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Zahi Hawass
The Keeper of the Pyramids

by Siona Jenkins

Imagine for a moment that you are responsible for the last remaining wonder of the ancient world, charged with protecting it from frenzied urban growth and an endless stream of tourists. Imagine that you also have under your care three other fields of pyramids, Egypt's first metropolis, and a desert oasis potentially filled with Greco-Roman treasures.

Everyone from archaeologists to New Age gurus demands the right to dig among these splendid monuments, and nature itself is beating them down. Your country desperately needs the money spent by mesmerized tourists, but eternal condemnation is the price of failing in your task.

That is the burden borne every day by Zahi Hawass, the keeper of the pyramids.


Hawass is a top bureaucrat, a former Fulbright Fellow, a tour guide for the world's VIPs, and a television personality with one of the best-known faces in archaeology. But always and above all, Hawass is an archaeologist: "In my job, you have to wear lots of hats. But the hat for taking VIPs [on private tours] is very temporary. The hat for attending meetings is useless. I do mainly the archaeology: the excavations and the publications. This is what I really care about."

Usually seen sporting a wide-brimmed felt hat and jeans, the outspoken Hawass has little time for false modesty. "Compare what I do with an American archaeologist who comes and excavates full time and then returns to the U.S. and teaches one or two courses," he says in his fluent but distinctive English. "I am full of 100 percent responsibilities every day and have still produced more than 85 articles over the past year."

Hawass has produced a prodigious number of academic publications, along with lecture tours and film collaborations. An inveterate charmer and adept media personality, he is a regular on Egyptian, European, and American television.

Yet Hawass came to archaeology almost by default. The son of a prosperous farmer from a village in northern Egypt, Hawass left home at age 16 to study law at the University of Alexandria. It didn't take long for him to realize that he was not cut out to be a lawyer. While casting about for a new major, Hawass was told that a new department, Archaeology, had just opened and was looking for students.

Ironically, given that incredibly high-profile archaeology had been practiced in Egypt - but by Europeans and Americans - for more than a century, the young student had never heard of the discipline. He signed up, nonetheless, and he was quickly disappointed in his choice.

The supposedly exciting new discipline seemed to consist of little more than administrative work at Egypt's many archaeological sites. The only time he recalls seeing a dig was when a professor showed the class how to make a grid of an excavation.

"When I graduated, I still did not like it, and I said to myself, 'No way; I'm not going to work in this job,'" he recalls. But in 1969, after trying - and failing - to get into the diplomatic corps, he swallowed his pride and became an inspector for the Egyptian Antiquities Organization. He worked on several digs in Middle and Upper Egypt, including in 1969 a joint University of Pennsylvania-Yale expedition at Abydos, which began what was to become a lasting connection with the University of Pennsylvania. But still, he did not feel "involved in real archaeology."

That changed in 1971. He went to work on what he considers his first real dig at Kom Abu Bello, in Egypt's Delta. "When I started excavating - you know when you see someone and fall in love right away? - that is when I found my love," he said. "And when I did that, archaeology became everything in my life. This is why I tell every young person in Egypt and outside Egypt that they have to look and wait until they find their real love."

Hawass is helping bright, young Egyptians find the "real love" that drives his life - and ensuring that Egypt's past will not be explored only by foreigners. That may be his most enduring legacy.

"I am very proud of one thing that I did: Look at this expedition I'm working on now in the oasis. I have 10 young people [all Egyptians]. They were trained in excavations, conservation, epigraphy, drawing, mapping. It can compete with any foreign expedition in Egypt. And even some foreign expeditions take my people to help them. I have a school in Giza that is teaching at least 20 young people now. They can really run archaeology for the coming 50 years."

Hawass became Egypt's First Inspector of Antiquities at the Giza Pyramids, Imbaba, and Bahariya Oasis in 1979. Then he won a Fulbright Fellowship, which he used to study at the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned a Ph.D. Today, he is Undersecretary of State for the Giza monuments.

Hawass supervises about 100 archaeologists on the Giza Plateau and another 20 at the Saqqara necropolis, plus an assortment of support and conservation specialists at both sites. His role, he says, is that of an administrator who prepares and oversees conservation, excavation, and management plans, but leaves day-to-day management to those in the field.

As part of his goal of increasing the profile of Egyptian archaeology, he reserves the fabulous Giza Plateau almost entirely for Egyptian scientists.

"I don't really like others to come and disturb the site," Hawass said. "It's a site that I feel Egyptians should be working in. Very few people in the world know about pyramids; and, therefore, I permit - not me, because we have a permanent committee that consists of 30 individuals who give permissions - we permit only Mark Lehner of the Rand Institute to excavate because he knows the site very well. And we permit people with us for conservation."

Saqqara, meanwhile, is open to archaeologists of other nations, and at least 25 teams are working there now, although Hawass is concerned that might be too many.

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