The Rise and Fall and Rise of Zahi Hawass

The long-reigning king of Egyptian antiquities has been forced into exile—but he’s plotting a return

Zahi Hawass, shown in silhouette inspecting murals in Giza, laments the halt of many restoration projects since his departure. "Antiquities are collapsing in front of my eyes," he says. (Nasser Nasser / AP Images)
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I first met Hawass on a cool morning last December, at the office that he now uses on the ninth floor of a dilapidated high-rise apartment building in a busy Cairo neighborhood near the Nile. Hawass’ two-room suite is at the end of a gloomy hallway redolent of home cooking. He shares the space with a female assistant and a protégé, Tarek El Awady, whom Hawass hired as a field archaeologist, sent to graduate school and later appointed as director of the Egyptian Museum. Determined to snatch Egyptology out of the hands of Westerners who had dominated the field since the days of the emperor Napoleon, Hawass “encouraged training and opportunities for young Egyptians to a degree never seen before,” says Lacovara.

El Awady, now on a leave of absence from the museum, escorted me to Hawass’ small office. There the former antiquities chief, wearing denims, was sitting behind a cluttered desk, talking on the phone to members of a Russian television crew that was due to interview him in a few minutes. Suddenly, Hawass began screaming in Arabic into the phone. The tirade went on for 20 seconds. Face bright red, he hung up and looked at me apologetically. “Stupid man,” he said, shaking his head. He explained that he had attempted to give directions to the crew’s Egyptian driver, who had interrupted him. Hawass’ temper is legendary—the History Channel reality series shows him berating his colleagues unmercifully—but I was surprised that he had shown me that side of his personality within a few seconds of meeting him.

I had planned to join Hawass at a lecture for foreign tourists he was scheduled to deliver inside a temple at Luxor that evening, but the sponsors had pulled the plug because there had been too many cancellations. The past week had been among the most violent since the revolution. Six people had died the night before in clashes between supporters of Morsi and his opponents, and crowds were gathering around the presidential palace in Heliopolis to demand that Morsi rescind a decree giving him near-dictatorial powers in advance of Egypt’s constitutional referendum.

“Morsi is worse than Mubarak, he doesn’t listen to the people,” Hawass told me, as his assistant brought in two cups of green tea. He is a burly man with a dominating manner and, despite his recent troubles, an air of total self-confidence. “What he did with the constitution is dictatorship. I always say give the opportunity to Muslim Brotherhood to rule. But they are not trained to rule....I think it is going to be civil war.”

Hawass is still fighting the legal problems that ensnared him during the revolution. Last spring the prosecutor general banned him from traveling outside Egypt, pending investigation of dozens of charges of impropriety and corruption brought against him by a pair of former colleagues. Hawass stands accused of wasting public money and exposing Egyptian antiquities to possible theft by shipping them overseas without permission. He gave up his National Geographic contract, an arrangement that paid him $200,000 a year, after questions were raised about possible conflict of interest. As antiquities chief, Hawass administered many sites that the Geographic used in its television programs and other projects. (He insists that he left because “I can make more money” without an exclusive arrangement for his lectures and books.)

His relationship to the former first lady, Suzanne Mubarak, has also come under scrutiny. Investigators are probing his involvement in the Suzanne Mubarak Children’s Museum in Cairo (renamed the Children’s Civilization and Creativity Center when it opened in January 2012), which was funded by donations raised by Hawass on a lecture tour and funneled into her charity. Hawass may have violated the law by using his public office to raise money for a private organization. Hawass maintains that his relationship with Suzanne Mubarak was beyond reproach. “I’ve never been a politician in my life,” he told me. “I was not a friend of anyone.”

He rose from behind the desk. “I’m a famous guy, and if you go to TV and say ‘Zahi Hawass is an asshole,’ they will write that,” he told me. He had been assured that the travel ban had been lifted, he said, but the paperwork had fallen between the cracks during the political crisis: “Egypt is in chaos now. Nobody cares about Zahi Hawass.”

Hawass insisted that he has rarely been happier. His enforced retirement has given him the leisure to do what he always wanted, he told me, writing books and newspaper articles about Egyptian history, including a weekly column for Asharq Al-Awsat, the London-based Arabic newspaper. “Before I can write only between telephone calls,” he said. He works out daily in a gym, meets with visiting archaeologists and spends his evenings dining in cafés with a wide circle of friends. “I think he’s quite relieved to be out of it,” Naguib Amin would tell me. “He’s very tired.” Hawass says he’s glad to be freed of his administrative responsibilities, and the political intrigue that marked his last turbulent year. “All I miss are my excavations,” he insisted. “I’m not sobbing, crying. Why I have to cry? Never!” he banged his hand on his desk. “Never in my life was I depressed.”


Hawass was born in 1947, in a village near the Nile Delta city of Damietta. He originally wanted to become a lawyer, but earned degrees in Egyptology at Cairo University, and Greek and Roman archaeology at Alexandria University, then worked as an inspector, a combination archaeologist and administrator, at the Pyramids. At 33, he won a Fulbright Fellowship to attend the University of Pennsylvania, where he obtained his doctorate. For Hawass, the period marked the beginning of a lifelong love affair with the United States, and it established his reputation as a man of large appetites.

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