Zahi Hawass yields great power as head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities. In his three years in office he has gained a reputation for being forceful and determined. He has also antagonised several foreign colleagues by banning many foreign teams from excavating in Egypt and by publicly ridiculing the findings of distinguished (non-Egyptian) scholars, many of whom he has referred to as “treasure hunters”. But Dr Hawass has also embraced some foreign collaborations in his efforts to raise desperately needed money for Egypt’s cultural heritage. To give just one example, he says he hopes that each of the venues hosting “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs” currently at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on the first leg of its 27-month tour of the US will raise some $10 million for Egypt to help fund a much-needed new museum.
Jacinto Antón: After the recent analysis of Tutankhamun’s mummy, you declared with great confidence that he was not murdered?
Zahi Hawass: The new research completely debunks the theory that he died from a blow to the head. People then started saying that he was poisoned, but we have to look at the evidence that exists, and there is no proof of foul play.
JA: How do you think he died?
ZH: I do not know, perhaps he died a natural death. Sometimes, young Egyptian men died of heart attacks. We will probably never know. The mystery of Tutankhamun will never be solved.
JA: How did you feel when you opened Tutankhamun’s sarcophagus and saw him face to face?
ZH: I cannot explain it. The truth was there to see. I felt a sense of magic and mystery.
JA: You are not a superstitious man, but you had nightmares about the children’s mummies that were found in the Bahariya Oasis. I heard that you were haunted by their image until the mummies were reunited with their parents. Did the curse of Tutankhamun not scare you?
ZH: When we put him in the scanner, it broke, which added fuel to the famous legend. However, I think that we are the true curse. In Tutankhamun’s case it is obvious who came off worse when his tomb was opened: him. I am used to preparing myself for entering a closed tomb, but I am most scared of contamination from germs. Mummies are bodies, they rot, and definitely do give off a frightening smell.
JA: Everyone has been on tenterhooks since the discovery of the mysterious tunnels in the sides of the Great Pyramid which have been wrongly dubbed “air vents”.
ZH: The University of Singapore is sending us a robot which we will send into the tunnels in October. Then we will see exactly what is down these shafts. We have to proceed with caution, but I have a feeling we may find Cheop’s real funerary chamber.
JA: Cheop’s chamber! What will it contain?
ZH: The king’s body and burial trove. They have never been seen.
JA: Speaking of marvellous things, when you re-examined Tutankhamun’s mummy you found his lost penis—a not insignificant discovery as it symbolises both the end of the Tuthmosis dynasty, and also the deplorable way that Carter treated the body.
ZH: Yes, we found it in the sand under the sarcophagus. Carter must have dropped it when he was moving the mummy.
JA: You do not approve of exhibiting mummies in public. Is it true that you want to close off public access to the the Mummy Room at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo?
ZH: In three years time, we are going to remove all the royal mummies from the Egyptian Museum and install them in the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation in Fustat, in old Cairo, where they will be exhibited with more dignity. Personally, I would like to see the mummies returned to their tombs. They do not belong in museums, it is not right. What we can do, and plan to do, however, is to scan as many mummies as possible with the same machines we used for Tutankhamun.
JA: Is this new National Museum one of a larger network of new museums?
ZH: Yes, we are planning 13 new museums. Ideas have changed about what a museum should be. We are adapting to the times. Museums should not just be places to see mummies and tombs, but to tell their history and make it interesting and easy to understand.
These new museums include the Great Museum of Egypt in Giza, which will be the biggest museum of antiquities and will hold the 5,000 objects from the tomb of Tutankhamun now in the Egyptian Museum; the Imhotep Museum at Saqqara; and the Crocodile Museum at Kom Ombo.
JA: What will happen to the Egyptian Museum?
ZH: It will be dedicated solely to the history of pharaonic art and will be renovated from top to bottom.
JA: What do you think of the Solar Boat Museum next to the Great Museum. It is rather ugly, is it not?
ZH: Horrendous, it ruins the view of the pyramid and spoils the whole Giza skyline.
JA: Do you have many problems with “pyramidiots”, who believe that the pyramids are older than the Egyptians?
ZH: This theory seems to be going out of fashion, thank goodness. People are getting more interested in what we are doing in Giza, such as the excavation of the necropolis of the workers who built the pyramids, which goes against such crazy theories. It was a bad time, but it has passed. Why should I let such people into the pyramids, people who believe they have every right to make holes in the pyramids?
JA: You have to be careful not to control access too tightly, or you might be reproached for giving out favours.
ZH: I would never make the mistake that Carter did, of giving exclusive access to certain people. For example, I let National Geographic Channel make a documentary on the analysis of Tutankhamun’s mummy because they made the best financial offer, which funded the scanner. The programme was broadcast all over the world, and photos from it are on the internet.
JA: Do you think that there is anything more to find in the Valley of the Kings?
ZH: Yes, the sands of Egypt still hide a great deal. I reckon we have only found some 30% of what there is. In the valley, there are certainly still royal tombs waiting to be discovered, such as that of Amenophis I.
JA: Are you getting more radical in your defence of antiquities. Have you closed Nefertiti’s tomb, for example?
ZH: I have to balance the needs of Eygpt’s hundreds of visiting tourists and my obligation to protect its monuments. I often have to stop excavations to ensure that proper research is carried out and that existing finds are adequately conserved.
© Diario El País, SL, 2005/ By Jacinto Antón
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as '“Modern man is the true curse of Egypt”'