June 27, 2007
Zahi Hawass, the controversial head of Egypt’s Supreme Archaeological Council talks about how Egyptian artefacts in foreign museums need to be more easily seen by Egyptians.
Condé Nast traveller
A Conversation with Zahi Hawass
by Susan Hack
Published July 2007
The secretary general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, Zahi Hawass is the guardian of the country’s incomparable wealth of monuments, a flamboyant showman whose many books and television documentaries have made him the most famous Egyptologist since Howard Carter. He spoke to Condé Nast Traveler’s Susan Hack about the need to balance tourism and conservation, Americans’ overreliance on package tours, and why he wants his country’s treasures back.
CNT: Why do so many travelers—a record nine million last year—want to visit Egypt?
ZH: People may come to swim at Sharm el-Sheikh, but they dream of the Valley of the Kings. They come because they know the Sphinx, the Pyramids, King Tut, and the mummies. Those are the four pillars of the magic and mystery of Egypt.
CNT: As Egypt receives more visitors, the very monuments they come to see become more fragile.
ZH: I’ve been trying to find an accommodation between the needs of tourists and the preservation of the monuments. Before, it was a big mess, with vendors selling djellabas on top of temples, and cars and tour buses parking right in front of sites. The first step was to build walls around many sites, move the parking areas, and create visitors centers. The second was to introduce the system of rotation, opening and closing tombs in Upper Egypt. I also need the Egyptian Tourist Authority to understand the value of Egypt.
ZH: We have nine million tourists when we can really deal with half that number. You need to raise hotel prices and bring in people who can afford to pay. There are good hotels in Luxor that sell rooms for ten dollars a night, and when I make a discovery, I’m afraid to publicize it because I know it means more people coming. The Egyptian Tourist Authority needs to understand that mass tourism harms monuments. A group of tourists who can afford to pay only a thousand dollars apiece for a trip are useless. Let them stay in their own country!
CNT: Do American travelers understand contemporary Egypt?
ZH: No. That’s because they come with tour companies and only deal with people in the tourism industry. I say the organized tour should be the appetizer. Come by yourself for the main dish. Explore modern art museums, mingle with people in the bazaars and streets, go by yourself to antiquities sites and deal with the taxi drivers.
CNT: Are Egyptians happy to see Americans?
ZH: American politics are not liked by Egyptians. But the American people are loved.
CNT: You’ve asked for the return of Egyptian objects, including the bust of Nefertiti in the Berlin Museum and the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum. Aren’t they also part of world history?
ZH: I need those objects to be seen by Egyptians and not to be left in the hands of foreigners. At the very least, we should be able to exhibit them on loan. Egypt sends exhibits all over the world. Why can’t museums make loans to us? If there’s no trust, then I don’t need those countries to work with me here in Egypt.
CNT: The Louvre signed a contract to lease its name and objects to a new museum in Abu Dhabi.
ZH: It’s a good idea, which Egypt should follow. We need billions to restore our monuments and continue our national program.
CNT: In Cairo, the past is present in buildings that represent 5,000 years of history. How does this influence people?
ZH: Egyptians feel proud. Our culture gives us an identity and makes us sure of ourselves.
CNT: Was there any particular trip that changed your life?
ZH: I live with the pharaohs. When I travel, Egypt is in my heart. I owe what I have accomplished to my education in the States. But that doesn’t make me pro-America!
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