The King of the pharaohs
Tim Radford meets the man who put Egypt back into Egyptology
Zahi Hawass is overlord of the underworld. At 56, he is the secretary
general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities. The Sphinx, the great
pyramids at Giza and the step pyramids of Saqqara all lie within his
dominion. So too does all the buried treasure of Egypt, be it 100,000
years old or 100. The pharaohs of 30 dynasties are his, and all their
coffins and grave goods, and in his care are the ruins left behind by the
armies of Alexander, Marc Antony and Napoleon.
Hawass's sway matches that of any pharaoh, and his influence does not
stop at Egypt's borders. He says things that can rattle teeth and raise
dust in Berlin, New York and London, especially when he starts asking for
his mummy back - the royal corpse of Rameses I was returned from Atlanta
last month - or the bust of Queen Nefertiti from Germany, or the Rosetta
Stone, key to the mystery of the hieroglyphs, now in the British Museum.
Hawass is not a demure man. He began a lecture in London last week with
a 14-minute promotional video showing himself opening sarcophagi and
exploring pyramids in his broad-brimmed hat, and stepping out with Bill
Clinton, the Blairs and Laura Bush - with a cameo role for Egypt's most
famous actor, Omar Sharif. By Hawass's own account, he gradually took
charge of an underpaid and sometimes corrupt army of guards and
inspectors, and a haphazard system of storage for two centuries of
archaeological plunder, and turned it into an efficient professional
bureaucracy. The French, British, Germans and Americans may have launched
the science of Egyptology: but Hawass has begun to reclaim it for the
He has done this in the face of a 4,000-year-old tradition of tomb
robbery, a thriving black market in Egyptian artefacts, and leaking sewers
and a rising water table that threaten tombs that have survived 4,500
years; not to mention five million tourists a year, each exhaling an ounce
of moisture inside tomb and temple, centuries of bureaucratic inertia, a
bit of hostility from some Western scholars and, of course, a cadre of New
Age theorists convinced the pyramids were put up by extraterrestrials or
that each open tomb invokes an ancient curse.
Hawass speaks English swiftly and volubly, sentences tumbling out, the
grammar sometimes awry but the words vivid. And he talks tough. Egypt has
far more history than you could shake a stick at, and it is being
rediscovered faster than it is being conserved. So in the next few years,
Hawass is going to put archaeological excavation in upper Egypt on hold.
He will close pyramids one at a time for restoration and clear the
immediate site of car parks and camel-hirers, souvenir hustlers and pizza
stands. He will also open 13 new museums, train more graduates, and
preserve more tombs.
"We are the only ones who really can care about the preservation," he
says. "Foreigners who come to excavate, maybe some of them care about
preservation, but the majority care about discoveries. I made these new
rules: if you come and discover a tomb, you should preserve it, you should
do the conservation, don't give it to me to do.
"I spent, in the last year, half a billion Egyptian pounds in
preservation, not one pound came from foreign aid, because most of the
foreigners working in Egypt concentrate on discoveries - and we do help
them, but we ask: if you discover something, you should really publish it.
Also, in the rules we are making, you need to publish it in your language,
and also in Arabic, because this can help the Egyptians to understand. And
if you discover something, you cannot go and reveal it in your country
without telling us. It has to be reviewed by us and announced by us in
your name. Then after that you can take it and announce it everywhere."
Hawass has done a fair bit of discovery himself: he started as an
inspector of antiquities with a graduate degree in the Graeco-Roman
period, fell in love with Egyptology, did a master's degree, got a
Fulbright scholarship at the age of 33, chose the University of
Pennsylvania, and then returned at 40 to make a career at Giza, home of
the pyramid of Khufu - the Greeks called him Cheops - and the Sphinx. He
and his colleagues discovered another pyramid at Giza, they unearthed the
dormitory village of the craftsmen and labourers who put up the pyramids
on a diet of bread and onions and beer and the roasted flesh of 11 cows
and 33 goats every day. He overcame a childhood fear of the dark, survived
a heart attack and a near-electrocution. And - after a donkey accidentally
stepped in a hole in the ground at the oasis of Barahiya - he began to dig
in what became known as the Valley of the Golden Mummies. He knows what it
is like to hold something hidden 40 centuries ago.
"The first statue I found was a statue of a dwarf. When I entered a
shaft, about 5 metres down, and I held this statue in my hands, it was
exactly like when I held my first son, when he was born - exactly the same
feeling. When you enter the shaft for the first time - that no one has
entered before you - in the dark, the excitement and the adventure go to
your heart, it trembles the heart, and this is why when you reveal it, you
tremble the heart of the people," he says. "When you see it in a movie, it
is a thrill, but in a movie, they set this up. But for us, it is not a
movie. It is real."
The antiquities council has 30,000 officials and more than 4,000
archaeologists. Each foreign team, from a recognised institution, must
agree to employ an Egyptian inspector on the dig, providing experience and
a network of international contacts, and have their research translated
into Arabic. They must conserve and catalogue what they find and above
all, they must publish. Hawass wants an end to the free-for-all. Modern
Egypt has no place for Indiana Jones and Lara Croft. He thinks some
British archaeologists are upset because for the first time in the history
of Egyptology, there are rules. Honest people and serious researchers
agree with him, he says.
But he did discover one researcher working on five sites at once. "How?
How can you excavate five sites at once? There is no way. Take one site,
finish it, and I give you another. If you discover a tomb, you cannot go
and discover another tomb, no! You have to restore this tomb first and
publish. Some people discovered 13 tombs in the last 10 years and never
published one tomb. No. Sit down, stay home, publish them, bring me the
books and I will let you work again," he says.
He wants no more adventurers, thieves or people with bizarre theories
to confirm. Years ago, he coined the word "pyramidiots" to describe those
with daft ideas about the pyramids: the word deserves a place in the
Oxford English dictionary. Tough talk, however, began in Egypt itself.
"I did something very important that people will appreciate in the
future. Our monuments are stored in very bad storage magazines: you
yourself can go and open them, by hand, get in and take artefacts. Or you
can go and bribe a guard," he says. "That is something I really looked at
carefully, at the beginning. I contracted the Egyptian army to build for
us 37 new storage magazines, with well-made shelves, conservation rooms,
photography department, lab for recording: it's like museum storage, a
museum, but not open to the visitor; it is a museum for scholars to keep
and record monuments, and these are fantastic: we completely stopped most
of the artefacts leaving Egypt."
He has also asked for the return of a few selected items. By
international convention, property removed illegally after 1972 must be
returned. This is being interpreted generously. The mummy of Rameses I
turned up in a Niagara Falls museum in 1860: a museum at Emory University
in Atlanta, Georgia, returned the roving royal in October. Scotland Yard
helped crack an important papyrus theft 10 years ago; Swiss authorities
intercepted 280 artefacts in Basle and have just shipped them back to
Cairo. He has his eye on Nefertiti, supposedly shown to Egyptian
authorities under a mask of muddy gypsum and allowed to go to Germany.
When Egypt asked for it back in the 1930s, Hitler stepped in. It remains
in Berlin. The British Museum's Rosetta stone - showing the same text in
Greek, hieroglyphic and demotic - helped scholars crack the language of
the pharaohs 200 years ago.
"I am saying: I give you exhibitions, you should help me. Ninety five
per cent of Egyptians never saw the Rosetta stone, never saw the bust of
Nefertiti, never saw the Zodiac in the Louvre, never the statue of Hemiunu,
architect of the Great Pyramid at Hildesheim Museum, never saw the statue
of Ankhkhaf, architect of the second museum at Boston Museum of Fine Arts
in America. I need them to be shown for a [short] period of time: even
though I know all of them went, legally, in old times. Except the bust of
Nefertiti. That left illegally," he says. "What I am saying is that we
need to have good cooperation between all of us. I believe that Egyptology
is not just for us Egyptians, it is for everyone. These monuments do not
belong to us, they belong to everyone. We are only the guardians."
His father was a farmer: Hawass senior told his son never to put his
hands in the dirt. "He died when I was 13. He was a good man and I still
remember what he told me. He said: 'Never be afraid of anyone. You have to
trust yourself. [And] you have to be honest. If you are honest, nobody can
Not even, by the way, a cursing pharaoh. If there was any truth in the
curse of the mummy, propagated since Carnarvon and Howard Carter opened
the tomb of Tutakhamun, Hawass would have been dead many times. He doesn't
shave on the day he opens a tomb in case ancient germs infect any fresh
cuts, and when he moves a lid he stands well back and lets the fresh air
blow away the foulness of 20 or 30 centuries. But he doesn't worry about
the curse. When he pushed a lamp too far in a tomb at Bahariya, the wire
broke, and he fainted from the shock.
"When I got up I told my colleagues that if anything had happened to
me, everyone would believe in the curse. I found in one of the tombs an
inscription saying, 'If you touch my tomb, you will be eaten by a
crocodile and hippopotamus.' It doesn't mean the hippo will eat you, it
means the person really wanted his tomb to be protected."