Magazine article Geographical

A Pharaoh's King: With Responsibility for What Is Probably the World's Richest Collection of Antiquities, Dr Zahi Hawass Is the Egyptologist's Egyptologist. Miranda Haines Caught Up with Him during His Recent Visit to the UK

Magazine article Geographical

A Pharaoh's King: With Responsibility for What Is Probably the World's Richest Collection of Antiquities, Dr Zahi Hawass Is the Egyptologist's Egyptologist. Miranda Haines Caught Up with Him during His Recent Visit to the UK

Article excerpt

A quick look at the official website of the explorer and author of numerous popular books on Egyptian archaeology, Dr Zahi Hawass, reveals a series of tantalising headlines: The Curse of the Pharaoh Undone; Grave Robbers Raid Tombs at Night; The Mystery of the Great Pyramid; Valley of the Golden Mummies Discovered; Lost Civilisations Reappear; Re-inventing the Myths of the Sphinx. Even for the most archaeologically challenged, Hawass's stories are mesmerising. They read like an Indiana Jones adventure, populated with just as many obstacles, curses, evil powers and jealous colleagues.

I am at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London, and Hawass is talking to a full house. He begins by showing a promotional video of himself, shot by the National Geographic film team that has followed and supported his work for many years now. We see him posing in front of the pyramids at Giza with the setting sun throwing a dark shadow on his Texan hat. His arras are outstretched proprietorially, and he is joking and laughing with the photographers. We see him welcoming the Blair family, Bill Clinton and Laura Bush. Egypt's own Hollywood star, Omar Sharif, speaks affectionately of him as someone who relishes the publicity and fame that his great discoveries have brought him. The voice-over describes Hawass as a "unit of energy" and his son is asked where he gets this energy from. There is a long pause and his son replies, "Egyptian beans". We cut to Hawass, who roars with laughter, and the film ends.

The lights go up and a well-built man, dressed in a suit and with lots of thick white hair, is standing on stage. "Archaeology is about studying the past to understand the future," he says in a thick accent. Hawass's raison d'etre is to bring Egypt's heritage to life, to preserve it for future generations while increasing Egypt's reputation as a first-class tourist destination. And since he was appointed secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities just over a year ago, he has been in a position to achieve much of this. His gigantic responsibilities include all of Egypt's buried treasure, the pharaohs of 30 dynasties, the Sphinx, the pyramids at Giza and the step pyramids of Saqqara.

His is a sizeable ambition for an Egyptian farmer's son, and if 56-year-old Hawass hadn't already achieved most of these goals you might be tempted to call him a bit crazy. Certainly, his style of delivery is expansive--for an English palate, perhaps even boastful. Nevertheless, the sentiment is pure and his long list of achievements and discoveries is indisputable.

In his latest book, Secrets from the Sand, Hawass describes the path and discoveries of his life. As an inspector of antiquities of the Graeco-Roman period, he became familiar with the ways of tomb robbers and fell in love with Egyptology. After a master's degree, he won a Fulbright Scholarship to study at the University of Pennsylvania from the age of 33. He subsequently returned to Giza, where his reputation grew when he discovered another pyramid there. In 1991, he unearthed the remains of a village inhabited by the craftsmen and labourers who built the pyramids; his discovery enabled him to prove that, contrary to public belief, the pyramids were built willingly. And in 2000, after a donkey accidentally stepped in a hole in the ground at the oasis of Barahiya, Hawass decided to dig a 26th-Dynasty site and famously uncovered what has become known as the Valley of the Golden Mummies.

The next day, I catch up with Hawass at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, where he has been invited to view the Egyptology department. In the museum director's private residence, I ask him if he understands our concept of modesty. "I am a very modest man," he replies. "If you knew me you would agree. I can sit on the ground with people. I can sit in an ordinary cafe with people. I do simple things and I am not always in a suit. I get my hands dirty on digs. Sometimes I am fed up with stupid archaeologists who say I run after the media, when they themselves kiss the media's arse. …

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