q Interview: Don't Mess With The Zahi, Or Hold Me, Mummy - Bruce Dennill

Interview: Don’t Mess With The Zahi, Or Hold Me, Mummy

January 31, 2015



Dr Zahi Hawass was in South Africa recently to elaborate on and form a living, breathing part of the Tutankhamun – His Tomb & His Treasures exhibition, running at the Silverstar Casino near Krugersdorp until March 1.

He’s lived a full life, has Hawass, immersed in the archaeological treasures and profoundly rich history of his native Egypt, as well as a number of controversies given a high profile because of Hawass’ fame and his legendary outspokenness. He was (briefly) a politician – Egypt’s Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs – and still speaks like one, expecting those who hear him to listen and obey.

Hawass’ talk at Silverstar begins with a video biography of himself, with the great, good and notorious of his and vaguely associated fields having a chance to convince viewers of his skill and status. Omar Sharif is there, telling whoever will listen that Hawass is “the greatest actor I have ever seen.”

For the audience sitting in the darkened room, this ego spike is a rather awkward way to meet the man, though that unease is tempered by one of his fellow Egyptian archaeologists stating: “Some people say he’s an awful self-publicist.”

Does he deliver on all he promises? To some degree, yes. He speaks impossibly fast – perhaps aware that allowing people time to pause and think might allow them to spot the cracks in his narrative – whizzing through hundreds of photographs as he relates almost as many stories of things he has seen and history he has helped reveal. Those stories are what give Hawass’ talk bite. They’re aspirational, and his abrasive personality is a large part of the reason he’s achieved so much, whatever the fallout might have been to date.

Hawass begins with a plea.

“Egypt is safe,” he says, addressing the fears many travellers have regarding going to the country since the Arab Spring in 2011.

“If you hear about troubles, go the next day, because security will be doubled. But no tourism means no money, and no money means the monuments can’t be protected.”

He recalls his concerns for the Egyptian Museum In Cairo during the riots and a moving moment when he arrived at the institution to find it protected by a line of youngsters, arms linked, standing across the entrance.

“There was superficial damage from looters,” he remembers, “but all the masterpieces were safe, largely because the museum was dark and they were only looking for gold. They were not educated people; they did not realise the value of what they were seeing. In all, only 54 objects were taken, and all but 17 have been returned. Contrast that to the 15 000 objects missing from Iraq.”

Unexpectedly, given his, er, fully-formed self-image, Hawass concedes that much of an archaeologist’s success is down to luck or happy accident. He remembers finding the foundation of a pyramid under a pile of dirt dug out of another archaeological site nearby, and discovering a burial site after catching some grave robbers digging in a certain location.

The anecdotes come thick and fast, the common theme being that Hawass appears to be able to command whatever resources are necessary to exploit each situation, from MRI machines with which to scan mummies to permission to drills that excavate under the Sphinx, once of the most recognisable ancient structures in the world.

He grins: “When you are the Head of Antiquities, you can do anything.”

That, as a joke, is possibly only funny if you’re not another Egyptologist trying to lay claim to a dig that Hawass is also interested in. Another quip confirms that his humour is as rugged as his work dresscode (which includes a hat that will look familiar to film fans but which Hawass insists he was wearing before Indiana Jones was dreamed up by George Lucas). He says that, when investigating a tunnel in the Sphinx that he had been told was cursed – an idea he scoffs at – he sent an American friend in first, “just in case”.

Beyond Hawass’ hubris is a readily apparent drive to discover more; to learn and reveal; and to leave a legacy. There’s a tiny tunnel in one of the sites he is overseeing that he has been trying to explore for over two decades now, waiting for technology to catch up with his vision so that he could send a camera up the opening to see what is on the other side.

“Someone has now built a snake robot,” he says, “so we will go back in soon and try and get through the mud in that tunnel.”

Hawass’ current work involves trying to find the tombs of Mark Antony and Cleopatra, which would be the cherry on top of a career that’s had as many world-beating highs as it has contentious lows.

And finally, as Hawass closes his presentation with pictures of himself with a range of celebrities, from US presidents to pop stars – “I had a big fight with Beyonce: google it” – he, apparently unwittingly, reveals that his earlier optimism about the state of play may be a function of his own unshakeable confidence rather than reality.

Talking about projects to look forward to, he says, “I hope, when Egypt is more stable, to explore more inside the Great Pyramid.” If Hawass is – even subconsciously – in need of a little more stability than is currently evident, more timid folk, i.e. everybody else, might do well to keep one eye on the headlines.

It’s a momentary blip, though, and a question from the audience about Hawass’ opinion regarding the recent botching of the repair of Tutankhamun’s 3 000-year-old golden funerary mask, which made front pages all over the world, gives the famous archaeologist the opportunity to end as he began, with a blast of arrogance, or aplomb, depending on how you see it.

“Ah,” Hawass says with a shrug. “Restoration can change everything. We will fix it and then I will have a big press conference and everyone will come. When you come to visit Egypt, it will all be right.”

Picture by: A.M. v. Sarosdy

Picture by: A.M. v. Sarosdy