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Thursday, 15 November 2018

Renowned Egyptologist Zahi Hawass writes untold stories about discovering the Solar Boat of Khufu

The former antiquities minister tells the tales behind the discovery of the Khufu’s Solar Boat on the Pyramids Plateau in Giza in 1954

Zahi Hawass , Thursday 30 Aug 2018
boat
Restoration progress of the boat. Courtesy of Zahi Hawass
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Egyptology is an exciting and rewarding field, and every discovery has a story behind it. The discovery of the Solar Boat of the Khufu in 1954 is one of the most interesting. 

At that time, Mohamed Zaki Nour was chief inspector of antiquities at Giza, and Kamal Al-Mallakh was a young architect in the then Antiquities Service.

The area south of the Great Pyramid was buried under debris reaching a height of seven metres. But the idea of removing it came only after a visit by king Saud of Saudi Arabia, who commented on the debris during a visit. Al-Mallakh, being an ambitious and energetic young man, set his workmen to the task.

Their chief was Garas Yani, an Upper Egyptian who had been trained by some of the best foreign archaeologists. 

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The boat currently displayed at the boat museum. Photo courtesy of Zahi Hawass

In July 1954, Yani uncovered several huge limestone blocks lying next to each other at ground level. It was obvious to him that they covered a large pit.

In great excitement, he went to look for Al-Mallakh and found him in a downtown Cairo café with his close friends, the famous writer Anis Mansour and Maurice Guindi, a correspondent for the news agency United Press International.

As Mansour relates the scene, Yani was bursting with excitement as he called Al-Mallakh on the telephone when they were having lunch, saying “Mr Al-Mallakh, we have found the boat of Khufu.” 

Whether with the advantage of hindsight, or as the result of an inspired guess at the time, Al-Mallakh said he had been convinced from the first that the southern enclosure wall had been built closer to the Pyramids than the northern and western walls precisely to conceal one or more boat pits, and that Yani had also known this.

Be that as it may, the announcement caused great excitement, and the group left the café in haste, jumped into Mansour’s car, and headed for Giza. Mansour recalls that the car broke down on the Pyramids Road from overheating. “The curse of the Pharaohs,” he said. 

When Al-Mallakh arrived at the site, he found that the 41 limestone blocks seemed to be supported on a metre-wide shelf, and he broke through a massive slab to reveal a deep vault beneath his feet. His excitement grew, and his whole face lit up with a smile as he realised that a boat indeed lay inside and moreover appeared to be in a remarkable state of preservation. For the first time in 4,500 years, the sun shone on the timbers of the great cedar-wood vessel. 

Guindi wasted no time in publishing an article on the find with UPI, and the New York Times ran story after story about the discovery of the Solar Boat. Anis Mansour later told me that he had called the distinguished Egyptologist Selim Hassan for his opinion about solar boats, and that meanwhile Al-Mallakh had embarked on a lecture tour in the United States to talk about the discovery.

Ever charismatic, the now famous Al-Mallakh shared his passion for Egypt with academic audiences across the country and gave various television and radio appearances. The tour was a great success. 

When Al-Mallakh returned to Egypt, the journalist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal convinced then president Gamal Abdel-Nasser that the site was well worth a visit. Together with an entourage of military officers, Nasser visited it.

He listened as Al-Mallakh explained the discovery and its significance. Mansour, who was there, said he had heard Nasser say to Al-Mallakh that “I did not come to see the discovery. I came to encourage you in your work.” 

However, at this point, the evil nemesis the ancient Egyptian god Seth decided to churn things up. It seems he almost never leaves us alone. Al-Mallakh was criticised by the Antiquities Service for publishing the discovery without its permission, and it was decided to send him to its Legal Affairs Office, which decided to cut 15 days from his monthly salary as a punishment. 

Later, Zaki Nour, an antiquities inspector at Giza, claimed that he should have had the credit for the discovery. Meanwhile, Abdel-Moneim Abu Bakr, dean of the Department of Egyptology at Cairo University, wrote an article outlining six points supporting his theory that the vessel was not a solar boat at all, but a funerary barge that had been built to transport the body of the deceased king from the capital Memphis to the Pyramid site. 

I have reviewed Abu Bakr’s notes, and I have not found enough evidence to support his theory. In fact, during the excavation chips of cedar and acacia wood were found in the pit, along with traces of mud plaster covering the limestone blocks over it. In my opinion, this provides evidence that the Boat was built close to where it was buried.

Moreover, there is no indication that it was ever used on the Nile. For one thing, the deckhouse is not big enough for a comfortable journey, and for another it does not have any windows. The most important evidence, recently discovered in Wadi Al-Jarf near Suez, is a papyrus that tells us that the king lived in a palace at Giza and not in Memphis.

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Modern view of the boat pit with the limestone slab. Photo courtesy of Zahi Hawass

FIGHTING FOR HIS BELIEFS

Needless to say, Al-Mallakh continued to regard the vessel as a solar boat connected with the age-old myth of the sun god eternally journeying across the heavens.

Imagine his frustration, then, when he had left the Antiquities Service and the boat that had given him instant fame was taken out of his hands. He fought like a tiger for his views, and he ultimately lost his life in the battle. Even when he was no longer involved in the project, he continued to visit Giza to watch Haj Ahmed Youssef, chief restorer at the Antiquities Service, supervising the excavation and reconstruction of the oldest boat in the world. 

Limestone blocks covering the pit were lifted using huge cranes, and a resinous solution was applied to the fragments of ancient matting to lift them up without damage. A platform had to be built over the working area to enable Youssef to conduct operations without putting pressure on the boat itself.

Eventually, the ancient timbers were lifted, treated, and restored. Built for a king, this vessel had been dismantled before being buried, and Youssef almost single-handedly spent 14 years putting this giant jig-saw puzzle back together. Al-Mallakh could only watch from the sidelines. 

Al-Mallakh was a truly remarkable man. When he died in 1987, Egypt lost one of its most beloved sons. His appearance, which resembled a Pharaoh - tall and upright with a high forehead and a receding hairline - made him stand out on Cairo’s crowded streets.

Though he was forced out of the Antiquities Department, he was not the kind of person to harbour grievances. He turned his attention to journalism instead and became a reporter for Akher Saa magazine and Al-Akhbar newspaper. At this point he reinforced his friendship with Anis Mansour, and together they shared many adventures. I enjoyed reading about some of those in Mansour’s weekly column Ayamna Al-Helwa (Our Sweet Days) in Al-Ahram.

However, the two men were opposites. Al-Mallakh led an active social life and published little, while Mansour was not socially inclined and published more than 200 books. They were friends and rivals. They competed with each other, but they were as inseparable as twins. Mansour, a Muslim, and Al-Mallakh, a Copt, forever teased one another and entered into intellectual arguments. Their special friendship will never be forgotten, and when I became a close friend of Anis Mansour, he used to tell me stories about his friendship with Al-Mallakh. 

When Al-Mallakh joined Al-Ahram and became the editor of its back page, he also made this his own. Writing in an appealing style that became his calling card, he was read by everyone. The headline was in his handwriting, and the page became so popular that many Al-Ahram readers began their day by reading the paper from the back.

We could not wait to see what he would write each day. He had imagination, talent, and an enormous interest in his own country and especially in Egyptology. In those days, not much was written in the press about the subject, but he described discoveries in simple language that made people love Egyptology. He encouraged me a lot when I became an antiquities inspector at Giza, and he even used to write about me using the expression “the young archaeologist”.

 He predicted a good future for me, saying to me one day that “you have the talent and the personality to be the director of Egyptian Antiquities.” I will never forget one Friday when I was with him when suddenly a famous actress came into the office. He said, “my dear, your appointment is at 11. You will need to wait in the other office while I finish speaking to Zahi Hawass.” I could not believe that he had said this to such a famous actress.

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Haj Ahmed the chief restorer with a small replica of the boat. Photo courtesy of Zahi Hawass

A SECOND BOAT

One day, I borrowed a car from my friend Ezzat Al-Saadani, a writer in Al-Ahram. It was a Volkswagen and the petrol gauge was broken. 

Al-Mallakh and I drove to Giza, and while we were coming back the car ran out of petrol in front of the Television Building in Cairo. Al-Mallakh and I began to push the car, and people stared at him, scarcely able to believe that this famous writer was pushing the car. He was a character that every Egyptian recognised, first coming up with the idea of the Cairo International Film Festival and appearing a lot on TV.

Even after I went to the University of Pennsylvania in the US as a Fulbright fellow to study for my doctoral degree, I visited him when I returned to Egypt on vacation. One day, he invited me for lunch at Anis Mansour’s villa in Giza.

There, I met important personalities, including the writer Tawfik Al-Hakim. The domestic video camera had just been invented at the time, and Al-Hakim was quite taken with it, happy to watch images of himself on the screen. He wanted to test out his appearance, being concerned about how he looked from one angle or another, and which was the most flattering. I remember he wiggled his moustache to see if it was noticeable on TV.

Toward the end of Al-Mallakh’s life, the Antiquities Service gave permission for the magazine National Geographic to investigate the Second Boat pit at Giza, and he was upset about not being included on the team. He fought for his rights, but to no avail.

One night he called me at 9pm and talked for two hours about how upset he was at this treatment, his voice containing great sadness. I left for the United States the following day to attend the opening of a Ramses II exhibition in Denver, Colorado. Imagine my shock when I was awakened some days later by a call from Dorothea, his sister-in-law, telling me that he had passed away. I cried for two hours, my sorrow being perhaps even greater than what I had felt on the death of my own father.

After the restoration of the Second Boat, I hope the two boats can be exhibited together in the new Boat Museum currently being built near the Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza. I cannot stand the ugly building that currently contains the first boat beside the Great Pyramid, and I planned to transfer it when we began to build the new Grand Egyptian Museum.

The story of the Solar Boat never ends, but I hope I have been able to give Al-Mallakh the credit he deserved as the one who first discovered it. I myself was able to prove that it was indeed a solar boat that the king, as a god, would symbolically use for his voyages by day. It was called by the ancient Egyptians the “mandjet” boat, while the one used for the night journey was known as the “msketet”. 

The oars of the boats were used to kill the wild beasts of the underworld, and the people would continue to worship the king after his death as a god.

A version of this article appears in print in the 31 August 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The Untold Stories of the Solar Boat

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