Zahi Hawass: Egypt's Avenger of the Pharaohs

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Egypt, plagued by tomb raiders and art dealers, has lost large portions of its pharaonic heritage to Europe and the United States. The head of the country's Supreme Council of Antiquities is waging a bitter moral campaign against the West, and he is now demanding the return of six of the most beautiful masterpieces.

Photo Gallery: Egypt's Antiquities Avenger Photos
DDP

It is 5 a.m. and Zahi Hawass is sitting in his SUV, freshly showered, about to drive out to the Bahariya Oasis for a press appearance. The streets are still empty as Cairo shimmers in the rose-colored morning sun. Hawass must hurry to avoid the morning traffic.

He has already had a heart attack, and since then he only smokes water pipes. Referring to his driver, he says: "If he slows down I'll fire him." He likes to call his opponents "assholes."

But no one here is troubled by his behavior. In fact, Hawass has a license to be loud and angry. He sets his own rules. As Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), he is the ultimate protector of all monuments in the country.

Some 30,000 people report to Hawass, whose organization is responsible for hundreds of dilapidated temples, gloomy tombs and treasure chambers fragrant with the scent of resin, once filled with gold jewelry and papyrus documents, stretching from the delta to the fourth Nile cataract.

Hawass can open them all.

Even looking like Indiana Jones in his jeans shirt and floppy, the master of the keys to Egypt's antiquities has made umpteen TV appearances dangling from a rope in a grave shaft or bending over coffins, constantly repeating the same tried-and-true mantra: "mummy, sand, secret, miracle, exceptional."

He is now "world-renowned," at least in his own assessment of himself. The pyramid whisperer drinks $300 (€242) bottles of wine, and his best friend is actor Omar Sharif. Sometimes he puts on an expensive tuxedo and drives to a party at the villa of President Hosni Mubarak.

He even met with US President Barack Obama in June, and the two men stood at the base of the Pyramid of Cheops with their hands in their pockets, looking cool as could be.

"We were friends right off the bat," says Hawass. "I told him that George Lucas came here to find out why my hat became more famous than Harrison Ford's." When he was shown the layout for his latest book, he had only one comment: "OK, but you have to print my name in bigger letters."

"I'm not just famous in the United States, but also in Japan and, in fact, everywhere," the narcissistic Egyptian explains without hesitation.

But Hawass is probably best known in his native Egypt, where he writes a column in the government daily al-Ahram. He often appears on television, chatting with official guests and ambassadors, or opening dance competitions in front of the Sphinx.

People like Hawass' approach and his ability to converse on equal terms with the West. He has liberated Egypt from a posture of humility.

'The Fighting Elephant of Egyptology'

He also happens to be a gifted speaker. He loves anecdotes, which usually revolve around him and contain minor untruths.

But this outgoing man isn't overly interested in details. "Jalla, let's go," he calls out testily when his Jeep gets stuck in heavy traffic in Cairo's urban canyons. His chauffeur has already run over several chickens.

But Hawass, who the German newspaper Hamburger Abendblatt dubbed the "fighting elephant of Egyptology," has no patience for delays. He is a restless and driven man.

He says he would need thousands of arms and legs to wipe out all the disgrace that have been inflicted on his country. He is vexed by the daily grind of his fellow Egyptians, the filth, the poverty, the lack of organization and his agency's poor technical facilities.

"We were once at the very top," he says, referring to the time of the pharaohs. "Be proud of this heritage," he tells young people.

Hawass often speaks of dignity, respect and honor. He believes that his nation was cheated, and that it is his mission to exact revenge for this treatment.

"Our heritage was stolen," he says. "People raped the realm of the Nile in past centuries." This makes him all the more determined to pursue one goal above all else: the return of cultural artifacts.

It is true that foreign rulers ransacked the region along the Nile for thousands of years. The Romans, for example, made off with entire obelisks.

Then came Napoleon. "Soldiers, 40 centuries look down upon you," the Corsican called out to his men when they invaded the country in 1798. Entire ships filled with cultural artifacts were later shipped to the West, where they served as the basis for large, new museums.

Many of these treasures were purchased legally and for large sums of money. But Egypt was also filled with smugglers and tomb raiders who broke the law and stole the country's golden heritage.

Hawass is outraged over this bloodletting, and he doesn't draw any distinctions. The antiquities director makes a general accusation that is inconvenient for the West. He resembles the Sphinx, except that instead of causing the plague, he gives people a guilty conscience.

The man has already brought home 31,000 smuggled objects in past years. They are primarily pieces taken in illicit excavations, which have been sold over the last 50 years, through auction houses like Sotheby's and Christie's, to museums in the United States.

He is celebrated at home for his achievements, and justifiably so. He even tracked down the embalmed body of Ramses I -- in faraway Atlanta. Hawass bent over the papery face and sniffed it. Then he said: "I can smell it -- this is Ramses." The analysis proved him right.

His successes have earned him various descriptions at home, including the mummy magician, the hero from the desert, and the showman of shards who has turned the pyramids into a circus tent.

He has a good sense of humor, but can also be moody. Recently in New York, he upbraided several museum curators from Boston before the assembled world press. They own a statue that he believes belongs to his people. As he was speaking, he rolled his eyes and made a fist.

The Louvre also got a taste of his fury. Hawass wanted the French museum to return five magnificent frescoes it had acquired from a seller who had obtained them illegally. When it refused, he ejected French archeologists from Egypt and terminated all collaboration with the treasure trove on the Seine.

Finally, last October, French President Nicolas Sarkozy put in a sheepish call to Mubarak, promising that everything that had been requested would be turned over. Hawass was triumphant: "It was a victory for us."

The antiquities director has stirred up a difficult fight, for which he will need staying power, strong nerves and robust good health.

To keep up his health, he begins normal workdays with gymnastics, on the advice of his wife, a gynecologist.

By 7 a.m., he is sitting in his office in the exclusive Zamalek neighborhood, drinking herbal tea and lemonade. He only goes out to eat in the evening. After 10 p.m., he relaxes over a game of backgammon in a café near his apartment.

But there are often times when Hawass has to get up very early, skip his morning routine, brush his teeth and quickly eat a falafel before heading out into the countryside in his Jeep.

An Enigmatic Character

The reason he is so busy is that he has monopolized all PR activities relating to archaeology. Some 225 foreign archeological teams are working along the Nile, and all are kept muzzled. None of the professors working with the teams is permitted to report important finds without official approval. "It used to be a self-service operation here," says the boss, "but those days are gone."

Hawass reserves the right to announce all discoveries himself. Not everyone likes this. Some people feel that he is about as interested in serious research as Rapunzel was in having her hair cut.

He boasted that there were "10,000 golden mummies" at the cemetery in Bahariya, but only 200 were found. And he mistakenly declared a shabby find in the Valley of Kings to be the gravesite of a female pharaoh.

His own excavation efforts also appear to be somewhat bizarre. For some time, the master has been searching for the body of Cleopatra in a temple near Alexandria -- based on an idea suggested to him by a lawyer from the Dominican Republic.

"Are you sure about this?" a journalist wanted to know. Hawass replied: "Completely, otherwise I wouldn't have even mentioned it. After all, I don't want to embarrass myself."

When nothing was found, despite feverish excavation efforts, Hawass took a granite bust of Cleopatra's lover, Mark Antony, from a museum last year and pretended that he had just pulled it out of the ground.

Duncan Lees, a computer specialist who occasionally creates 3-D animations of grave shafts -- in other words, a relatively minor player -- calls him a "greedy guy" and a tyrant, who prefers to surround himself with "bootlickers."

The major Egyptologists, on the other hand, are more reserved, and tend to whisper their criticism. They are anxious not to lose their licenses.

Many in the field had been secretly looking forward to May 28, the day the narcissistic archeologist turns 63, which would normally be his retirement age.

But instead of being feted with a farewell dinner, Hawass has just received a new position. President Mubarak has appointed him Deputy Minister of Culture, which means that he can continue working until the end of his life.

Nevertheless, this enigmatic figure is by no means the sum of his negative traits. He has really achieved something.

With his frenetic public relations activities and his boundless vanity, Hawass has sparked a change in awareness among the 80 million Egyptians and sparked a new sense of pride.

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BTraven 06/01/2010
His demands are illusory – no object the art will be handed back to Egypt. Without them museums like the New Museum in Berlin which displays Nerfertiti will not attract many visitors anymore therefore it would only be a matter of time when it will be closed.
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