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Big Daddy of the Mummies

Zahi Hawass is bent on returning control of Egypt's treasures to Egypt. He's passionate, belligerent and forever camera-ready.

September 26, 2003|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

LUXOR, Egypt — He sucks in the dusty air, blows it out and squints up at the face of these ancient rocks from beneath the brim of his trademark Panama -- "my famous hat," he calls it. It is a fine day for television, and Zahi Hawass is ready for action.

"I'm sorry, your name?" he asks an Australian television reporter, whom he has already chided for failing to "do your homework." The two are walking, over and over, to the mouth of the tomb of an ancient king. They chat in canned bits, and when they stumble in the dust, they go back and start over.

When the sound technician approaches with the microphone, nobody has to tell Hawass what to do -- he springs to his feet and sets about fumbling with the buttons of his shirt. "You know how many times I've done this? You know why?" he says. "Because I'm good, damned good. If you see me on television, you'll understand."

Hawass, 56, is the pugnacious, nationalistic and hopelessly hammy head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities. He stands guard over archeological treasures -- from the Great Pyramids of Giza to the Sphinx to the mummies' tombs -- with a surreal blend of panache and belligerence.

A chapter of a forthcoming book he has written devotes considerable space to his own circumcision -- he doesn't believe there's an appetite for archeology that isn't autobiographical. It was Hawass, too, who sent a robot into the heart of one of the Great Pyramids, the exploration broadcast live last fall on international television.

"I'm great!" he crows suddenly one recent afternoon, hopping over puddles on his way to smoke his habitual water pipe in a back-street teahouse near the banks of the Nile. "It's a masterpiece, really," he says soberly, recommending one of his own newspaper columns as he settles into a seat under the tinsel of last year's Ramadan feasts.

Beneath his airs and exclamations, Hawass is a scholar fighting furiously and cannily for his country. He comes from a nation chafed by the tension between progress and preservation, trying to find a way forward by capitalizing on its glorious past, and wrestling all the while with a history of colonialism.

Hawass is an Egyptian who grew up listening to the drone of Europeans who lectured on Egyptian history. Born in a village, he stumbled into archeological studies after floundering in law school. From those indifferent beginnings, he has grown into a powerful figure, an arbitrator feared, emulated and sometimes resented by colleagues.

In a very real way, Hawass is the antiquities council -- especially since the promotion that bumped him to the head of the government agency last year. His whims can open tombs to ambitious scholars, and his judgments can cast hard doubt on the value of their discoveries.

Within President Hosni Mubarak's government, his control over the fields of treasures is virtually absolute. And Hawass has a plan: He wants to save the monuments, retrieve looted artifacts from abroad and bring dominance in the field of Egyptology back home.

To that end, Hawass quarrels often with foreign Egyptologists, and he has kicked 14 excavations out of the country so far this year. In a feud with post-colonial overtones, he has singled out the British as "stupid"; threatened to ban Britain's York University from the country; and demanded that the British Museum lend back the Rosetta Stone, which has been on display in London since 1802. He's scrapping quite publicly with a British researcher who believes she found the mummy of Queen Nefertiti in a tomb in the hills of Luxor.

He's calling noisily for the return of all far-flung artifacts stolen or smuggled out of Egypt through the centuries. The response has been decidedly mixed. A nasty spar with a Berlin museum over a 3,300-year-old limestone bust has caused a commotion in the international antiquities community. Still Hawass pushes on.

Critics say he's a bully. Hawass says Egypt has been "prostituted" by foreigners. "I have a system and rules, and it can upset people," he says. "I stop amateurs from destroying the monuments."

He says the important thing is to follow the rules -- his rules -- and that everybody, including Egyptians, must cooperate.

"I have a strong personality. If I'm a piece of cake and do everything the foreigners said, they'd love me, but history would punish me," Hawass says. "I'm giving every minute of my life to control everything in my own country, and people who criticize this are lazy, stupid jerks."

Despite his defensiveness, Hawass maintains the upper hand: Researchers who have worked in Egypt say nobody would dare complain publicly about him for fear of losing hard-won access. Striding through the clusters of scientists and workers in the Valley of the Kings, Hawass cuts a commanding figure. The men fall away, waiting for the crumbs of cheer or recrimination he scatters in his wake.

"You criticized your colleague," he tells one in Arabic. "Don't ever do that again." The man nods quickly.

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