Al-Ahram Weekly Online   14 - 20 October 2004
Issue No. 712
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Zahi Hawass

Dig-daysA secret chamber?

By Zahi Hawass

Paris was quiet that day in September when I arrived for the ninth International Conference of Egyptology (ICE). But the calm was quickly broken, at least as far as the travelling Egyptologist was concerned, by all the stir created when the media decided to relay to the public the (false) information that a secret chamber had been discovered inside the Great Pyramid of Khufu.

On my first night in Paris I was fortunate to be dining with Omar Sharif. In all our previous meetings, I had never seen him happy; but this night he was glowing, and his beautiful smile greeted everyone around him.

As I sat down, Sharif showed me an article on the front page of a newspaper, stating that two French architects had identified the location of a secret chamber in the Great Pyramid and that they needed to drill into the Pyramid to open this chamber and confirm their theory. I told Sharif and our other friends who were present that it was important for people to realise that these were the same architects who, in 1986, had drilled three holes into the walls of the corridor that leads to the so-called queen's chamber, on the basis of another similar theory -- and found nothing! Yet despite their failure, in 1986 the newspapers and magazines were full of articles after the event proclaiming their triumph, trumpeting: "We are the ones who drilled in the Great Pyramid!" They even produced and distributed Khufu T-shirts to advertise their great "achievement". Throughout the whole exercise, they had treated their work like a circus act, not a scholarly investigation!

Sharif was astonished, and anxiously asked me what I thought then of their latest claims. I told them that the Permanent Committee of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) should never have given them permission in 1986, because they were not affiliated with any accredited institution (neither with a university, nor a museum). They were therefore "amateurs" in the strict sense of the term, and should not have been granted the concession. At that time, the distinguished French scholar Nicholas Grimal was the head of the French Institute for Oriental Studies (IFAO), and he too had disagreed with the decision to let the architects drill. The cultural attaché of the French Embassy in Cairo at the time also considered it a mistake.

Five years ago, these two so-called experts came to see me with a new proposal. They suggested that another chamber might exist beneath the so-called queen's chamber in the Great Pyramid, and requested permission to drill to prove their theory. I took one of them inside the Pyramid and listened to his ideas. I then took their proposal to Rainer Stadelmann and Mark Lehner, the most important living Egyptologists to have devoted themselves to the study of the Pyramids. Together we discussed the proposal, and we all agreed that their hypothesis was entirely theoretical, and that we could not authorise them to drill inside the Pyramid on the basis of pure speculation. In addition, I informed the two Frenchmen that at that time the antiquities law did not permit people who were unaffiliated with any institution to work in this field.

The SCA, however, saw things differently. Instead of following the rules, it granted the two Frenchmen permission to work.

Later, after I had become secretary-general of the SCA, they applied again, and this time they were supported by Grimal. I wondered why Grimal was now supporting them, having attacked them in the past. After all, his publications record shows that this subject lies well outside his own field of expertise. He has never worked on the archeology of the Pyramids, being rather an expert on the history and civilisation of Ancient Egypt. Nevertheless, despite Grimal's change of heart, the Permanent Committee of the SCA this time decided not to give the French architects permission to drill inside the Pyramid. They felt that it was much too great a risk to take on the basis of so little evidence.

The two architects subsequently published a book entitled, La Chambre de Chéops [Cheops's Chamber]. The preface was written by Grimal.

Together, the French architects and Grimal then launched a war against me through the Paris media. They claimed that I am animated by a personal animosity against them, and that my reasons for denying them permission to drill are political and promotional. As I began to collect all the newspaper articles that appeared publicising their views, I could hardly believe some of the insults being flung around by Grimal. Indeed, one French colleague recommended me to sue.

At the ICE in Grenoble, I held two press conferences in which I explained the SCA's point of view. I pointed out that I have received more than 30 proposals from amateurs over the last few years, some of whom believe that the burial chamber is located at the front of the Pyramid, and others that it is located underneath the Pyramid. The one thing all these proposals have in common is that they want permission to drill to prove their theory. If we allowed them all to drill, then the Pyramid would soon be filled with holes like a Gruyere cheese! That is why we can only permit non-destructive work, and we can never allow amateurs to drill. We must protect the Ancient Egyptian monuments, especially when their enemies are people whose main motivation seems to be to sell copies of their book, and who exploit the media to create publicity. Credible scholars would never have gone to the press with such false information.

Two months before the French archeologists made their announcements, I told Denis Lauch, the cultural attaché at the French Embassy, that I was open to meeting them again to discuss their theories further. But apparently, my offer did not interest them.

Sharif was shocked when I told him all this. I added that we would have to wait and see what the SCA will decide to do. But I assured him that there was no concrete evidence that a chamber exists under the so- called queen's chamber. All the theories that have been aired to this day on that subject are just that -- theories.

To be continued...

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