Zahi Hawass: Egypt's Greatest Ancient Mythbuster or Loudest Obstructionist?
There's no one quite like Dr Zahi Hawass – a.k.a 'the real Indiana Jones' – and what was supposed to be an interview about his new show, Revealer of Secrets, turned into an epic seven-part miniseries covering everything from Nefertiti's tomb to aliens, in our first instalment of SceneOn.
Sitting under an iconic poster of himself, behind a desk cluttered with mountainous files of yellow paper, Dr. Zahi Hawass is in the middle of penning a letter using what he proudly tells me is specially imported paper and pen. Refusing to use computers, Hawass is old school, leading some to believe he is Ancient Egypt's mythbuster while others argue he is an out-of-touch obstructionist. Regardless of what you think, Hawass has been instrumental in promoting and educating people worldwide on the wonders of Ancient Egypt. To celebrate, CairoScene is launching a new series called SceneOn, compiling seven one-minute videos of the Hawass at his finest. Peer into his mind as he reveals the secrets of his new show, discusses who the 'real Indiana Jones' is, and shares his opinions on aliens, the Grand Museum, and how to shoot down anyone with an Ancient Egypt theory and no concrete proof.
Any time a new theory concerning Ancient Egypt emerges, the first person to validate or debunk the subject matter is often Hawass. Making bold claims and shooting down countless theories, one would think Hawass was a time traveller who lived in and helped build Ancient Egypt. After years of breakthrough discoveries, ranging from uncovering the tomb of the pyramid builders in Giza to the Valley of the Golden Mummies in Bahariya, Hawass has had plenty of incredible accomplishments. However, it was allegedly his countless action-packed documentary appearances that earned him the nickname ‘the real Indiana Jones’. “One day, George Lucas came to Egypt to have dinner with me and asked me why my hat became more famous than Harrison Ford’s hat – I said, 'My hat is the real archaeology hat and Harrison Ford's hat is the fake one. Because of the films I have done on the History and Discovery channel in the States, they call me Indiana Jones because of the way I do action in archaeology',” he humbly explains on the origins of his international nickname. A bold claim, considering that the real Indiana Jones is fictional, but not surprising as Hawass is often painted as the nation's leading authority on anything to do with Ancient Egypt.
Established as an Emmy award winning celebrity archaeologist, Hawass has turned his focus to his latest show, Revealer of Secrets. Debuting on October 20th, Revealer of Secrets is unlike any show dealing with the topic of Ancient Egypt; it not only debunks myths circulating online, but also explores ancient traditions that continue to be practised in present day Egypt. According to Hawass, “The 16 episodes are actually telling us how do we live in the present imitating the past. I am really sorry that this show is in Arabic. I hope that they can do some translation and this show can be important to everyone all over the world. It’s the first time that a TV show is showing Egypt’s past and present.” Aside from eating with farmers and showing just how few advancements have been made since the time of the pharaohs, Hawass takes the opportunity to use this new platform to dispel some popular conspiracy theories. “In one episode, we tell people that what you hear about red mercury is not true. It’s a legend that doesn’t exist. There is nothing in the throat of the mummy that can be called red mercury, but people believe that this red mercury allows them to control the devil or cure anyone who is sick. This TV show will look into these subjects that have never been discussed before and will be very important in educating Egyptians and the world,” the Ancient Egypt mythbuster passionately describes.
Debunking theories and myths is second nature to Hawass, which is why he will shoot down just about anyone proposing a theory without concrete evidence. Take the example of Nicholas Reeves, who captured the world’s imagination last year by proposing that Nefertiti’s tomb may be hidden behind one of the walls adorning King Tut’s glorious tomb. “Reeves used the word Nefertiti, if he said anything else no one would listen to him. All his evidence was wrong, saying in the North wall there is eye opening the mouth of Tutankhamun. He said 'no it’s Nefertiti'; it is not. If it’s Nefertiti, then where is her name? How Nefertiti will be buried in the valley of the kings and she worshipped Aten? The priest of Amun would never let her to do that. The other important thing, how can you have tomb and you make a wall close the soul of the queen to go to the other side to the other world. We cannot close the subject because Reeves can go to say ‘I had a major discovery and the Egyptian government stopped me’. We will wait till this radar comes by but in my opinion, as a scientist, there is nothing behind the wall of the tomb of Tutankhamun,” explains the Ancient Egypt expert. Some could argue that any publicity is good publicity and that renewed interest in Ancient Egypt can only help boost tourism; however, Hawass disagrees, believing that the announcement of theories needs to be backed by concrete evidence, which is difficult – if not impossible – without launching an investigation. That’s why Russian radar will be used to close the matter or open it while shedding light on whether Hawass’ assessments are correct or needlessly dismissive.
This isn’t the only theory being investigated in Egypt that Hawass believes to be completely incorrect. The Scan Pyramid Project is currently underway using the latest technology to scan the great pyramids in hopes of supporting French architect Jean-Pierre Houdin's theory that the pyramids were built using an interior and exterior ramp, while Hawass believes the pyramids were constructed only using an exterior ramp. According to Hawass, “The interior ramp came from a French guy who knows nothing because there is no evidence. Give me one evidence to support this. Actually, the Scanning Pyramid Project, most of it is to support his theory because they say the Northeast there is an anomaly. And that anomaly in their opinion could be the ramp, is not at all… We have to be careful always in any announcement of scientific analyses inside the great pyramid. And this is why I am heading a team and with me are three foreigners, whose expertise is on the pyramids, and we are correcting them until we have something solid we can announce to the whole world.” There’s nothing wrong with doing due diligence before announcing any new discoveries, but as our conversation continued, I wondered if Hawass has had to face the same scrutiny whenever he presents a theory to launch an exploratory excavation.
Despite his criticism towards these theories, it’s his views on the ancient alien theories that inspire daily hate mail from all around the world. According to Hawass, “The people who believe in this kind of thing used to debate me all the time and they used to say ‘Zahi Hawass is lying, he’s hiding all the secrets that prove pyramids built by aliens'. I was asked to be interviewed by this TV show in Los Angeles about the aliens, and I told the guy ‘you have to wait until you finish because if I come I will finish your show’. The people who talk about this, actually, some of them are doing this as business and some of them are idiots. Every day, one email of people insulting me they think that I hide all the evidence about lost civilisation. But you have to know if there’s anything bad in Egypt these new age people they come, they don’t care.” I agreed that there’s more evidence to suggest the pyramids were built by Egyptians and not aliens, but insisted that if these tourists are resilient and visiting despite the cycle of negative headlines, then perhaps Egypt would benefit by creating merchandise and tours tailored towards these believers. Egypt can try to change their mind about their beliefs, but at the end of the day we need their dollars, and shouldn’t care what they believe as long as they come and boost the economy.
Although these theories could attract tourists, Hawass offers a different plan to increase tourism, explaining that not any tourist is the right tourist to help Egypt out of its economic problems. “Number one, today you should send exhibits all over the world. Exhibits bring people the best, they talk about Egypt, tourist will come. The second important thing, that you should send as the Minister of Tourism members of Egyptian tourism and hotels to go to every country because the people would love to hear from Egyptians that Egypt is safe, which is true. Every archaeological site is completely protected. The second important thing I tell the people if you do not come to visit now, you will actually see that antiquities will be completely deteriorated. You do not think about tourism from Russia, this is cheap tourism. You have to think about the Japanese, the Chinese, the Americans. We need not the numbers, we need the people who really can increase our economy by paying, not by coming to Egypt for 500 euros and staying for 10 days,” Hawass firmly believes. His plan could help Egypt’s ailing tourism sector, as it worked during his tenure as the Antiquities Minister; however, considering the industry is at an all-time low, any tourist should be welcomed and not dismissed.
In terms of promoting tourism in the long run, all eyes are on the incredibly delayed opening of the Grand Museum in the shadow of the pyramids. Earlier this year, Egypt received the money required to finish the project by Japan; however, once again, we find Hawass disagreeing on the plan to launch the long overdue museum. “I was planning on opening this to the public in 2015, but now because of the revolution, it will take time. I was so happy to hear two important things that happening. One, that we get from Japan $420 million and the Egyptian government also paid $100 million. The second important good news, you cannot have a museum as a government institution. It will be difficult for you to make a decision to improve the museum… They want to open King Tut gallery in a year from now which is impossible. I hope that we should wait until the whole museum finish and we can open it on the day, November 4th, 2022, the one hundred years of the discovery of Tutankhamun. We need every year to do something for this celebration until the fifth year comes, the one hundred years, that could be a celebration everywhere because the discovery of Tutankhamun is a discovery of the whole world.” Timing the opening with the 100th anniversary of the discovery of King Tutankhamen's tomb is a wonderfully grand idea, but the project has been delayed countless times and, in Egypt, anything can happen in the next five years. The question will be, can Egypt wait or afford yet another delay?
In Egypt, Hawass is considered by some to be a stigmatised figure, similar to most who worked under the Mubarak regime and are deemed corrupt simply by association. The truth is that Hawass is an important international figure who continues to lecture around the world, attracting tourists and inspiring the world to learn more about Egypt’s ancient roots through his countless discoveries. That being said, if the theories currently being investigated turn out to not be true, it will in turn solidify Hawass’ reputation as the world’s leading authority on Ancient Egypt, possibly earning him a new nickname as Ancient Egypt’s mythbuster. Conversely, if either the Nefertiti or interior ramp theory are proven to be true, then Hawass will appear to many as a naysaying obstructionist who needlessly refuses outsiders' theories. Either way, it takes a lot of gravitas to be outspoken on theories before investigations have been concluded, but if anyone has earned the right to be ‘that guy’, it’s the ‘real Indiana Jones.’
Revealer of Secrets airs on Thursdays at 8pm on satellite channel Al-Ghad
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Photography by Ahmed Najeeb.
Videographers: Abanob Ramsis and Mohamed Atef