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Vocation | Avocation
Egypt’s minister of state for antiquities
Hawass brings a bigger-than-life personality to the quest to find Cleopatra’s tomb and other Egyptian treasures.
A consummate marketer and political operator as well as an archaeologist, Hawass was a controversial figure even before the revolution.
One night in the weeks leading up to then President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, looters swarmed the grounds of the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo (sometimes called the Cairo museum), and at least one broke into the main building by descending on wires from a skylight. Others rampaged through storerooms at well-known archaeological sites. Panic swept the world of Egyptology.
Ultimately, the looting was not as devastating as some had feared, and many of the country’s treasures were recovered. The chaos, though, focused renewed criticism and exacted an emotional toll on Zahi Hawass, the minister of state for antiquities.
Hawass, a celebrity archaeologist known in the West for his larger-than-life persona in such documentaries and television shows as Chasing Mummies, provided sometimes confused and contradictory information about what was happening to the ancient relics under his guardianship. Some critics attacked him for being part of the old regime. His enemies saw a chance to get rid of him. Hawass resigned his position in early March, then abruptly returned weeks later. The upheavals raise questions about how secure Egyptian antiquities are now and when visitors will feel safe enough to tour the Nile in large numbers again. Jeffrey Bartholet, who reported from Egypt during the unrest in February, spoke to Hawass recently by phone for Scientific American. Excerpts follow.
Scientific American: The former regime is gone, but there is still a lot of uncertainty. Is Egypt now moving in a clearly positive direction?
Hawass: I think we are trying. We are doing our best to reach elections for the parliament and a new president.
What are the improvements you are seeing?
Security is starting to come to the streets now. And people are working really hard for democracy and freedom. I don’t think Egyptians have had this kind of democracy in 5,000 years. It’s the first time that we are really practicing it. I hope that it will not take time to get it right.
You resigned your post in March, then returned. Why?
The reason I resigned was because criminals were looting antiquities at that time, and there was no one to stop them. I was screaming, and no one could help me. At the same time, there were students who needed jobs, and they came in front of my office screaming because they wanted jobs now. All this really made me not want to stay. I came back because I found out that I am a part of antiquities, and antiquities are a part of me.
Was there some specific offer that was made or some suggestion or encouragement that was given?
I found that the government was giving more security, and it was supporting me. The army was supporting me. Now we can see the results of that. Most of the Cairo museum objects that had been looted are back. We are missing only 31 objects from the museum; the rest of the [1,200 or so objects stolen from storerooms and storage vaults] are not really masterpieces.
When the uprising began in Egypt, some feared that we would see a repeat of Iraq—that Egypt’s treasures and heritage would be looted and destroyed.
Look: Who protected the Cairo museum? Actually it was the young protesters. In Iraq 15,000 artifacts were stolen from the museum. The Egyptians protected their museum with their bodies. That is something we have to keep in mind.
Tell me about how the underground market for antiquities works. Who are the thieves, who are the middlemen, who are the final buyers?
After the revolution, I don’t think there is a market for anything. Before the revolution, there were people who stole objects from Egypt and took them outside of the country. We caught most of them. I returned about 5,000 artifacts from all over the world during the past nine years.
But how does it work? Do foreigners come in and work with criminal rings?
You have to understand that most of modern Egypt is built on top of ancient Egypt. People can do illegal excavations; they dig in their courtyards to find antiquities. But I have put antiquities inspectors in every port and airport to stop people from taking objects outside. And I hired educated guards. And I built 47 storage vaults.
The Hamas government in Gaza sent a delegation recently to return some stolen items, and it turned out the items were fake. Can you tell me about that?
They found two statues, and they brought them to me. I found that they were not genuine, and I gave them back. I thanked them and encouraged them to visit the antiquities of Egypt anytime.
What more can be done internationally to recover items looted since January?
We’ve gotten back the masterpieces. But I met someone from Interpol a few days ago: we’re going to put information about every object out to the whole world. I really think the looters who took the objects were not professional criminals. Therefore, I think the objects will be back. They will not leave Egypt.
You said 31 objects from the Cairo museum are still missing at this point. What are the most significant ones?
The only significant one from the museum is a small head of Queen Nefertiti—a few centimeters high.
The statue of Akhenaton has been returned.
We brought back the statue of Akhenaton holding a stela. And we’ve brought back most of King Tut’s objects that were stolen.