Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 September - 6 October 2004
Issue No. 710
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Zahi Hawass

Dig days: Mixing with mummies

By Zahi Hawass

I was 30 years old when the first International Conference of Egyptologists was held in Cairo. I presented a paper about my excavations at Kom Abu Billo, discussing the discovery of the Cemetery of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of beauty. At that time, I was planning to excavate at Merimde Beni Salama in the Delta, one of the most important pre-historic sites in Egypt. Merimde is the oldest known Ancient Egyptian community (dating back to some 5,000 years ago) and it is the first settlement in the country to have practised agricultural food production.

At the conference, I remember showing my plan for the excavation to Manfred Bietak, one of the most important archaeologists in the field. I went on to excavate an area 5x5 metres: it took me about three months. As a result, I had to undergo a court review, because no one could understand how I had managed to spend LE50,000 on such a small area! At the time, this sum was considered ludicrously large for a pre-historic site.

Four years ago, I was responsible for organising the Eighth International Conference of Egyptologists at the Mena House Hotel. The event went off very well, with every lecture commencing exactly on time. Every night there was a party, and at the close of the conference we hosted a closing gala complete with orchestra right in front of the Sphinx -- an incredible experience!

The Ninth Conference of Egyptologists was held this month. We met in Grenoble, France, for the second time since the event was founded. The conference was supervised by the great Egyptologist Jean-Claude Goyon, assisted by Gihan Zaki, an Egyptian scholar who lives in France. This was a more eventful conference than usual. One happening which received a certain amount of media attention was the false claim made by two French architects that they had discovered a secret room inside the Great Pyramid. This incorrect information was rapidly relayed by the world's press, without taking the trouble to verify it. Indeed, so thick was the air with rumours and treachery, that the day before I left Egypt, a French Egyptologist called and told me, "don't go to Grenoble, because there is a plot being hatched against you!"

Still, other aspects of the conference were more positive. There were very fine lectures by many Egyptologists from all over the world. I'm proud to say that the largest single group was the Egyptian team, which consisted of 50 people. One-third of these were young and talented scholars, many of whom presented excellent papers.

The proceedings were opened by a speech from the president of the International Association of Egyptology (IAE), Professor Christopher John Eyre. I also gave a speech, focussing on the activities, or rather the lack of activity, of the association itself. It seems strange to me that such an association could be established more than 27 years ago, and yet has achieved absolutely nothing to date. If we did not see the president and vice-president once every four years, we would hardly even know that they exist. I asked Jim Allen, the current vice- president of the IAE, what he had done over the last four years, and he was honest enough to say, "nothing. I'm just here to assist the president."

Intrigued, I had gone to the IAE website to look up their mission statement. They list seven aims, but none of them has been implemented. The first is to encourage and promote the study of Egyptology. I believe we need more action by this organisation. We should not just accept the way things are now. Instead, we should be developing a set of strategies to encourage universities and other institutions of higher learning to expand and re-focus their history and archaeology departments by including the teaching and funding of studies in Egyptology. We might think about exploring the involvement of institutions and communities in Egyptology. We could develop shared information or promotional material that might encourage otherwise unrelated companies to help.

Egyptologists need the IAE: but we need it to do things, not just sit there like a mummified body!

To be continued...

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