Treasures of the Past and Tourism Today: Egyptologist Zahi Hawass in Japan

Culture

The archaeologist Zahi Hawass is known for his decades of work in Egyptology, as well as for championing Egyptian participation in excavation and preservation of sites in their own country. In the wake of the revolution of 2011, he has also become a globe-trotting ambassador seeking to entice international tourists to return once more to Egypt—to boost the national economy, but also, as he says, because “the Egyptian monuments belong to everyone.”

INTERVIEWER  You’re in Japan to attend the Japan-Egypt Friendship Festival at Komazawa University this weekend. Is this the main reason you’ve come?

ZAHI HAWASS  The main reason I am here is to promote tourism to Egypt—to deliver the message that Egypt is safe. At the same time, I am sharing information on three major projects. The first is the ScanPyramids project. Actually, Japan is involved with this. There’s a team from Japan, a team from France, and a team from Egypt trying to reveal the secrets of the Great Pyramid. I'm the scientific director of the team reviewing the work.

The second is a major excavation in the Valley of the Kings. The site is divided into two valleys, the Eastern and the Western. The Eastern Valley has King Tut and the Western has the Tomb of Amenhotep III. I am looking for the tomb of Queen Ankhesenamun, the wife of Tutankhamun. We are hoping that soon something important will be discovered.

The third project that I am involved in is actually the CT scanning of the mummies of the Nineteenth Dynasty [1292–1187 BCE], like Ramesses II—major mummies—trying to find out how they died and things like that. I’ll be talking about this major, important work on Saturday.

INTERVIEWER  It sounds very high-tech.

HAWASS  It is. But at the same time, in the excavation in the Valley of the Kings, we’re still digging with an axe. That remains a very important method for us to discover something. There are many things that have changed, but you can’t think that all the technology can reveal something.

We found in the West Valley five foundation deposits. When the ancient Egyptians made a foundation deposit, they put pottery and knives and ox hides down when the tomb was constructed. A team from Italy, using the most sophisticated radar, told me at 5 meters down there was an entrance of a tomb. I dug there, but I found nothing.

This means we have to be careful when using technology. But laser scanning is wonderful. CT scanning is great. I have used CT scans and DNA to find the mummy of Hatshepsut, how Amenhotep III died, the family of Tutankhamun. But these things were invented for a space not really good for archaeology now, and we have to be careful in using certain types of technology in archaeology.

INTERVIEWER  Does Japan play a large role in developing these new tools?

HAWASS  Yes. I think the most important project that the Japanese are doing right now, under Professor Yoshimura Sakuji, is the conservation of the second boat pit. That is a project that Waseda University is handling, and it’s a great work.

South of the Great Pyramid of Khufu, there is one boat already restored, and another boat still underneath the pit. I’m very impressed by the way the Japanese and the Egyptian teams are taking the boat out of the pit, restoring it, taking photographs. We hope a grand museum will be opened so that the two boats can be shown. This is, in my opinion, the most important work that Japan is doing.

The second, of course, is the Grand Egyptian Museum. At the beginning, this museum was being constructed with the money brought in by the international King Tut exhibit. But we got the first loan of some 300 million dollars from Japan [in 2006] and a second loan [in 2016] of around 400 million dollars for the construction of the largest and greatest museum in the world.

The Grand Egyptian Museum is now under construction. (Photos courtesy of Egyptian Embassy in Japan)

The other thing that Japanese are doing in Egypt is excavation. There’s good cooperation between Egypt and Japan in archaeology and in culture, and that really can strengthen the relationship between the two countries.

I have come to Japan more than ten times, and in Japan, when you meet anyone, tell him about mummies, the Great Pyramid, Cleopatra and Tutankhamun. Those are magic to the heart of every Japanese when they go to Egypt. I'm so happy when I go to the Valley of the Kings for my excavation, and I can see lots of Japanese now coming to Egypt. They know that Egypt is safe.

We need tourists not only for our economy—we need tourists because we believe that the Egyptian monuments belong to everyone. With the money that comes from the tourism, we can restore the Egyptian monuments.

INTERVIEWER  Aside from boosting interest in Egypt’s monuments—the history, the things people want to go see as tourists—do you seek to increase scholarly interest? To increase the numbers of Japanese Egyptologists?

HAWASS  Actually, if you look at the Japanese, there are many good Egyptologists. Of course, the father of the Egyptology of the Japanese is Yoshimura Sakuji. He’s a good man who has worked with me in many important projects. I’ve invited him to come with a team soon, because we need the ScanPyramids project not to be done by just one team.

I need more teams. We have more Japanese coming to work, which really can be important for science. Also, the Japanese are working in Luxor, in many important sites.

INTERVIEWER  Japan, of course, has its own ancient tombs. There are archaeologists who do work on these but it's very difficult sometimes for them to do work—the Imperial Household agency is very protective. Do you have similar challenges when you work in Egypt? Is everything open to you or do you work carefully with the authorities?

HAWASS  Anyone who works in Egypt, Egyptian or foreigner, must go through a committee [in the Ministry of Antiquities] that gives permission. But the most important thing that we are caring for is really conservation. It's not important just to discover something—it’s important to reveal the secrets and do more conservation.

This is why we encourage people, foreign expeditions, to work in the delta and the desert. And we’re encouraging the Japanese university where I’m lecturing to work in Meidum, because this site is very important. It has one of the oldest pyramids in Egypt, belonging to Sneferu, Khufu’s father [r. ca. 2613–2589 BCE]. The site is unknown; I think the Japanese team will make it known to the public.

INTERVIEWER  So, it's a lot of international collaborative work?

HAWASS  Yes. We have more than 240 foreign expeditions working in Egypt. There is no country in the world that has this type of international cooperation. Almost every country is working in Egypt, excavating Islamic, Coptic, Pharaonic, even Jewish sites. We have nine temples belong to the Egyptian Jewish community in Cairo and one in Alexandria. There is work that we are doing in these temples. This shows how Egypt is welcoming the people from all over the world.

INTERVIEWER  What are your views on antiquities that have been taken from Egypt in the past?

HAWASS  I have secured the return of 6,000 artifacts. I'm still now in a committee in the Ministry of Antiquities, restoring artifacts.

I still need people to understand we are not against an artifact being shown in a museum in Japan or in Europe or in America, but I am against any museum or anyone buying stolen artifacts.

We have thousands of mummies and artifacts. I'm happy with that, but I'm not happy if anyone buys stolen artifacts. It encourages a thief to go and cut something from a tomb—that is damaging the spiritual value of the pharaohs. And I say that unique artifacts should be in Egypt: the Bust of Nefertiti [in the Neues Museum in Berlin]; the Rosetta Stone [in the British Museum in London]; the Zodiac [of Dendera, in the Louvre in Paris]; the statue of Hemiunu, the architect of the Great Pyramid [in the Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim, Germany]; and the statue of Imhotep,  architect of the second pyramid of Djoser [also in the Louvre]. Those are the five, really, that I think should come back to Egypt.

INTERVIEWER  Do Egyptians today feel close connections with the ancient past?

HAWASS  They do. I will tell you one example. When I sent the robot inside the Great Pyramid for the first time to reveal the secrets of the sacred doors inside, this was seen by all Egyptians one night.

About a month ago, I was walking in one of the squares of Cairo and I saw a poor man walking. He stopped and he said, Zahi, when are you going to send the robot into the pyramid again? That really made me see how archaeology has begun to be recognized by many Egyptians.

We have a center opened in Egypt, the Zahi Hawass Center for Egyptology, opened in the Library of Alexandria. Through this center, we try to educate Egyptians about their monuments.

INTERVIEWER  When tourists from Japan, from around the world, come to Egypt, of course the ancient monuments like the Sphinx and the pyramids are a big draw. What would you like them to see about Egypt and Egyptians today?

HAWASS  I really would like them to go and not only to see Cleopatra or King Tut, or the Great Pyramid of Khufu or the Sphinx. I would like to tell them to walk in one street in Cairo, the Al-Muizz street. They will see the magic of Islamic monuments. They can see the great Egyptian Textile Museum on that street, with exhibits from predynastic times until today. They will see a famous synagogue that I restored, called Musa bin Maymun [the Maimonides Synagogue]. Then they reach the bazaar of Khan el Khalili. This is where they will meet the people, see the smiles on the faces of all the Egyptians. They will buy Egyptian crafts. That street will introduce them to modern Egypt.

INTERVIEWER  Do you have a message to deliver to your fans in Japan?

HAWASS  I would tell them that we have only discovered until now 30 percent of our monuments. I always tell the Japanese when I see them in Egypt that you never know what the sands of Egypt might hide. Soon something important will be discovered in the Valley of the Kings. I'm sure this discovery will bring all of you back—and you'll see that my message is true. Egypt is safe.

(Originally written in English based on a November 22, 2018, interview at the Nippon.com studio. Interviewer Peter Durfee is executive editor of Nippon.com.)

Egypt history archaeology