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.”

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The Art of War

Soldier on Babylon, 2004. Source: CNN
Soldier on Babylon, 2004. Source: CNN

The 2003 U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq has spawned some seemingly improbable headlines, like “U.S. establishes base on Babylon” and “U.S. hands back Ur”. Upon reading such titles, I envisioned the army traveling back in time to attack the pagan king Nebuchadnezzar at his Hanging Gardens or helping God himself topple the Tower of Babel.

Though Babylon and Ur have been abandoned for millenia, and long ago fell into ruin, Western culture still reveres the biblical-era myths and stories set in these cities.

Of course, Babylon and Ur aren’t just notable for their antiquity or their place in Western mythology. These sites are located in the alluvial plains of Iraq, in the path of modern human migration out of Africa – this area has seen untold centuries of human movement and occupation. As every schoolchild knows (or should know), they are the likely birthplace of many human “firsts,” including agriculture, writing, and the wheel. Sites and artifacts in this region don’t just represent one culture, they represent major achievements of our species.

It seemed almost sacrilegious for the military to invade Babylon and Ur. Moreover, it seemed too dangerous for them to occupy and risk damaging these fragile places, which are still being excavated.

When U.S. military contractor KBR built a base on Babylon in 2003, they did indeed damage the site. Workers bulldozed tells, dug ditches, built embankments, and carved out roads; in doing so they hopelessly confused the archaeological context and damaged structural remnants and artifacts, which at Babylon are buried relatively close to the surface. Vibrations from helicopters caused the collapse of a temple, and heavy machinery cracked a 2,600 year-old brick road. Ur fared little better.

To Westerners, Babylon and Ur are perhaps the best-known of Iraq’s ancient cities, and the U.S. military’s heedless destruction there communicated an awful message: even here, nothing here is sacred. One imagines it communicated the same to Iraqis.

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