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Friendship with Egypt’s former dictator Honsie Mubarak is enough to end your career. Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), which coordinates all conservation and excavation activities in the country, has been mostly paralyzed since the departure of its charismatic but controversial leader, Zahi Hawass. An ally of Egypt’s deposed president, Hawass was forced to leave office in July.

Politically, Egyptians are wondering what their country will look like under a new President who rose through the ranks of the Islamic Brotherhood. But from the point of view of Egypt’s antiquities, archaeologists, researchers, museums worldwide, are wondering what the future of the world most famous area for antiquities will look like without Zahi Hawass.

The Supreme Council of Antiquities was set up to prevent looting, the stealing of antiquities by treasure hunters and archaeologists. For the first one hundred years foreigners led the work until some Egyptian professional archaeologists were trained and took over in the 1950’s. The most flamboyant of these was Zahi Hawass. To the West he was a real life Indiana Jones.

Knowledgeable and articulate he communicated what we wanted to hear. For more than twenty years on the Archaeology segment of my 2GB radio program, I used to talk with him and some Australian archaeologists on recent finds. He supervised all foreign archaeological activities, as well as conserving and managing the country’s wealth of antiquities and archaeological sites.

He escorted hundreds of celebrities like Diana, Princess of Wales, and US President Barack Obama to sites. He was seen in dozens of television documentaries and was always ready for a live radio broadcast (which is what I did) or for a newspaper reporter. Zahi Hawass gave Egyptology its first Egyptian face and made it as exciting as that of Indiana Jones.

He was responsible for rapidly popularizing tourism and raised millions of dollars from international touring exhibitions of Tutankhamen’s treasures. He raised money for state-of-the-art facilities in Egypt, notably persuading National Geographic in Washington DC to donate a US$3-million scanner to the SCA in return for filming a project to scan Tutankhamen and other royal mummies. The Discovery Channel built two ancient-DNA labs in Cairo and donated $250,000 towards testing the mummies’ DNA.

Hawass also tackled corruption and supported projects to develop archaeological sites, including building 22 museums and tackling the problem of dealing with rising groundwater.

But to get Government support for his projects he grew close to the former President. He had many jealous competitors and some researchers who crossed Hawass became targets of intense criticism or had their permits revoked. Some well-known archaeologists were accused of smuggling, scientific fraud or other improprieties. When Mubarak fell, Hawass’s days were numbered. As a result income has plummeted, the SCA lacks direction and archaeological research is stalled.


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