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The Pharoah Whisperer: Zahi Hawass on More Than Four Decades of Decoding Ancient Kings’ Secrets

Zahi Hawass

Zahi Hawass is one of those names that rarely needs an introduction. His fame is intercontinental. Egyptian archeologist, former Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt, and former Egyptian Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs – Hawass started practicing his life-long passion for Egyptology more than four decades ago. With many historic discoveries already attributed to his household name, he is tirelessly working on numerous projects that could once again change the way ancient Egypt’s history is perceived. “In collaboration with National Geographic, we are currently searching for Queen Nefertiti’s mummy and her daughter Ankhesenamun using DNA,” he says. “We are also using the same technology to unveil more details about Tutankhamun’s death.” Spearheading numerous teams for each of his ventures, Hawass collaborates with some 100 workers and 10 archeologists at each of his current active sites. While he is set on revealing the secrets of the past, modern-day technology navigates his approach. “Technology currently aids with all new discoveries. For example, we are now using robots to unfold the Pyramid’s secrets. Additionally, we use the latest equipment and tools such as ultrasonic waves and infrared to be able to scan Pyramids, and CT scans to study mummies, as well as 3D technology.”

Zahi Hawass descends towards a cache of mummies

With that in mind, one of the excavator’s boldest ongoing pursuits has been recently documented through Netflix’s Unknown: The Lost Pyramid, which aired worldwide in July 2023. In his great search for the pyramid built by the third dynasty’s King Huni, Hawass takes a vast international audience with him on a nine-month journey of dedicated labor as he leads an Egyptian team of workers and archeologists at a dig site near the Saqqara necropolis. “Tutankhamun before Howard Carter’s discovery was an overlooked king with no real value. But, when his tomb was revealed in full, he became the most important ancient Egyptian king. I believe that King Huni, the last king of the third dynasty – if I were to discover his pyramid – would become another icon of the ancient Egyptian civilization,” says Hawass. While the enthralling 84-minute documentary does offer a crash-course in Egyptology, digging-sites, and the way the excavations of today pave the road to the past, it also demonstrates Hawass’s influence on Egyptology. “My primary goal was to show the entire world that even though it has been historically known that foreigners predominantly led excavations and discovery of antiquities, Egyptians are now the experts in their own history,” says Hawass.

Excavation in Gisr Elmudir, Saqqara

Born in 1947, Hawass had a homely childhood as the eldest son of a farmer. Growing up in a small village near Damietta, Egypt, he originally planned to become a lawyer. Yet, it was Greek and Roman archeology that he studied at Alexandria University, followed by a postgraduate diploma in Egyptology at Cairo University, and a PhD in the same from University of Pennsylvania in 1987. Hawass has since dedicated his career to preserving his country’s heritage, leading the biggest discoveries of the 21st century and keeping the artifacts in Egypt – from the Osiris Shaft at the Giza Pyramid to the Valley of the Golden Mummies at Bahariya Oasis and identifying Queen Hatshepsut’s mummy. “I consider myself responsible for teaching the masses about Egyptology in a simple and easy way.” Hawass adds, “One of the most popular myths worldwide claims that the pyramids were built by aliens. My answer is often the fact that I have previously discovered the tombs of the pyramid builders, which prove that the pyramids were in fact built by Egyptians. These tombs also stand to correct the mistaken stereotype that pyramids were the result of forced labor, as their location reflects respect and honor. If they were slaves, they would not have been buried next to the pyramids and in the same way kings and queens were buried.”

The main entrance of Khufu’s pyramid

With a legacy that is deeply intertwined with modern Egyptology, Hawass has certainly earned his popculture status speaking on local and international media platforms as well as accompanying royals, presidents, and celebrities to Egypt’s most coveted monuments. Which has earned him the nickname Indiana Jones. “Archaeology is a complicated topic to talk about. But when it is tackled within an adventurous tale, people understand it. So I welcome being called the Egyptian Indiana Jones with joy. When the character’s creator George Lucas visited Egypt and asked me to meet him, I went and had dinner with him. When he asked me why my hat has become more famous than the one worn by actor Harrison Ford in the movies, I told him because mine belongs to the real-life archaeologist, while Ford’s hat is the work of fiction.” With the digging season resumed on September 1, his iconic hat is not expected to rest any time soon. “I am always working. Each period has its own thinking and goals. I do not know an end.”

The extraction of DNA

Originally published in the Fall/Winter 2023 issue of Vogue Man Arabia

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