MAKING A DIFFERENCE
SAVING THE SECRETS OF THE SANDS:
Zahi A. Hawass
As director general of Egypt's most significant archaeological sites, Zahi A. Hawass is driven by a passion to save the world's ancient monuments from natural and man-made forces that are threatening to destroy them.
month marks the completion of the restoration of the
Great Sphinx of Egypt. It's the latest milestone in
a decade of innovative conservation efforts and historic archaeological discoveries since
Zahi A. Hawass, Ph.D., became director general
of the Giza Plateau, Saqqara, and Bahria Oasis 10 years ago at age 40 the youngest person
appointed to the position.
This work is a constant inspiration to me," says Hawass. As director of the Sphinx Restoration Project, he organized a meeting that attracted more than 90 world-renowned scholars and scientists to strategize about conserving the global landmark. "Archaeology is a mystery world. It's a world of magic. That's the reward that makes this my paradise."
Hawass holds responsibilities as far-reaching memberships on Egypt's High Council of Culture and government committees shaping tourism, in addition to faculty positions at universities in the United States and Egypt. The former University of Pennsylvania Fulbright scholar directs many excavations, and during his almost 30 years in the field has worked every major archaeological site from Alexandria to Abu Simbel.
Hawass' dissertation accurately predicted the location of the Workmen's Village southeast of the Sphinx. Its discovery changed long-held beliefs. "First of all it proved that the Egyptians were the pyramid builders," Hawass animatedly explains. He emphasizes that the workers' burial next to the pyramids proves that they weren't slaves. "This discovery shows how 80 percent of Egyptian lived. They worked on the pyramids from sunrise to sunset, subsisted on beer and bread, and died at the age of 30-35.
Hawass' intense dedication to his work has captivated audiences ranging from a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Tourism and Culture conference in Paris to attendees of his "Recent Discoveries at the Giza Pyramids" lectures held in museums throughout the United States.
"There's something about him. He's a unique phenomenon," says Antonio Loprieno, chairman of the department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). He calls Hawass the "right person at the right time" for altering public awareness. "In :many ways, he's probably the first media-conscious Egyptologist," says Loprieno. This consciousness has netted Hawass appearances on a variety of television shows in the United States.
The irony is that Hawass, born in Damietta, Egypt, wanted to become "anything but an archaeologist" in his early years. "Sometimes, when you go into a career and think that you dislike it, it may be the best thing in the world you can do," he says. "If you give your life, your energy, to anything you choose to do, you'll get back what you put into it."
Hawass is putting this commitment into a preservation effort that is at a crossroads. Hawass worries that tourism may destroy the ancient monuments in Egypt and elsewhere.
Q: Your earliest aspirations were to become a diplomat or an attorney. Why did you pursue archaeology instead?
A: Archaeology came by accident. At 19, you really cannot know what you want to do. But later, when I began to work on excavations in a site called Kom Abou Bellou - discovering statues that had been hidden for 5,000 years-- that makes life very exciting.
Q: In 1970 you made a number of important discoveries at Kom Abou Bellou that you've called 'the beginning of your career.' What changed for you then?
A: That was the beginning. I lived in the desert for seven years in a tent, around snakes and scorpions, and ate garlic, onion, and bread every day.
Adventure during the day -- you excavate statues, tombs, temples, artifacts, gold. I found more than 500 pieces of gold at this site. And in the evening you live in the dark with the noise of the birds. It was the most peaceful seven years of my life.
Q: At age 40, you were the youngest man ever to become director general of the pyramids. What earned you this coveted position?
A: The reason that I got the job is that the Giza pyramids suffered for many decades. There were many thieves, and they stole many artifacts. They thought they needed someone who really could control the site--and that was me. I became the inspector of the pyramids first, and after that, when I came back from the University of Pennsylvania, my Ph.D. was on the site, Giza Plateau. But I never looked for a title. I always looked for excavations, for the secrets under the sand. I wanted to reveal evidence about the building of the pyramids, about the workmen. Those really were my goals, and the title came later.
Q:What were the first things you wanted to do after being named director general of the pyramids? Did you change the way things were done?
A: My first goal was the preservation of the monuments and cleaning of the plateau, which we did in several phases.
I put in a small gate and made everyone who entered the plateau pay a fee, and this raised our income. I hired a company to clean the pyramids. For the first time, we closed Cheops Pyramid for one year and did important conservation work inside. The same with the second pyramid, and the third. We moved all the cars from the Sphinx square to a parking lot outside the plateau and redid the area. In November we moved all the camel drivers to the south in the desert. In 1998, we hope to complete the final phase of the conservation of the Giza Plateau by making a road around the pyramids. No cars will be allowed to go up on the plateau. And we'll build interpretive centers because it's important that people understand how the stones of the pyramids can tell us the story of 5,000 years.
"Many of the world monuments will be gone in 200 years if we cannot make everyone aware of the threat. The No. 1 challenge is tourism. There is no talk between tourism board authorities and archaeologists at many sites in the world."
Q: How have your priorities changed?
A: The most important things we are now focused on are the conservation of the pyramids, the preservation of the monuments, and the Sphinx.
Q: You've said that the Giza Plateau is the most difficult preservation site in the world. Why is that?
A: You have so many people who want to take advantage of the site. You have camel and horse drivers, you have antiquities robbers, you have people trying to climb the pyramids. There are hundreds of difficulties to face.
The pyramids are so close to downtown Cairo. They're not in the desert anymore, and that's why it's important to strike a balance with conservation.
Q:What caused you to apply site management techniques?
A: It is the most important site in the world. You cannot have stones falling from the pyramids. You cannot have tombs that are falling apart. You cannot have camel drivers in the pyramids. This is like a zoo. That's why I started thinking about how to ensure that this site is respected for the way it is managed.
Q:You play an active role in Egypt's tourism efforts. How do you reconcile competing priorities between preservation and tourism?
A: When we close a pyramid, we have another open. But my philosophy is that the pyramids should not be visited inside by tourists. The pyramids are tombs. In my opinion, the magic of the pyramid is on the outside, not on the inside, but at the same time, for tourism, we do balance the two. We open the pyramids after closing hours for people to meditate. We try to accommodate both the country's need for the income and the preservation of the monuments.
Q: Where do you think we stand in terms of global consciousness about preserving World Heritage Sites?
A: Many of the world's monuments will be gone in 200 years. In my opinion, the Egyptian ones will be gone in 100 years if we cannot make everyone aware of the threat. The No. 1 challenge is tourism. There is no talk between tourism board authorities and archaeologists at many sites in the world.
Q: But what about your efforts?
A: One individual is not enough. At the same time, you have humidity, heat, and pollution. The Valley of the Kings near Luxor is going to be completely deteriorated because of the way people enter. For example, the Tomb of King Tut gets 4,000 visitors a day. In 10 years it will be gone. People all over the world have to be aware of what is going to happen to these monuments.
UNESCO has to participate in a big campaign to bring expertise from all over the world to discuss this problem, to find out how they can accommodate tourism and archaeology, how they can stop pollution, how they can close some tombs and create copies to be visited.
Q: What about funding? Is this more than a regional issue?
A: The big problem is the strategy, the plan, the vision. The money will come if you have the strategy and the plan.
Campaigns for any significant site in the world are possible: People will pay, especially for Egypt.
Q: With your nonstop schedule, why do you continue teaching at universities?
A: To communicate. I am writing a book called Giza and the Pyramids and another called Secrets From the Sand about all the discoveries on the Giza Plateau. That's why I take the month of August and the first part of September to go to UCLA and teach. Then I can also tell the students What's happening with recent discoveries.
Q:What do you consider the greatest achievement of your career to date?
A: The most important is the new conservation plan at the Giza Plateau.
No. 2 is the discovery.that I made of the tombs of the pyramid builders.
Q: Where do you see yourself five years from now?
A: I think I have at least two years to implement the conservation plan for the Giza Plateau and continue the excavations. I always say you never know what the sand of Egypt may be hiding. I feel that there is an important discovery to be made at the Giza Plateau, and that is something I'm really looking forward to.
Q: As Egypt's antiquities continue to be unearthed, what lessons do they hold for the world's future?
A: You have to know that the ancient Egyptians who made this civilization were really normal people like us. They were not giants; they were not people who came from Atlantis or outer space.
We have to learn that those people believed in God, and they did all this building because of their beliefs. If you believe in something you can do it. This is a very important lesson that you have to understand from the past to improve the future.
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