Zahi Hawass* talks to Richard Marranca about his meeting with George Lucas in Cairo, the Indiana Jones franchise, Cleopatra, the great discoveries in the desert, and more. He also expresses his obsession with finding Nefertiti’s tomb and discusses how the tools of science help archaeologists bring astounding discoveries to light. For Hawass, the world remains full of wonders waiting to be discovered.
*Dr. Zahi Hawass is an Egyptian archaeologist and former Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs, serving twice. He continues to play a large role in major excavations throughout Egypt and notably heads the science committee overseeing the Scanpyramids project. He and his team have discovered the necropolis of the pyramid builders at Giza, have began excavations of tombs at Bahariya Oases, initiated the Egyptian Mummy Project, discovered major tombs throughout Egypt, CT scanned King Tutankhamun’s mummy, and more.
“George Lucas opened the eyes of millions of people to the adventure of archaeology” Zahi Hawass.
Q: What do you, the world’s most famous archaeologist, think about Indiana Jones, the cinema’s most famous archaeologist?
A: Well, I’m very happy about Indiana Jones movies. George Lucas opened the eyes of millions of people to the adventure of archaeology. More than ever, people are interested in discoveries.
Q: The Ark of the Covenant, the search for the Holy Grail, the Crystal Skull, and, in Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, the Antikythera Mechanism. Can all the discoveries of the Indiana Jones franchise motivate the public to learn more about archaeology?
A: Yes, people are inspired and want to learn. During my lectures, people ask me questions relating to the Indiana Jones movies and express their fascination with archaeology. They love the adventure.
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Q: In the movies, Indiana Jones stares at new discoveries with admiration. Are there such moments for archaeologists like yourself?
A: Well, something inside me makes me look for a long while. It’s a passion — the same passion when you’re with your beloved.
Q: You’ve met American presidents, royalty, and lots of Hollywood luminaries. I heard you also met George Lucas.
A: George Lucas and I had dinner in Cairo. He was with family members. It was special. He asked me about my hat, which is a symbol of the whole adventure and ties in with the movie. He also gave me the whip from the Indiana Jones movie. I have my old hat and the whip in my office in Cairo.
Q: Have you been surprised by any discovery?
A: Yes, of course. The Golden City surprised me. The village of the pyramid builders surprised me. That’s two of many.
Q: Was Queen Cleopatra as brilliant as she comes down to us in history?
She was a great leader with great potential.
Q: What was Cleopatra’s cultural background or identity?
A: She was Macedonian and the last of the Ptolemies. She was a great queen of Egypt.
Q: What did she want?
A: She dreamt of Egypt controlling the whole world.
Q: I hear that Omar Sharif was a close friend of yours. Is that true?
A: Omar Sharif was a very close friend. We saw each other often. He once told me that he was the most famous Egyptian until all these archaeological discoveries. He was generous.
Q: Did you used to go to movies a lot? And what’s your favorite movie with Omar Sharif?
A: Of course I did. I saw films from around the world. Regarding Omar Sharif’s movies, I just saw one. If I had to choose, I’d say Dr. Zhivago is my favorite, along with Funny Girl. Lawrence of Arabia is a top one too.
Q: What kind of things can get people, young and old, into archaeology?
A: Books, lectures, movies, travel. I see it in every country I visit. Archaeologists inspire others. People connect to the past and to all sorts of discoveries.
Q: I just attended your presentation in New York City and saw how there’s a big place in your heart for children and young adults. You had kids come up on stage and introduce them to the audience.
A: Yes, for sure, children are in love with archaeology. They’re asking me questions about Cleopatra, Indiana Jones, Tut, and everything else.
Q: You’re about to head to Texas and then Massachusetts for the next lectures on the tour. After USA, what countries are on your agenda?
A: Well, I travel a lot. Peru for some big events. South Africa, Italy, Belgium, Australia, and more.
Q: Do you think that Peru will be special, given that it’s perhaps the second most famous country for its mummies?
A: Yes. Peru is a beautiful country with a rich history and culture. Peru has had some spectacular discoveries — one, in particular, is comparable to the discovery of Tut.
Q: You’re busier than ever, yet you always find time to share your knowledge of history and archaeology.
A: I do what I can. When I had a government job, I had to work in the office a lot and do endless projects. I’m often out excavating. This also helps tourism and Egypt in general.
Q: Archaeology and technology go hand in hand more than ever.
A: Archaeology is very technical. Scanning the pyramids, robots looking at hidden places, 3Ds, radar, infrared, and ultrasound. Much of my work requires technology.
Q: Egypt has a big influence on world culture. It goes back a long time…
A: I’ve seen restaurants and houses in Egyptian style, people dressed up as Tut or Cleopatra, and other personalities from ancient history. People are obsessed with the pyramids and the Sphinx. Egyptomania is a separate branch of study now. Tut is the most important discovery that opened people’s eyes to Egypt.
Q: Could you mention some of your ongoing or new projects?
A: We are doing DNA research — possibly we have found Nefertiti’s mummy. We are researching how Tut died. We are looking for the tomb of Imhotep. We are also looking into the hidden places in the pyramids. That’s part of it. I also have a movie project coming out soon.
Q: I was just rereading one of your books, and you wrote that Nefertiti was pharaoh at one time. Is that true?
A: There is a lot of evidence to support this. I think that Nefertiti was not only coregent but also ruled Egypt with the name Smenkhkare. It’s a long story.
Q: What do you think about Tut’s widow, Ankhesenamun, who wanted to marry a foreigner?
A: It’s unprecedented. Tut’s wife was being forced into marrying Ay. She requested that the Hittite king send one of his sons — one of the princes — to marry her in Egypt. At the border, the prince was killed by Horemheb.
Q: Was Horemheb a bad pharaoh?
A: Horemheb was a great pharaoh. He saved Egypt, which was in crisis after Tut died. Akhenaten had focused on Aten, neglecting all else, and this had significantly damaged the country. Horemheb never wanted the throne, though he could have taken it at any time. He saved the empire.
Q: Who is your favorite pharaoh?
Q: Of the projects you’re working on now, which one stands out as most important?
A: Finding the tomb of Nefertiti would be the most important. It’s more important than the discovery of Tutankhamun.
Q: Is that because Nefertiti had a more significant role and a longer life?
A: Yes. She was powerful and ruled longer.
Q: I know you have to lecture soon. Thanks very much for everything.
A: You’re welcome. It was my pleasure.