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Zahi Hawass & Egypt’s heritage

In recent years, no one has done more to stir up controversy [1] in the field of Egyptian archaeology than Zahi Hawass, head of the countries Supreme Council of Antiquities. Most within Egypt feel that he has had a net positive effect for the cause of retrieving their country’s heritage through his various public statements.
Much of the rest of the world though finds his approach antagonistic – he regularly threatens individuals, institutions & countries who he feels are not playing by his rules. This is in marked contrast to the Greek government’s approach to the retrieval of the Elgin Marbles – they have only ever focused on the actual marbles themselves & have avoided being obstructive to any other forms of cooperation with Britain.

San Francisco Chronicle [2]

In Egypt, the Pharaohs’ outspoken defender kicks up a dust storm
Jack Epstein, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Giza, Egypt — Zahi Hawass, the man selected to preserve Egypt’s magnificent monuments, has never been timid about protecting his nation’s heritage.

At a preview of a King Tut display at Chicago’s Field Museum last month, Hawass, whose critics call him “the Show-Biz Pharaoh,” a “media whore” and “part P.T. Barnum, part Indiana Jones,” asked museum officials to remove one of the exhibition’s corporate sponsors after learning its chief executive owned a 2,600-year-old Egyptian coffin. “Antiquities should be in museums, not in people’s homes,” he told those in attendance, referring to John W. Rowe, of Exelon, a Chicago energy company. Rowe immediately offered to send the sarcophagus to the museum on indefinite loan.

Also last month, Hawass gave St. Louis Art Museum director Brent Benjamin a May 15 deadline to return a 3,200-old funerary mask that Hawass says was illegally taken in the early 1990s from a storage facility near the site of its excavation. In April, he fired off a letter to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, asking him to return a 71-foot-high Egyptian obelisk in Central Park if he didn’t start taking care of it. The pillar, which is in poor condition because of neglect, has been in the park since 1881 — a gift from the Egyptian government in return for American aid in constructing the Suez Canal. Bloomberg has yet to reply, Hawass says.

Since Hawass became director of Egypt’s 34,000-member Supreme Council of Antiquities in 2002, many Egyptologists agree that the feisty 59-year-old archaeologist has done more than anyone yet to bring Egyptian civilization to the world stage, appearing on cable television, writing newspaper articles, traveling the world giving lectures and launching exhibits of Egyptian treasures. Last month, Time magazine named him as one of the planet’s “100 most influential people.”

“He is the leader of an enormous organization that is faced with many challenges,” says Willeke Wendrich, associate professor of Egyptian archaeology at UCLA. “He has taken significant steps to safeguard (Egypt’s) cultural heritage.”

Hawass is one of the Arab world’s most recognized faces. Whether explaining ancient history on the Discovery or History channels or dispelling theories that aliens built the pyramids, the stodgy, silver-haired Hawass has become a familiar figure clad in blue jeans, blue work shirt and Indiana Jones-style hat. A National Geographic explorer-in-residence, he has several discoveries under his belt, including a cemetery for pyramid workmen at Giza and the Valley of the Golden Mummies in Bahariya.

When Hawass dined last year in Los Angeles with fellow Egyptian Omar Sharif — the star of such epic films as “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Dr. Zhivago” — a beautiful woman approached their table. Sharif, expecting her to ask for an autograph, rose to greet her. But the woman strode right past him to question Hawass about Egyptian antiquities, according to a friend of both men, who asked not to be named for fear of angering Sharif.

“Zahi was born to be a star,” says Nasser Kamel, chairman of Egypt’s State Information Service. “He is very flashy.”

Hawass’ critics, however, say his celebrity has turned him into an autocrat who rules the Supreme Council as if it were his personal fiefdom.

Last year, he allowed the mummy of King Tutankhamen to be removed from its tomb for the first time in 80 years to learn how the boy king died, using state-of-the-art scanning equipment. Computer images determined Tut’s appearance. Critics decried the event as more of a media circus than science, and Hawass later docked the pay of a Supreme Council member who criticized the re-creation of Tut’s face, disputing the computer image’s Caucasian look.

Hawass has also barred foreign scientists who break his rules. In 2003, he banned English archaeologist Joann Fletcher from Egypt after she announced on the Discovery Channel — without consulting him — that a previously discovered mummy was Queen Nefertiti, a hypothesis few scholars took seriously. “Nobody crosses Zahi Hawass and gets away with it,” the Sunday Times Magazine in London wrote last year.

As Hawass describes it, his zeal is necessary to help modern Egyptians value their heritage. His goal, he says, is for them to “look at the pyramids as a living soul and help me take care of it and protect it.”

Hawass, who has a doctorate degree in Egyptology from the University of Pennsylvania, is currently overseeing the construction of more than a dozen museums across Egypt, including what he calls “the world’s biggest museum,” near the Giza pyramids, that will house all of King Tut’s artifacts and 60 percent of objects now found in Cairo’s renowned Egyptian Museum. He is pressuring the Egyptian parliament this year to increase the penalty for stealing antiquities from five years to 25 years in prison. He is campaigning to stem the damage of an encroaching population on the nation’s archaeological sites, insisting on zoning laws to curb development. The famous pyramids outside Cairo at Giza — the largest of which is the sole survivor of the Seven Wonders of the World — now overlook a golf course on one side and a KFC outlet on the other.

“All over Egypt, there are modern towns built over antiquities,” says Hawass.

Most recently, Hawass publicly objected to a fatwa, or religious edict, issued by Ali Gomaa, Cairo’s Grand Mufti — the nation’s highest official of Islamic law. In April, Ali Gomaa forbade the production and display of ancient sculptures, causing some Egyptians to fear Islamic militants would use the ruling to destroy statues depicting the pharaohs. In interviews last month with visiting U.S. editors, both Hawass and the Grand Mufti said they were now on the same page. “Even though we know statues are forbidden, we would never destroy our pharaonic monuments,” says Ali Gomaa.

And even as he has challenged American private collections and museums, Hawass has made Egyptian artifacts more accessible to Americans by successfully lobbying the Egyptian parliament to allow a King Tut exhibit of some 120 objects to tour four U.S. cities between 2005 and 2007. The lawmakers reversed a policy set in the 1980s that confined most of the objects to Egypt, after a scorpion atop a statue of the goddess Selket broke during an international tour in the 1970s. “King Tut and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs” has already been shown in Los Angeles and Fort Lauderdale and began late last month in Chicago and will open in Philadelphia in February.

Hawass has also asked five foreign museums to return Egyptian artifacts. He has singled out: the Rosetta Stone, the tablet in the British Museum that was key to deciphering hieroglyphs; a bust of Queen Nefertiti at the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, which he says Adolf Hitler stopped from being returned to Egypt; a bust of Prince Ankhhaf in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts; a Zodiac taken from a ceiling at Dendera Temple that is in the Louvre in Paris; and a statue of Hemiunnu, the architect of the Great Pyramid, in the Roemer-Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim, Germany.

“I am not asking for everything to come back,” says Hawass. “I am asking museums not to buy stolen goods at auctions in San Francisco, London and elsewhere. And if they are bought, I’m asking them to send them back.”

But most of his wrath these says is saved for St. Louis Art Museum director Benjamin, who he calls “crazy” for not returning a funerary mask after a May 15 deadline. In his defense, Benjamin says Hawass hasn’t offered enough proof to convince him that the object the museum bought for $499,000 in 1998 from a Swiss art dealer was stolen. Hawass says he will not only sue Benjamin, but contact the U.S. State Department and the international police organization, Interpol.

“I will,” he says, “make his life miserable.”

Chronicle Staff Writer Jack Epstein recently visited Egypt on a fellowship sponsored by the International Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.