An Egyptologist to be Remembered
By Zahi Hawass

I first met David O'Connor when he came to pick me up from Malawi in Minya, where as a young man I served as an inspector of antiquities at Tuna Al-Gabal. I was lucky to work with him in 1974 at Malkata on the west bank at Luxor, where Amenhotep III built his palace and the lake used for recreation by his wife, Tiye. In 1979, I spent three months with the Pennsylvania-Yale University expedition at Abydos, supervised by O'Connor and William Kelly Simpson. At Abydos, O'Connor used to rest after a long day work and have a beer. After dinner, we would talk about politics with the young American archaeologists. I was very impressed by President Gamal Abdel-Nasser, but when we began arguing O'Connor would always say, "No politics -- we are at a dig house, not a congress." Um Seti ("mother of Seti"), the English woman who believed she had served Seti I in an earlier life, would visit us at Abydos and was keen to help me improve my English.

O'Connor and Simpson invited me to Philadelphia, Boston, and Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, and I stayed for a while at his house in Philadelphia. When I went to the University of Pennsylvania as a Fulbright scholar in 1980 he was my adviser for my doctoral dissertation, and became a lifelong friend.

O'Connor is unique. Originally from Australia, he received a postgraduate diploma in Egyptology in 1962 from University College London. He then studied for his doctorate at Cambridge. He was always honest, a good excavator, and a true leader. I learnt a lot from him.

The first four of the seven years I spent at the university were fundamental to building me up as an Egyptologist. O'Connor was an excellent teacher. He taught us to understand the context of artefacts; how we can identify their origin, and how to date Pharaonic cemeteries based on the relative evidence.

I selected Giza as the topic of my doctoral dissertation. I also studied history so that I could learn to use literature or textual evidence to reconstruct the past. I also took independent study courses with O'Connor, who suggested I take courses in anthropology. The most important aspect of my time in Pennsylvania was that O'Connor treated me as a student so I could learn, rather than as an important official who could learn nothing from him. He was a happy man and we knew he was approaching when we heard him whistling.

I was 40 years old when I returned to Egypt. I used to say that I left Egypt with black hair and when I returned it was grey because of the hard work. O'Connor remained my adviser, and I often seek his advice. We often meet in Philadelphia or New York and have lunch together.

I like to say that O'Connor re- discovered Abydos, the sacred site of Abydos, where he has been working for many decades. Among many other things he excavated an important temple of Ramses II; as part of the division of finds, and as a special gift in appreciation of his work the Egyptian authorities gave a large, beautiful head of Ramses II to the museum at the University of Pennsylvania. O'Connor also worked in the cenotaph zone where ancient Egyptians set up monuments to honour Osiris, but his work in recent years has focussed mainly on the Early Dynastic funerary enclosures.

O'Connor left Pennsylvania to take a prestigious position as a professor at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. NYU is extremely fortunate to have him. He teaches Egyptology within its archaeological context, about which he is extraordinarily knowledgeable. He is a generous mentor: many of his students now have their own concessions at Abydos. One of the other things that O'Connor should be proud of is that all his students have important jobs, perhaps even the best jobs in the field.

One day I spoke with Janet Richards, one of his former students, about arranging for a Festschrift, a collection of essays dedicated to him. It would include articles submitted by colleagues and students in his honour. We published two volumes of some of the best recent articles on Egyptology. The topics were varied, but of course there was a number of articles about the site of Abydos where he gave his students opportunities to excavate and continued to guide them.

The two-volume Festschrift was published by the Supreme Council of Antiquities. The auditorium was full for the launch. Although his two beautiful daughters, Aisha and Katie, and his precious grandson could not come, his wife, Gulbun, attended this important moment in their lives. Janice Kamrin, one of his former students, introduced the event. Richards read a lengthy list of his many distinguished achievements. Egyptologists Tony Mills and Betsy Bryan spoke about their close professional and personal relationships with him. I gave one of the most difficult speeches that I have ever delivered, because I almost was in tears. I spoke about O'Connor as a teacher, his relationship with students, his teaching abilities, and his modesty. I offered him the two volumes and O'Connor accepted gracefully. In his speech he remembered the workmen who had helped him, particularly the rayes (boss) of his team.

O'Connor is an ideal role model for all of us as compared with those who only help themselves. As one of his former students I owe him a great deal. The two volumes dedicated to him will engrave his name in history.


BACK to The Plateau Homepage