New Egyptian Antiquities Czar: Same as the Old Antiquities Czar

He refuses to go long after others have given up, has barricaded himself in his HQ, commands a collapsing personality cult mostly via television, and taunts his critics like an abusive dad--is Zahi Hawass the Qadaffi of near-eastern antiquity?

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Mar 1 2011, 5:38pm

He refuses to go long after others have given up, has barricaded himself in his HQ, commands a collapsing personality cult mostly via television, and taunts his critics like an abusive dad—is Zahi Hawass the Qadaffi of near-Eastern antiquity?

One of Hosni Mubarak’s last acts as president was elevating Hawass from Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities Affairs to head of a new Antiquities Ministry—a distinction without difference, perhaps, as he was already known as the second most powerful man in Egypt.

On February 18, recent archaeology PhDs (only in Egypt!) staged a protest outside the padlocked doors of the Supreme Council, demanding jobs and Hawass’ professional mummification. He told the New Yorker that the aggrieved were “two thousand little Hawasses”; he’d earlier said that the Sphinx told him to tell the youthful Tahrir Square demonstrators to go home.

For the looting at Egypt’s museums and dig sites, he’s been variously accused of either a) responding ineptly; b) responding ineptly and covering up the extent of the damage to save his own skin; or c) responding ineptly, covering up the damage, and actively abetting and profiting from the smuggling of artifacts to foreign collectors.

This last charge—entirely unsubstantiated but levied by someone in position to know, Manager of Antiquities Locations Nour el din Abdel Samad—can’t help but recall the last-ditch efforts of the Arab patriarchs to remind their wayward flocks of the nationalist street cred they earned decades ago, while whispering darkly of Israeli or American subterfuge and safeguarding their billions in Zurich and Geneva.

Hawass has indeed made the repatriation of Egyptian artifacts (the British Museum’s Rossetta Stone, for one) a cornerstone of his “regime”; European museums have mostly smiled politely and, with the tumult of revolution, just gained another few decades of excuses.

But at the same time, like the deposed president himself, the West’s patronage has been central to Hawass’ longevity, and what’s transformed him from serious archaeologist among many to global celebrity and top Mubarak crony.

Since 2001, he’s been National Geographic‘s Explorer in Residence and mummy and pyramid documentaries that would have had to make do with voice-of-God narrators now feature mugging Hawass, front and center. (I’m told that NatGeo execs avoid having to actually be at fundraisers featuring their demanding star.)

This clip, from a special called “Secrets of the Afterlife,” has the God voice deifying the 62-year-old’s physical courage, as he clambers down a burial chamber. As Cairo’s gatekeeper of archaeology, he’s been the capricious, slightly buffoonish, benevolently corrupt oriental despot which infotainment channels and outside archaeologists alike have had to do business with. (He’s known to reject research that doesn’t fit his theories).

Will they stick by him now that his own grad students have revolted?

UPDATE: Hawass has apparently quit.

More of Zahi Hawass’s greatest hits, (defending Mubarak on the BBC, palling around with Omar Sharif and Barack Obama in better days):

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