Saturday, April 18, 2009

Egypt’s Tomb Raider, Off and on Camera

More than 2,500 years ago the mummified corpse of a wealthy man was carefully lowered into a hand-carved tomb 60 feet beneath the surface of the desert. His remains were placed inside a heavy limestone coffin and sealed for eternity.

Well, that was the idea.

Then one day in March 2009 workers inside the death chamber cracked the coffin lid in the middle, pushed aside one half and for the first time in two and a half millennia exposed the man’s remains. And who was there to greet this mummy?

Why even ask? This is Egypt, so it had to be Zahi Hawass.

“I think this guy was important,” Dr. Hawass said with a theatrical flourish, as he brushed some dust from the mummy for the cameras.
In the seven years since he was named general secretary of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Dr. Hawass has been in perpetual motion. He personally announces every new discovery, was the force behind plans to construct 19 new museums, approved the restoration of nine synagogues in Cairo and has contributed to countless books, documentaries, magazine and newspaper articles all promoting Egyptian antiquities — and, of course, himself.
He is too concerned with self-promotion and is often loose with facts.
There are Egyptian antiquities workers who complain that he takes credit for their accomplishments. But his penchant for drama and his virtual monopoly over Egypt’s unrivaled ancient riches have earned him an international following and helped Egypt sell itself to tourists at a time when tourism dollars are increasingly scarce.
“Whether we like it or not, he is a star, and he lives the life of a star,” said Mahmoud Ibrahim Hussein.
When a tomb was found in the Valley of the Kings three years ago, he surmised that it was built for King Tut’s mother, a sure way to drive up ratings, even as scientists involved in the dig rolled their eyes. The chamber was most likely a storage room, they said at the time.
“In Egypt you need a project that everyone can believe in, a national project,” Dr. Hawass said.

He shot some video for his Web site and then drove off. Less than two weeks later there was another discovery, dozens of brightly painted mummies found in a necropolis in Fayoum, the oasis town about two hours south of Cairo. There were 53 tombs uncovered, some dating back 4,000 years. And who made the announcement? Well, this is Egypt. Who else?


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