20 February 2024
Guardian of the Pharoahs
Published online 15 August 2011
Zahi Hawass was fired as Egypt's antiquities minister in mid-July. Before being ousted, Hawass discussed the looting of Egypt's treasures during the revolution, his quest for Cleopatra's tomb and that hat with Scientific American.
ONE NIGHT IN THE WEEKS LEADING UP TO THEN PRESIDENT HOSNI MUBARAK'S ouster, looters swarmed the grounds of the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo (sometimes called the Cairo museum), and at least one broke into the main building by descending on wires from a skylight. Others rampaged through storerooms at well-known archaeological sites. Panic swept the world of Egyptology.
Ultimately, the looting was not as devastating as some had feared, and many of the country's treasures were recovered. The chaos, though, focused renewed criticism and exacted an emotional toll on Zahi Hawass, the minister of state for antiquities.
Hawass, a celebrity archaeologist known in the West for his larger-than-life persona in such documentaries and television shows as Chasing Mummies, provided sometimes confused and contradictory information about what was happening to the ancient relics under his guardianship. Some critics attacked him for being part of the old regime. His enemies saw a chance to get rid of him. Hawass resigned his position in early March, then abruptly returned weeks later. The upheavals raise questions about how secure Egyptian antiquities are now and when visitors will feel safe enough to tour the Nile in large numbers again. Jeffrey Bartholet, who reported from Egypt during the unrest in February, spoke to Hawass recently by phone for Scientific American. Excerpts follow.
SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN: The former regime is gone, but there is still a lot of uncertainty. Is Egypt now moving in a clearly positive direction?
HAWASS: I think we are trying. We are doing our best to reach elections for the parliament and a new president.
What are the improvements you are seeing?
Security is starting to come to the streets now. And people are working really hard for democracy and freedom. I don't think Egyptians have had this kind of democracy in 5,000 years. It's the first time that we are really practicing it. I hope that it will not take time to get it right.
You resigned your post in March, then returned. Why?
The reason I resigned was because criminals were looting antiquities at that time, and there was no one to stop them. I was screaming, and no one could help me. At the same time, there were students who needed jobs, and they came in front of my office screaming because they wanted jobs now. All this really made me not want to stay. I came back because I found out that I am a part of antiquities, and antiquities are a part of me.
Was there some specific offer that was made or some suggestion or encouragement that was given?
I found that the government was giving more security, and it was supporting me. The army was supporting me. Now we can see the results of that. Most of the Cairo museum objects that had been looted are back. We are missing only 31 objects from the museum; the rest of the [1,200 or so objects stolen from storerooms and storage vaults] are not really masterpieces.
When the uprising began in Egypt, some feared that we would see a repeat of Iraq—that Egypt's treasures and heritage would be looted and destroyed.
Look: Who protected the Cairo museum? Actually it was the young protesters. In Iraq 15,000 artifacts were stolen from the museum. The Egyptians protected their museum with their bodies. That is something we have to keep in mind.
Tell me about how the underground market for antiquities works. Who are the thieves, who are the middlemen, who are the final buyers?
After the revolution, I don't think there is a market for anything. Before the revolution, there were people who stole objects from Egypt and took them outside of the country. We caught most of them. I returned about 5,000 artifacts from all over the world during the past nine years.
But how does it work? Do foreigners come in and work with criminal rings?
You have to understand that most of modern Egypt is built on top of ancient Egypt. People can do illegal excavations; they dig in their courtyards to find antiquities. But I have put antiquities inspectors in every port and airport to stop people from taking objects outside. And I hired educated guards. And I built 47 storage vaults.
The Hamas government in Gaza sent a delegation recently to return some stolen items, and it turned out the items were fake. Can you tell me about that?
They found two statues, and they brought them to me. I found that they were not genuine, and I gave them back. I thanked them and encouraged them to visit the antiquities of Egypt anytime.
What more can be done internationally to recover items looted since January?
We've gotten back the masterpieces. But I met someone from Interpol a few days ago: we're going to put information about every object out to the whole world. I really think the looters who took the objects were not professional criminals. Therefore, I think the objects will be back. They will not leave Egypt.
You said 31 objects from the Cairo museum are still missing at this point. What are the most significant ones?
The only significant one from the museum is a small head of Queen Nefertiti—a few centimeters high.
The statue of Akhenaton has been returned. *
We brought back the statue of Akhenaton holding a stela. And we've brought back most of King Tut's objects that were stolen.
And where were they? Where did you find them?
Those were taken by the looters who entered the museum on the night of January 28. We got the objects of King Tut because there was someone working for the antiquities department who came to me and said that there were looters who wanted to return these objects to me. And the next day he brought a bag with four objects.
Over the years you have carried out a campaign to force international museums to return Egyptian artifacts. In the wake of the revolution and looting, some in the West made the argument that items were safer spread around the globe. The Natural History Museum of Basel became the first to return an artifact since the January revolution. Do you see that as significant?
Very important. It's a relief from the Old Kingdom, about 4,000 years ago.
You had a role in the former government and are now part of the current government. What is different now, in the day-to-day work of your ministry and the way the country is run?
You know, I am a technician. I am not a politician. I have never been in any party, and I did my job beautifully.
You did have a fairly close working relationship with the former first lady, Suzanne Mubarak. Was she an important political patron for the antiquities department?
No, she had nothing to do with any work in antiquities. I collaborated with her to create the children's museum in Cairo. We will be finishing the work on this museum two months from now, and it will be the best museum for children in the Middle East.
As we speak now in May, have you been in touch with the former first lady since her husband relinquished power?
I told you, I'm a technician, not a politician. My relationship with the first lady was just working in this museum. It wasn't really close. Many people think I am from the old regime—my enemies say this. But I'm not. I've never been a politician my whole life.
But still, you must have a personal sensitivity to seeing her get arrested.
This is something that governments do, and I can't interfere. Every Egyptian—85 million—can be connected with the old regime. But when you have a new regime that you like, you connect with it.
Has the unrest interfered with archaeological activity in Egypt?
Things are coming back now. Most of the foreign expeditions have applied to work in September and October. Everyone wants to come back and work.
How is the ongoing quest for Cleopatra's tomb proceeding?
You know, we really did not excavate [in recent months] because of the revolution. But I will continue in September to work in the Valley of the Kings and also continue the excavation to search for the tomb of Cleopatra.
What have you found so far?
We have found statues of Cleopatra and coins of Cleopatra, statues of [Ptolemaic] kings—and all of these discoveries are very important.
Tell me about the Valley of the Kings. What are you looking for there?
I'm looking for the tomb of Ankhesenamun, the wife of King Tut. I don't have evidence for it, but I'm hoping that in the next season something might happen.
Now, you mentioned before your critics and enemies. Tell me about them.
I found out [before the revolution] that some people had a very bad reputation in the antiquities department and had been accused in the past of stealing antiquities and things like that. And I really did punish them. When the revolution happened, they could say anything about me. And they started attacking me. And I really did not care and didn't answer them back. But if you look at these cases, it shows that they are jealous people, and they tried to stop me, but they did not.
You are at the moment appealing a one-year jail sentence for failing to halt bidding by companies interested in running a new gift shop in the museum. Can you tell me about that?
Any government official who tries to protect anything from a civilian, the civilian can take you to court. When the court makes a decision, it's not against you personally, it's against your position. But because my name is big, they made it big.
The case concerns the bookshop in the museum?
This man, who had this old bookshop, did not pay us before. I'm not going to say anything about him. But I made a beautiful new shop, and this man didn't like that.
Some critics say that your governing style is imperious and that you're overly ambitious. They point to a clothing line you started at one point. Can you respond to that ? _
People don't understand the clothing line. First of all, the photo shoot [for the clothing] did not happen at the Cairo museum, as people say. And second, all the money that comes to me goes to a hospital for children with cancer. I'm very proud that the clothing line became famous and is helping children.
You're well known for your Indiana Jones–style hat. Is the hat a way of branding yourself and of branding Egypt?
When I wore this hat, people loved it. I don't know why. It's something that became a part of me. I'm very proud that children all over the world buy [replicas of] this hat, and the money goes to the children's museum.
What do you say to the people who claim that you're too authoritarian?
If you need to control the antiquities of Egypt, you have to be very strong on the job. If you are not strong, you will never do that. Our antiquities were robbed by everyone before [I came to office]. The antiquities directors were not that strong before. When I do this, I do it for the sake of the antiquities.
Tourism is vital to the Egyptian economy, but at the moment only the most intrepid visitors are touring the Nile. What can be done?
I'm going to use discoveries and the opening of museums to bring tourists back, and at the same time the government will do more to improve the security of the sites. Then people can come back and enjoy the magic and mystery of Egypt.
Jeffrey Bartholet was formerly Newsweek's Washington bureau chief and foreign editor.
This article appears in the August issue of Scientific American.