The Anthropology of Dr. Zahi Hawass (Lecture at War Memorial Opera House, 3/8/10)

Zahi Hawass - poster at DeYoung Tut exhibit gift shop
Zahi Hawass - poster at DeYoung Tut exhibit gift shop

When I came across an ad for Dr. Zahi Hawass’ lecture, “Mysteries of Tutankhamun Revealed,” at the Opera House, I was curious. Not about Egypt per se, but about Hawass, the Secretary General of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities. He seems to be everywhere, in his Indian Jones hat. He appears in an endless parade of documentaries. I saw him signing books at LACMA a few years ago. There’s a 10-foot tall poster of him in the DeYoung’s Tut exhibit gift shop, next to a stack of replicas of his hat (on sale for $30). Americans are fascinated by Egypt, and this guy seems to be totally Tuting us up.

So I bought a ticket, half-hoping to get some insight into Hawass. And maybe I would learn something. Hawass is, of course, quite accomplished. Trained at Cairo U, he earned his PhD at UPenn. He supervises an amazing amount of fieldwork. He has fought to get Egyptian antiquities returned to Egypt. And for Americans, he has put an Egyptian face on Egyptian history.

Before the lecture began, the head of FAMSF gave a laudatory introduction. Then house lights dimmed, and we were shown a two-minute video featuring stirring music and sweeping images of Egypt. There was a brief bio, and – notably – an acknowledgment of the criticism that Hawass is a media hog. Even Omar Sharif made an appearance. “I used to be the most famous Egyptian, now it is Zahi Hawass,” he said. “He is the best actor I have ever seen.”

Hawass came onstage to a huge round of applause, and immediately launched into a slide show. He showed us slides of a stepped pyramid excavation, including a 22-ton sarcophagus. We saw photos of the excavation of the tomb of Seti, which went an amazing 700 feet deep. (Every other picture showed Hawass being lowered into a pit; he insists on being first in, no small feat for a man of 62.) We also learned that tests revealed Tut was plagued with multiple ailments that forced him to walk with a cane (over 130 canes and staves were found in his tomb). He likely died from malaria and complications from a fall. And DNA evidence revealed that Akhenaton was the father of Tut—we were the first to know! I was unmoved.

Hawass was indeed a dynamo, and he seemed excited about the discoveries. But he remained an impenetrable character. And a self-aggrandizing one. He recalled the time when a couple had asked what should they should see in Egypt, besides the pyramids. “Me,” he said, with a huge grin. He also told the charming story of a child that wrote to him for advice on being an archaeologist, and how he wrote back. And how sales of his hat benefit childrens’ charities. When he announced that he had put an important dig on hold just to come to the States and give this lecture, the audience swooned. My companion and I giggled.

He wrapped up the talk with photos of him with celebrities. Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon. The Clintons. The Obamas. Even Princess Di. “She was my favorite princess,” he said, wistfully.

Hawass then answered audience questions selected from written queries. A child asked, “How can I be an archaeologist?” “Give me your email address and I write to you,” Hawass said. He extended the same courtesy to another questioner.

I have to agree with Omar Sharif; Zahi Hawass is one slick mother. My god, he was pulling the audiences’ strings so expertly.

I can’t say that I felt the magic. I was impressed by Dr. Hawass. And I can’t begin to imagine the politics of archaeology in Egypt. But, after the lecture, I felt less like Egypt was important than I ever have.


7 thoughts on “The Anthropology of Dr. Zahi Hawass (Lecture at War Memorial Opera House, 3/8/10)

  1. I think this post captures the ambivalence that is modern Egypt- there’s a lot of great, amazing things to see and learn, but you have to go through an unpleasant modern-day culture of vultures to experience it.

    1. The industry around the monuments/archaeology must be tremendous, no thanks to the West. I’m sure it’s worth navigating all the hoo ha.

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