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Shaking Up the Land of the Pharaohs July 3, 2002
by Zahi Hawass

Egypt's new archaeology czar, Zahi Hawass, describes major changes and improvements he hopes to push through in an ambitious ten-year program.


Zahi Hawass and the Sphinx at Giza (© Zahi Hawass)

Zahi Hawass does not have an easy job. Recently named Director-General of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), he wants to revamp how archaeology is done in his country. Hawass is more familiar to Americans from his television appearances from "The Today Show," to live broadcasts from Giza carried by FOX, to BBC, Discovery Channel, and The Learning Channel documentaries. On the scholarly side, he received his doctorate in Egyptology from the University of Pennsylvania in 1987 and his books include Silent Images: Women in Pharaonic Egypt, Secrets of the Sphinx, and The Valley of the Golden Mummies.

The future according to Hawass includes implementing site management policies throughout the country, redirecting new excavations by foreign institutions to areas that need the most work, an agressive museum-building program, improved training of guards and archaeologists, educating the public about the importance of their ancient heritage, and tracking down stolen Egyptian antiquities worldwide and bringing them back home.

This means dealing with entrenched attitudes and institutions, at home and abroad, at a time when resources are diminished through a drop off in the number of tourists--mostly big-spending Americans--in the wake of September 11 and given the unsettled state of affairs in Palestine and Israel. No matter how good your plan, carrying it out under such circumstances would be a challenge.

Will Hawass succeed? Nobody doubts his energy and commitment, but consider the enormous undertaking represented by even one aspect of his plan: "We are working now on documenting all the tombs and temples in Egypt on computers. There are many tombs that have been published but we need to have every tomb documented. If we do this we, would be able to quickly detect the stolen artifacts and ensure their speedy return. Each tomb should be opened periodically for inspection. It is not good to leave tombs closed for long periods of time. They need constant care to protect them from all the dangers that they face." That this one part of the overall plan is monumental itself is not to say that Hawass's plan is a dream that can never be realized. Indeed, it must be attempted if the heritage of ancient Egypt is to be preserved for the future.


Hawass in the lowest level of the Osiris shaft at Giza (© Zahi Hawass)

Herewith are Zahi Hawass's descriptions of what is being done, and what will be done, to bring archaeology in Egypt into the twenty-first century:

Site Management: One of the things I am most proud of in my career is the site management project at Giza. It has many aspects and I plan to implement them at all the historical sites in Egypt. Site management programs are now in progress at the biggest tourist attractions, such as Luxor Temple, Karnak Temple, the Obelisk in Aswan and others. One aspect of the site management program is the rotation system. The rotation system is designed to control the flow of tourists, helping with the maintenance and preservation of the monuments. For example, at Giza we have one pyramid closed for cleaning and restoration and two pyramids open to the public. Each year a different pyramid is closed to do conservation and preservation work. The tombs are also on a rotation schedule.
   When people come to the Giza plateau they often just visit the Great pyramid, the Valley Temple of Khafre and the Sphinx. They only spend about two hours at the site. They are missing so much, there are beautiful and historic tombs that have recently been opened to the public. With more tombs open it should take some of the stress off of the high traffic areas. The Giza plateau looks better than it has in years, 12 years ago, when we started the site management project, trash littered the area and venders were everywhere but with the new regulations and programs, the area is clean once again and we have succeeded at keeping most of the venders at bay. The number of people that can enter the Great Pyramid has been restricted to 150 a day. This will help keep the moisture and other eroding factors under control. The number of visitors has also been limited at the beautiful colored tomb of Queen Nefertari in Luxor. Also, in Giza a new entrance to the pyramid area has been completed and soon all vehicle traffic will be prohibited near the pyramids. At the Giza plateau, there will be an information center and electric cars that transport the tourists. A picnic ground was built for the tourists. After all, many tourists come to the pyramids, especially on holidays just to have a picnic under the shadow of the pyramids, by creating a place for them we are controlling the congestion near the monuments.
   New sites have been opened all over Egypt to encourage tourism. Such as Gerf Hussein and Beit el-Wali. And we have opened more tombs at the most popular sites, presently we have more tombs open at Giza and Saqqara than ever before. The SCA has also closed some sites completely to ensure their protection like the pyramid of Unas, the first king of the 5th Dynasty. The hours the Egyptian Museum in Cairo have been extended. Until recently, the museum closed at 4:30 and now it is open until 7:00 pm. This will stop the rush and keep the crowds under control.


Princes Diana at Giza with Hawass (© Zahi Hawass)

Changing the Role of Foreign Missions: I have decided that no mission will be granted permission for new excavation projects from Giza to Abu Simbel. Teams will only be granted permission to do survey, restoration, GIS, and site management work. However, I will give permission for new excavation in the Delta, where sites are threatened by water table and agriculture, and the desert, where they are little known.

Building Museums: In addition to renovating older museums, we plan to build seven new museums all over Egypt, including the world's largest--and maybe the best for education and display--at Giza. The locations have been selected for different reasons, for example, because there are important sites nearby, or, as with Sharm el-Sheikh, because many tourists go there. Also, this December 9 is the 100th anniversary of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. For this, there will be a new exhibit, Hidden Treasures, which will display antiquities long kept in storage at the museum as well as new discoveries.

Training Guards and Archaeologists: One challenge is the guards protecting our monuments. Can you imagine that the guards only make 100 ŁE a month (about $20). I think that we should no longer have tough guards with big sticks protecting our monuments using their strong personalities and family connections. We need to change the people who are guarding our sacred treasures and open a Guard Institute to train qualified people to protect and act as the guardians of the monuments. The Institute should only accept applicants with high school diplomas, and it should teach archaeology and discipline. The guards, salaries should be higher. 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. The archaeologists or, as we call them, Inspectors of Antiquities are our the future protectors of the monuments therefore, it is important that we promote and establish the best training program in the world to ensure that Egypt's treasures, our world's shared heritage is left in safe and competent hand.

Education in Egypt: Thirty years ago, when I first started my career with the SCA, most Egyptians were not interested in the history of ancient Egypt. However, over the years I have had the privilege to witness the ever-growing interest in our extraordinary past. Now, Egyptians are interested in our antiquities, they come to listen to my public lectures. They ask me about my adventures and are intrigued with our new discoveries. I plan to increase the interest in Egypt's children. We are currently copying 20 of the artifacts from the Egyptian Museum and these copies will be on exhibit permanently at every primary school in Egypt. We are currently developing a program to teach children Archeology. The Egyptian Museum will host birthday parties for children and I am writing a series of children's books.

Tracking Down Stolen Antiquities: I believe that the United States ruling in the Schultz case shows an important and honest collaboration to preserve the Egyptian heritage. The Egyptian heritage not only belongs to Egypt but to everyone. The sincere concern of the District Attorney of New York and her study of the Egyptian law should be an example for other countries to follow. When I was in New York, I visited the FBI building to examine and describe the four artifacts they had in custody, I wondered how these crimes continued to go unnoticed. Two of the artifacts were wall reliefs form the Old Kingdom, Dynasty 6. These reliefs were cut from the tombs. You can imagine the horrible appearance of the tombs after they were brutally desecrated. The tomb robbers are not only destroying the tomb but it's spiritual value. A new department created by the Supreme Council of Antiquities, The Department of Returning Stolen Artifacts, will investigate the catalogues, museums, and private collections for stolen artifacts. Their goal is to secure the safe return of Egypt's stolen antiquities. If the investigation reveals that any museum or institution purchased stolen artifacts we will completely sever all ties with the institution. At the same time, we are hopeful people will give us their full cooperation and support to preserve the Egyptian heritage.

* For more on Zahi Hawass, see "Conversations," in our September/October issue. The home page of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities can be found at, and Hawass's own website is at

© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America