Saturday, January 11, 2014

Interview with Egypt's Zahi Hawass - The Once and Future Egypt

The Egypt of today is a surreal dichotomy.  It’s once profoundly rich and powerful civilization led by virile pharaohs contrasts mightily with the economic and political- breakdown of the leaderless Egypt of today.  

Today, Egypt’s unemployment is at over 13% (locals say it’s much higher) and where much of the population live at 3rd world poverty level, save for tiny pockets of lux havens for the elite few in Cairo, Alexandria, Hurghada and Sharm El Sheikh. Income inequality and corruption is equal, if not worse than in most other third world countries across the globe.

On our way to visit the pyramids at Giza, kids suddenly surround the taxi driving us down the old Pyramids Road no more than 13 years of age, tapping on the car’s windows in an attempt to get money or “baksheesh” from us. Our driver exclaims apologetically, “They are starving!” in a spurt of honesty that was so heart felt, it rang in my ears, creating an instant empathy for their condition. Being Cuban and having visited my country several times, parallels were instantly drawn in my mind of how far a failed government can drag down it’s own people, forcing them to be capable of anything in an effort to survive.

Even though Egypt’s people are in dire need, the country is very safe to visit. Tourists are always treated with kindness and appreciation. It’s an unspoken rule to treat tourist’s well but every now and then you will get a character that won’t take “no, thank you” for an answer and a “baksheesh” of about 10 Egyptian pounds ($1.44 US) usually satisfies them. Egypt’s economy is heavily reliant on tourism and the revolution has taken a toll on the tourism industry, which has slowed down since 2011 to a complete halt.

However, since the revolution erupted in 2011, tourism has come to a virtual standstill, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that at many of the sites we visited, we were the only American tourists around. Whenever we were asked the mandatory question: “Where are you from?” our response was always greeted with “Ah, America…good people!” Thankfully, Tourism Minister Hisham Zaazou, announced on Oct 2, that 13 countries have now lifted travel bans to Egypt. The latest two countries, Austria and Ireland, lifted bans to holiday destinations in the Red Sea and South Sinai more recently.

I am visiting Egypt to interview the recently removed Dr. Zahi Hawass from his beloved post as Secretary General of the SCA (Supreme Council of Antiquities). Mr. Hawass agreed to the interview since the request came from his longtime friend and trusted gal-pal, Mary Lomando, whom he met in Cairo over 20 years ago while she was completing her degree as an Egyptologist in Cairo. Mary is a seasoned tour leader and owner of Pacha Terra Travel. Zahi has learned to be discerning with regards to whom he will grant interviews these days, and for good reason. He has grown weary of being maligned by the media and his fellow countrymen due to his past cabinet ministry appointment by deposed President, Hosni Mubarak.

The people of Egypt found Zahi an easy target, and he inevitably became a scapegoat for their frustration with anything to do with Mubarak’s regime. Even though all the trumped up charges of corruption against Hawass have since been dropped due to lack of evidence to support the claims, some still try to malign his good work. Love him, or hate him, Dr. Hawass has done more for restoring the sites of Egypt, preserving its antiquities and announcing new discoveries than any other archaeologist in recent history.

In Zahi’s words, “If anyone were to ask what my religion was, I would answer my religion is to train other archaeologists to be better archaeologists than I was!” He has written or co-written over 60 books on Egyptian archaeology, chock full of new insights and discoveries recently documented. These books have been published worldwide, and his wish of training archaeologists to be better than him has already come to fruition. Many people don’t even know he started off as a teacher. Before he became an inspector for the SCA, Mr. Hawass taught Egyptian archaeology, history and culture at the American University in Cairo and the University of California, Los Angeles in 1988. Through his books and his public speaking events, he has educated and informed armies of closet archaeologists and archaeologists in training alike to appreciate humanity’s fascinating past, reinforcing the notion that it is not about the gold but more the treasure of the information gleaned from these artifacts that tell the “story of us”.

Zahi’s top projects completed during his tenure as Minister:

*Starting 24 new museums across the country. Of the 24, six have been completed. The rest are still under construction.
*The complete restoration of the Serapeum and reinforcing the Step pyramid at Saqqara.
*SETI I tomb- tunnel excavation.
*Renovation of the conservation lab at the Egyptian Museum.
*Stabilization of the stepped pyramid at Saqqara.
*Luxor Museum extension.
*Restoration of the Sphinx and enclosure.

The Archaeological sites of Egypt are unbelievably empty of tourists where they were almost always full with rows of buses. These monuments that symbolize the patrimony of humanity’s greatest achievements are barely guarded and in some sites, no guards at all. They are in a shamefully neglected condition, littered with animal dung, graffiti and trash. In contrast, the ancient sites at Luxor are all still well maintained. It seems as if there is more national pride for these sites there. The wave of Islamic extremist incidents throughout the country, fueled by the Muslim Brotherhood haven’t helped matters either. There have even been recent threats by one cleric to dismantle the Pyramids and ancient temples as Islamic fundamentalism isn’t friendly at all to secular archaeology, which highlights the accomplishments of another belief system, even though it is no longer worshipped by Egyptians today. The current Minister of the SCA- Mohamed Abdel Fattah, was appointed by recently ousted President Morsi, so it remains to be seen if he will protect and restore Egypt’s heritage as fervently as Dr. Hawass.

This is the sad state of an Egypt stuck in the grips of a slow-boil revolution. The reports of looting have leaked out from independent sources but there isn’t much actual data or an official account yet of what has gone missing. Egypt’s National Museum in Malawi, was looted and vandalized in August of this year by local Muslim extremists and many artifacts, even wooden sarcophagi were hacked to pieces with axes. A public auction of 126 recently looted antiquities was stopped in Jerusalem, so there is evidence that many antiquities are being smuggled out through Egypt’s porous borders.

 Mary and I visited Saqqara and the Abu Sir pyramids area the day before meeting with Dr. Hawass and reported to him that the replica, full-size statue of King Djoser sitting inside his serdab enclosure was moved out of line in a failed looting attempt. Most looters are not educated enough to know it is a replica. The representation for the ancient king now sits in wait, no longer aligned and blocked from his line of sight to the stars.


Sarah Parcak, a space archaeologist has used satellite imagery to calculate the extent of the looting epidemic since the revolution and she estimates it has increased 500%.

* Has the situation with looting since the revolution, been secured?

Zahi - “The current situation is a disaster for Egypt and particularly in Abu Sir there are illegal excavations everywhere!” The holes that Sarah Parcak is talking about are what looters leave behind and are not always accurate indicators of looting. These looters dig hundreds of exploratory holes and are mostly failed attempts. They dig for two things; gold and the myth of the healing red mercury that supposedly exists in the throats of the mummies, which sometimes fetch high prices on the medicinal black market. There is no such liquid. I have never seen it. It doesn’t exist!”

Zahi is one of the few things about Egypt that wasn’t broken. Since he was removed from his enamored post, the country has revolted again and removed another leader deemed useless to improve the country’s paralysis. Zahi sees himself not as a media personality but as a guardian of Egypt’s rich heritage. So much so, his older, original website was At the start of the revolution in January 2011, Zahi took a big risk by forming a human chain with other Egyptians in the streets in front of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo to prevent protesters from storming the museum. This brave act was not reported by any media source.

While in his post he was responsible for the repatriation of over 5000 artifacts from museums all over the world. The New York Metropolitan Museum cooperated with Zahi in returning 19 artifacts from King Tut’s tomb. His controversial move to block France from digging at Saqqara for the first time in history until the Louvre returned the five fragments of the Tetiky frescoes stolen from the West Bank in Luxor was his boldest move. “A bomb dropped at the Louvre when I stopped the French from digging at Saqqara,” His bravado worked and all the frescoes were returned.

* We watched a documentary on our flight here on an Air France plane and it was reporting on your successful negotiations for the return of the Tetiky frescoes and the Ramses mummy. Is there any progress or updates to your efforts to have Egyptian artifacts returned to their homeland, such as the famed bust of Nefertiti or the Dendera zodiac?

Zahi – “There is no progress after years of stalled negotiations and the new Minister of the SCA has sadly and unbelievably publicly declared he does not want Nefertiti returned to Egypt!”

* What are the top most important artifacts you feel should be returned to their home in Egypt?

·      Statue of Ramses II in Turin, Italy.
·      Statue of the architect, Hemiunu of the Great Pyramid at the Hildesheim's Pelizaeus Museum.
·      Bust of Prince Ankhhaf at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
·      Dendera Zodiac from the Louvre.
·      Rosetta stone from the British Museum.
·      Bust of Nefertiti in the Berlin Neues Museum.

*What is the status of the accusations and charges on your contracts with National Geographic and Discovery Channel?

Zahi - “All the charges have been dropped from lack of evidence of wrongdoing. I negotiated those projects based on what best offer of help they would provide for the benefit of Egypt. The National Geographic video was very successful for them and in return, the Egyptian Museum in Cairo received a 3 million dollar CT scan machine that is in use to this day and bringing to light many more insights and discoveries about the Pharaohs and their families. All the funds paid by the Discovery Channel went straight to the Egyptian antiquities department. The Tut exhibit earned 125 million dollars for a new room inside the Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza, now under construction. These contracts were all approved beforehand by the Mubarak regime and were totally transparent.”

Egypt’s mega-project of its new Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza promises to be Egypt’s crown jewel just a mile away from the pyramids. Giza’s skyline is dotted with so many cranes; it looks as if they were constructing a new pyramid. A large sign with red LED numbers in front of the site show a countdown of 622 days. This is a running joke for locals who claim the countdown is in years, not days.

*Do you have any information or updates on the new Cairo museum that was supposed to be completed within the next two years (625 days)?

Zahi – “Construction work is ongoing but very slow, as they need about 700 million dollars to complete the construction of this massive museum. With the current instability, who knows when that will be completed.”

Zahi’s dream to do the work that still needs to be done to complete his vision for the antiquities department has been blocked but that won’t stop him from making new discoveries and continuing to be an Egyptologist. He is resigned to fill his days organizing speaking tours in the US and book signings in Geneva, Poland and London beginning November 5th, to promote his latest book, Discovering Tutankhamen: From Howard Carter to DNA. He is also currently completing another book on the DNA research findings with the royal mummies at the Cairo museum.

*If it were offered to you again, would you want your old job back?

Zahi - “No! Not in the current state Egypt is in. If there is no stability and Egypt is not brought back to a normal working condition, I would be useless and unable to perform my job well!”

Zahi’s passion seems to rest not in carrying a title but in being able to effect change and fulfill his personal mission as a guardian of Egypt’s heritage.

*What are the discoveries you'd like to make or witness on your bucket list? Has the departure from your post diminished your desire to uncover more history changing discoveries?

He replies, without missing a beat, rattling off all the discoveries he would like to still make.

Zahi - “The tomb of Nefertiti, the tomb of the great Imhotep and finally find the answer to what is behind Gantenbrink’s door inside the Great Pyramid. I believe Imhotep may be buried in an unexcavated area on the west side of the Step Pyramid at Saqqara. They have already found a 2nd dynasty tomb underneath the Step Pyramid. Senenmut, the architect of Queen Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahari was buried near her mortuary temple there. This leads me to believe that Imhotep mirrored this same act of reverence near King Djoser’s Step Pyramid at Saqqara since he was architect of that pyramid.”

* Any updates on the search for Cleopatra in Alexandria?

Zahi – “Dr. Kathleen Martinez unearthed a marble bust of Cleopatra and 22 coins with her image at a small cemetery inside the Ptolemaic temple at Taposiris Magna in Alexandria, some time ago. Unfortunately, that mystery still remains unsolved after more than 5 years of digging and the excavations at the site are ongoing with Dr. Martinez.”

* Are you opposed to using new technologies to make new discoveries easier? (LIDAR satellite imaging, Ground penetrating radar, etc).

“These technologies are all wonderful but first of all, Egypt is filled with ancient sites, there are sites everywhere! The problem is these new technologies are incompatible with the current state of Egypt today. You find a site and it is reported but then who can we assign to protect it from looting and excavate it properly? There aren’t enough resources for the discovery of so many sites when the existing ones haven’t been properly secured and restored yet. You need a good and stable government for that!”

* Zahi sympathizes with the condition of his country and when asked who he would like to see as next president he replied,

Zahi - “Whoever the people elect, that leader must be very strong and determined to make changes quickly. There are so many people that haven’t worked in three years. The situation is terrible!”

In a country where a smaller-than-America’s-1% are successful and nothing works, Zahi’s effectiveness and public persona was an obvious, yet ironic target for criticism. He essentially gained too much notoriety for doing too much and being too good at his job. Such is the revolutionary mob mentality in a country where so few have and the vast majority has not. If the income inequality gap in America continues to widen at the pace it has since the recession, we might not be too far behind the Egyptian example.

The statue of King Djoser’s sight to the stars being blocked by looters is a sobering metaphor for the people of Egypt who also seem to be currently blocked from seeing their way out of their current predicament. No one we have talked to even knows when the next election will take place. Some say possibly next summer, and others fear a third revolution if it doesn’t happen soon. The potential for peace and a new Egypt is within the country’s grasp, the Egyptians just don’t know how to do it without an effective leader strong enough to right all the wrongs of the past. These are a people that haven’t had a democratically elected president for 5000 years. The process will take time. If they can achieve this is anyone’s guess. In the meantime, the Sphinx and her three brothers stand as timeless sentinels waiting for Egypt’s glory to return.

The published post of this blog can be viewed here on AnthroJournal site