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Conversations: Master of the Sphinx Volume 55 Number 5, September/October 2002

A reluctant student, Zahi Hawass is now Egypt's archaeological ambassador.

(© Zahi Hawass)

"I need the sand and the dust the way others need water and food. Archaeology is my life, my love, my passion," says the ebullient Zahi Hawass, who was recently made Director-General of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities. He recently talked to executive editor Mark Rose about the challenges facing his country's heritage, his favorite visitor, and a buried statue's fateful stare.

How did you decide to become an archaeologist?

When I finished high school, I wanted to be a lawyer. I had seen lots of lawyers in the movies and admired them and wanted to be like them. At the University of Alexandria, I bought many law books. I started to read them and did not like it. I realized that I did not want to be a lawyer. I heard about a new department called archaeology. I had no idea what this was, but joined and stayed four years. During my study, I found that this was also not something that I really liked or wanted to do. After graduation, I joined the Department of Antiquities in 1968, but even then I wanted to change my career. I decided to become a diplomat, studied for one year, and passed the written exam, but couldn't pass the oral one, and went back to my old job. A year later, I was assigned to an excavation in the Delta. One day, I found a tomb with a beautiful statue. I took a brush and started to clean the sand from the statue--at that moment, I found that the eyes of the statue were looking at my eyes and this touched my heart. I had found my love, and my love is archaeology!

Is the ancient past relevant to the average Egyptian?

When I first started my career, most Egyptians were not interested in ancient history, but over the past 30 years I have had the privilege to witness the ever-growing interest in our extraordinary past. Now, Egyptians come to hear my public lectures and are intrigued with our new discoveries. We are currently developing a program to teach children archaeology. We are copying 20 artifacts from the Egyptian Museum, and these copies will be exhibited permanently at every primary school in Egypt.

Your television program "Mysteries of the Pyramids" was popular and there's a new one coming up. Do you worry that people will think archaeology in Egypt is only mummies and pyramids, or they'll see you as a showman, not a scholar?

I am highly respected in my field and love my work. However, I have a wonderful talent. I can speak to the people and bring ancient Egypt into their homes and their hearts. I have been able to inspire young people all over the world, who now dream of being Egyptologists. I receive the most wonderful letters [from them] all the time and always answer them. My lectures, media coverage, and my books have stopped New Age notions [about the past] because people see that the true history is more exciting and incredible than anything they could imagine. By showing people the magic and mystery of Egypt, tourism has increased, and this is vital to the economy of Egypt.

What challenges face Egypt and its cultural heritage today?

One challenge concerns the guards protecting our monuments. Can you imagine that the guards only make about $20 a month? These underpaid men are in charge of guarding the world's greatest monuments. This is ridiculous! How can we expect the average guard to care about the monuments when they don't even know the history of what they are protecting and they make such a small salary? We need to open an institute to train qualified people to protect the monuments. Also, we must establish the best program in the world to train our future archaeologists. Egypt's treasures--our world's shared heritage--must be left in safe and competent hands.

You've shown many famous people around Giza, from Bill Clinton and Tony Blair to Dr. Ruth. Who was your favorite?

I felt honored to give Princess Diana a private tour of the pyramids. She had a beautiful smile and was fascinated by the pyramids. To prepare for her visit, she studied for one month at the British Museum. She was very well read and asked many interesting questions. It was a wonderful visit.

* For more on Zahi Hawass, see "Shaking Up the Land of the Pharaohs", July 3, 2002.

© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America