INTERVIEW: The Grand Egyptian Museum is biggest cultural project of 21st Century - Hawass

Sahar Zahran in Washingtom DC , Monday 19 Jun 2023

During his visit to Washington DC, as part of his lecturing tour in the US, Ahram Online discussed plans for the inauguration of the GEM and controversial theories on the origins of Egyptian civilization as reflected in the recent Netflix Cleopatra film with renowned Egyptologist Zahi Hawass.

Zahi Hawass
Renowned Egyptian Zahi Hawass in an interview with Al-Ahram Journalist Sahar Zahran. Photo : Al-Ahram


Ahram Online: What is the objective of your current visit to the US?

Zahi Hawass: The main objective of my visit to the US is to deliver a clear message asserting that Egypt is a safe place because there is a general belief among the American people that whenever a bomb explodes in a country in the region they assume it must have happened in Egypt.

My role is to explain to them and make them understand that Egypt is absolutely distant from all these troubles. I do this in coordination with Minister of Tourism and antiquities Ahmed Issa.

At the same time, we are here doing the publicity for the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM), which will be inaugurated sometime in the period from November of this year to February of next year.

The Pyramids of Giza area will be linked to the new Sphinx International Airport.

It is all part of a global plan.

Tourists will be able to fly directly from the US and Europe to the new Sphinx airport, where they can visit the most important museum in the world next door - the new GEM.

I am happy that I and Farouk Hosni, the former culture minister, had laid the first building block for this museum.

General lectures on Egyptian antiquities will be held in 23 US cities for the very first time.

They are being attended by thousands because lectures on Egyptology usually attract huge crowds.

There will be enormous publicity about these lectures via CNN and the New York Times and the Washington Post as well as other local and international newspapers in the US.

My main objective in these general lectures is to promote tourism in Egypt.

AO: How do you see the criticisms you were faced with during your current visit to the US?

ZH: What is happening in the form of demonstrations is normal and can occur in any place, but it is ineffective.

Some of those who attack me tried to organize demonstrations in Brazil on an annual basis to claim that they are the source of the Egyptian civilization.

There was a comedy actor who travelled to Aswan and did a press conference to say that the origin of Egyptian civilization is black.

Therefore, it became a necessity for me to oppose this and explain the truth.

I find that those who attend my lectures are convinced by what I present.

Some organized demonstrations against me in Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, and New York, carrying placards saying that a black civilization was the origin of the the Egyptian civilization.

They started to collect signatures to demand stripping me from the PhD degree I obtained from the University of Pennsylvania.

In their opinion, I was falsifying history!

In my opinion, they do not understand that I was the one stating historical facts and they were the ones falsifying history.

Unfortunately, some in the US have the misunderstanding that the Egyptian civilization is the black civilization of the Kush Kingdom, which ruled Egypt during the 25th Dynasty at the end of the Late Period.

In fact, the Kush Kingdom came after the birth of the Egyptian civilization. It built the Meroë Pyramids, which were no more than mounds and had no relation to or resemblance with the Pyramids.

If they look closely at the history of Egyptian kingdoms - from the Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom to the New Kingdom - they would see that the features of the kings who were attacking enemies were not African, Libyan or Asian features.

If the origin of the Egyptian civilization were black, the king would have appeared black.

They assumed that the origin of this civilization was black just when they see a statue of Ramses II or Tutankhamen coloured in black.

They are falsifying the origin of the Egyptian civilization.

This was apparent in the Cleopatra film that was recently streamed on Netflix.

AO: How do you see this Cleopatra's film on Netflix? Is there a conspiracy to distort the true origins of the Egyptian civilization or an attempt to rewrite it?

ZH: The Cleopatra film on Netflix is one hundred percent wrong from a historical point of view, and a failure.

In less than one week, I and a number of my Egyptologist colleagues made another film.

Our film garnered more viewings than the Cleopatra film on Netflix.

I don’t believe there is a conspiracy to distort the Egyptian civilization. However, I do believe that there are a few people living in a new country such as the US who are desperately attempting to associate themselves with the Egyptian civilization.

This civilization is well established in history and its origins are well-known.

More than ten universities in the US teach Egyptian Antiquities.

The lectures, which I am currently giving, are the biggest evidence in refuting these claims.

In the lectures, I answer all the questions around the Cleopatra film and everybody is convinced.

On 3 July, Netflix will stream my film, which has been translated into 199 languages.

Some people say: Why would Zahi Hawass make a film with Netflix after the streaming platform attacked us?

First, our film was conceived some time ago and before the Cleopatra film was streamed on Netflix.

As a global streaming platform, they runs some good productions and some bad productions.  

They made a bad film about Cleopatra. We will air a good film on Egyptian antiquities and civilization and our ancient history.

Our film will be streamed in 199 countries. It will be a joyful event. I am happy that a film about the Egyptians will be aired on this level across the world.

AO: Are you working on any project to correct views regarding Egyptian civilization and to document it?

ZH: My lectures are in 23 big cities in the US and are being attended by thousands. Open forums are the best way to speak to people.

There is a great deal of confusion around the origins of Egyptian civilization, including claims that those who built it were extraterrestrial aliens or people who came from the Atlantis continent.

The Egyptian civilization is a strong civilization and therefore everyone wants to be associated with it.

Wrong viewpoints on Egyptian civilization will end up in the dustbin of history because these viewpoints are not based on any scientific proof.

Egypt has excavations and big projects which will reveal secrets.

Next year, we could discover what lies behind the doors and corridors inside the Pyramids.

We will be searching for Queen Nefertiti’s and her daughter Ankhesenamen’s tombs along with their mummies.

This is a huge project. Next year, Egypt will conquer the entire world - culturally.

AO: What are the most prominent scientific proofs that confirm the origin of the Egyptian civilization and link it with other ancient civilizations?

ZH: There are three viewpoints.

First: The Senegalese Cheikh Anta Diop announced to the world that a black civilization was the origin of the Egyptian civilization based on the black colours of the Ramses II and Tutankhamen statues.

The UNESCO responded by organizing a conference to discuss the topic. They concluded that there was no evidence supporting this and published a book on the issue.

Second, some claim that the origin of the Ancient Egyptians goes back to Ham and Sam because people in Upper Egypt are of a “little bit dark skin” and in the Nile Delta are of “more white skin”.

They said that the people in Upper Egypt came from Africa and the people in the Delta came from Asia.

They claimed that the Ancient Egyptian language was made of Hebrew and Arabic languages.

This viewpoint was discussed and no evidence was found to support it.

I believe that the third viewpoint is the sound one.

This was articulated by the Archaeologist Sir Flinders Petrie, who is described by some as the father of Egyptology.

Petrie, citing findings in big excavations in Naqada, which is located in modern-day Qena in Upper Egypt, concluded that it was the founders of the Naqada culture who built the Egyptian civilization.

Some wonder: There are cities in Asia and Africa that have a much more favourable climate and have greater potential for civilization to emerge than Egypt - so why didn’t civilization emerge there?

The Egyptian civilisation emerged in the time and place when all necessary prerequisites for it to emerge existed.

The Ancient Egyptians believed that they will live in the afterlife and based on that they built great pyramids, temples, and tombs.

Their belief in this was firm.

On this foundation, they built friendly relations with their neighbours during the Old Kingdom.

After the Hyksos occupied Egypt for the first time, Ancient Egyptians expanded into Sinai and started to secure their hold on the peninsula to stop any future conquerors from invading from this direction.

During the New Kingdom, Ancient Egyptians fortified defences in Sinai and paved the Horus Route, which allowed them to head east and influence other existing civilizations.

Egypt was not influenced by any one civilization but it influenced all surrounding civilizations.

This is what gave us the greatest empire in the New Kingdom.

Throughout history, Ancient Egyptian kings ruled through the Maat: goddess of truth, justice and order in the universe.

AO: What is the role that new technologies such as satellites and DNA analyses can play in confirming the origin of Egyptian civilization? 

ZH: Technology has had a very great influence on archaeology, especially during the last ten years.

First, using robots allowed us to discover doors inside the pyramid and the corridor. Through CT scans we discovered first-time information about the royal mummies for the first time ever. DNA analysis us identify the Hatshepsut mummy and learn how Tutankhamen and Ramses III died.

Indeed, we have entered a very important era and we will discover more in the future.

I believe that technology will have a huge impact on archaeological discoveries and Egyptian Antiquities in the coming years.

AO: How can governments and international institutions work together in order to preserve Egyptian heritage and spread knowledge about its origin?

ZH: UNESCO was supposed to play a big role in this sphere. Perhaps it could play a role in the preservation of some important archaeological sites from the attempts by some to plunder them.

Some people are of the opinion that it is important to preserve antiquities while others are of the opinion that those alive are far more important than the dead. 

We, as an Egyptian state, pay great attention to antiquities. That’s why we embarked on the Grand Egyptian Museum project, which is the greatest cultural project in the 21st Century.

The GEM will show the entire world how Egypt preserves its antiquities in spite of the fact that the country faces economic problems like many other countries.

The sums of money spent to construct the GEM according to the highest standards were very important in confirming to the world that Egypt preserves its ancient civilization, which is a civilization of the entire world.

We have to be prepared in the tourism sector for the inauguration of the GEM because the world will come to Egypt to see it.

Millions of dollars were spent annually to restore cemeteries and statues and build new museums.

We, in Egypt, are witnessing an archaeological and touristic renaissance.

Tourism is now making a strong comeback and this is promising to the Egyptian economy.

AO: What are the most prominent challenges facing you in conveying information about the origin of the Egyptian civilization to the general public?

ZH: I have no problem with the general public believing me. When I talk about this topic inside or outside Egypt, I face no problem in conveying true information through evidence.

Our archaeological discoveries, which are at display to the entire world, prove that the Egyptian civilization is like no other.

When the Ancient Greeks came to Egypt we influenced them.  The Ancient Greeks were egyptianized but the Ancient Egyptians were not foreignized. 

AO: Do you think that the cooperation between scientists and researchers from different cultures enhances the understanding of the origin of Egyptian civilization?

ZH: Definitely. There are 240 foreign archaeological missions from all over the world in Egypt. There is no country in the world that has such a number of missions.

We are opening Egypt for scientific research. When I was the head of the Egyptian Antiquities Authority I decided to train Egyptian youths according to the highest standards in order to compete with their foreign counterparts.

AO: How do you explain the presence of Egyptian antiquities in some international museums?

ZH: Some international museums are colonial. Our antiquities came out of Egypt during the French and British occupation. They have stolen our antiquities. Our antiquities are present in extraordinary numbers in museums.

Some museums are practising the colonialist way of buying stolen antiquities. When you buy a stolen monument, you are encouraging thieves to plunder warehouses and tombs to gain big sums of money.

The Attorney General of the state of New York discovered that the Metropolitan Museum bought a stolen sarcophagus, and the head of the Egyptology Section in the Louvre Museum bought stolen antiquities. In both cases, the Egyptian Prosecution succeeded in retrieving these artefacts.

The Leiden Museum in the Netherlands organized an exhibition that aimed at making money by forging history. The Egyptian Antiquities Authority convened last week and stopped this attempt.

I have collected 250,000 signatures from Egyptians demanding the return of the Rosetta Stone from the British Museum. 

AO: What is the message that you want to deliver to international public regarding the Egyptian civilization?

ZH: I would say that we ruled the world 5,000 ago through truth and justice.

If a person came to the US and gave lectures on atomic energy they won’t see audiences in the thousands like we see.

These crowds are coming to hear about the Egyptian civilization’s big secrets not coming for Zahi Hawass.

AO: What are the some latest discoveries?

ZH: I’ve discovered a huge city, the Golden City, which is the talk of the world now.

This Golden City dates back to Amenhotep III, who was Tutankhamen’s grandfather.

We found a cemetery in the area which has not been fully excavated yet. It is home to the remains of the wives of the god Amun and the priests of the 25th Dynasty.

What we have excavated from Egypt’s antiquities until now constitutes 30 percent only and there is still 70 percent underground.  

AO: What is the discovery that Zahi Hawass wishes to make?

ZH: I wish to end my archaeological career with the discovery of Queen Nefertiti’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings.

I think that there is a small valley that we discovered where this tomb might be.

We will make excavations in this valley and I believe that Queen Nefertiti’s tomb is there. 

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