World-renowned archaeologist Zahi Hawass is the former Egyptian Minister of Antiquities and Director of Excavations at Giza, Saqqara, Bahariya Oasis, and the Valley of the Kings. Dr Hawass received his PhD in 1987 from the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied as a Fulbright Fellow. He has written numerous scholarly articles and books, and is a highly respected Egyptologist. Known for his charisma and ability to reach out to the public, for more than thirty years he has been raising awareness of archaeology and the preservation of Egypt’s precious heritage.
Q- Tell us about the book you are currently writing.
A- The book is entitled "Zahi Hawass and the Egyptian Artefacts" and is a guide to all of Egypt’s artefacts; Islamic, Coptic, Judean and Roman, and all Egyptian museums. The book contains an important message especially for visitors to Egypt from abroad, that they can visit again and again and will never run out of archaeological sites and so it is to encourage everyone who has visited Egypt before, to come back again. There is also a guide to all the restaurants and places I love in Egypt and I want people to visit. The book is in English, and there is no Arabic version because there is no publisher. The cost is high especially as it includes images and therefore there are difficulties in distributing and selling the book. I am also preparing an opera called The Tutankhamun Opera with an Italian musician. I hope that this will be ready in time for the opening of the Grand Museum in 2022 which will coincide with the 100th anniversary of the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb.
Q- Recently there was a case concerning Egyptian artefacts that were smuggled into Italy and seized in the city of Naples? How do you view the issue of artefact smuggling?
A- These seizures date back to May 2017. The Italian authorities notified Egypt only a few months ago. I saw these artefacts and I did not find that they were important, meaning that there were no pieces of great value. It is a collection of pottery and masks from the Roman era.
We have a problem here. Modern Egypt is built over ancient Egypt, so many citizens dig in their homes, especially in some areas of Aswan and al-Matareya, which is a big problem.
The theft of artefacts happens in every country in the world. In Vienna, for example, the world's rare artefacts have been stolen from the museum there and the problem started here after the January 2011 revolution. Many of the pieces were taken abroad during the revolution.
Q- Which Arab countries are the biggest victims of artefact theft?
A- While I worked with the Ministry of Antiquities in Egypt, the US National Security Department was cooperating with me in returning the stolen artefacts but I found them to have a building full of hundreds of monuments, whether Egyptian, Syrian, Iraqi or others. And there is no doubt that the Arab Spring destroyed artefacts in the Arab region, especially in 2011 and 2012.
Q- What is the purpose behind stealing the artefacts of any country?
A- The reason behind stealing artefacts isn’t to steal the country’s heritage, but in practice, terrorists steal artefacts to sell them in order to buy weapons to kill people. Artefacts from Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya are now sold everywhere in the world in an unnatural way. Thankfully Egypt is under control and there is security in the country so the monuments have been preserved and there is an intention to bring back tourism because of the presence of these monuments in great Egypt.
Q- Why is there a focus on stealing Islamic monuments specifically?
A- The main reason is that the Islamic monuments are intertwined between the Ministries of Antiquities and Endowments. We renovate the mosque and give it to the Ministry of Endowments. This resulted in there being no control over these monuments. It is possible that the guard of the mosque is the one who steals the monuments and the Islamic monuments inside and therefore they are easy to steal. There are international gangs that know what you want. Therefore, I believe that in conjunction with the Ministries of Antiquities and Endowments, there must be a full security company to guard all the monuments that come under the Ministry of Endowments and the Ministry of Antiquities. Before the January Revolution, we already worked on this idea but it was not completed, but I hope that we will return to this idea.
Q- What percentage of Egypt’s artefacts have been stolen?
A- We cannot determine the exact percentage because most of the artefacts that were stolen were unregistered were smuggled in secrecy. Therefore, we do not the number of stolen artefacts or the percentage, but after the revolution I began working on returning the artefacts during my time with foreign archaeologists. That is the reason that I was selected as one of Time 100 most influential people as I created a state of fear of artefact theft among people.
Q- Despite all the success you have achieved, you have encountered some attacks, criticisms and accusations, including the theft of special artefacts after the revolution of January 25?
A- The problem in Egypt is that there are enemies of success, and anyone who succeeds, there will be people that want to break them, especially the losers who feel hatred. This exists in all fields without exception, so during the attack on me after the revolution of January 25 I did not care about anything and I did not respond to anyone. I wrote more books and made more trips during that time than I had done before because I trust myself and my integrity. I am not afraid of any accountability as I have a receipt for every dime I have earned, whether that is for a book or a lecture; I have bags full of receipts and have submitted them to the relevant departments. All the things that I have done for this country exist, for example, I organised an exhibition of King Tutankhamun which made $ 120 million, and I was accused of stealing artefacts and money. A committee was set up to investigate this matter which continued for over two years and they did not reach any conviction against me. Thank God none of the accusations against me were turned into cases and the issue ended and the investigation proved that my hands were clean of everything.
Q- Do you mean that the attack against you was orchestrated?
A- Certainly. The other thing that saddened me was that I served my country with the utmost love and honesty and in the end I was met with this attack because of failures, without mentioning their names, including those who work in the Egyptian Museum. They spread rumours that I am a thief and made other false accusations. They were definitely hired. But I know that this a tax that every famous official in this country must pay. The enemies of success are many and I have experienced a very important example. If you stack the books I have written, it would be taller than me, this is the legacy that I own and I am proud of.
Q- What is the secret behind the association of the name Zahi Hawass with Egyptian artefacts?
A- A person who does his work with love, away from routine, leaves a footprint. When I was a minister I did not wear formal clothes or a tie and I was always travelling without a lot of security. I did my job as an employee, and therefore I did not seek the positions, but the positions sought me. But young people are now in a hurry and want to get positions quickly and effortlessly. This is a mistake. A person must do things that they can relate to in order to be creative, influential, remembered and known by people all over the world.
Q- How did you assess your time at the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities?
A- The most important period of my career in artefacts was when I was Secretary-General (of artefacts) and it is difficult to replicate that. I had a lot of achievements. But the time I spent as a minister was not good and I accepted the position unwillingly. I do not wish to be a minister in my lifetime and the “position” is the least of my interests and I have removed this period from my life. The most important time of my life was the 9 years that I spent working with artefacts during which I built more than 22 museums as well as the Grand Museum, which is also known as the cultural project of the 21st century. I also built the Civilization Museum, which is considered more important than the Grand Museum, and the Suhaag and Sharm al Sheikh museums. We opened museums everywhere and we managed archeologically sites.
We also built 60 warehouses for artefacts throughout Egypt which saved the artefacts after the revolution and we appointed qualified guards. Also, we changed some of the articles of The Antiquities Act but we have not been able to change it completely. We also created a database of the monuments of Egypt and we retrieved 6 thousand artefacts. We also raised awareness of archaeology though a program I produced and presented on artefacts and their importance, as well as delivering training to young people. I have documented all of this in my book.
Q- Is there a difference between the Pharaonic civilization and the Nubian civilization as some say?
A- The two are one civilization. Nubia is part of Egypt from the beginning to the end, and therefore the Nubian monuments have a special character as do the Bahariya Oasis monuments, as well as those in the Delta and Upper Egypt, but some foreign scientists try to create this “destabilization. “
Q- Tell us about the lectures you give at Egyptian Universities?
A- I made an agreement with the Education Ministry and some coordinators to deliver a series of lectures within the universities to familiarize the youth with their history and civilization. We started last season with some universities, most notably Cairo University, Helwan, Menoufia and Sohag Universities, as well as private universities. The lectures achieved great interaction and success with the students so I will complete the project in the new season and will complete the rest of the universities.
Q- In the past, you were referred to an "archaeological renaissance" in Saudi Arabia. What drew your attention to this?
A- Saudi Arabia is witnessing an archaeological and tourism renaissance that has never been seen before. The reason for this renaissance is Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz. This man has made a comprehensive change and has played a role in the return of the stolen antiquities both from the citizens and from abroad. He has also established museums at the highest level. He has worked on restoration works in historic Jeddah and in Diriyah. His achievements are clear for all in Saudi Arabia. I wrote in Ashaq Alawsat newspaper for more than fifty weeks about my impressions of Saudi Artefacts. For example, I consider the exhibition “The Masterpieces of The Kingdom" unique and unconventional because it toured the whole world and introduced them to the history and importance of Saudi Arabia. What I want to say is that there is a lack of Arab media coverage about what is happening in Saudi Arabia and we haven’t given the developments the attention it deserves because there are comprehensive changes happening in everything and a renaissance I have not seen anywhere in the Arab world so far
Q- What is your opinion of historical dramas?
A- I think that they are creative works by the writer and not based on history or facts so we can only judge them as such. The creator can write anything but it is important to say at the beginning that this work is not based on history or artefacts as the director Sharif Arafa did in the film “Al Kinz” (The treasure). This is respectful because we cannot prevent someone from writing a Pharaonic story and from writing what they want in the films or dramas which are not documentary works. Therefore, when I am presented with a series or film I say to them to write what they like because it is a drama, a creative work of art by the author, but that it must be stated that this work has no connection to history or artefacts, and does not adhere to Pharaonic clothing or the old environment.