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 went to see Zahi once in Philadelphia, when he was a PhD student, and we went to this singles bar,” Naguib Amin, his friend from graduate school, told me as we returned with Hawass by rental car from Saqqara to Cairo. “Zahi picked us up two girls, they were cashiers in a supermarket, and he was trying to sell himself continuously, talking about the Pyramids. Finally one told her friend, ‘I don’t want him to talk, I just want to...’”—and here Amin used a word not suitable for publication in this magazine.

“It was New York, not Philadelphia,” Hawass remembered. “Naguib was wearing a Yasser Arafat scarf, and he looked like a terrorist.” The memory led him into a defensive monologue about how his enemies have used sex rumors to harm his reputation. “I’ve never slept with a prostitute in my life,” he said. “You know what they wrote about me in the revolution? They said I am married secretly to an American lady and I have a girl from her. The Italians wrote this.” (Hawass is still known as a ladies’ man. He has lived apart from his wife for many years; they have two grown sons, one a physician, the other a restaurateur, both living in Cairo.)

Hawass spent most of his seven years stateside studying and working. “I lived inside the university,” he says. He was head of the Egyptian Students Union on campus, and traveled widely, giving lectures at colleges and other venues across Pennsylvania. He made contacts that would serve him in his fund-raising, and developed a confident speaking style. “I went as a quiet young man, I didn’t know my talents, but I learned how to choose my words, and how to become a public lecturer.” His admiration for the U.S. grew. “I found out that the American people are the most beautiful people,” he says. “You can take friends for your life.” Until his travel ban, Hawass returned to the U.S. at least once a month, holding lectures that drew audiences as large as 4,000.

Hawass returned to Egypt in 1987, and was hired as director of Giza and Saqqara. Near the Sphinx, three years later, he made a breakthrough discovery: an ancient cemetery containing 600 graves and 50 larger tombs belonging to the builders of the Pyramids, their families and their overseers. Rich with hieroglyphics that described ritual offerings and everyday activities such as grain grinding and beer making, the graveyard provided unprecedented insight into the lives of ordinary Egyptians during the Fourth and Fifth dynasties. Three years later, in a foreshadowing of his future troubles, he was accused of neglect and fired after a valuable ancient statuette in his custody was stolen from Giza; Hawass says a rival set him up. A year later, he got his job back, and in 2002 he was chosen to run the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities. The post gave him oversight of Egypt’s thousands of archaeological sites, and a platform to build his celebrity.

A 1997 terrorist attack that killed 62 people, mostly tourists, at the Temple of Hatshepsut outside Luxor, followed by the attacks of 9/11, had nearly killed off tourism in Egypt. Hawass probably did more than anyone else to lure back foreign visitors. His TV shows, museum tours, high-profile excavations and rehabilitation of ancient sites “made Egyptology dynamic,” says his longtime friend Rainer Stadelmann, the former head of the German Archaeological Institute in Cairo. Hawass launched a vocal campaign to repatriate Egyptian artifacts that had been carted off by Europeans—the bust of Nefertiti, now at Berlin’s Neues Museum, the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum in London—irking some world leaders and curators while raising his profile.

In 2009 Hawass demanded that the Louvre hand over five limestone wall paintings, purchased by the museum in 2000 and 2003 at a gallery and at auction after being stolen from a Luxor tomb in the 1980s. When the museum director ignored him, Hawass blocked a Louvre-sponsored excavation at Saqqara. “This was like a bomb,” he says. “At 8:45 a.m. I was giving a lecture, Mubarak called me. ‘Zahi, Sarkozy just phoned me, he said you stopped the Louvre, what happened?’ I explained it, and he said, ‘What you did was perfect.’” The Louvre returned the pieces in 2009. “This return became a symbol everywhere,” says Hawass. “In 2006 they named me among the Time [magazine] 100 [Most Influential People] because of all this courage, the things I did in the world.”

Hawass reveled in his stardom. He cruised Cairo in a chauffeured SUV, drank $300 bottles of wine, flaunted his friendship with the actor Omar Sharif, attended occasional parties at Mubarak’s villa. In June 2009 he escorted President Barack Obama on a tour of the Pyramids. Obama signed a photo of the pair in front of the Sphinx with the message, “thank you for sharing your wisdom and insight,” and it hangs prominently in Hawass’ office. He marketed a replica of his Indiana Jones-style fedora and made a deal with an American firm to put out his own clothing line. The New York Times described it as “a line of rugged khakis, denim shirts and carefully worn leather jackets” meant, according to the catalog copy, to hark “back to Egypt’s golden age of discovery in the early 20th century.” The deal collapsed in the wake of the revolution.


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.

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