On a cloudless March morning in Egypt, several hundred men and women mill about the dusty Giza Plateau, oohing and aahing and craning their necks to take in the vastness of the shape that looms over them. A polyglot babble rises from the guides as they lead the way around the 3,000-foot perimeter of the structure’s base. It is 4,600 years old, they say in unison, the most ancient of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and the only one still in existence. To build it, laborers somehow transported blocks of granite weighing as much as 80 tons each from quarries 500 miles away. Although we know little about the ruler for whom it was constructed, this 450-foot-tall monument, the Great Pyramid of Khufu, is the world’s most famous.
It also might be the most mysterious object on earth. Centuries of study and examination have produced more questions, conjecture, and superstition than answers. Some claim it is the work of extraterrestrials. Others say this is rubbish, that the inhabitants of Atlantis obviously built it.
As for the warnings that doom will befall anyone who trespasses on the pharaoh’s eternal resting place, those, of course, are silly imaginings. At least I hope so, because this morning I am going inside.
“You go ahead. I’ll wait here,” Basem Salah, an Egyptologist who is serving as my guide, says after leading me to the crude entrance that grave robbers cut into the stone 1,200 years ago. Salah himself is passing up the opportunity to squeeze into a low, dimly lit tunnel with dozens of strangers, to crawl with them through solid rock to a haunted burial chamber. How, I wonder, can he resist? As we grope our way single file through the murk, the tunnel becomes more constricted, as if the walls are closing in. It occurs to me that if one of my more rotund fellow tourists becomes wedged between these walls, we will be stuck here for a long time. And such a predicament will grow even uglier should the lights on the walls flicker out, as, I have been warned, they sometimes do.
“That was fast,” says Salah when I emerge back into the sunlight, gasping for air. Not as fast as I would have liked. The truth is, whatever the merits of tomb-crawling, there is a far more rewarding way to experience the mysteries of ancient Egypt. Where I was bound later this day is off-limits to tourists, so crowds are nonexistent. Soon I would see sites reserved for a select few; gates to tombs would swing open, and ancient secrets would be revealed to me alone. Or, to be more precise, they will be revealed to anyone who pays for the privilege.
Therein lies the appeal of the “insider access” that luxury travel company Abercrombie & Kent offers throughout the world. “The fact that we have offices in almost every country where we do business enables us to offer experiences tailor-made to the individual or experienced traveler,” says A&K chairman and CEO Geoffrey Kent. Whether by coincidence or design, A&K’s access dovetails with the policies of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities. The purpose of these policies, which effectively have closed down some of Egypt’s most important cultural experiences to all but those who pay handsomely to see them, is twofold. First, it protects structures and artifacts from the corrosive effects of tourist traffic: eager, groping fingers rubbing paint off walls, the cumulative battering of footsteps, and even the visitors’ breath, which can elevate humidity within long-sealed chambers. Second, it generates revenue to maintain and restore existing and future archaeological projects by charging sizable fees in exchange for access to certain events, personalities, or sites.
Thus, for about $540 a day, the adventurous traveler can take a scuba diving excursion to underwater excavations in Alexandria, where the Pharos lighthouse once stood. For considerably more, about $4,000, A&K will prevail upon the authorities to open the recently restored tomb of Nefertari, said to be the most beautifully decorated of all the tombs. A visit to the village of the pyramid builders in Giza, discovered in 1990, costs about $2,000. This site, downslope from the more imposing attractions on the upper plain, is a humble place. It is little known and forbidden to tourists, but to archaeologists, it is one of the most important finds of the last century.
Besides revealing who really built the pyramids, the Giza workmen’s village launched its finder to worldwide stardom—or notoriety, depending on your perspective. Today, tomb raiders and museum directors alike, men who laugh at the legendary curse of the mummy, blanch at just the mention of archaeologist Zahi Hawass.
Those who fear Hawass do so with good reason. Pharoahs such as Khufu, Djoser, Sneferu—for whom the pyramids were built—reigned only during their lifetimes. However, Hawass, the secretary general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, holds sway over more than 5,000 years of history. Hawass has shocked guests who have come to Egypt expecting to meet a docile academic whose greatest thrill is hosting visiting dignitaries for tea. Egypt is to antiquities and history what OPEC is to oil, and Hawass is not averse to turning off the cultural spigot to those who refuse to accede to his demands. According to England’s Sunday Times Magazine, “Nobody crosses Zahi Hawass and gets away with it.”
He has banned archaeologists who, in his view, have attempted to upstage him. When, in 2003, an English archaeologist announced that a previously discovered mummy was, in fact, Queen Nefertiti, Hawass denounced her as “nuts” and shut down her project. In 2004, he denied a team of French researchers permission to insert a camera lens through the floor of the Great Pyramid of Giza to search for a secret chamber. “Amateurs,” Hawass harrumphed, though the Frenchmen’s technique had been successful elsewhere. An army several thousand strong of rifle-bearing and pistol-packing guards enforces his dictates.
“I am uncomfortable if I go too long without breathing the sand and the dust,” Hawass likes to say, and the sentiment is sincere; since earning his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania in 1987, Hawass has opened more tombs and found more mummies than any other archaeologist. Wearing his Indiana Jones fedora and boots, the 59-year-old Hawass, known in Cairo as the Big Zee, moves through Egyptian and American TV documentaries with a swagger, delighting his worldwide following, who commune with him via the Fan Club link posted on his web site (guardians.net/hawass).
Hawass’ flamboyance is matched by his willingness to ruffle the feathers of the world’s cultural establishment. He shocked American museum directors by demanding payment of $10 million from institutions wishing to host the King Tut exhibit currently touring the United States. (After stops at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and at the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art, it is now on view at Chicago’s Field Museum until January 1, 2007; it will show at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute from February 3, 2007, through September 30, 2007.) When New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which first fueled Tutmania in the 1970s by hosting a similar exhibit, balked at paying this tribute, Hawass dropped it from the schedule. “There are no free meals anymore,” he said.
If the Met was disappointed, the British academic elite were outraged when the Big Zee suggested that the British Museum return the Rosetta Stone, the key to deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and one of the great cultural finds in history. In response, the Brits hosted a conference to argue that cultural treasures belong to the world, not just to the countries where they are found. They have not yet returned the stone and do not appear ready to do so.
Hawass also has demanded that the French return the pink granite Obelisk of Luxor from the Place de la Concorde in Paris and that the Germans surrender the bust of Nefertiti, the showpiece of the Berlin Museum’s collection. These demands horrify Westerners who view them as part of a plan to position Egypt as the leading force in Egyptology, a field long dominated by Europeans. Others say Hawass has gone mad with power.
I hoped that was not so, because I had come to Cairo—and to the Giza Plateau—at Hawass’ invitation, which A&K had helped to secure. Whatever his mental state, the secretary general, it quickly became clear, is not trying to return artifacts to their homeland because Egypt has a shortage. For weeks leading up to our meeting, the discovery of a new tomb in Luxor, barely a half dozen strides from King Tut’s tomb, had been making newspaper headlines throughout the world. Not long after my arrival in Egypt, I was riding along a two-lane blacktop when my driver pulled off the road and stopped next to a half dozen lion-headed statues that a team of Germans had unearthed a few days earlier. For 3,400 years, the catlike creatures, tributes to goddess of war Sekhmet, had lain beneath the earth. Eventually they would no doubt draw gasps from museum-goers, but now they were displayed as casually as garden statuary at a flea market.
Egypt’s capital city also suffers from a similar embarrassment of cultural riches, with artifacts and ancient ruins at every turn. This morning’s drive to Giza, a suburb of Cairo, had taken Salah and me past a 2,000-year-old Roman aqueduct that led to the palace of Saladin, who defeated the Crusaders in 1187. “A sun temple was discovered the other day in downtown Cairo,” says Salah. This latest find is believed to date from 1304 B.C. to 1237 B.C., because a head weighing more than two tons and bearing the name signs of Ramses II, who ruled at that time, also was found at the site. “It happens all the time,” says Salah. “Cairo floats on monuments. We do not know what is beneath our feet.”
It is much the same at the Giza Plateau, he says, as we depart the pyramids and drive a short distance to a dusty hill and park by a school where a group of boys are playing soccer. “The land the pyramids lie on has been explored and excavated more thoroughly than any other site in the world,” says Salah, “yet we don’t know what is waiting farther beneath the ground.”
As often as not, he says, an animal first reveals the existence of subterranean sites. “Some have been discovered by goats, others by cows or horses. Their hooves are more likely to fall through the surface of the ground if it is hollow underneath.”
The Giza workmen’s village was a “donkey find,” says Salah as we begin a long walk up a steep, dusty hill pockmarked with craters and stone doorways like those on root cellars. A guard stands by to keep the curious at bay, and the sounds of shoveling carry over the hillside. Once at the top of the hill, Salah surveys the remains of the ancient village below us. “Most students of history had presumed that the men who’d carried and cut and placed the titanic stones were slaves,” he says. “Zahi thought otherwise, that it would have been an honor to construct a pharaoh’s crypt. With the discovery of this workers’ village, he changed the way the world thought.”
Once the site was excavated, says Salah, it came back to life. This was not a slave camp. It was home to some 20,000, a complex society of architects, priests, tradesmen, and artisans and their families. “The village extended over a mile and a half, and everyone was identified by their status,” Salah explains. “The poor inhabited the lower slopes, while the wealthy lived at the top.”
As he speaks, I imagine the hillside teeming with humanity, with the sounds of carpenters, blacksmiths, bakers, and brewers working on the lower slope and the distant cries of laborers pulling stones up the inclines of the pyramids. “Zahi found that even the poorest people buried here were given something to help them in the afterlife,” says Salah. “Some were buried with jars of beer, the favorite beverage of ancient Egypt. Others had been wrapped in linen, in a form of symbolic mummification.”
Amid these crude graves, one structure stands out, a tomb embedded in the uppermost reaches of the slope. “This man’s name was Nefertes,” says Salah, as he moves toward the tomb. “He was buried here with his son and his wife, Neferheteb.” Nefertes was an architect and a priest, and he was very fond of beer. “We know this because of this one slab, which is a checklist for eternity. It’s to make sure the gods know what he wants when he gets to heaven.”
One line of hieroglyphics on the slab describes what will happen to anyone who intrudes on Nefertes’ final resting place: “Oh, all who enter this tomb, who will make evil against this tomb, and destroy it, may the crocodile be against them on water, and the snakes against them on land. May the hippopotamus be against them on water and the scorpion against them on land.” Salah straightens and looks once more around the site. “This dig may never be open to the public,” he says. “There’s still a lot of life left in it.”
English archaeologist Howard Carter found a similar warning inscribed on a tablet that was among the treasures he and his team of explorers discovered in Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1923. The hieroglyphics, warning of a violent and untimely death for anyone who disturbed the tomb, proved prescient. Shortly after pulling out the last stone blocking the entrance to the tomb’s main chamber, American archaeologist Arthur Mace fell into a coma and never recovered. When George Jay Gould, the 59-year-old son of American financier Jay Gould, visited the tomb, he died by nightfall the next day. Radiologist Archibald Reid, the first person to cut the bindings on the mummy before submitting it to X-rays, also fell ill and soon died. Forty-seven days later, the expedition’s sponsor, Lord Carnarvon, fell ill with a high fever and died. At the time of his death, all of the lights in Cairo mysteriously went out. At precisely the same time, thousands of miles away in England, Carnarvon’s pet dog is reported to have stood up on its hind legs, howled, and died. For the tabloids in London and New York there could be only one reason for these deaths: the Curse of the Mummy.
Today it is thought that these fatalities were caused by a virulent fungus housed in the tomb. Therefore it has become common for archaeologists to drill holes and vent the tombs before entering. Still, modern-day treasure hunters and uninvited archaeologists now must contend with a new nemesis, one far more formidable than phantasms of the past: the Big Zee.
The following day, at the offices of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Cairo, sounds of chaos reverberate through the halls. Doors are slamming, voices are raised, and people are running here and there. The reason for all this frenzy becomes apparent when I am summoned from an anteroom into the hall: The Big Zee is back in town, and he is ready to roll. “Come,” the barrel-chested archaeologist orders me as he strides past. “We are going to Saqqara.”
In the car, as his driver careens in and out of traffic in the style characteristic of Egyptian motorists, Hawass simultaneously issues orders over his cell phone, urges his driver to go faster, gives instructions to a functionary sitting in the back seat—who also is talking on a cell phone—and speaks with me. Hawass brightens when I mention that I had visited the workmen’s village at Giza the day before. “People think the discovery of Tutankhamen was so important, but King Tut was about gold,” he says. “The workmen’s village, on the other hand, showed how 80 percent of the people in Egypt lived. So Tut was about death. My work was about life.”
I have caught him at a very busy time, he explains. This year Hawass plans to unveil two new tombs and 13 new museums, including the one we are headed for in Saqqara, home to King Djoser’s Step Pyramid, about an hour outside Cairo. “I have a big case against the St. Louis Museum of Art,” he says. “They have a gold mask that was stolen from Saqqara. I have given the museum’s director, Mr. [Brent] Benjamin, one week to return the mask.” Here, the Big Zee’s voice becomes ominous. “If he does not, I would not like to be in his shoes. His life will be miserable.”
Hawass is aware that some academics frown on his practice of restricting access to certain historical sites and closing others, but he is confident that time will bear him out. “If I opened the tomb of Nefertari to the public it would be destroyed within months,” he says. “Wait a hundred years and see what your historical sites in America look like. I know what I am doing. My work on TV has captured the hearts of my people. I am a movie star. Ten years ago the Egyptian people knew nothing of their history. Now they are proud.”
Hawass’ greatest triumph, however, may soon be within his grasp. “I am on the trail of Cleopatra’s tomb,” he confides. “I believe it lies near Alexandria. One day I will find it. This will be the biggest discovery in history, far greater than Tut. Then you will see. The entire world will see.”
Just exactly what it is we will see is not completely clear, because before we can finish our conversation, the car turns into the driveway to the new museum. When Hawass, smiling broadly, steps out of the car, the museum guards snap to attention, and a throng of some three dozen reporters, museum employees, and scholars press toward Hawass like, well, eager fans pressing toward a movie star.
Back in the United States, more than a week has passed since the Big Zee issued his ultimatum—some might call it a curse—but the St. Louis Museum of Art still has the mask from Saqqara. “We can’t give it back just because somebody says it’s stolen,” says Jennifer Stoffel, spokesperson for the museum. “We believe we did everything possible before we purchased this item.”
In the mid-1990s, the museum contacted Interpol, spoke with the Art Loss Registry to see if the mask had been reported lost or stolen, and even wrote to the then-director of the Egyptian museum, asking if there was any claim on the object. “We take our provenance-checking very seriously,” says Stoffel. “The problem is that, philosophically, Dr. Hawass feels he doesn’t have to prove anything. He feels that just because it’s from Egypt, that it belongs there.”
We understand all this, but we really had called to inquire about Brent Benjamin, the museum’s director. What we wanted to know is, how is he feeling?