October 27, 2003

Hawass brings star power to Glenn

By Michael Terrazas

When Zahi Hawass strode to the Glenn Auditorium dais Oct. 22, his giant image floating behind him on a movie screen, the effect was one more akin to a rock star or Oscar-winning actor than an archaeologist.

But there was no denying Hawass’ celebrity that evening, as a crowd of many hundreds gathered to listen to Egypt’s secretary-general of its Supreme Council of Antiquities, in town to commemorate the return of Ramesses I to the pharaoh’s homeland.

After listening to an introduction of Hawass by Peter Lacovara, curator of ancient Egyptian art for the Carlos Museum, the crowd watched a short National Geographic film on the Egyptian archeologist, who rose to international fame in 1999 after discovering a trove of 2,000-year-old mummies at a site he dubbed the "Valley of Golden Mummies."

Indeed, the film—titled "Zahi Hawass: King of the Pyramids"—reinforced its star’s charisma, showing him bombarded by paparazzi at public events and being met with a mixture of pride and awe by his fellow Egyptians. When he took the podium as the end credits rolled, Hawass said he was grateful to be in Atlanta and thanked Lacovara and Carlos Director Bonnie Speed for making it happen.

Hawass recounted how the Carlos earlier this year had returned to Egypt four pieces from the tomb of Seti I (son of Ramesses I), a move wholly in keeping with Hawass’ belief that many of the ancient treasures and artifacts currently in museums and private collections around the world rightfully belong back in their homeland.

"That was a moment that’s never happened before," Hawass said of the museum’s gesture. "Putting those pieces back in the tomb, in the same spot where they had been taken before by force, is a message to the whole world. I have to thank Bonnie Speed and Peter Lacovara for giving us the opportunity to show the world cooperation for the benefit of all archaeology."

Of course, the return of Ramesses I takes that cooperation to another level, and Hawass clearly was thrilled to be personally escorting the 3,000-year-old king back to his country, where he will star in a new exhibit in the Luxor Museum in January. The Ramesses delegation was scheduled to leave Atlanta for Cairo on Friday, Oct. 24.

Hawass’ hourlong talk ranged far and wide over his decades of experience excavating numerous sites spread all around Egypt, from the Valley of Golden Mummies to the Giza Plateau with its giant pyramids and solemn Sphinx. Equipped with slideshow clicker and laser pointer, Hawass took his audience on a virtual tour around and inside the sites of ancient tombs, secret underground tunnels and dusty bowels of pyramids.

Hawass also poked fun at fringe theories of popular culture, such as the belief that the pyramids were built by aliens from space, or that the Sphinx was built by a 10,000-year-old "lost civilization." In fact, the archaeologist showed in detail the system of ramps that were used to move pyramid stones from quarry to building site, the hierarchy of labor used to build them, even evidence of the food the laborers ate (he said he’d unearthed proof that 11 cows and 33 goats were slaughtered every day to feed the work force).

"Archaeology," Hawass said simply, "is more fun than thinking about aliens or lost civilizations."