Tuesday,20 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1329, (26 January - 1 February 2017)
Tuesday,20 November, 2018
Issue 1329, (26 January - 1 February 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Archaeology, my love

Young people and others often ask me how I became an archaeologist

 Zahi Hawass
Zahi Hawass

People sometimes ask me about my love for archaeology and how it all started. For instance, I was in Australia recently to give a lecture in Perth in conjunction with the beautiful replica exhibition of Tutankhamun materials that was seen by six million people during a tour of Europe and America. 

A young girl of about nine years old stood up at the end of my lecture and said, “I want to be like you.” She asked “how did you become an archaeologist?” 

When I came back from Australia, I went to meet the students at the Faculty of Engineering at Menoufiya University. Their intelligence impressed me, and I was really impressed by the questions they asked. Just like the young girl in Perth, many of them asked me the same question, “how did you become an archaeologist?” 

In fact, my story is a very interesting one, and I always like to tell it to young people before they start their careers. 

When I graduated from high school at the age of 15 in a small village called Abedia near Damietta, I dreamed of becoming a lawyer. After one week at Alexandria University reading law books, I realised that this was not what I wanted at all! Disheartened, I went to the Faculty of Arts, where they told me about a new archaeology department with good prospects that had just opened. It was 1963, and at that time few people knew that digging for ancient ruins and artefacts was a recognised discipline. 

I liked the idea, so for four years I studied archaeology, art, and ancient languages, concentrating on the Graeco-Roman Period. However, much of my interest was also focused on campus politics. I was elected president of the Student Union and spent much of my time involved in social activities.

When I had completed my studies and joined the Antiquities Department in 1968, I was shocked. The head of the Department, the late Gamal Mokhtar, assigned me to the position of antiquities inspector at Tuna al-Gabal, a remote site in Middle Egypt where the famous ancient capital of Amarna was once located.

At the age of 21, I did not want to live in the middle of nowhere. However, when I looked around at the depressed faces of senior archaeologists in the department doing the required paper work like all government officials, staying in Cairo did not look like an appealing alternative either. To make matters worse, when a young woman I was dating asked me about my job and I told her I was an archaeologist she burst out laughing. 

I constantly found myself having difficulties explaining what an archaeologist was to people who did not understand. I decided to quit my job and become a diplomat instead. 

For six months, I bought books on politics and economics and studied hard in an effort to join the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. However, they only chose three candidates that year, and I was not one of them. 

When I returned to the Antiquities Department, I was called in to see Mokhtar. He asked me why I had not gone to Tuna Al-Gabal, and I told him that I could not live in the desert. He replied that if I did not go to the site, he would issue a decree banning me from the department. I left Cairo for Tuna Al-Gabal, feeling angry and anxious about what I could do and whom I would meet in this unknown world of the Middle Egyptian desert.

However, after carrying out excavations at this site and later at Kom Abu Bellou in the Delta, the site that changed my life, I began to develop an affinity for the day-to-day work of archaeology. I found that it combines hands-on physical activity and the management of people along with the excitement of making new discoveries. 

One day during the excavations at Kom Abu Bellou I was sitting in my tent waiting to leave the site and return to Cairo for the weekend, when the overseer of the workers, Reis Doctor, came to tell me that they had found a tomb. Reis Doctor was from Keft in Upper Egypt and was trained in excavation techniques. It was his father who had given him the name “Doctor”. 

Reis Doctor began to teach me how to clean the tomb. While I was cleaning around the tomb, I found a niche, and inside the niche there was a statue. As I began to clean the statue, I could hear words in my mind, “I have found my true love: archaeology.”

Ever since that moment, I have dedicated my life to this work. I like to tell this story to young people who are unsure of their future or who want to become doctors or lawyers just because of what they have seen in films. I tell them to “choose any job you like, and if you have passion for it you will make it. Passion is very important.” 

It was passion that enabled me to make archaeology more prominent and to put it in the hearts of people all over the world.

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