Priest of the desert

By Zahi Hawass

Zahi Hawass Many Egyptian scientists living abroad have made their mark, and their achievements have reflected both on their mother country and their host nation. Among them is a modest man who, despite his many achievements, lives by the personal motto: "I am learning and I will live to learn." This man is Farouk El- Baz.

I first met him in Washington DC in 1977. It was my first lecture at the Smithsonian Institute and afterwards I spoke to El-Baz and his wife Pat. Since then we have been good friends and have cooperated on many projects concerning the conservation and preservation of Egyptian monuments.

A few months ago, I called him in Boston and told him that the Supreme Council of Antiquities had need of his expertise to carry out two important projects: the first was the excavation and conservation and of the second boat pit at Giza, the second to invite him to head a scientific committee to create a master development plan for Luxor.

Farouk El-Baz was among the first geologists to study the moon. He was known as the "Egyptian scientist at NASA" and became famous for the work he carried out. He is widely acclaimed for selecting a suitable site for the lunar landing of the Apollo. When he came to Egypt recently he brought with him a framed certificate showing that NASA had chosen to place our two names on a CD that will land on Mars in 2003.

He has traveled widely. To me and to many others Farouk El- Baz is known as the "The Priest of the Desert". He compared the desert of Mars with Egyptian deserts, and in the course of his work he found substantial water resources beneath the surface of the desert -- a treasure trove for the reclamation of our largely barren land. He also observed that the rocks and hills in the Western Desert had been shaped by the wind into unusual forms, some resembling the Pyramids and the Sphinx. However, I am afraid that I do not agree with El- Baz that the Egyptian monuments were inspired by these forms, because the Pyramids and the Sphinx have a religious significance.

When Farouk El-Baz became scientific consultant for the Supreme Council of Antiquities, a letter was sent to the president of Boston University. He is now head of their Remote Sensing Department.

He once said to me that it was his dream to restore the second boat at Giza and place it in a museum next to the first. In 1987, he headed a National Geographic's scientific exploration of this as yet unexcavated boat pit, a revolutionary project. For the first time we were able see what lay underground without the need for excavation. He, along with his team of scientists, inserted a small camera into the pit and took photos that showed the dismantled boat inside. It was an amazing experience. It revealed that the boat did not have a sail, indicating that it was not a funerary vessel. I must say we had a real shock when we observed that there were insects running over the surface of the wood, obviously the cause of its deterioration. This unfortunate observation suggested that the pit may have been opened in 1954, at the time of the discovery of the first boat, which is now in the boat museum.

We had hoped to be able to extract a sample of ancient air from the boat pit, as pure as on the day it was sealed. But unfortunately this was no longer possible. However, we do hope eventually to take a sample of ancient air from a sealed tomb because a study of its composition will give us insight into the atmosphere in ancient times. Such information could enable us to conserve organic material in our museums.

Sakuji Yoshimura of Waseda University is currently studying this possibility in collaboration with El-Baz. Yoshimura and his team are examining ways to control invading insects on the buried boat as a step towards eliminating them, and to build a hanger above the boat pit for its protection They are also preparing a report on the feasibility of excavating the second boat, restoring it, and then moving it, along with the first boat, to a new building located some distance away from the Great Pyramid.

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