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Egyptian Archaeologist
Named National Geographic Explorer-in-
Residence

Susan Roesgen
National Geographic Today
July 10, 2001
 
The National Geographic Society's newest explorer-in-residence wants to set the record straight: There is no tunnel leading from his bathroom to the Giza pyramids.

But if there are secrets in the pyramids, he will reveal them.

As the Society's eighth explorer-in-residence, Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass joins the ranks of paleontologist Paul Sereno, anthropologist Wade Davis, high-altitude archaeologist Johann Reinhardt, underwater explorers Bob Ballard and Sylvia Earle, historian Stephen Ambrose, and chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall.



For 32 years, Hawass has been uncovering the mysteries of the pyramids at the Giza Plateau, 12 miles outside of Cairo. While other archaeologists search for the splendor of the pharaohs, Hawass considers his greatest accomplishment to be the discovery of the tombs of the pyramid builders, in the shadow of the pyramids themselves.

Unfazed by the 95 degree Fahrenheit heat as he walks among the workers who are restoring the tombs, Hawass says there is more to learn from the pyramid builders than from the mummies of the kings.

"When you discover mummies, gold—it's good for the public. But nothing has been added to the history," he says. "To discover the tombs of the pyramid builders, we are reconstructing history."

Challenging Misconceptions

Hawass believes the pyramid builders were not slaves like those depicted in Hollywood's The Ten Commandments, but skilled craftsmen. Evidence at the tombs suggests that 20,000 laborers worked for 20 years to build the largest pyramid at Giza, the Great Pyramid of Khufu, more than 4,000 years ago.

Analysis of skeletal remains shows that the workmen's life expectancy was about 35 years; their bones show evidence of the back-breaking work. But Hawass believes they labored in a great swell of national pride.

"Building a pyramid was a national project involving the entire country," he explains. "Every household in Egypt sent workers, grain, and food to contribute to this project, which enabled the king to become a god in the afterlife."

"In this sense," he says, "it was the pyramids that built Egypt, rather than the other way around."

Made of stones weighing more than two tons each, the pyramids have inspired many theories about their construction. Some people say they were the work of aliens or of an advanced "lost civilization."

And critics say Hawass is hiding the truth. "They accuse me—all of them—that I hide evidence. That I discover it and that I go from a tunnel in my bathroom and hide things and come back," he says. "But I say, people have to dream, but it's my job to give them a little bit of facts."

Modern Threat

Hawass believes the greatest threat to the pyramids today is the hordes of people who go to admire them. He has urged other archaeologists to join him in a two-year moratorium on all excavations in the area from Giza to Aswan.

But the discoveries will continue for a long time. "I believe that we've discovered until now only 30 percent of the monuments," he says. "Seventy percent are still buried."

As an explorer-in-residence, Hawass plans to continue restoring and preserving the Giza pyramids and the tombs of the people who built them.

He feels a strong connection to his work, and to the place where he has lived all his life.

His office is just steps away from the pyramids. And he says he is never far from them in spirit: "There is nothing [else] in my life—only one thing, one lover: archaeology.

"This is in my heart," he adds. "I'm the guardian of the pyramids. That's why I like people to call me 'Mr. Pyramid.'"

Susan Roesgen is co-anchor of National Geographic Today.
She interviews Zahi Hawass and reports on his research in two segments of the television program, which are scheduled to air on July 10 and 11.
 

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