Monday, May. 08, 2006

Zahi Hawass

He walks briskly toward the television cameras, the perfect image of a modern-day archaeologist — having traded his suit for jeans, blue work shirt and trademark Indiana Jones hat. The confident stride is justified. Zahi Hawass, 58, head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, is The Man. He determines who will excavate in Egypt and when and where. Unlike some of his predecessors, he does not keep a low profile. He ranges the world lecturing, making TV appearances and turning out a stream of books and articles.

Hawass has to be — and is — a master of multitasking. A friend and I once had coffee and shisha (water pipe) with him in Cairo. He sipped his coffee, chatted with us, dictated to a secretary and took phone calls more or less simultaneously. He has been described as theatrical, passionate and controversial. He is passionate about Egypt and its antiquities and doesn't hesitate to use words like magical, thrilling and marvelous when describing his discoveries in the Valley of the Golden Mummies or his recent investigation of the battered mummy of Tutankhamen. He isn't afraid of controversy — in fact, some might say he courts it. He makes news by demanding the return of objects "stolen" from Egypt by excavators and museums. (The word is accurate in some cases, not all.) His recent edicts restricting new excavation, particularly in such popular sites as Saqqara and the Valley of the Kings, have aroused the ire of some foreign archaeologists.

Yet those regulations as well as his focus on conservation may be Hawass's most lasting legacy. There are already too many monuments in danger of destruction, both by natural forces and by the tourism on which Egypt's economy largely depends — and which Hawass has done so much to encourage.

Peters' most recent mystery set in Egypt is Tomb of the Golden Bird