Zahi Hawass


Written by Madeleine Cowley
04 Wednesday 04th May 2011

Prime Minister Essam Sharaf invited him to join the new government as Minister of State for Antiquities on 30 March. This appointment was a surprise to many owing to Hawass’ close ties to Mubarak and calls from pro-democracy activists for the cabinet to be purged of all old regime elements.

Installed in his new role it was merely a couple of weeks before trouble began brewing for Hawass, on this occasion in relation to an ongoing dispute regarding the concession of the profitable bookshop in the Egyptian Museum of Cairo in Tahrir Square.

Tanks Outside the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities during the 2011 protests

The full explanation of the convoluted case can be read on the Talking Pyramids blog and is based on accounts by Egyptian publisher Mr Farid Atiya who was directly involved.

In sum, Hawass was disgruntled by the repeated winning of a profitable book shop concession outside the Cairo Museum entrance, which comes up every three years, by Mr Atiya. Hawass was so determined to block Atiya from winning again that he set out to build a second book shop on the Western side of the museum, a prime location situated at the visitors exit.

Hawass’ intention was to rent the gift shop to a governmental company ‘Sound and Light’, responsible for displays at top tourist spots, they would in turn rent it to the AUC Press (American University in Cairo Press) championed by Hawass.

Giza Pyramids

Unfortunately for Hawass the concession of the new bookshop had to be decided through the same avenues. A series of auctions followed and on each occasion Hawass attempted to sabotage Atiya’s bid. The rigmarole resulted in a court order blocking the bidding, but Hawass defied it, facing a year long prison sentence. A day after Hawass appealed the decision on April 17, the National Council of Egypt’s Administrative Court issued a decree stopping the court ruling - a lucky escape for Hawass who will no longer serve any jail time and will remain in his position as Minister of Antiquities.

The recent dispute involving the famed Egyptologist follows a long line of controversies surrounding Hawass.

In 2002 Hawass was appointed secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) - a role straddling archeology, show business and national politics in which he was responsible for the conservation, protection and regulation of all antiquities and archaeological excavations in Egypt.

Hawass and Queen Hatsheput's Mummy

Among his tasks was to 'egyptianise' Egyptology, a discipline that has largely been in foreign hands for 200 years. Of the 63 tombs found in the Valley of the Kings not one was excavated by an Egyptian led team. Many archaeologists argue that in order to achieve this aim the SCA under Hawass was ruled with dictatorial control, they had a stranglehold on the majority of archeological research taking place in Egypt and whether and how it was reported.

Accusations made against Hawass include appropriating intellectual property through announcing discoveries yet not mentioning the name of the person working on the project.

The SCA could also withhold or withdraw permission to work in Egypt. These stringent penalties were placed on scientific reports published without the SCAs consent. A prime example of the SCA’s power and how it had to be abided by was played out in the early 1990s. On 22 March 1993 German robotics engineer Rudolf Gantenbrink, originally commissioned to install an air conditioning system, used a self made crawler robot to explore an inaccessible part of the great pyramid. Gantenbrink discovered a door. Upon announcement of his findings Gantenbrink was banned from resuming his work as supposedly he didn’t go through the correct ‘channels’.

Gantenbrink's robot, and the door that it found

Hawass eventually announced that the door would be opened in September 1996, but it wasn’t until 6 years later that he followed through, broadcasting the event on international media. A bit of an anti-climax they discovered another door, which Hawass claimed would be opened soon. It still remains sealed.

In 2003 a similar scenario arose when Joann Fletcher, a British archeologist claimed in a documentary to have identified the mummy of Nefertiti, the SCA accused her of not submitting her findings to them first, her discovery was refuted and she was publicly banished from the field.

Hawass and the Cast of Chasing Mummies

In addition to publishing dozens of books Hawass is no stranger to television appearances, tapping into the enduringly strong television market for Egyptology. He has been featured on the Discovery Channel, the History Channel and a Fox network special on the pyramids and stars inreality television series Chasing Mummies: The Amazing Adventures of Zahi Hawass aired on the History Channel, the show follows Hawass and a gang of young archeologists as they make discoveries.

The minister was further criticised for self promotion earlier this year when he launched Zahi Hawass an eponymous menswear line that seeks to ‘capture the spirit of a man with a very rich personal history’. The clothing collection was rolled out with a photo shoot held at the King Tut exhibit in New York. Hawass’ attempt to use 5000 years of the country’s heritage to promote private enterprise was not received well.

Photo Shoot for the Zahi Hawass clothing collection

In spite of Hawass’ unashamed personal promotion and numerous critics some of his actions are commendable. Simple steps like installing air conditioning at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, establishing zoning around major antiquity sites and building visitor centers to prevent further degradation have doubtlessly generated money for Egypt and buttressed tourism. 

Clinging onto his ministerial position in a new Egypt, will Hawass now keep a low profile or will he soon be up to his old attention grabbing antics?

Update: 17 July 2011 - Zahi Hawass has now been fired, in response to angry calls that the Egyptian revolution has not led to any real changes in government.

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  • Guest: tinkyholloway
    Sun 08 - May - 2011, 15:50
    Zahi Hawass is a CHARACTER - and you couldn't make him up. You remember how, in all those cop shows of the seventies, there was always the "crusty but benign" captain to the reckless cop on the streets? Well if the fictional Indiana Jones was Starsky or Hutch, then the real-life Zahi Hawass would have to be Captain Dobey! It's interesting that "Akil Mansoor" - the Head of Antiquities in Adam Palmer's MOSES LEGACY ( - was such a toned-down version of the real macoy.