our return to Cairo; and, having taken leave of [Caviglia] and his companion, I lay down for the last time on my bed of reeds in the tomb; but every effort to compose myself to sleep was useless. I quitted my gloomy abode, and went into the open air: the desert plains, and the wide and gathering waters of the inundation, were bright with the most vivid moonlight. How deeply interesting was that walk! The vast forms of the Pyramids rose clear and distinct, and, viewed from the plain of sand as they seemed to rest against the blue midnight sky, their appearance was, in truth, magnificent, and the silence around was so hushed and deep! Pursuing my way over the soft sand, I reached the nearest branch of the overflow; and the night being excessively warm, I bathed once more in the Nile, a luxury that well supplied the want of sleep.

In his nightly communion with the wonders that surrounded him, Caviglia must have stared often at the only structure on the Giza Plateau that has ever rivaled the three great pyramids in the collective unconscious: the Sphinx, which was little more than an immense head poking above the sand, but which even on those terms must have struck him as endlessly beguiling. For now, displaying what Henry Salt described as “an indefatigable perseverance that became the astonishment of every person who witnessed his labours,” this tireless digger of an Italian sea captain had yet one more grand project in mind. He would dig the Sphinx out of the sand, revealing its full glory to the world.

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(This series's cover art is by KennyOMG, and is utilized under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)

10 Comments for "Chapter 4: The Consul and the Captain"

  • ted

    Your description of the passages makes me feel like I’m in a text-based adventure game.

  • Steve McCrea

    I’m curious about the idiom “after his lights” which I can’t find a definition of online.

    • Jimmy Maher

      That’s because I mangled it. 😉 Should read “by his lights.” Thanks!

  • Zwarteziel

    This is turning out to be a very enjoyable series. Well written and engaging. I look forward to the next episode!

    • Jimmy Maher

      Thank you for your support!

  • Hag

    Well written and fascinating read. I really like reading about history from the point of view of travelers, locals, learning about the events as much as about the personality of people, anecdotes, the era and its zeitgeist.
    Thank you.

  • Mike

    Really enjoying this series Jimmy – keep it up.

    If you haven’t already got yourself a copy, can I recommend John Romer’s awesome ‘The Great Pyramid: Ancient Egypt Revisited’ which must be the definitive modern book on the topic; it makes a fantastic companion to his ongoing ‘A History of Ancient Egypt’ of which the first two volumes have been published.

    Good old Henry Salt, he went on to do a lot of work in Upper Egypt including around Thebes, the Valley of the Kings and Abu Simbel. Anyone visiting London can see some of his collection; the giant head of Ramesses II in the British Museum known as ‘The Young Memnon’ was one of his; whilst I really recommend trying to visit John Soane’s Museum to see the stunning sarcophagus of Seti I.

    Both of these were collected on Salt’s behalf by Giovanni Belzoni – who deserves a video game or movie adaptation of his exploits. Belzoni was in Egypt to try and sell a hydraulic device to Muhammed Ali as you mentioned above, but that didn’t turn out well. So before one he was crashing around Egypt, smashing open tombs and dragging huge pieces of stone to Europe. Fascinating guy, but I don’t think he did much at Giza, so perhaps he is deserving of another story?

    • Jimmy Maher

      Romer’s book is a little more speculative in some areas than it’s willing to acknowledge. Still, there’s a *lot* of factual detail there, and it’s certainly the most substantial work on the Pyramid of Khufu since Petrie.

      Belzoni actually did do some very important work on the Giza Plateau: he was the first to enter the Pyramid of Khafre. As such, he’ll be starring in a chapter of his own very soon. 😉

  • typolice

    Thanks! Spotted one instance of “Cagilia” in there.

    • Jimmy Maher



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