Cornered Hawass Lashes Out
Author Robert Bauval Attacked in Egyptian Press
By Philip Coppens
CAPTION: Zahi Hawass talks to reporters at the entrance of the Egyptian Museum on February 16, 2011.
For the former head of Egyptian Antiquities, Dr. Zahi Hawass, a new life without political and scientific power could be prompting what seems to many like desperate behavior—the re-starting of an old, but very public, feud with popular researcher Robert Bauval—best known for proposing in 1995 (The Orion Mystery) that the monuments of Giza, including the Great Pyramid, were intended to represent the belt stars of Orion. A year after the Egyptian Revolution, however, the state of Egyptology remains somewhat murky.
Egyptology, for almost 20 years has been dominated by three people—Hawass, in charge of the Supreme Council of Antiquities; Farouk Hosni, Minister of Culture (to whom Hawass reported); and, of course, Hosni Mubarak, president of Egypt (with whom Hawass was friendly). When the Egyptian Revolution was ignited in January 2011, two of these—Mubarak and Hosni—were immediately removed from power; both have since been charged and one has been tried and convicted. Hawass remains at large, but his freedom is clearly in jeopardy.
An active part of the old regime, Hawass was more politician than Egyptologist, but neither role could supersede his well-known lust for the limelight. In an article in the Smithsonian Magazine, Nora Shalaby, a young Egyptian archaeologist described him as “the Mubarak of antiquities.” The darling of many television documentaries, serious and otherwise, his personality has been made quite clear in the recent “Chasing Mummies,” a quasi-reality show, where he seemed to abandon pretense and to fully embrace the personae of media celebrity. Worshipfully, the program followed him about in his daily routine, revealing more of the man than most of us wanted to see and, possibly, more than he, himself, may have wanted to show. Hawass, it is said, tried to keep the series as quiet as he could, though it was never entirely clear whether he realized he might have been set up—exposed, perhaps, as someone a bit too eager to take the bait.
Egypt’s steps towards democracy over the past year have closely parallel Hawass’ fortunes. On January 31, 2011, just days after the revolution had broken out, as part of a cabinet reshuffle through which Mubarak hoped to stall the rush of events and save his government, Hawass was made Minister of Antiquities. After the regime fell on February 11, Hawass stayed on until March 3. During that time, there were almost daily demonstrations outside his Cairo office. Often quite young, unemployed archaeologists who saw no future were protesting the old regime’s handling of antiquities, archaeology, and its employees. On his personal website, Hawass often downplayed their cause, boasting that several of the disgruntled had even congratulated him when he invited their delegation into his office for talks.
But clearly by early March, it was all to no avail. At that point, in a transparently self-serving move, Hawass posted on his personal website a list of dozens of antiquities sites which had been looted in the protests, making it appear that his public resignation was only because he had been rendered powerless to protect Egypt’s national monuments and, alas, would not remain in a position where he could save the national treasures.
Hawass, though, has demonstrated some of the most impressive survival skills to be found anywhere. Even under the Mubarak regime, there had been occasions when he had been suspended of wrongdoings and even charged with corruption, but Hawass always seemed to be able to evade the attacks and to bounce back, ending up on a higher level than the one from which he had fallen. Once again, according to form, on March 30, he was restored as Minister of Antiquities, reappointed by the new Prime Minister Essam Sharaf. The re-appointment came as a surprise to some, since only days before, Hawass had insisted that he had no desire to work for this individual whom he seemed not to respect. It soon became clear that the relationship between the two was indeed strained. On July 17, Sharaf informed Hawass, in what was announced as a “cabinet reshuffle,” that he would not be continuing in his position. Hawass responded bitterly that, “All the devils united against me.”
Sharaf first named Cairo University engineer Abdel Fatta El Banna as Hawass’ successor, but the appointment was challenged when it was realized that El Banna lacked archaeological credentials. On July 20, Haw-ass personally told the Egyptian state news agency that he had been reinstated, and six days later, he claimed that actually he had voluntarily left the position to rest and to write. Whether that was the truth or simply subterfuge to create the impression he had quit, rather than being fired, remains a question.
Throughout the remainder of 2011 and into 2012, however, rumors of an imminent Hawass return persisted. The whispers had it that while plotting his comeback, he was pretending to enjoy the free time, the lack of responsibilities and the opportunity to write books and scientific papers. As the months went on, though, finding his successor as Minister of Antiquities proved not to be an easy or quick task: the interval lasted until December, when finally Mohamed Ibrahim Ali, the dean of archaeology of Ain Shams University in Cairo, was announced as the new Minister of Antiquities. This writer met Ibrahim Ali at the International Conference on the Bosnian Pyramids in late August 2008. In contrast to Hawass, the new minister is a far more reserved individual.
Little was heard from Hawass in early 2012; but then, in the April 12 issue of the main Arabic daily newspaper Al Ahram, in an explosive front-page interview, Hawass and his former boss Farouk Hosni, the erstwhile Minister of Culture, went on the attack, charging that “An American book attributes Egyptian Civilization to the Jews.” The book in question, Breaking the Mirror of Heaven, is not to be published until August by Inner Traditions. The authors are Robert Bauval and Ahmed Osman: the former a Belgian living in Spain, the latter an Egyptian living in London.
As the book is not yet published, there is little to go on. Its subtitle, however, reads: The Conspiracy to Suppress the Voice of Ancient Egypt. The promotional text announces the role of Freemasonry under Napoleon in the exploration of Ancient Egypt, by way of pointing out how foreign rulers had cleansed Egypt of its pagan past, and… “Shows how the censorship of non-official Egyptology as well as new archaeological discoveries continued under Antiquities Minister Zahi Hawass;” adding later, “Exposing recent cover-ups during the tenure of Antiquities Minister Zahi Hawass, they explain how new discoveries at Giza were closed to further research.”
In the newspaper, Hawass sensationally charged that Bauval’s parents were “Belgians Jews” from Alexandria. It was an attempt, Bauval shot back, to make “a claim clearly intended to be derogatory, implying that being a ‘Jew’ explains the reason for me writing this book (as an act of ‘vengeance’) and that, in any case, being a ‘Jew,’ I cannot be believed.” Bauval went on to show that his parents were, in fact, Catholic Christians, that he and they were baptized in a church in Alexandria (where they and he were born), posting copies of the actual records on his website.
The feud between Hawass and Bauval is not new and dates back to the 1990s. It had been patched up on a number of occasions, but clearly Hawass felt that when Bauval decided to write this book, the truce had been broken.
It was not the first time that Hawass has used a claimed connection with ‘Jews’ to try and discredit his opponents. In 2002, Bauval dedicated an entire article to this very line of attack. In a predominantly Muslim country like Egypt, Israel is obviously a controversial subject. Politicians frequently find it useful to play the Jewish card, seeking to arouse support from the Egyptian people. But long before Hawass decided to act the part of politician, he had commented on the Jewish people, from a “historical perspective.” In 2009, in an interview on Egyptian television, he claimed that the Jews controlled the United States and the media, thus publicly agreeing with the many commonly held conspiracy theories.
In his rebuttal to Hawass’s accusations, Bauval argued that the Hawass attack “may, in fact, be a smoke screen to his own very involved relationship with American Jews—something that today in Egypt would definitely not go down well in the present political climate.” Hawass, as Bauval points out, received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, where his tutor and assessor was Dr. David Silverman. According to Bauval, “Silverman, and his university, have been granted long-term concessions in Egypt by Hawass, and the latter and Dr. Silverman have collaborated on many projects and even wrote a book together. It is also well known that Hawass has often ‘facilitated’ research by the Edgar Cayce Foundation of America at the Giza Pyramids and that the principal funders were Joseph Jahoda and Joseph Schor, two prominent Jewish-American businessmen.”
The Al Ahram article also alleged that Bauval had met with ex-minister Hosni and given him a DVD/video about the theory presented in the book, something that Bauval denies. Bauval says that actually he never even met Hosni. Finally, Bauval points out, his book does not attribute Egyptian civilization to the Jews.
But why, exactly, did Hawass choose to make his front-page accusations against Bauval? Apparently, just days before, on April 2, that same newspaper had reported that, “Egypt’s ‘Indiana Jones’ faces charges.” Indeed, after a year of speculation, Hawass had finally been charged with corruption. The newspaper reported that, “General Prosecutor Abdel Meguid Mahmoud on Monday referred charges of wasting public money and stealing Egyptian antiquities against Zahi Hawass, former minister of state for antiquities, to the Public Fund Prosecution office.” Nour El-Din Abdul-Samad, Director of Archaeological Sites, had filed the accusations against Hawass and requested that the objects in question be returned to the Egyptian Museum. The Public Funds Prosecution office also received other charges accusing Hawass of wasting public money and exposing Egyptian antiquities to theft in collaboration with former regime members. In total, Hawass faced seven charges.
The specific allegation was that Hawass had sealed a deal with the American Geographical Society—read that National Geographic Society—to display 143 rare Egyptian antiquities in exhibitions across the United States and Australia, which is a violation of the law. The artifacts had been loaned in 2003 and were never returned. Ironically, of course, it was Hawass who had routinely accused foreign governments of stealing Egypt’s precious relics and who had demanded their return. The suggestion that he personally had illegally allowed several important artifacts to leave Egypt and, indeed, never asked for their return, was a bombshell.
Appearing on Egyptian television shortly thereafter, Hawass admitted that he had made a 17-million-dollar deal with regard to a Tutankhamun exhibition to raise donations for an admittedly private association led by Suzanne Mubarak (the deposed president’s wife).
After the initial charges were filed against Hawass, there were rumors in Egypt that Suzanne Mubarak had been questioned, something which the authorities denied. Hawass met with Ali El-Hawari, a lawyer from the Public Funds Prosecution Office, presenting a number of documents outlining what, in his opinion, showed the inaccuracy of the charges filed against him. El-Hawari ordered the formation of a committee made up of a number of experts from the judiciary and the antiquities field to study all the documents presented both by Hawass and the regulatory authorities. When a conclusion is reached, even if Hawass is found not guilty, it seems very likely that several others are more than willing to step forward and press new charges against him.
Even if Hawass again escapes a guilty verdict, further embarrassment awaits. According to the New York Times, he was paid around $200,000 a year to serve as “explorer-in-residence” for the National Geographic Society, which many in Egypt frown upon, if only because of the enormous salary involved.
For the moment, it appears—but with Hawass no one is ever sure—that the charges are sufficient to prevent his return to power. In the meantime, his replacement is, by most reckonings, displaying considerable strength. Ibrahim Ali reported that his main emphasis was on the youth and junior archaeologists, stating that 2,000 out of 6,000 fresh graduates would be appointed at the SCA and the Ministry of Antiquities. By contrast, in April of 2011, when these students were protesting outside of his office, Hawass publicly proclaimed that he could not provide jobs for them at all. Ibrahim Ali has also suggested, in order to better handle the current workload, a remodeling of the thinking and goals of the Supreme Council of Antiquities’ Administrative Council and adding new blood to its membership, including “prominent figures of civil society” and from the media. In short, he seeks to break up the old boys’ network that, under Hawass, has been in place since 2002.
In early February, Egypt became interested in the Israeli-related question: whether Ramses II was the Pharaoh of the Exodus, or not. Ibrahim Ali was asked to comment. He stated that he would never allow the analysis of King Ramses II’s mummy to confirm whether or not he was the long-disputed Pharaoh of the Exodus. He added: “What is being rumored in this context is utterly non-scientific and not founded on any sort of evidence.” Nevertheless, the controversy reveals the level of rumors and allegations that are currently swirling within Egypt; and it is clear that Hawass is more than willing to throw further gasoline on the fire, at the least, potentially endangering the lives of Bauval, who frequently visits Egypt, and his co-author Osman.
Whereas Hawass regularly campaigned to get the Rosetta Stone and Nefertiti’s bust back to Egypt, Ibrahim Ali has commented that he is not pursuing such causes. To questions clearly related to Hawass, he pledged to never cover up for any kind of corruption. “I am not going to allow any measure of corruption,” he said, “even if it is slight. Many legal cases have already been referred to the Administrative Prosecution Service or the Public Funds Prosecution. Upon assuming responsibility, I became highly suspicious of corruption in some projects, so I referred them to the cabinet, which subsequently referred them to the Attorney General. This is concrete proof that we won’t cover up for any suspicion of corruption no matter how small it might be.”
In short, Ibrahim Ali has pledged to be a wind of change, but whether this will lead to a new openness on the controversial topics frequently brought up by alternative researchers like Bauval, remains to be seen. A first test might be Bauval’s new book, though it hardly seems likely to achieve the required threshold of a genuine political issue, no matter how much Hawass might like to make it so. Though Ibrahim Ali is more open towards new avenues of research, he is still a product of his generation. It seems, though, that he prefers to think and reflect first before speaking out. That alone, while apparently only a small difference between the two men, could end up making a big difference for Egyptology.