Interview with Zahi Hawass

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By: Alex Joffe

Few individuals are so closely identified with Egypt – and ancient Egypt – as Zahi Hawass. Formerly Minister of State for Antiquities, Hawass has been Chief Inspector and Director of the Giza Plateau, Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, and has excavated at numerous sites throughout Egypt. He is also the face of Egyptian archaeology, having appeared in countless TV programs that have spread the story of ancient Egypt worldwide. In January Ancient Near East Today editor Alex Joffe had the pleasure of interviewing Hawass in New York City at the opening of the new Discovery of King Tut exhibit.

Joffe: King Tut, Tutankamun, why the enduring interest?

Hawass: Because of many things. Number one, because he was a boy, he became a king at the age of nine. Number two, his tomb was the only tomb found completely intact, 5,398 objects have been found in these five small rooms. And number three, after the death of Lord Carnarvon, the word, ‘curse of the Pharaohs’ and ‘curse of Tutankamun,’ began to occur, and it created interest in people all over the world. And when I do Skype or any school program the majority of the questions are about Tutankamun.

And also every year, there is something new about King Tut, like who murdered King Tut, like the CT scan that we did on the mummy and we found out how he really died, we found with DNA the family of Tutankamun. We are searching now for the mummy of Nefertiti, and the theory that was announced by Nicholas Reeves that is completely wrong, about the tomb of Nefertiti existed inside the tomb of Tutankamun. All of this creates interest in this gold king that never happened before. I wrote fourteen books on Tutankamun, and this is the last one, the children’s book.


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Joffe: Is he intrinsically more interesting say than Tuthmosis?

Hawass: Of course.

Joffe: Or Ramses the Second? Tut had the good luck to have all of these factors converge.

Hawass: The story of the discovery, and the gold and the silver, and all of these precious stones created this interest in him all over the world.

Joffe: Is there a danger do you think that Egyptian history and Egyptian archaeology get reduced to King Tut and pyramids when there’s so much else?

Hawass: This question should be divided into two sections. The first section, the public, they know four things about ancient Egypt, which is pyramids, the sphinx, mummies and King Tut. There is no way that you make them interested in something else but those are the four things that captured the hearts of people. But still, any educated member of the public knows many issues about Egypt because many discoveries are happening and important work and this kind of thing.

Joffe: King Tut and pyramid and mummies and the sphinx act as an entry point.

Hawass: Exactly.

Joffe: To the rest of Egyptian history. Should we professionals and the lay public be doing more to promote other aspects of Egyptian history?

Hawass: We do, we do. Like I found the valley of the Golden Mummies, like the tombs found in the Valley of the Kings, like Tutankamun, like important work in the Greek and Roman period, in the Coptic, the Islamic periods, ancient Egypt was really amazing with many discoveries and many important issues.

Joffe: But there’s no way to escape King Tut.

Hawass: Exactly. And look at an exhibit like this, it’s a replica exhibit but it is more educational, it educates the people more than if you show an exhibit of real artifacts, because you have films and clips and you have books, really, it’s a good place for children to understand about King Tut. That is why I do promote this exhibit a lot. Because King Tut will not travel anymore. I was talking to people in the high government last week, and if we need to raise funds for the Grand Museum we need to make a big exhibit like King Tut

Joffe: I remember when King Tut first came here in the 1970s and that’s when I first saw it and it was a revelation for many of us. But the era of the mega-exhibit is getting more difficult to sustain.

Hawass: You are right

Joffe: Let me turn to one or two other things. I’ve done a lot of work lately on the looting situation in Iraq and Syria.

Hawass: And Libya

Joffe: And Libya, which is an emerging catastrophe. Egypt has had problems in the last few years especially. What should governments be doing and what should professionals be doing?

Hawass: In Egypt now we have no problems since we have a stable government and everything is fine. The problem was when the Muslim Brothers were in charge, they were so bad and they did not care about antiquities and some of them raised the question of do we destroy the pyramids. Thank God that Egypt got through the Muslims Brothers. The dangerous thing in Iraq and Syria and Libya is this ISIS group who are really destroying it to destroy our identity and number two, to steal artifacts to sell, to buy guns. And this is why I really think that UNESCO has to help the people in the three countries in how they can hide now the masterpieces in museums. They should be hidden. And number two, we should protect with a plan with the Arab League and the United Nations to protect the Iraqi museums. They could go to the Baghdad Museum tomorrow.

Joffe: That’s what happened in 2003 and more recently at the Mosul Museum. Could national governments in the region be doing more to educate local populations, or is it question of poor people…

Hawass: You need to educate the governments.

Joffe: That’s the first thing. Can the governments be educated? People like you have been at it for a very long time.

Hawass: We are doing our best. Its difficult in a country like Iraq or Libya where there is no government, there is no control of anything.

Joffe: But even under Saddam Hussein there was a very peculiar relationship between archaeologists and the government.

Hawass: You think so? I don’t know.

Joffe: Saddam built a palace of his own at Babylon. That’s a very peculiar sort of statement. He had his name in cuneiform on bricks and used in rebuilding walls. Egyptian leaders seem to have a different relationship.

Hawass: In the time of Mubarak he valued antiquities, and when I stopped the ring road around the pyramids he was opening museums, really, under Mubarak antiquities were completely safe. And it is the same now under Sisi.

Joffe: What about in the era of Nasser?

Hawass: Also. Also antiquities were really protected. And Sadat. We never really had any problems except some individuals who are really bad.

Joffe: Locally.

Hawass: Yes. But in general the government always value antiquities more than building something for the welfare of Egypt.

Joffe: Is there are role that archaeology and Egyptology can play, I don’t want to say in bringing democracy but in educating the public…

Hawass: We do, in Egypt when I was in charge I made a big program of educating the people, and it was my TV shows that I used to do, the Egyptians love antiquities and they protected them. Look what happened to the Cairo Museum, they if was safe, completely we are missing now 17 small objects, late period, bronze artifacts.

Joffe: This is different from the Mosul Museum.

Hawass: Exactly. Or the Baghdad Museum when the American entered Baghdad.

Joffe: Where do think the future for Egyptology and Egyptian archaeology will be?

Hawass: The future is really beautiful. Every year we have more ideas of preservation, we are building 24 museums, one of them is the Grand Museum, we are using technology now to try and reveal secrets like DNA, and CT scans and laser scanning, all these kind of things.

Joffe: But Egypt also has a growing population.

Hawass: But still, antiquities is really number one.

Joffe: And under the Sisi government it’s a priority.

Hawass: Yes.

Joffe: What’s the role of foreign archaeologists in this new picture?

Hawass: Perfect. You have over 200, Egypt is the only country in the world where you have 200 foreign expeditions working in Egypt, even in the time of the revolution they were excavating and restoring and working because of the stability of the country.

Joffe: Are you concerned about the situation in the Sinai?

Hawass: No, because the army is controlling everything and we don’t really have any problems. Terrorists can happen anywhere and when any accident happen anywhere in the world, it can happen in Paris, it can happen in Istanbul, it can happen in Egypt, it can happen everywhere, but the most important thing is how the people are rejecting terrorism, that’s important. In Egypt, completely, people are against this terrorism.

Joffe: Well, it’s affected people at a very personal level, and at the economic level as well.

Hawass: Yes.

Joffe: What should American archaeologists, European archaeologists be doing?

Hawass: American or English or European archaeologists could be united to try and defend the situation in Iraq and Libya and Syria. They should do something, they should push their countries to protect those remains.

Joffe: Thank you Dr. Hawass for taking the time to speak with us today.

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