Grave Robbers and Tomb Raiders:
Exposing and Transforming the Closed Spaces of the ‘Arabian Nights’ in Nineteenth-Century Britain

Accordingly, he went among the shrubs, and perceiving the door, he said, Open Sesame; and the door flew wide open. Ali Baba, who expected a dark, dismal place was very much surprised to see it light-some and spacious, cut out in the form of a vault by men, and received the light from the opening at the top of a rock. He saw all sorts of provisions, and rich bales of merchandizes, of silks, stuffs, brocades, and fine tapestries, piled upon one another, and, above all, great heaps of gold and silver, and great bags, laid upon one another. (‘Ali Baba’, in Arabian Nights’ Entertainments)1

Using his famous magic formula, the woodcutter Ali Baba penetrates the labyrinthine cavern of the forty thieves to discover and take possession of their plundered treasures. His aesthetic pleasure in wonder and revelation is accompanied by material pleasure in the appropriation of valuable goods. The thieves’ spectacular underground chamber, an image used repeatedly in the story collection of the ‘Arabian Nights’, functions as a physical and psychic space of mystery and potential knowledge that may be accessed and at least partially understood by outsiders.2 By ‘Arabian Nights’, I mean the collection of Arabic, Egyptian, Persian, and Indian folktales known in early nineteenth-century England as the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments through the work of Antoine Galland. Galland’s translation was the definitive source text in Europe for these stories until the mid-nineteenth century. In early nineteenth-century Britain, during the aftermath of Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition of 1798 to 1801, numerous British scholars, travellers, and orientalists assumed the role of Ali Baba by travelling to Egypt and other “Eastern” nations in order to infiltrate, bear witness to and collect the antiquities of the ancient world. In this period of burgeoning archaeological activity, I believe that the concealed crypts and caves of the ‘Arabian Nights’ operated both as vague atemporal locations of the Western imagination and materially realised repositories of ancient relics. In theatrical representations and in the construction of historical narratives drawn from these newly excavated spaces, the traditional binaries of ancient and modern, and Occident and Orient, were disrupted and even subverted by the presence of the ‘Arabian Nights’ and their associations with magic, childhood, and national identity. This process influenced British perceptions not only of the Orient but of itself, as archaeological exhibitions and theatrical productions punctuated English cultural history, providing a forum for shifting negotiations with the self and British society.

The emerging science of Egyptology in the early nineteenth century signifies various attempts to penetrate and often to possess the languages and histories of Ancient Egypt. This is apparent in the efforts of scholars such as Thomas Young and Jean-François Champollion, who were working to decipher the hieroglyphics that covered ancient structures, as well as Sir John Gardner Wilkinson, who spent twelve years in Egypt surveying archaeological sites before producing his major work, Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians. Between 1815 and 1819, the Italian-born Englishman Giovanni Belzoni removed the colossal bust of Ramses II from Thebes, excavated the temple at Abu Simbel, conducted archaeological digs at Karnak and located the entrance to the second pyramid of Giza, successfully infiltrating its elaborate underground network. In 1851, Household Words noted that the temple at Thebes containing Ramses II had been ‘for so long a period, buried in sand, that even its existence remained unsuspected’ until Belzoni’s discovery, and ‘descriptions which travellers give of it resemble those of the palaces in the “Arabian Nights”.’3 In 1865, Chambers’s Journal used similar hyperbole to describe the discovery of the tomb of Seti I:

Belzoni and his Arabs, now half delirious with excitement and joy, hurl down the masonry, and burst in. What they see there is like a vision told in the Arabian Nights. There are halls, and secret chambers, and corridors, and staircases of a splendour and on a scale to stagger belief. There are walls all brilliant with vivid colours, fresh as they were thousands of years back, when the workman laid down his brush to die. There are columns and cornices, belaboured with sumptuous carvings and imagery; and all around, thick spread on the rock, gorgeously-pictured allegories, illustrative of deep and awful mysteries.4

  1. Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, ed. Robert L. Mack, (Oxford Paperbacks, Oxford, 2009), p.766; from the original English translation of Les Mille et une Nuits translated from the Syrian into French by Antoine Galland. []
  2. Consider, for example, the underground caverns and tombs in “Aladdin”, “The Ninth Statue”, “The History of the First Calendar”, “The History of the Third Calendar”, “The History of the Young King of the Black-Isles”, and “The Fourth Voyage of Sindbad the Sailor”. []
  3. ‘The Story of Giovanni Belzoni’, in Household Words 2 (1851): p. 551. []
  4. ‘Tomb of Sethi, Descendant of the Sun’, in Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts 0 (1865): p. 733. []

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