Zahi Hawass

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Dr Zahi Hawass is prob­a­bly the best known Egyp­tol­o­gist in the world to­day. The for­mer Egyp­tian Min­is­ter for An­tiq­ui­ties and Di­rec­tor of Ex­ca­va­tions at Giza, Saqqara, Ba­hariya Oa­sis and the Val­ley of the Kings, he has spent the last thirty years rais­ing aware­ness of Egypt’s archaeological her­itage. In this very can­did in­ter­view with Matilda Hick­son, he ex­plains that while ar­chae­ol­ogy is now his great pas­sion in life, this wasn’t al­ways the case.

I read that you ini­tially wanted to be a lawyer, but stud­ied Greek and Ro­man ar­chae­ol­ogy at Uni­ver­sity. When did your in­ter­est in ar­chae­ol­ogy/ Egyp­tol­ogy be­gin?

When I was a young man, I was im­pressed by an ac­tor who played the role of a lawyer who drove a nice car and I thought that I wanted to be like him. At the age of four­teen and half, I went to Alexan­dria Uni­ver­sity and joined the Fac­ulty of Law. But when I started to read the as­signed text books, I re­alised that I would never like this. So the next day, I went to re­turn the books and switched my ma­jor from the fac­ulty of law to the fac­ulty of arts. I sat in the cafe­te­ria and asked other stu­dents about which de­part­ment to join within the fac­ulty, as there were over twenty de­part­ments, and they told me there is a new de­part­ment of ar­chae­ol­ogy. When I asked what you could do with a de­gree in ar­chae­ol­ogy after grad­u­a­tion, they told me they work as trans­la­tors. I stayed for four years but I was not a good stu­dent, I barely passed. I didn’t like study­ing ar­chae­ol­ogy ei­ther.

After grad­u­a­tion, and by law, the gov­ern­ment pro­vides a job for ev­ery­one, what­ever their abil­ity. So I joined the an­tiq­ui­ties de­part­ment at the age of twenty. When I started work­ing there, I found my col­leagues had no am­bi­tion, they just sat and did noth­ing and left the for­eign­ers to do all the work. So I de­cided to leave and stud­ied to be­come a di­plo­mat, but the Min­istry of For­eign Af­fairs would not ac­cept me.

I went back to my old job at the an­tiq­ui­ties de­part­ment and the head of the de­part­ment in­sisted that I go and ex­ca­vate, and when I said no, he threat­ened he would file a case against me and take five days off my salary. So I had to leave my girl­friend in Cairo and go to the desert and I didn’t know any­thing about ex­ca­vat­ing. We had stud­ied it in col­lege as a the­ory, but we had never done any field­work.

I was work­ing at a ma­jor Greek site, but I used to sit in the tent drink­ing cof­fee all day while the work­ers would carry on with­out me. One day the over­seer of work­men came to see me. He was an ex­pert from Qift and his name was Rayes Doc­tor, (Rayes means over­seer and his name was Doc­tor even though he could not read or write), and he was an ex­pert in ex­ca­vat­ing. He be­gan to teach me how to clean the tomb, and then in the mid­dle of the tomb there was a statue of Aphrodite, made of faience. I sat and cleaned around it and that’s when I started to think to my­self that this was my new love.

I had to sup­port my new-found pas­sion with knowl­edge, so I took a diploma in Egyp­tol­ogy at Cairo Uni­ver­sity and I de­cided to do more re­search. So, I took a Ful­bright fel­low­ship to study for a Masters and Doc­tor­ate at the Uni­ver­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia and was there for seven years un­til I grad­u­ated. And all this hap­pened be­cause I de­vel­oped a pas­sion for ar­chae­ol­ogy.

Did you have the op­por­tu­nity to visit many of your won­der­ful his­tor­i­cal sites when grow­ing up?

When I was a child, I used to come to Cairo to visit my aunt and the only site I used to see was the pyra­mids. We would play soc­cer next to them, but no one taught me any­thing about the site, so I was not in­ter­ested in the pyra­mids at that time, and I was not in­ter­ested at all in vis­it­ing any archaeological sites when I was a child.

You in­sti­gated and led the Egyp­tian Mummy project. Tell us about more about this fas­ci­nat­ing project.

When I be­gan to search for the mummy of Hat­shep­sut, I be­gan to col­lect all the uniden­ti­fied mum­mies that be­longed to a king, queen or princess from the Val­ley of the Kings. These in­cluded the two mum­mies from tomb of KV 35 and the two from KV 21 and the mummy in KV 60. I also col­lected the mum­mies that were stored in the up­per floor of the Cairo Mu­seum. I col­lected twenty al­to­gether. I hoped and be­lieved that one of these mum­mies was that of Hat­shep­sut, but I never imag­ined I would ac­tu­ally dis­cover her mummy.

I placed the mum­mies in room 44 of the Cairo Mu­seum and I started con­duct­ing CT scans. At the same time, I col­lected all the arte­facts be­long­ing to Hat­shep­sut. These in­cluded the al­abaster jar, the sar­coph­a­gus and the canopic wooden box that was found in the ca­chet of the mum­mies in Deir el-Ba­hari. The lat­ter had in­side the liver of the queen and her name was writ­ten on the out­side of the box.

The pres­ence of these ob­jects in the ca­chet with­out the mummy showed, in my opin­ion, that they started mov­ing the ob­jects be­long­ing to the Queen, and the mummy was moved to a place for re-wrap­ping be­fore be­ing moved to the mummy ca­chet, and for some rea­son this never hap­pened and it re­mained where it was tem­po­rar­ily kept. I talked to Dr. El-Lei­thy and I told him to bring the liver box so we could scan it us­ing the CT scan. As we were look­ing at the scans, Dr. Ab­del el-Rah­man said to me ‘look and tell me what do you see’. So, I an­swered that I saw the liver and part of a stom­ach. He told me ‘no, look again’, and when I looked again, I found a tooth, a mo­lar, with one of the roots still at­tached.

It was in­ter­est­ing to see a mo­lar in­side the box with the liver. I think that Hat­shep­sut had prob­lems with her teeth and dur­ing the mum­mi­fi­ca­tion, one of her teeth fell and the em­balmers took it and put it in the box. Dr. Asharf Seleem, the ra­di­ol­o­gist and Dr. El-Be­heiry, the den­tist, be­gan to look at the teeth of all the mum­mies that we scanned and we found one mummy with a cav­ity that sur­pris­ingly fit­ted with this tooth ex­actly, the cav­ity had one root still at­tached while the other was miss­ing. That was the best mo­ment any ar­chae­ol­o­gist in the world can dream of! One tooth had led us to the dis­cov­ery of the mummy of Hat­shep­sut, although it was not only the tooth that proved that this was the mummy of

He be­gan to teach me how to clean the tomb, then in the mid­dle of the tomb there was a statue of Aphrodite made of faience. I sat and cleaned around it and that’s when I started to think to my­self that this was my new love

Hat­shep­sut, but other ev­i­dence as well.

For ex­am­ple, the mummy was found in KV 60 and the ob­jects found in­side KV 60 all showed that they were made for roy­alty. KV 60 was also the tomb for the wet nurse of Hat­shep­sut and the fact that it is lo­cated near the tomb KV 20, the tomb of Hat­shep­sut. We found more de­tails about the mummy: she died at the age of 55 and she had suf­fered from di­a­betes and died of can­cer. To find the mummy of Hat­shep­sut was one of the most beau­ti­ful mo­ments of my life. I or­dered for her place­ment in the Cairo Mu­seum for ev­ery­one to see her and know the amaz­ing story of her dis­cov­ery.

The sec­ond im­por­tant dis­cov­ery was to find the fam­ily of Tu­tankhamun and it was like a puz­zle to search for the mummy of his fa­ther, as it was Akhen­aten not Amen­hotep III as some had pre­vi­ously thought. This was be­cause when Tu­tankhamun vis­ited Thebes, he called Amen­hotep III by the name ‘fa­ther’, but philol­o­gists later de­bated that the word for fa­ther is the same for grand­fa­ther in an­cient Egyp­tian. Tu­tankhamun’s mother was the daugh­ter of Tiya and Amen­hotep III, and we have her mummy, but we still do not have a name for her. She was in KV 35 and she mar­ried her brother Akhen­aten, ac­cord­ing to the DNA anal­y­sis.

The most in­ter­est­ing story that I dis­cov­ered through CT scans and DNA anal­y­sis, was the story of Ram­ses III. We know from the Harem Con­spir­acy that he was not mur­dered from the plot against his life. But when we put the mummy under the CT scan, we found a sharp knife wound show­ing his throat had been slit and his fin­gers had been cut off with an axe. Ac­cord­ing to the pa­pyrus, his son Pentawere, who was in­volved in the plot, was sent to hang him­self. We had found the mummy of a young man called Un­known Man E in the Cairo Mu­seum and we be­lieve it to be the mummy of Pentawere. We found ev­i­dence of hang­ing on his neck, his mouth was wide open, and the body was cov­ered in goatskins, which was im­pure for the an­cient Egyp­tians. These were the most in­ter­est­ing sto­ries.

Our next sea­son in the mid­dle of this year, we hope to con­tinue the project and our first task is to search for the mummy of Ne­fer­titi, be­cause we be­lieve it to be the mummy with the head in KV 21. We will also look in Saqqara for the bones of her sis­ter Mutned­jmet who mar­ried Horemheb and was buried in his tomb in Saqqara. Also we will see if Ram­ses I’s mummy in the Cairo Mu­seum is really Ram­ses I or not, by com­par­ing it with the mummy of his son Seti I, and we also plan to ex­am­ine the mum­mies of the 19th and 20th Dy­nas­ties.

Can you tell us more about the search for the ‘hidden doors’ in­side the great pyra­mid?

That was also an amaz­ing project that started when I be­gan to search for a method to stop the hu­mid­ity in­side the Great Pyra­mid. I found a Ger­man ro­bot­ics sci­en­tist, Guten­brinck, who de­signed a robot called ‘Wep­wawat’, the name of an Egyp­tian god whose name meant ‘the Opener of the Roads.’ The robot was used to clear the air shafts in the King’s Cham­ber, so they could be used as open­ings to re­duce the hu­mid­ity. In the north shaft, the robot could not con­tinue be­cause the shaft was bent and in the south shaft, the robot stopped at a door which was blocked with two cop­per han­dles. I asked Na­tional Geo­graphic to de­sign a robot which could be sent in to clear the block­ages. The robot made a hole in the first block­age and then passed through it, but it was stopped again at a sec­ond door, this time with no cop­per han­dles.

If we look at Tu­tankhamun’s canopic jar chest, we find that it has cop­per han­dles through which a rope would have been used to pull them into place. When we sent the Na­tional Geo­graphic robot to the shafts in the Queen’s Cham­ber, we found that the shaft was bent after 60 feet to avoid the Grand Gallery. At 200 feet, sim­i­lar to the first one, we found an­other blocked door with cop­per han­dles. So we be­gan to search for a team to de­sign a robot to see what was be­hind the doors. We found a robot de­signed by a den­tist from Hong Kong in co­op­er­a­tion with an English Uni­ver­sity and we hope to con­tinue the project by the end of this year or next year. I really be­lieve that the cham­ber of Khufu is still hidden be­hind the doors and that these doors hold the keys to the se­crets of the Pyra­mid.

You have made a num­ber of dis­cov­er­ies through­out your ca­reer. Do you have any favourites?

Peo­ple ask me this ques­tion all the time, but ev­ery dis­cov­ery has an ex­cite­ment of its own. How­ever, one would be the dis­cov­ery of a tomb west of the Great Pyra­mid where I found a statue of a dwarf made of basalt. It was a great mo­ment to take this statue out from the serdab [cel­lar] es­pe­cially be­cause it had an in­scrip­tion on it say­ing ‘he who pleases his majesty ev­ery day.’

An­other dis­cov­ery was the tombs of the pyra­mid builders that showed they were Egyp­tians and that they had never been slaves. I was al­ways against those who said that the pyra­mids were built by peo­ple who came from Atlantis and there was a huge de­bate be­tween us, un­til I found these tombs of the work­ers.

The tombs are also tied to the dis­cov­ery of the Wadi el-Jarf pa­pyrus. This pa­pyrus speaks of the over­seer of forty work­men called Merer who named Ankhkaf as the over­seer of a place called r-sha, which is trans­lated as ‘the mouth of the lake.’ We think that this area was like the port of Alexan­dria where the work­men checked in with all the raw ma­te­ri­als and food they were bring­ing, which took a long time and

a lot of ad­min­is­tra­tion to process. This was one of my best dis­cov­er­ies.

The third dis­cov­ery that I also like was the Val­ley of the Golden Mum­mies where I worked with my team for three years and we found a big val­ley of mum­mies cov­ered in gold. An­other I like was when I found the cult pyra­mid of the pyra­mid of Khufu, which was lo­cated at the south­east cor­ner of the Great Pyra­mid. This cult pyra­mid was like a chang­ing room for the king to change the crowns and re­galia and wear the kilt to sym­bol­i­cally go out from this pyra­mid to dance at the He­bSed fes­ti­val, which was the fes­ti­val for the re­ju­ve­na­tion of his king­ship, and the king dances to show his ath­letic pow­ers that proves that he is a king for eter­nity.

Was there a se­cret cham­ber in Tu­tankhamun’s tomb as pro­posed by Ni­cholas Reeves?

Watan­abi, the Ja­panese sci­en­tist who op­er­ated the pre­vi­ous radar scan and the Min­is­ter of An­tiq­ui­ties at the time, an­nounced in the first con­fer­ence that there was 70% chance of some­thing be­ing be­hind the wall, and then he an­nounced in his sec­ond con­fer­ence that there was a 90% chance, and the third time he said that there is or­ganic ma­te­rial be­hind the wall.

How­ever, no radar can show if there is or­ganic ma­te­rial or not. Glen Dash, the radar ex­pert who worked with me for three years in the Val­ley of the Kings, looked at Watan­abi’s radar scans and said that there is no chance that any­thing ex­isted be­hind the wall. The radar that was sent by Na­tional Geo­graphic did not show any re­sults ei­ther. I think the third radar scan, that will be op­er­ated by the Ital­ian team, could be the best of them all to give us the con­clu­sive re­sult and solve this myth once and for all.

I really be­lieve in the Ital­ian team’s ex­per­tise be­cause they worked with me for four­teen days last month and they never pro­vided any re­sults in­stantly, but they told me that they needed at least one month to in­ter­pret the re­sults cor­rectly.

I do not really think that Ne­fer­titi is buried be­hind the north and west wall of Tu­tankhamun’s tomb, for many rea­sons. Firstly, Ne­fer­titi ruled Egypt under the name Se­menkhare and she fol­lowed Akhen­aten in his be­lief sys­tem be­cause she used to ac­com­pany him in ev­ery re­li­gious step he took. So the log­i­cal burial place for her would be Tell el-Amarna, and maybe her mummy was moved later.

Sec­ondly, all ev­i­dence sug­gests that she was not the mother of Tu­tankhamun, and Tu­tankhamun would never have cho­sen to be buried in­side a tomb that does not be­long to his mother. Thirdly, it is im­pos­si­ble for any­one in an­cient Egypt to go to a tomb that be­longs to some­one else (as it is the place where the rit­u­als took place for that per­son to go to the af­ter­life), and to just block off part of it to build his own tomb. This would have in­ter­fered with their af­ter­life.

I be­lieve that this tomb was a large tomb that was built for Ay, who suc­ceeded Tu­tankhamun, and mar­ried his widow Ankhse­na­mun. As I found out through The Egyp­tian Mummy project, Tu­tankhamun died sud­denly at the age of 19 and I do be­lieve that he lived in Mem­phis where his palace was lo­cated and the ac­ci­dent that caused his death hap­pened at the desert of Mem­phis and he had a rest house or a palace south of the Sphinx.

That is why it was Ay who con­ducted the open­ing of the mouth cer­e­mony and Ay pre­pared Tu­tankhamun’s burial in his own tomb. The tomb was big and it was im­pos­si­ble for Ay to pre­pare all the walls with the nec­es­sary scenes. So, they built the north wall to shrink the size of the tomb and to com­plete all the dec­o­ra­tion pro­gramme, that would have been com­pleted within a max­i­mum of a month and at the same time the 70 days of mum­mi­fi­ca­tion for the king was tak­ing place.

The ma­jor ev­i­dence for this is that the west wall of Tu­tankhamun’s tomb is an ex­act copy of the dec­o­ra­tion of the tomb of Ay, that he later pre­pared for him­self when he took the throne. The scene in ques­tion is that of the first hour of the

Amy­d­uat book (mean­ing the book of what is in the Nether­world). There­fore, I be­lieve that there is a hol­low be­hind the wall, but not any tomb. A sec­ond piece of ev­i­dence that I want to present is the radar scans re­sults. These pieces of ev­i­dence, in ad­di­tion to Glen Dash’s anal­y­sis of the pre­vi­ous radar scans, prove that what lies be­hind the wall could not be Ne­fer­titi’s tomb.

How did it feel to be named one of the 100 most in­flu­en­tial peo­ple in the world by Time mag­a­zine in 2006?

It is one of the hon­ours that I value most be­cause it was im­por­tant for me to see the world recog­nis­ing the hard work that I did for the re­turn of stolen arte­facts and for the pro­tec­tion of Egyp­tian mon­u­ments. I was not go­ing to go to the re­cep­tion and din­ner that was be­ing held at the Lin­coln Cen­ter, but my friend Omar Sherif, told me that I was the only Egyp­tian to re­ceive this hon­our and that I had to go to the re­cep­tion. So I went in my black tie and ended up hav­ing din­ner with Jennifer Lopez and Will Smith and his wife, Jada Pin­kett Smith.

What has been the high­light of your ca­reer to date?

I have to tell you when I look at my ca­reer, ev­ery­thing I did is a high­light to me. As an ar­chae­ol­o­gist, wear­ing my hat and jeans, ex­ca­vat­ing and mak­ing ma­jor dis­cov­er­ies; open­ing a church or a syn­a­gogue or a mosque after restora­tion; build­ing a new mu­seum; re­turn­ing stolen arte­facts from abroad; writ­ing a book and sign­ing it for the first time or train­ing young peo­ple – all these things are high­lights to me.

You have had the op­por­tu­nity to meet many well-known pub­lic fig­ures and show them some of the sites in Egypt. Who was the most in­ter­est­ing to meet?

Princess Diana was the most in­ter­est­ing per­son I met; she had read about the pyra­mids be­fore she came and she asked many im­por­tant ques­tions. Barack Obama was the only pres­i­dent or dig­ni­tary who went in­side the Great Pyra­mid, all the oth­ers have stayed out­side.

How would you de­scribe the sit­u­a­tion in Egypt to­day – is it safe for vis­i­tors to re­turn?

Egypt is com­pletely safe de­spite the re­cent bomb­ings that were done by fa­nat­ics and the Mus­lim Brother­hood. These ac­ci­dents hap­pen in spe­cific places away from tourists and all the archaeological sites are se­cured and guarded by Tourism Po­lice. I give lec­tures to groups that come in from the USA and the Amer­i­can tour com­pany that or­gan­ises the tours show in their ads a video of me say­ing that Egypt is safe and invit­ing peo­ple to come and visit Egypt. In the last three years, we have had 3,800 tourists through this tour com­pany vis­it­ing Egypt, the last group left in March. We do need tourists to come back and visit Egypt, be­cause we need that in­come from tourism to con­tinue all the restora­tion projects that are cur­rently on hold in a lot of archaeological sites.

Do you have a favourite archaeological site in Egypt?

The pyra­mids of Giza is the site I love most. I lived there for two years in front of the Great Pyra­mid in a rest­house. I ex­ca­vated ev­ery­where around the Giza plateau and it is a part of me.

What is next for you?

I am hop­ing to ex­ca­vate in front of the tomb of Ay in the Val­ley of the Mon­keys to search for the tomb of Ankhe­se­na­mun, the widow of King Tu­tankhamun and who later mar­ried Ay, his suc­ces­sor. I be­lieve that the lo­ca­tion of her tomb is in that area, be­cause in my pre­vi­ous ex­ca­va­tions I found four foun­da­tion de­posits and the an­cient Egyp­tians used to make four or five foun­da­tion de­posits when they fin­ished build­ing a tomb. Also, the pri­mary in­ves­ti­ga­tion done in this area us­ing re­sis­tiv­ity sur­vey shows there is some­thing hidden in this area, but more anal­y­sis of the data needs to be car­ried out be­fore claim­ing any­thing for cer­tain.

Dr Hawass with the mummy of Tu­tankhamun after his CT scan

Dr Hawass in­side a tomb at the Ba­hariya Oa­sis

Dr Hawass ex­am­ines the wooden box that con­tained the liver of Hat­shep­sut and her mo­lar tooth

Dr Hawass with Princess Diana

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