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Eternal Egypt is his business

The man behind Tut's return zealously preserves his country's past. He's drawn both admiration and ire.

June 20, 2005|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

Zahi Hawass moves through dim galleries at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a sport-coated platoon leader walking the point on a tense patrol.

The face so often smiling in television specials about ancient Egypt is stern. The brown eyes that shine when he's playing raconteur at sold-out lectures about the pyramids and pharaohs radiate cold intensity as he inspects each object in "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs."

"These monuments of Egypt are the heritage of everyone," he says later, and he wants them seen in their best light.

Hawass is Egypt's chief antiquities official, the man primarily responsible for the return of Tut's artifacts a generation after they caused a sensation in American museums in the 1970s. Like an ancient high priest, he must see that the pharaoh's touring treasures are properly arrayed.

Just as in the royal tombs, eternity is at stake. But instead of trying to achieve immortality for Tut's body and soul, Hawass wants to speed the rebirth of a torpid bureaucracy on whose vigor the future of Egyptian antiquity depends.

The Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, which Hawass leads as secretary general, is responsible for the country's monuments and museums. But it has long been overshadowed by Europeans and Americans, who have the leading schools of Egyptology and, before Hawass, had run their digs with few restrictions from the impoverished host country.

Now, some Westerners are grumbling about his policies -- especially in England, where his 2003 call for the return of the iconic Rosetta Stone caused alarm. But many are applauding too. Hawass requires archeologists to concentrate on conserving what they've found, rather than digging for new discoveries. And in a field where some love digging more than writing, he insists that finds be published within five years. Otherwise, permit-holders lose the right to keep digging. The result -- less glamour, more desk work, more expense -- has not endeared Hawass to everyone, and his outsized ego makes him an easy target. But experts say that speedy publication expands knowledge and that conservation is a must.

To Hawass, it's all essential if he's to preserve his country's heritage while molding the 30,000-employee antiquities council into a modern priesthood of archeologists, educators and art conservators who will at last make Egypt a leading force in the discovery, protection and display of its ancient riches. He counts on Tut to generate the cash and publicity needed to give his ambitious program a push. Egypt already has received $20 million upfront; he hopes to increase that to $36 million by the end of the 27-month, four-city U.S. tour.

At 58, Hawass has been in charge for three years, with just five more to solidify his initiatives before law mandates he retire. And so, the return of Tut is his moment too. Detractors decry his famous self-promotion; admirers counter that it's his passion and personality that make him effective. Perhaps, they say, his greatest contribution may be that, for the first time, the face of Egyptology is Egyptian.

Hawass is known as an entertaining and exuberant promoter of his nation's antiquities, but to archeological insiders he also is a free-swinging and sometimes autocratic wielder of power.

At the National Geographic Society, where he holds the title of explorer-in-residence, he is known as "The Pharaoh" -- partly, says Tim Kelly, president of the organization's TV division, because he is given to occasional joking threats: "Do this, or I will cut off your head!"

Hawass says nothing as he walks LACMA's Tut layout for the first time, apart from exchanges in Arabic with his six assistants from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Then, he enters the final gallery, housing a photographic display dubbed "The Face of Tutankhamun." He stops short, glares from across the room at a latex bust of Tut -- and decides in an instant that he must cut off somebody's head. Specifically, the boy king's. This time, he is not joking.

The Tut head is meant to be the last object in the show, as laid out by its American producers and designers. National Geographic, the tour's creative sponsor, has provided the piece de resistance from a recent TV special in which Hawass presided over the first CT scan of Tut's mummy. Crafted by a French sculptor and forensic anthropologist who worked from the scan, the face already is famous, thanks to television and the cover of this month's National Geographic magazine.

Never mind all that. On this day, the exhibition's opening -- on June 16 -- is just three days away. The model belongs not in a display case, but "in the toilet," Hawass says, shocking an entourage that includes officials from the tour's corporate funder, AEG, and its designer, Arts and Exhibitions International. It's not an authentic art object, he complains, and it's not historic.

"This is an art exhibition. You don't ruin it with speculation." The head can be seen, he decides, but only in photographs. "Then it's perfect."

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