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- Lid geworden op: zo 03 apr 2005, 16:20
CAIRO–Egypt's top mummy man is not a happy guy. He's making last-minute changes to a document on King Tut, signing off on a pyramid of paperwork and grudgingly getting ready to fly to the U.S. for eye surgery.
"I've never taken a (sick day) in my life," says Dr. Zahi Hawass, the world-famous archaeologist known as Egypt's own Indiana Jones. "But now I'm taking three weeks off – by force."
It's not that Hawass, 59, is afraid of surgery. He's annoyed at wasting time – especially when there's so little to spare in his quest to find hidden treasure, unearth more mysteries of ancient Egypt, and protect this country's wealth of antiquities from overzealous tourists.
"The year 2007 will be very important for many reasons. We have lots of good projects on the go," says Hawass, a master of multi-tasking whose official title is Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities.
"Before, in the past, foreigners (archaeologists) were doing everything and Egyptians were just watching. Now, for the first time, we are really leading. There are so many good things we are trying to do."
It's been a decade since the massacre of 62 tourists by Islamic terrorists at Luxor's Temple of Hatshepsut virtually shut down tourism to this country. Bombings the last few years at popular Red Sea resort areas such as Sharm al-Sheikh have also sent shock waves.
Yet last year a record nine million visitors arrived here – and even more are expected this year as Hawass prepares to unveil a number of new discoveries that are sure to shine a bright light on the darkest reaches of history going back 5,000 years.
He'll announce that Egyptologists have found the long-lost mummy of Queen Hatshepsut, who ruled from 1473 B.C. and is among just a few women to assume the powerful role of pharaoh. He's reluctant to discuss details of the search, which has gone on for decades, other than to say that last year he ordered an examination of six unidentified female mummies in Cairo's renowned Egyptian Museum.
Seems she's been right under his nose the whole time.
The discovery last year of KV63, the first tomb uncovered in the Valley of the Kings since British archaeologist Howard Carter found King Tut and his treasure trove in 1922, is expected to yield even more surprises. Its seven sarcophagi contained lots of clues about the elaborate mummification process, including embalming materials, religious artifacts and flower necklaces, but not a single body. Hawass suspects it was built as a tomb for Tut's mother and he's hopeful that 16 white funeral jars, yet to be opened, will confirm his hunch.
Even the Great Pyramid at Giza continues to be poked and prodded in new ways. This year a team will try to determine what's behind secret shafts and two doors with copper handles that have been detected by a robot archaeologist.
At the same time, some 13 new museums are under construction across Egypt. The grandest of them is right near the pyramids. It's a stunning architectural wonder, due to open in seven years, that's meant to be a modern showcase for ancient artifacts. It's aimed at easing the clutter at Cairo's more-than-a-century-old Egyptian Museum where there are so many items, you'd have to spend nine months if you hoped to devote just a minute to each one.
Hawass even has a grandiose plan for an underwater museum in the northerly city of Alexandria where most of the antiquities remain covered by the Mediterranean's salt water. And just 50 kilometres to the west of that port city, experts inch ever closer to what they believe are the tombs of Anthony and Cleopatra.
Hawass believes just 30 per cent of Egypt's antiquities have been discovered so far, which may be just wishful thinking. He's been unrelenting in pressuring countries, such as Britain, to return treasures "stolen" from Egypt. And he's announced to the world "there will be no more free meals.
"Anyone who wants an exhibit (of Egyptian antiquities for their museums) has to pay. King Tut was in the States 29 years ago and every museum made money. Egypt made nothing. Egyptians did not understand how they could use this (to pay for more excavations). But I know. If I'm going to protect the monuments here, I need money. People hate me because of this, but I don't care. I'm doing good things for archaeology."
Hawass has two treasures of his own, sitting on his office bookshelves, that help prove his point: A crystal statue, heralding him as one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people of 2006, and an Emmy, the first-ever awarded to a non-television person, for his work on a CBS documentary on King Tut and the Valley of the Kings.
"Before, people only talked about `lost civilization.' They didn't understand archaeology. But since I began to introduce archaeology to the public as adventure, people love it. When people connect me with a popular movie like Indiana Jones, I don't get angry. And I'm so happy when I walk in the Valley of the Kings and meet tourists who say, `We came to Egypt because of you.'"
But he's the first to admit it's been a mixed blessing.
"I believe that tourism is the enemy of archaeology," Hawass says with conviction.
Hawass' Cairo office is a half-hour drive from the Giza Plateau, site of the Sphinx and the pyramids to which he has devoted much of his life's work. Yet, I can almost see him grimacing as I crouch in the sloping, slightly claustrophobic tunnel of the pyramid of Khafre with dozens of other tourists, all clamouring to see the burial chamber.
I've handed my camera to my guide, who's waiting outside this 136-metre-high world wonder, since taking photographs inside the tombs is forbidden. The lineup moves slowly as guards check people's bags, but in no time I'm heading downward – and back in time.
The tunnel's heat and humidity is so immediate and comes as such a surprise, I imagine this chamber must have been an oven when the ancient Egyptians were dragging the body of their beloved king – not to mention dozens of "necessities" for his afterlife – along these stone corridors around 2500 B.C.
"The ancient Egyptians were very patient and much more advanced than us," says guide and long-time Cairo resident Isis Hanna. "To do all this for one person who they loved... some say it was slavery. But it was love."
These pyramids are nothing short of holy sites, says Hawass, who has introduced intricate "site-management plans" to better control visitors, many of whom used to climb the massive stone-block exteriors like stairs, then write their names at the top. He's warned that these monuments won't survive another century unless the masses are diverted to less crowded sites, or the most precious tombs shut down completely – which could certainly complicate the efforts of tourism officials to boost the number of tourists to 16 million by 2014.
"We have a very awkward situation," agrees Ahmed El Khadem, chairman of the Egyptian Tourism Authority. "We have hundreds of burial sites, but the concentration of tourists is at maybe 20 or 30 of those sites.
"We really need to concern ourselves with sustainable tourism. What we have, we want to be able to hand down to future generations in the same or better state. That hasn't been the view in the past, but it is now."
Hawass has already limited access to some of the most imperilled sites, such as the three biggest pyramids at Giza, one of which is always closed for restoration and removal of the salt buildup caused by all the heat and sweat from tourists. He's limited the number of visitors to King Tut's tomb to 1,000 a day. It used to get 6,000.
An informative new visitor centre at the Valley of the Kings is just one example of the way of the future, and features a massive, plastic form of the valley, with each of its 63 tombs hanging from below.
The most popular tombs open to the public are under tight guard and tourists can have their cameras seized temporarily if found snapping photos of the colourful hieroglyphics.
Soon, Hawass will announce that visits to the Valley of the Kings will be restricted to three times a day – now there's an early morning rush in hopes of escaping the sweltering afternoon heat – and tourists will be issued colour-coded tickets for specific times.
Prices at all the biggest draws – which he laments can be "less than a cup of coffee" – will continue to rise so tourists finally stop seeing Egypt as "a cheap destination," he says.
"The problem in Egypt is that we have valuable things. No one can compete with us. But the tourism people sell Egypt as a cheap destination. Better to have five million good tourists (willing to pay a hefty price), than 50 million who can ruin the country."
Hawass has been so unbending in trying "to protect the pyramids from the people" that I'm shocked at the scene awaiting me as I finally step into the pitched-roof burial chamber of the pyramid of Khafre, second-biggest of Giza's three giant wonders of the world.
There's a bit of a party goin' on.
A couple of visitors are playing dead in the open granite sarcophagus. A half dozen or so tourists are laughing and taking flash photos – despite the fact the bare, white walls in this 14-by-5-metre chamber don't bear any of the fantastically colourful hieroglyphics of the Valley of the Kings' hillside tombs.
The only "graffiti," thankfully, is a hand-painted banner bearing the name of Italian engineer Giovanni Belzoni and the date, March 2, 1818, when he reopened this chamber, long after its contents had disappeared.
One man is crouched against the back wall, his head bowed low, as if praying there's a spark of spirituality left amidst all the revelry. While the sense of history is overwhelming, I can't bring myself to stay long.
The way back through the tunnel seems so much shorter than the trek down and I emerge to find a Polish couple, debating with their two grown children whether it's worth paying the extra 25 Egyptian pounds ($4 Canadian) to climb into the heart of this bigger-than-life marvel of engineering.
Their eyes plead for a bit of advice from a fellow traveller.
"You have to do it," I say without hesitation. "It's unlike anything else you'll ever see in the world."
nn ms.i sA.w -- No one is born wise.