Historical Figures

Zahi Hawass, the (too?) powerful patron of Egyptian antiquities

Since his last media stunt carried out around the latest revelations on the death and genealogy of Tutankhamun, the powerful leader of Egyptian antiquities is no longer unknown to the general public. Tirelessly, Zahi Hawass travels through archaeological sites and television sets with a dual objective:to strengthen the protection of the ancient heritage of his country and to promote it. A noble ambition tainted with hints of archaeological neo-nationalism that the Egyptian with the irremovable hat and sparkling eyes finds it difficult to hide.

Zahi Hawass, Egyptologist born in Damietta in 1947, has been since 2002 the Director of Egyptian Antiquities , an eminently strategic and prestigious post, whose authority he stubbornly endeavored to reinforce. After a period of relative laissez-faire, Zahi Hawaas has restored order to archaeological excavations, forcing foreign missions into close cooperation with his own service, which in itself proceeds from a certain obviousness. At the risk, however, of making the ranks of the archaeological missions cringe, accustomed until now to greater freedom of action, and who sometimes find this supervision burdensome.

A well-oiled "com" plan

Because Zahi Hawass has a plan, to return Egyptology to the Egyptians and a regret, that no archaeologist of Egyptian origin is at the origin of a major discovery. Perfectly informed on modern methods of communication, Zahi Hawass had prohibited announcements of discoveries out of his presence. When one of these occurs, the media must patiently await the arrival of the dreaded rais. His uniform? Moccasins, pants and a denim shirt without a crease, an impeccable jacket and above all the famous stetson which contributed to its notoriety. In front of the cameras, the local archaeologist finds himself eclipsed in the background.

Zahi Hawass also does not hesitate to pay personally by participating or producing documentaries. We have therefore seen him in recent years crawling through the narrow ducts of the Great Pyramid in search of a hypothetical secret chamber or playing detective to attribute a mummy to the great Queen Hatshepsut. All with a lot of suspense effects and state-of-the-art technological equipment . His latest media stunt, the outcome of research into Tutankhamun's genealogy and reasons for death borrowed heavily from modern forensic and forensic science methods.

The man has therefore known how to make himself indispensable and essential. This allows him, for example, to confront the Egyptian authorities who thought of relaxing the rules of the trade in antiquities, putting not without panache in the balance his resignation. He easily gets his way. It must be said that after the waves of terrorist attacks that hit Egypt and threatened its main activity, tourism, the government is not unhappy that the image of their country is now the one conveyed with talent and professionalism that indefatigable and ubiquitous “Indiana Jones” of modern times.

Egyptology to the Egyptians?

His fight to repatriate the treasures of ancient Egypt held in Western museums, on the other hand, leaves us more perplexed. Negotiations are not very subtle. Either the museums comply, or the missions in Egypt of the countries concerned are expelled. And Zahi Hawaas, who stops at nothing, does not hesitate to directly challenge heads of state or government. Malaise in the chancelleries and on the excavation sites. And consternation in museums. It is worth remembering that without institutions like the Louvre, Egyptian Egyptology would not be where it is today...

In principle, his quest seems legitimate. Except that we are no longer in the 19th century when European and American adventurers shamelessly plundered the treasures of ancient Egypt. A good part of this plunder has since been returned and what remains in museums around the world contributes every day to popularizing the fantastic Pharaonic era among the general public. Since the end of the Second World War, foreign institutions and missions have participated massively in archaeological research, and without them a good part of the heritage of ancient Egypt would still be buried under the sand or the waters of Lake Nasser.

Zahi Hawass can be credited with instilling a renewed interest in ancient Egypt, despite controversial methods. But it is a bit difficult to understand his current activism in wanting to recover the bust of Nefertiti and another Rosetta stone, when there is still so much to do on the spot, starting with the recovery of the immense stocks that are gathering dust in the cellars of the Cairo Museum. Unless it is a question of flattering his very well sized ego by using his influential position. Mr. Hawass should however keep in mind that if the current Egyptians are the guardians of the heritage bequeathed by the pharaohs, it is the whole of humanity who is the heiress.