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Archaeology’s answer to Carl Sagan has generated unprecedented interest in Egypt’s past and believes that science and history can “create love between countries.” In a world of increasing tensions, he says that mission is more important than ever. By Kyle Cassidy

 

On a cool morning last November, several hundred residents of an otherwise quiet neighborhood in the northeast of Cairo gather around the rim of a vast pit, looking down intently at the flurry of activity below. Holding court atop a pile of stone slabs that make up the roof of a recently unearthed sixth-century tomb is Dr. Zahi Hawass G’83 Gr’87, director of the Giza Pyramids and Saqqara, undersecretary of the state for the Giza Monuments and the Bahariya Oasis, and one of the most famous men in Egypt. As workmen bring out baskets of sand through a narrow opening in the tomb, Hawass, surrounded by reporters and cameramen, patiently answers, in both English and Arabic, questions about the finds: the dates, the layout, the inhabitants, the damage suffered from local sewage.

Dr. Zahi, as he is known in Egypt, is doing what he does best—sharing his infectious fascination with Egyptian history and, not incidentally, using the media and technology to promote it to the outside world. Darling of the Discovery Channel, the History Channel, the Travel Channel, Fox, and CNN, as well National Geographic (which recently made him Explorer in Residence), Hawass describes his mission as “using archaeology and the magic of the pyramids and the history of Egypt to create love between countries.”

Bringing the old world to the new world, live, is something he’s done successfully on numerous occasions—most notably in 2000, when he invited Fox television to the Oasis of Bahariya to follow him as he opened some of the tombs of the Golden Mummies. Six million Americans tuned in. Called “the most important Egyptological find since the discovery of King Tut’s tomb,” the tombs at Bahariya have so far produced 250 gilded mummies from Greco-Roman times. The discovery made the cover of National Geographic and is the subject of a beautifully produced book by Hawass called Valley of the Golden Mummies [“Profiles,” November/December 2000]. He estimates that the cemetery, which covers four square miles, will eventually reveal 10,000 mummies over the course of a 50-year excavation.

Hawass shrugs off his mastery of the art of media relations. “Everybody works with the media,” he says, “it’s just a question of how well.” Asked if he enjoys being a celebrity, he answers, “I enjoy doing my job.” And part of that job is to be a celebrity—archaeology’s answer to Carl Sagan: equal parts statesman, salesman, scientist, teacher, magician, and showman. It isn’t possible to be around Zahi Hawass without being fascinated by whatever is currently fascinating him. Curiosity oozes from his pores, along with a deep and devoted love for the land of the Pharoahs.

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