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H. J. Curtin
…my Irish lad… (1)
We were not quite sure, where or when he was born. The best we can say is that he was born in Ireland.
But from a very nice cut graffito we learn that H.J. Curtin’s birthplace was Limerick (2).
The first time we hear of Curtin is in Belzoni’s Narrative, he opens his first journey with, “We sailed from Malta on the 19th of May, 1815, and arrived at Alexandria on the 9th of June following; Mrs. Belzoni, myself, and James Curtain , a lad whom I brought with me from Ireland, formed our party” (3).
Curtin was already with Belzoni in 1812/1813, on a trip that brought them to Cadiz, Gibraltar and Malaga(4).
Although, James Curtin, broke his thigh-bone, during Belzoni’s demonstration of his waterwheel (5), James went with Belzoni on his first trip to the south, on behalf of Henry Salt to bring the so called memnon head from the Ramesseum to Alexandria.
They left Cairo, 30 June 1816 (6), but during the work of remove the head, Belzoni was obliged to send Curtin back to Cairo, “as he could not resist the climate”, maybe it was not the climate, but his leg that troubling him (7).
Next time we hear of Curtin, is when Belzoni and his wife, arrived in Cairo with the colossus of Ramesses from Luxor. He was with the Belzoni’s when they brought the head from Cairo to Alexandria , January 1817 (8).
When Belzoni started on his second journey to the south to work in Luxor, and to try to get in the temple of Abou Simbel, he left Sarah and Curtin with the family of Mr Cochini in Cairo (9).
We hear again from Curtin, when he arrived from Cairo with Mrs; Belzoni, at Philae, 5 June 1817 (10).
With the date in mind on his graffito we can guess that he made it the day after he arrived in Philae
Belzoni left Philae,16 June 1817, together with Charles Irby, James Mangles, H.W.Beechey, Giovanni Finati (Mohamed a soldier send to us by Mr.Salt” ) (11), and left Mrs Belzoni and James Curtin in Philae (10).
When Belzoni arrived back from Abu Simbel, in August (the temple was openend 1 August), they went back to Luxor . There Mrs. Belzoni decided to make a trip to the Palestina, with Curtin (11). Also accompanied with Giovanni Finati on his way to meet Bankes (12).
It is bizarre that Mrs. Belzoni in her “account” , never mentioned Curtin by is name it is always my servant, although they spend so much time together (13).
In Jerusalem, Curtin entered in the service of Mr. Legh (14).
Legh came back from a trip that brought him and and a certain Dr. Macmichael, in a journey from Moscow to Constantinople.
Legh left his travelling partner in Constantinoiple and went by ship to Jaffa, and from there to Jerusalem (15).
In Jerusalem, Legh met Bankes, Irby and Mangles, and they made preparations for a trip to Petra (16).
“The party consisted of Captains Irby and Mangles, and their servant Ibrahim, a Christian Arab, a native of Tiberias; Mr Bankes, with his domestic, the renegado Hadgi Mohamed, a soldier belonging to the Pasha of Egypt, and acted as his dragoman (Giovanni Finati); and myself, with James Curtin my interpreter, the Tartar Mustafa, who had come with me from Constantinople, and Georgiolio, an Armenian, who was to take charge of the horses. The Greek servant Nicolo, was sent with all our baggage and valuables, to await our return at Acre” (16) .
They left Jerusalem 7 May 1818 for Petra, that they reach, and could visit, after great difficulties, on the 26 of May.
On June 25, 1818 they arrived back in Acre. Legh went from there on another trip to Damascus, Palmyra (17), Baalbec and Aleppo (18), we can be sure that James Curtin was also for those trips his traveller partner.
George Waddington and Barnard Hanbury, arrived in Alexandria in the middle of August 1820, and we can speculate that our friend James Curtin was with them already.
Their “Journal” that they in 1822 would publish starts on 10 November 1820.in Wady Halfa (19).
Left Wady Halfa with dragoman; James Curtin, a young Irishman, who had been some time with Mr. Belzoni, and who is mentioned with praise in Mr.Legh’s account of the journey to Wady Moosa(20); a Maltese, named Giovanni Fiamingo, and his cousin Giuseppe (21).
The trip through the Sudan brought
the small group as far as Gebel Barkal, and James is mentioned continuously, as a full member of that group. After a trip of four months they arrived back in Wady Halfa on 1 February 1821 (22).
On the cover of the ASTENE Bulletin of April 1999 , is a print that is published in their Journal of the trip in the Sudan. It is interesting to give the explanation that goes with the print.
Hanbury (beard and Turkish dress). The ferryman, a black malicious looking man, with much magic in his eye, is behind us, on the projecting plank, steering with a paddle. In the middle lies a large old camel on its knees, perfectly quiet; and by his side stand James and Giovanni, pulling a rope, attached to another paddle, which serves for an oar, and which a sailor is also pulling with his hands. The dog, “Anubis”, is asleep beyond the camel; then comes Giuseppe, evidently philosophising in silence on the mutability of human affairs, and regretting the pleasures and security of Cairo and of Malta; and at the prow is the camel-driver, standing on the bottom of a long shawl, and stretching out the upper part with his hands, to make a sail; thus do we cross over (23).
Next news that we have of James Curtin, that he is in Paris in charge of the Belzoni exhibition, and in 1825 he is back in London, helping to construct the Egyptian Tomb (24).
H.J.Curtin, left no information about his adventures, although he was one of the first travellers, in Egypt, Nubia, the Sudan and the Near East.
About his dead we found only one bit of information , in a footnote, This young man died afterwards in London (25).
(1) Giovanni Belzoni, Narrative of the Operations and recent Discoveries within the Pyramids, Temples, Tomb and Excavations, in Egypt and Nubia, London 1820, (Republished Farnborough 1971, p. 377.
(2) RDK 915, Philae, Temple of Isis, main temple, first pylon, right side, inside near the top. He made another graffito in the same temple, RDK 1168, on the roof, back of the second pylon. J. Curtin, no date. See also Berlin photo n° 299.
(3) Belzoni, op.cit., p. 1.
(4) Stanley Mayes, The Great Belzoni, London 1959, p. 68.
(5) Belzoni, op.cit., p. 23.
(6) Ibid. p. 29.
(7) Ibid. p. 45.
(9) bid. p. 135.
(10) Ibid. p. 139.
(11) Ibid. p. 203.
(12) Ibid. p. 251.
(13) Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Giovanni Finati, ed. W. J. Bankes, 2 vols., London 1830, vol., II, p. 220.
(14) Mrs. Belzoni’s Trifling Account of the Women of Egypt, Nubia, and Syria, p. 441-483.
(15) Belzoni, op.cit., p. 377; Mrs Belzoni, op.cit., p. 459.
(16) Thomas Legh, Excursion from Jerusalem to Wadi Musa, in The Biblical Repository, vol., III, nos.IX-XII, Andover October 1833,no XII, p. 613-652, p. 615. (First published in Macmichael’s, Journey from Moscow to 1818, chap., IV, p. 185, London 1819).
(17) Ibid. p. 619.
(18) Ibid. p. 652.
(19) Charles Irby, James Mangles, Travels in Egypt and Nubia, Syria and Asia Minor
(20) during the Years 1817 and 1818, London 1823. Republished, London 1985, p. 486.
(21) George Waddington, Barnard Hanbury, Journal of a Visit to some parts of Ethiopia, London 1822.
(22) Legh, op.cit., nota on p. 610, “By birth a Irishman, who had been for eight years in the service of M. Belzoni; his zeal, fidelity, and knowledge of the Arabic language, were of the greatest use to me”.
(23) Waddington, op.cit., p. 2.
(24) Ibid. p. 311.
(25) Ibid. p. 52.
(26) Mayes, op.cit., p. 287.
(27) Finati, op.cit., p. 211.
Roger O. De Keersmaecker
The above article was first published in
Bulletin of the Association for the Study
Travel in Egypt and the Near East
No 10- October 2000, p. 21-22
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