• Image about Zahi Hawass
Hawass beside the Step Pyramid in Saqqara outside of Cairo
Shawn Baldwin

Though subtlety and humility aren’t his strong suits — he once said “If Egypt didn’t already exist, I would have had to create it” — Hawass has nevertheless proven highly adept at negotiating tough multimillion-dollar deals with museums around the world for new exhibitions. In 2009, he scored a major PR coup by personally guiding the newly elected Barack Obama on a 90-minute tour of the Giza Pyramids. (“He made jokes all the time,” says Hawass, recalling how the president blamed “the curse of the pharaohs” after banging his head while entering an inner chamber.)

Hawass loves to schmooze celebrities, and he counts famed Egyptian actor Omar Sharif (Funny Girl, Lawrence of Arabia) among his closest friends. In his rapid-paced, highly entertaining lectures at colleges and conferences, he displays several slides showing him with A-listers, including the late Princess Diana, actress/model Megan Fox, comic actor Ben Stiller, Wolverine star Hugh Jackman, pop sexologist Dr. Ruth Westheimer, former President Bill Clinton and director/producer George Lucas (he chuckles that Indy’s co-creator visited Egypt solely to check out what a real archaeologist’s hat should look like).

Unlike Indiana Jones, however, Hawass has never been a lone adventurer. Rising through the bureaucratic ranks to head Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, he has overseen more than 30,000 government employees who handle everything from digging at the world’s oldest pyramid in Saqqara to tearing visitor tickets at the Temple of Karnak in Luxor. Hawass’ staff includes scholars, writers, drivers, artisans, museum workers and others whose efforts have helped maintain Egypt’s tourism industry, which brought in nearly $12 billion in 2010 and primarily relies on monuments, temples and mummies from thousands of years ago to keep attracting new travelers from around the globe.

This year began as a banner one for Hawass. Shortly after New Year’s, he revealed that the long-lost tomb of Tutankhamun’s widow, Ankhesenamun, could soon be unearthed. “We recently found some foundation deposits in the western part of the Valley of the Kings, offerings of meat and pottery placed where a new tomb was to be built,” he says. “This is the best location for Ankhesenamun’s tomb, and the fact that no artifacts have been found anywhere else suggests it has never been disturbed.” The discovery of “Mrs. Tut” would no doubt be a worldwide sensation, drawing more attention (and tourist dollars) than any other find, short of another pristine royal tomb.

In addition, 2011 has seen continuing construction on the massive Grand Egyptian Museum, which is scheduled to open in two years to supplement the existing Egyptian Museum in downtown Cairo, which has housed the country’s treasures since 1902 and was the target of a recent break-in. There’s also the ongoing worldwide exhibit King Tut and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs, a glitzy big-ticket production (in conjunction with the National Geographic Society) that, so far, has hauled in an estimated $100 million. In addition to his archaeological talents, Hawass is obviously a master showman — last year, he even landed his own History Channel reality series, Chasing Mummies.

He’s come a long way from his humble roots. Born in the small village of Abeedya, near Damietta, where the Nile meets the Mediterranean, Hawass studied archaeology in Alexandria and joined the antiquities department as a lowly inspector. His ascent was marked by many important stops along the way — he was stationed at the incredible rock-cut temples of Rameses II in Abu Simbel and the famous Giza Pyramid plateau near Cairo. Before leaving to study for his doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania on a prestigious Fulbright fellowship, one moment in particular illuminated his career path.

“I was on an excavation at Kom Abou Bellou and so miserable that I completely ignored my work,” he says. “One day I was preparing to leave when the workmen found a tomb. I went to the dig site and the overseer was carefully uncovering the head of a statue. It was so beautiful that I was suddenly overcome by an urge to help remove it from the sand. I got on my knees, picked up a brush and took almost three hours to uncover it all.”

The sculpture was a small statue of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty whose Greco-Roman-era likenesses are found all over Egypt and who is closely linked to the ancient Egyptian goddess Hathor. Recalls Hawass, “As I was cleaning it, I said to myself, ‘I have found my true love: archaeology!’ ”