Friday, June 26, 2009

One man's view of Zahi Hawass

SF Examiner (Steven Winn)

It’s never a good idea to keep Zahi Hawass waiting.

“You’re three minutes late,” the celebrated Egyptian archaeologist told a group of San Francisco visitors one very warm April morning at Saqqara, an ancient burial city site dominated by the world’s oldest pyramid (circa 2700 B.C.).

Hawass was standing in full Egyptian sunlight, shielded only by one of the battered, sweat-stained leather hats that have become his trademark costume pieces in public and on numerous History Channel, Discovery Channel and National Geographic TV special appearances. Hawass didn’t smile as he led his guests to the opening of a nearby cave. He rarely does.

Inside the cave, Hawass pointed out a touchingly beautiful wall carving that he believes represents a young Tutankhamun with his wet nurse, Maya, their faces close together and arms intertwined.

“Look at this beautiful young boy,” Hawass said, his steely gaze widening and his voice taking on a cadence both tender and urgent. “He looks about the age of 9. Look at his face. The cobra is in the forehead, protecting him, and Maya is putting her hand out to him in love and affection, like a mother and child. And look — he’s holding the sign of the ahkh [the hieroglyphic character for eternal life]. It’s amazing.”

That was an altogether fitting introduction to Hawass, 62, who has marshaled his passion for the ancient Egyptian world into a one-man force to promote, preserve and protect his native country’s cultural treasures. As secretary general of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, a lofty title perfectly suited to his outsized personality, Hawass combines no-nonsense determination, a deep knowledge of his subject and a canny flair for attention-getting publicity and its attendant revenue streams.

If he sometimes comes off as a kind of self-styled archaeological “rocks star,” enamored with the Emmy Award and photograph of himself with Celine Dion that adorn his Cairo office, the sense of purposeful mission is unmistakable. Everything he does — the TV gigs; the current Tutankhamun show he co-curated with David P. Silverman; the audaciously bold, press-baiting claims of forthcoming discoveries that will “reveal the mysteries” of millennia past — serves an ambitious, far-sighted agenda.

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