• Image about Zahi Hawass
Hawass in front of Luxor Temple in Luxor, Egypt
Shawn Baldwin

In years to come, he made other important finds, including a burial ground near the Giza Pyramids offering strong proof the structures were built by hired workers rather than Hebrew slaves (or space aliens), as some have argued. Later, at an oasis some 250 miles southwest of Cairo, he unearthed the Valley of Golden Mummies, a cemetery containing tens of thousands of tombs. Hawass has excavated only a small portion of the find, a cache of well-preserved corpses — some wearing gilded masks, others with bright marbles used as their eyes — that were so lifelike they spooked excavators.

Since being named to lead the antiquities service a decade ago, Hawass has launched many initiatives — putting protection and conservation plans in place at many tourist sites; restoring mosques, churches and synagogues; recovering more than 5,000 illegally exported artifacts from all over the world; as well as renovating and building 22 museums, including the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization in Old Cairo, another dedicated to jewelry in Alexandria and a site in Minya honoring King Akhenaten, the enigmatic pharaoh who tried unsuccessfully to abandon Egypt’s multiple gods and instead worship a single deity.

Until the revolution caused many countries to pull their archaeology teams for security reasons, approximately 200 foreign expeditions were stationed in Egypt, and Hawass’ office reviewed and processed permitting and approvals for them all. Though his work is strongly rooted in the past, Hawass has mostly won plaudits for modernizing the disorganized free-for-all antiquity grabs of previous administrations. “Overall, he’s done tremendous good protecting Egypt’s cultural heritage,” says Gil Stein, Ph.D., who heads the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, which conducts historical research throughout the Middle East.

“He’s streamlined the research process in many ways,” adds UCLA professor Willeke Wendrich, Ph.D., who cites his moves such as relocating the Supreme Council of Antiquities to Cairo’s city center, which makes it much easier to get paperwork processed. He’s also quick to put out bureaucratic fires, she says. During one excavation in which farmland was about to be recklessly plowed over, she personally called Hawass and, within a week, he had sent over a committee to survey the situation. “Do I agree with everything he’s done in TV documentaries and programs? No,” Wendrich remarks. “Still, I’m glad the public face of Egyptian archaeology is an Egyptian rather than a foreigner.”

Unfortunately, his many advances are often offset by blustery braggadocio and PR gaffes. He’s made a number of controversial remarks during interviews, and he often refers to his critics as followers of Seth, the ancient redheaded donkey-god of chaos. Several archaeologists who requested anonymity claim that he grabs credit for work done by others. “Anyone who has excavated in Egypt well knows that no discoveries could be announced without [his] authorization, and woe betide anyone who violated the rules,” said Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram Weekly. Hawass’ own reality show Chasing Mummies — from the same Hollywood company that produces Gene Simmons Family Jewels — was slammed by reviewers. (The New York Times wrote of it: “One hopes that this show will, like some of those ancient pharaohs, die young.”) The History Channel has since ceased production on the project.

With the fall of the Egyptian government earlier this year, the demise of the high-profile Hawass seemed inevitable. As thousands of state employees railed against low wages, 150 archaeology-school graduates loudly protested their lack of work on the steps of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. After years of glowing profiles and puff pieces, Hawass started receiving some bad press: “Is this the Last Crusade for Egypt’s ‘Indiana Jones’?” asked MSNBC. Perhaps most important, Hawass faced the wrath of archaeologists worldwide for misstating the number of artifacts stolen from the Egyptian Museum and other cultural sites during the widespread street protests.

During one of several interviews with American Way, he sadly conceded that “there is no stability in Egypt, and you can’t control anything.” Forced to admit his original assessments of stolen artifacts were way off — at first, he said nothing was taken, then he reported 18 items missing from the museum, and soon the tally had soared to hundreds of different pieces across Egypt — he resigned from his position, believing the government was not giving the Supreme Council of Antiquities the support it needed to protect historic sites and museums, only to return within a few weeks once his faith in the government’s intentions was restored. Clearly, whatever chaos and obstacles the evil donkey-god Seth had thrown to block and deter him, the clever Hawass has managed to avoid them and has emerged back on top, relatively unscathed.

His life has changed so dramatically over the past year — serving in top cabinet posts for both Egypt’s pre- and postrevolution governments, despite being four years past the country’s mandatory retirement age of 60 — that he is nothing if not a survivor. Asked how the job description on his next business card might read, he gives a small laugh and says, “I have always liked the title of ‘archaeologist’ more than anything else.”