Zahi Hawass, Egypt's polarizing head of antiquities, has modernized the field of archaeology. But not everyone agrees with his methods.Switch on your TV, and there’s Zahi Hawass. The beefy Egyptian descends by rope into a musty underground tomb as a decaying mummy pops out from the darkness. Go to another channel, and now he’s racing through a 4,000-year-old temple, its stone walls depicting entire armies crushed beneath a pharaoh’s mighty chariot. Turn on a different show, and there he is again, crawling around spooky tunnels leading to the king’s chamber inside the Great Pyramid of Giza.
The affable archaeologist is here, there and everywhere — on CNN, the BBC, the History Channel, the Learning Channel, the National Geographic Channel and your local PBS outlet, to name a few. If any television show or news segment uses the words ancient Egypt in its title, odds are strong that he’ll be prominently featured in the narrative. In fact, Hawass is so linked with his country’s historic legacy that, after leaving his government job in the wake of political turmoil earlier this year (citing what he felt was a lack of protection for Egypt’s historic sites and monuments), he returned and was reinstated less than a month later — once, he says, he was sure the new government was keen to protect the country’s heritage.
So just who is this guy, and how did he rise so far? You might not be familiar with his unusual name — zahi means “splendid, clear and bright” in Arabic — but you probably recognize the craggy face, the shock of wavy white hair and, of course, his familiar Indiana Jones fedora. For nearly a decade, Hawass has controlled Egypt’s treasures, running popular museums and well-traveled tourism sites with an iron fist. As the head of antiquities and the former vice minister of culture in the revolution-torn country, this charismatic tomb raider has changed modern archaeology — in many ways for the better, and in others, some would argue, for worse — in ways that will likely last forever.
Indeed, many agree that Hawass’ greatest accomplishment has been the training of Egyptian archaeologists and emphasizing local excavation projects instead of merely letting American, European and Asian explorers dig away freely, as in the past. “I’ve led many battles, but I’m most proud of Egyptianizing the study of Egyptian antiquities,” he tells American Way. “In the past, foreigners and Western scholars did all the work while Egyptians had very little involvement. All that changed under my leadership.”
If you shovel up muck and mud for a living, however, you’re bound to wind up with a few black marks on your face. Ego-driven, sharp-tongued and a savvy media manipulator, Hawass is the Simon Cowell of the dirt-digging world, both respected and reviled by his many critics. “Man fears time, but time fears the pyramids,” goes the old Egyptian proverb — and when it comes to archaeologists, Hawass may be the most feared of them all.
“Dr. Zahi! Dr. Zahi!” cry the camel-ride hustlers and jewelry hawkers at the Giza Pyramids when he goes by, angry that he has restricted their access to tourists. His visits bring hostile words from displaced residents near the ruins of Luxor Temple and nervous shivers from the excavators at the royal graveyard known as the Valley of the Kings. One British archaeologist flatly said he dared not discuss Hawass on the record with us because he was scared of potential repercussions. Still others say they have no problem with his angry outbursts. Alison Ray of the Association for Research and Enlightenment, a New Age group that believes a library of Atlantis exists in a secret chamber under the front right paw of the Sphinx, says, “We adore him, even if he calls us ‘pyramidiots.’ "
At the age of 64, Hawass often displays the raw, unbridled exuberance of a teenage boy, and he also knows how to ooze charm when needed. A larger-than-life character given to highly expressive body language and loud decrees, he strikes commanding poses in photographs and is quick with quotable quips. Graduating with an Egyptology degree from Cairo University and then earning his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania, Hawass has successfully navigated political and cultural land mines in both his homeland and the United States. (Aside from a little incident involving Beyoncé; sensing some apathy while giving her a VIP tour of the Sphinx, Hawass dumped the singing superstar off on an underling and later called her “stupid.”)