Terra Incognita: Egypt’s other Sphinx: Zahi Hawass

With Hawass gone, following a Cabinet reshuffle, Egypt’s antiquities are bound to be in better hands.

Trivia pic Giza pyramids (photo credit: Toni Stroud/Chicago Tribune/MCT)
Trivia pic Giza pyramids
(photo credit: Toni Stroud/Chicago Tribune/MCT)
The news that Zahi Hawass was recently swept aside from his post in a cabinet reshuffle in Cairo, should be welcomed. There was always something about Hawass that seemed not quite right. Besides his anti-Semitic comments, it was his constant presence. He was always there – in every video, television report, newspaper article, every time Egyptian archeology was mentioned. As Secretary General of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, and later as the first Minister of Antiquities, he has spent a decade as the highest government bureaucrat responsible for Egypt’s archeological heritage.
But a close comparison of how new archeological discoveries are presented in Egypt and how they are revealed in other places, like Israel, gives a peek into how Hawass operates. In 2010, when a new pagan burial alter was found at Ashkelon in Israel, the interview for National Geographic was given by Yigal Israel, chief archeologist at Ashkelon for the Israel Antiquities Authority. Reports about the excavation of Vadum Iacob, a Crusader fort in the Galilee, quote Ronnie Ellenblum, head of the research project there.
But in Egypt things are different. In November 2010, when LiveScience reported on newly discovered walls around the Sphinx, the second paragraph of the article informed: “ ‘The walls were likely built to protect the Sphinx from blowing sand,’ said SCA Secretary-General Zahi Hawass, who is overseeing the excavation.” In October 2010 when National Geographic reported on the discovery of a priest’s tomb, it mentioned that unnamed archeologists thought it was built 4,350 years ago. The only person quoted is none other than Zahi Hawass, now an expert on burial tombs, “after the death of the king, there was a pyramid city.”
In April 2009, when archeologists found a brick temple in Sinai, Hawass was there to show it off, seemingly pushing aside the leader of the excavation, Mohammed Abdel-Maqsoud. When the University of Chicago announced that it had found ancient grain silos at Tel Edfu in southern Egypt, it noted “The archaeological work at Tel Edfu was initiated with the permission of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, headed by Zahi Hawass, under the direction of Nadine Moeller, Assistant Professor at the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago.”
If we were to survey every discovery announced in Egypt since Hawass took over the Supreme Council in 2002 we would find the same pattern. Often his name comes first in the article, while the lead archeologists are either not named or are mentioned later. Hawass is always credited with somehow being involved in the discovery,. He poses as an expert on all aspects of Egyptology, and makes sure that he closely controls the media’s access to Egypt’s archeological sites and all announcements of finds associated with them.
FOR YEARS this pattern of control was allowed to grow because it both mimicked the politics of the Mubarak regime and, initially at least, served to reverse Egypt’s damaged pride regarding Egyptology. Egyptology gained wide acclaim and popularity in Europe in the 19th century. This was partly sparked by Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt in 1799. The 75-foot-high Luxor Obelisk, for instance, was given to France in 1829 by the Khedive of Egypt. The Rosetta stone made its way to England. Together with other looted treasures of Egypt, these symbols represent the colonial history of Egyptology.
When Hawass was first appointed to head the Supreme Council, he made waves by requesting the return of numerous artifacts from major museums throughout the Western World. Thus in his initial forays before the international media and mainstream Egyptians he presented himself as an archeological nationalist who would do for Egypt’s historical pride what Nasser had done for her political pride.
But this posturing became mummified, and Hawass transformed himself into a symbol of corruption. It has been revealed that he receives $200,000 a year from National Geographic as one of its “explorers in residence.” But Hawass is not an explorer, and is not even really much of a scholar. He received his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in 1987 and briefly taught archeology before being appointed chief inspector of the Giza Pyramid region. He has usually donned a trademark Indiana Jones style hat while in front of the cameras to burnish his “explorer” credentials. It has gotten so ridiculous that a line of the hats is even being sold now as part of a Hawass clothing line. Some details of his interconnected relationships and other financial shenanigans were reported in a full-page New York Times article on July 14. He also runs a website, drhawass.com which is the first to appear if you Google “Egyptology new discoveries.” Why a government minister needs a commercial website (.com), is not clear.
Egyptians are beginning to question the all-powerful Hawass. He is seen as a leftover from the old regime – no surprise, given his close ties with Suzanne Mubarak. One blogger named ‘Zazzafraz’ asked in 2009: “Is Dr. Zahi Hawass evil: a new Egyptian megalomaniac?” Al Dostour has reported that he stole jewels from his own antiquities collection and gave them to the Mubaraks. Salem Mohamed at MiddleEastNewsWire calls him “The Epitome of Egyptian corruption.”
Archeologists and media outlets devoted to the subject have been holding their tongues. While in private they bemoan his domination of their trade, they know that if he remains in his position he stands to wield a great deal of power, allowing only certain media into Egypt and granting permission only to loyal archeologists to excavate new sites. It seems one thing is certain; if Egypt wants to move on from the era of one-party rule, it should liberalize its archeology sector.
Removing Mr. Hawass from his position was a step in the right direction.
The writer has a PhD from Hebrew University, and is a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.