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Egypt’s Director of Antiquities Discusses Life in the Fast Lane

Posted by vmsalama on May 28, 2005

By Vivian Salama

Daily Star Egypt





CAIRO – It’s shortly after 9am on a warm morning in May.  Just past the main entrance gates at the – truly – Great Pyramids of Giza lies a small, unassuming block of ancient-looking buildings.  Inside one of them, the office of Dr. Zahi Hawass, General Secretary of the Supreme Council of Antiquities.

            Already halfway done with his cup of Turkish coffee – probably not his first – Hawass is sitting behind his desk, just as he appears in any of the hundreds of documentaries in which he has participated, in blue jeans and a denim shirt.  His office door is always open and his staff seems to walk in and out informally, unlike what one would expect with most high ranking Egyptian officials.  

            There is some time to scope out the office as Hawass tends to dozens of phone calls and paperwork awaiting him in the morning.  This office, a sharp contrast to that in Zamalek where he spends half of his days, has a far more homely disposition.  The couches are what you would expect in a classic Egyptian living room.  The picture frames don’t match (most of the photos taken around the pyramids).  The books appear to be forced in place so to all fit on the shelves. 

            “Do you like my office?” he asks.  “I’ve been in this office since I came back to Giza.”  He takes such pride in his office – one would never guess he’s been there for 18 years. 

            There really is no average day for a man whose living consists of revealing some of the most ancient secrets known to mankind.  Still, Hawass tries to simplify things.  “These days, I get to my excavation at Sakkara at 8 o’clock in the morning and I stay until 11 o’clock.  Then, I come back to my office.  Then, I take my jeans and my hat off and I wear a kind of a jacket and I go to the administration,” he says. 

The administration, more commonly known as the Supreme Council of Antiquities, employs more than 30,000 people, all of whom ultimately answer to Hawass.  It has been a long journey for Egypt’s real-life Indiana Jones, one in which he confesses in his book, Valley of the Golden Mummies, nearly drove him to become a diplomat early on, after a girlfriend heckled his chosen career path.  Hawass would have the last laugh.    

            It seems that to succeed in a career that would take him from the remote village of Tuna el-Gebel, to Abu Simbel, the Bahariya Oasis and back to Giza, Hawass must love his work. 

He is appalled by the question.  “I live in my job,” he asserts.  “I think I am the only one in the world who has a job that I live in it.  I have a passion for it.  I’m talking to you now and I’m thinking of monuments and antiquities.”

            He goes on:  “When I give a lecture, it’s as if I’m explaining my lover to the people.  When you talk about your love, then people can listen to you.”

            Asked how his wife feels about his sentiment for archaeology, he says she had early warning.  Fair enough. 

            Off we went up the road where a French film crew was waiting to shoot Hawass as he observed workers digging at a site near by pyramids.  On the way, we were greeted by a group of Italian tourists who acted as if they had just seen Michael Jackson.  They chanted his name and scurried to get their cameras out.  To them, this was the ultimate Egyptian celebrity sighting.  Hawass waved and smiled, but did not slow down as there was a schedule to keep. 

            He then spotted the cameraman from afar, and in under 15 minutes, stood approximately one meter from the camera giving his back to the Pyramid of Kufu, spoke a few made-for-television sound bytes, and that was a wrap.  Clearly, he had done this before. 

            Perhaps after all of these years, Hawass is something of a diplomat.  Within a few minutes of meeting him, there is no doubt that this man’s passion, beneath the excavations and the monuments which he uncovers, lies a love affair with the roots of Egypt.  If anything should interfere in that – be it politics or terrorism or just plain neglect – it won’t be on his clock. 

            “When a terrorist action happens in Egypt, it effects antiquities, because we depend completely on the restoration and the monuments to restore it because of the venues of the tourists,” he explains.  “If there is no tourists, the monuments will collapse.  If it stops the people from coming to Egypt, then you make the terrorists successful.”

            There is no doubt that Hawass talks the political talk, but making him a minister, as many have speculated, is out of the question.  “I do not want to be minister because I like what I am doing.  If I become minister, I can’t excavate, I can’t write.  The passion in my heart will be out, then maybe I would die.”

            There is far too much work to be done.  Hawass insists that to insure the success of the 120 conservation projects currently underway in Egypt, he needs to get down and dirty, literally.  Among the big success stories in Hawass’s tenure is the initiative to build 13 new museums across the country.  Each building will have a special niche, so to glorify each artifact, rather than bury them in a heap of history. 

            Among these museums will be the Grand Museum in Cairo which, when completed in 5 years time, will be the largest museum in the world.  It will house some 100 thousand artifacts of King Tutankhamun.  Additionally, the Civilization Museum, set to open its doors in just over two years, will gather Egypt’s ancient mummies spanning the dynasties. 

dsc02386.jpgOne of the important issues in my mind is to change museums from a storage museum – dark, ugly, smelly, no education – to museums with education and culture messages,” says Hawass. 

            Also planned is a major project for site management.  In addition to improving the safety of site zoning, Hawass aims to boost each location as a tourist attraction – providing visitor centers, as well as bathrooms, cafeterias and bazaars. 

Just as important, says Hawass, is instating educated security guards at all major sites in the country.  “We are hiring 6,000 guards this year, educated guards, so they can guard the monuments well.  If you have an educated one, knows the value of the Egyptian artifacts.”

Education, not just for guards, but for all Egyptians, Hawass says, is the key to really boost the Egyptian economy – as well as her international reputation.  “I am trying to make Egyptians know that they can really protect the monuments.  Not only us who should do that, but the public should be involved.”

Finally, one of Hawass’s biggest goals is to return the stolen artifacts of ancient Egypt, which over centuries have been displaced.  Thus far, he has managed to retrieve 3,000 stolen artifacts from other countries.  Those countries who do not cooperate, Hawass cuts off – part of the perks of being Secretary General. 

“If a museum has a stolen artifact and they do not want to return it back, I stop his excavation,” Hawass admits.  “We did that with the Royal Museum in Belgium.  They had a stolen artifact from Giza.  They did not want to return it back.  I stopped their excavation and this piece is coming back next week.”

There is no hostility involved in these matters, because when it comes to the museum business, Egypt is not to be bargained with.  Still, Hawass insists that it is not a competition, and rather, we have our ancient ancestors to thank for keeping Egypt on the map. 

This is why exhibits, like the treasures of King Tut, continue to make their rounds to museums around the world – although a privilege that was once for free is now costing museum goers.  Hawass says it’s only fair. 

“There are no free meals anymore.  When we send an exhibit, we send it because Egypt needs to make money, to restore these monuments, because these monuments need money.  It is not just belonging to me, it is belonging to everyone all over the world.  I’m just the guardian to these monuments.”

            A guardian who is incredibly well-respected by his staff.  Back at his office in Zamalek – now in a suit – Hawass tends to another dozen phone calls and even more paperwork.  Were it not for a meeting later on that day, he says he would not bother with business attire.  He tends to his work, but not before making sure there is someone to show me around.    

“I am trying to make hundreds of Zahi Hawass,” he says, completely serious.  “You come to my office now and see how these people work, you see these young people, they really care because they see that we are serious.  We are trying to make a second generation.  In Egypt, they don’t really care about this.”

The Council of Antiquities looks more like a newsroom than a government agency with its constant hustle and bustle.  Hawass’s office, much more corporate in style, is adorned by more photos of the archaeologist with some of the hundreds of world leaders whom he has escorted across Egypt over the years.  Among them is former U.S. President Bill Clinton.  “Bill was a very nice man,” he says modestly. 

            He has friends in high places.  You would too if you were the guardian of the Great Pyramids of Giza.  Beyond his hard work, it is his charisma that earns him friends and fans around the world.  He is the adventurer, the politician and the light-hearted Egyptian wrapped into one. 

“It is good to be appreciated by the public,” he says.  “To see the smiles of the people whether in the States or in Egypt, that is the big reward for me.  Especially when I receive a letter from these young people who want to be an archaeologist – this is a reward in my life.”




2 Responses to “Egypt’s Director of Antiquities Discusses Life in the Fast Lane”

  1. […] written a number of stories on Egyptian archaeology including a profile on Zahi Hawass himself.  Click here if you’d like to read […]

  2. picture frames that are made of wood are still one of the best picture frames that you can get _

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