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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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?”


On January 31, 2011, in the middle of the revolution, Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq offered Hawass the newly created position of minister of state for antiquities in a hastily reassembled cabinet. The change of government was part of a last-ditch attempt to appease the protesters and save Mubarak. The Egyptian Museum had just been looted—artifacts including 54 ancient bronzes were snatched by thieves who had broken in through the skylight—and Hawass had spent hours on international television, trying to assure the world that the losses had been minimal. Says Hawass: “Shafiq told people, ‘Zahi’s face was in TV all over the world, the Egyptians love him, and if we make this new ministry for him, he will never say no.’ I thought, ‘this is a time that my country needs me. If I do nothing this is bad.’ Then I accepted.”

Colleagues say that it was a miscalculation. “He had an idea that ‘I have to do my duty,’” said Rainer Stadelmann, as we sat with Hawass at dinner at one of his favorite restaurants, Trattoria, in the affluent Zamalek neighborhood, owned by the son of Omar Sharif. Hawass keeps a personal collection of fine wines in the cellar. “Egypt was in chaos, the Egyptian Museum had been looted,” Stadelmann continued. “He did not see the anger toward Mubarak. He was politically naive.” In early February, while regime thugs were beating and killing protesters in Tahrir Square, Hawass praised the president on the BBC and said he supported Mubarak’s proposal to preside over an orderly transition. For hundreds of thousands who were demanding Mubarak’s immediate ouster, Hawass seemed to be throwing his weight behind a reviled dictator.

Two years later, Hawass is unapologetic. He maintains that he was “never close” to the former president—“I suffered a lot from the Mubarak regime. Ministers attacked me, fought with me”—but he respected Mubarak as a leader. When the revolution started, “I said, if you want Egypt to be stable, give Mubarak the opportunity to stay until September, make elections. And in the end I was proven to be correct.” Mubarak did make mistakes in his later years, he concedes. “Mubarak never announced publicly that his son [Gamal] will not become the president. I was against this,” Hawass says. “Number two, he became old, I could see in the meetings, when he opened them, his mind is not there. And that allowed bad people, like the head of the Parliament, the head of the ruling party, to become strong.” But no other figure in the country, he contends, had the ability to hold Egypt together. “Mubarak as a man was not bad,” he says. “For 20 years [his rule] was good. Thirty years was too much.”


At 9:30 on a Saturday night in Cairo, Hawass is in a petulant mood. Seated at a VIP table inside a smoke-filled ballroom of the Four Seasons on the Nile, Hawass rolls his eyes as the Cairo Opera Ballet Company performs an excruciatingly slow dance routine. “This is the most boring cultural event I’ve ever seen in my life,” he grumbles.

The occasion is a fund-raising dinner for the Swiss Egyptian Business Association, packed with diplomats and members of the Cairo elite—many of them with ties to the ancien régime. Across the table, Mubarak’s former secretary huddles with an ex-columnist from the state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper, who has just been fired by the new editor, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, for writing critically of Morsi. With power now in the hands of the Islamists, these members of the old guard are bitter, idle, fearing the future. “Morsi needs to listen to the people,” says Hawass. Then, in the next breath, he says that Egyptians “don’t understand democracy,” and “need a strong dictator.”

Hawass’ own future remains cloudy. The archaeologist claims that he doesn’t want his old job back, but he can’t stop talking about the decline of the Ministry since he left nearly two years ago. “When I was there, the building was like a fire, people were working 9 to 6 every day, but now they do nothing,” he claims. “Who is there now? Someone with no experience, wearing a tie and suit.”

Indeed, in unguarded moments, Hawass already seems to be laying plans for his resurrection. Last year, 2012, he tells me, marked the 100th anniversary of the removal of the 3,300-year-old bust of Nefertiti from Egypt to Berlin by the German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt. Hawass campaigned for its repatriation, only to be rebuffed by German officials, who maintained that the removal was legal and that the statuette would be damaged by moving it. Momentum for the return faded with the revolution, but Hawass hasn’t given up. “Next Thursday I am going to write an article on Nefertiti,” he tells me, as waiters circulate and the band begins to play. “And I will tell the Germans that the battle is not finished.” He is expecting, he says, a call from the Morsi government. “If they need me, and I’m sure they will, I am willing to help,” he says. “And if they want me to return to antiquities, I will.” Like Osiris, Hawass seems to sense that Set’s triumph is only a temporary one.

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