Zahi Hawass is one part celebrity, one part investigator. Egypt's
lead sleuth in the country's hunt to reclaim ancient antiquities has
gained a reputation for often strong-arming curators and bullying
museum directors. But while he's attracted critics in his hunt for
Egypt's mummies and pharaonic masks, his hard-nosed techniques are
indeed paying off.
Mr. Hawass, chief of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, has
recovered some 3,500 objects, including the Ramses I mummy from
Atlanta's Michael C. Carlos Museum and an ancient sarcophagus from
the chairperson of Chicago's electric utility, Exelon.
At home, his quest has broken up smuggling rings and will
possibly increase punishments for illegal trading. Abroad, he's
demanding that Boston's Museum of Fine Arts return the bust of
Ankhaf, the Khafre pyramid builder, and the St. Louis Art Museum
hand over a pharaonic mask.
In November, he warned France that if it didn't cooperate in the
investigation of a Frenchman allegedly trying to sell hair from the
Ramses II mummy, it would threaten bilateral relations with Egypt.
"If people are coming to Egypt, cutting inscriptions, and
damaging our monuments, I have to fight them," Hawass says.
While there's certainly applause for Hawass's efforts, his
campaign has sparked debate since many of the objects he seeks have
been in museums long before a 1970 international convention
tightened the ancient antiquities trade.
"These monuments are doing a real service to Egypt by being on
display abroad. They encourage tourism, bring money to the country.
They are a cultural ambassador and bringing them back, just to get
them back, is not necessarily the best idea," says Egyptologist Kent
What many experts don't agree on is whether Hawass can
legitimately claim artifacts like the five iconic treasures from
leading museums: the Rosetta Stone, the key to understanding ancient
hieroglyphics, from London's British Museum; the legendary Bust of
Nefertiti from Berlin's Egyptian Museum; the Denderah Temple Zodiac
from the Louvre in Paris; Boston's Museum of Fine Arts bust of
Ankhaf; and, the statue of Great Pyramid architect Hemiunu in the
Roemer-Pelizaeus Museum in Hilesheim, Germany.
Experts argue that these pieces were acquired decades ago when
laws didn't prevent foreign visitors from taking artifacts home,
that museums preserved these pieces and promoted Egyptian culture.
"Egypt can't claim objects after 150 years. …