By Joshua Hammer | Smithsonian
The long-reigning king of Egyptian antiquities has been forced into exile—but he’s plotting a return
Zahi Hawass doesn’t like what he’s seeing. Clad in his familiar denim safari suit and wide-brimmed bush hat, the famed archaeologist is standing inside the burial vault of the Step Pyramid of Djoser, a six-tiered, lopsided mound of limestone blocks constructed nearly 5,000 years ago. The huge, gloomy space is filled with scaffolding. A restoration and conservation project, at Saqqara outside Cairo, initiated by Hawass in 2002, has been shoring up the sagging ceiling and walls and staving off collapse. But the February 2011 revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak—and also ended Hawass’ controversial reign as the supreme chief of all Egypt’s antiquities—is now threatening to unravel Hawass’ legacy as well. With tourists nearly gone, funds dried up and the Ministry of Antiquities leadership reshuffled several times in the past two years, preservation work on the pyramid has ground to a near halt. The new minister has diverted reconstruction money into hiring thousands of unemployed archaeology graduates, claims Hawass, in a desperate move to stop protests. “He has done nothing,” Hawass says, with perhaps a touch of schadenfreude in his voice, scrutinizing the rough limestone ceiling and walls.
Hawass alights on the subterranean floor and shines a flashlight on the Pharaoh Djoser’s granite sarcophagus. I follow him on hands and knees through a low tunnel, part of a network of five miles of passages that workers burrowed beneath the pyramid in the 27th century B.C. The air is redolent of mud and dust. “The dead king had to go through these tunnels to fight wild creatures until he could become Osiris, the god of the underworld,” he tells me, stepping back into the sunlight.
In Egyptian mythology, Osiris ruled on earth as the all-powerful king, until the jealous god Set murdered him and usurped his throne. Osiris’ fall set in motion a drama of rivalry and revenge in which Set was finally defeated—and Osiris resurrected. Only through the return of the king could order be restored to Egypt.
For more than a decade Zahi Hawass was, arguably, the Osiris of antiquities. A regal combination of showman and scholar, he ruled a netherworld of tombs and temples, investigating age-old mysteries—the burial place of Antony and Cleopatra, the cause of death of Tutankhamen—for rapt television audiences. Hawass’ megalomania was legendary: In “Chasing Mummies: The Amazing Adventures of Zahi Hawass,” a reality television series on the History Channel, the archaeologist led his trainees on Howard Carter-type adventures, an exercise in self-aggrandizement so unabashed that it prompted a New York Times critic to smirk: “One hopes…Dr. Hawass will unearth some ancient Egyptian chill pills and swallow a generous helping.” Yet he also earned the admiration of peers and millions of fans. The National Geographic Society named him explorer-in-residence in 2001, an honor he shared with primatologist Jane Goodall, filmmaker James Cameron and paleontologists Meave and Louise Leakey. He wrote best-selling books. He commanded lecture fees ranging from $10,000 to $50,000. A traveling exhibition he put together of five dozen artifacts from the Egyptian Museum, “Tutankhamen and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs,” earned $110 million for Egypt during its tour of seven cities in Europe and the United States. It was one of the most lucrative museum shows of all time.
It all ended with the revolution. Hawass was vilified when protests against President Mubarak erupted in Tahrir Square in January 2011. Protesters called him “the Mubarak of Antiquities” and accused him of corruption. Underlings in the antiquities department and jobless and frustrated archaeology graduates besieged his office, demanding his ouster. “And take your hat,” they shouted. In April 2011 he was sentenced to a year in jail, stemming from an alleged case of rigged contract bidding at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. (The verdict was later overturned.) In July 2011, after serving two successive post-Mubarak governments, Hawass finally was obliged to give up his job. According to one Egyptian blogger, Hawass was “escorted out the back door of the ministry into a cab, showered with insults and angry chants from young archaeologists,” an event captured on video and watched by thousands of Egyptians.
Today, Hawass finds parallels between his fall and that of Osiris. “I had lots of enemies—the enemies of success,” he says. “They are the friends of the god Set, the evil desert god in ancient Egypt.” Many in the archaeological community seem to agree. “No one in Egyptology…has accomplished even a tiny fraction of what Zahi has. That, plus his fame, enrages people,” says Peter Lacovara, an Egyptologist at Emory University in Atlanta who has known Hawass for decades. “Zahi is a lightning rod, because he’s got so much energy and passion, and he doesn’t pull any punches,” says one noted Egyptologist in the U.S., who insisted on anonymity because her museum wants to stay on the sidelines. “People became envious of how high his profile became.” Others say that his blustering style and sometimes belittling manner, as well as his utter misreading of the public mood on the eve of Mubarak’s overthrow, all but assured his downfall.
Despite his accomplishments, Hawass managed to antagonize many constituencies. Preservationists said that he “Disneyfied” ancient sites such as Luxor and Saqqara by renovating them with inappropriately modern materials, including cement, brick, wood and metal. His policy of limiting access to sites to protect them from theft and vandalism—building a wall around the Pyramids, for example, and channeling visitors through two guarded entrances—created what some view as a form of apartheid. “He has built an emotional and physical wall between Egyptians and their cultural heritage,” says Monica Hanna, a former colleague who now teaches archaeology at Humboldt University in Berlin.
Scholars say that he often blurred the line between show business and science. Some challenged Hawass’ claim, in 2007, that he “positively identified” the mummy of Queen Hatshepsut, the 18th-dynasty Pharaoh. Hawass matched a tooth found in a box associated with Hatshepsut to the jaw socket of a mummy found in Luxor’s Valley of the Kings, the ancient royal necropolis. Skeptics say that the mummy’s tomb was too humble for a queen, and that Hatshepsut’s stepson almost certainly hid his mother’s corpse in a location far from Luxor. “Zahi has a tendency to present theories as facts,” says a noted U.S. museum curator and Egyptologist who knows him well.
He also came under fire for forbidding archaeologists from announcing their own finds, demanding that they be first vetted and announced by him. After an Egyptologist at the University of York, Joann Fletcher, unilaterally declared that she had discovered the mummy of Nefertiti, wife of the late 18th-dynasty Pharaoh Akhenaten, in a tomb near Luxor, Hawass called the find “pure fiction,” reprimanded her and banned her from working again in Egypt. “I made her life miserable,” he tells me. “I was really severe. There is no mercy with me.” Defenders say his approach was long overdue. “Critics said he took credit for all the discoveries in Egypt, but he was really publicizing them and running the information through the proper channels,” says Peter Lacovara. Colleagues grumbled that he hogged the limelight. “What can I do?” he asks. “God gave me this charisma, he did not give it to anyone else. Who is the star now? Tell me. Do you know the name of any Egyptian antiquitist? Two years I am away, who is the star?”
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