Al-Ahram Weekly Online   29 January - 4 February 2004
Issue No. 675
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Dig days:

A born archeologist

By Zahi Hawass

Zahi Hawass

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Every day I receive letters from children all over the world who share my passion for archeology. However, my meeting with Mahmoud was exceptional. I had read in the newspaper that a 12-year-old boy wanted to meet me, so I contacted his father and they came to my office that very afternoon. As soon as I saw the boy his eyes connected with mine, brimming with confidence and self-assurance. He said, "My name is Mahmoud Saleh and I am in love with antiquities." Then he declared that he knew everything about me and said he had been collecting information about my discoveries, publications and lectures and was keeping a scrap book and a diary about my life.

It was wonderful to talk to this young boy and see his enthusiasm. Mahmoud's father suggested that I question him on Egyptology, so I quizzed this obviously bright young man. "When was the tomb of King Tut discovered?" "4 November 1922!" he quickly replied. I posted more questions and he was quick and accurate in his responses. Then he showed me his notebook and I was delighted to see that he had taught himself to read and write hieroglyphs, had written his name, and had a drawing of the major sites and an accurate description of each.

I was extremely impressed with the boy, but what I heard next made be realise how truly incredible he was. His father told me that Mahmoud was very sick when he was five years old and that he took him to the best doctors both in their village in the Delta and in Cairo, but it seemed that nothing could be done to help him. Finally his father took him to a physic, who suggested that he take the boy on outings, to the Cairo Zoo and to the Pyramids. It was after the visit to the Pyramids that Mahmoud's father, noting his son's enthusiasm, decided to take him to the Egyptian Museum. It was there that the miracle occurred.

Saleh recalled that, while looking into the eyes of the mummy of Ahmose, the great Pharaoh who expelled the Hyksos from Egypt, his son started screaming and fell to the floor in a state of hysteria. When he recovered it was clear that he had been healed. From that time on, Mahmoud read everything he could find about Ancient Egypt, especially the Hyksos period, and he wrote a presentable Egyptian guidebook in Arabic for children.

As Saleh related this fascinating story Mahmoud smiled. The physic had said the boy had been cured because he had a recollection of the past -- some call it re- incarnation -- and that he was here to help others to understand.

Mahmoud told me that one of the best nights of his life was staying up all night until 5am watching the TV coverage of the robot entering the secret chamber of the Great Pyramid. He said that although some people thought the discovery of a door was not particularly exciting, he himself was enthralled and realised the importance of the discovery. He then went on to tell me about the discovery of the third door that we found inside the north shaft of the so-called Queen's Chamber. The boy clearly has the mind of an archaeologist in his desire to find the next piece of the jigsaw puzzle of Ancient Egypt.

I told him that I planned to climb the Great Pyramid next month in order to examine the outer facing and search for the exit of these shafts. I told him that if I did find what I was looking for then we could say that the doors in the Pyramid were symbolic of the Pharaoh's journey to the Nether world. I said that personally I did not believe we would find the exit of the shafts, and I was sure that the burial chamber of Khufu was still hidden behind the doors we have located. Mahmoud was delighted. His mouth fell open and he stared at me intently as I talked.

It is clear that this young man has the makings of an archaeologist. At present he is in his first year of agricultural secondary school and does not know whether he will be able to join the faculty of archaeology. I said that we would have to talk to the minister of education, Dr Hussein Bahaaeddin, with view to finding a solution.

I gave Mahmoud a book in Arabic, "The Hidden Treasure of the Egyptian Museum" and also a replica of the god Thoth, the god of wisdom, in the shape of an Ibis, and I promised him that I would arrange for him to visit Luxor and Aswan. I shall not forget my promise and feel fortunate to have met this young enthusiast.

This story reminds me of tale of Umm-Seti. In my next article I will tell you about this fascinating lady.

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