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