A visit to Salt Lake City

Zahi Hawass , Tuesday 21 Feb 2023

Zahi Hawass describes a recent visit to Salt Lake City in the US, home of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and a major tourist and cultural destination

Lake City in the US, home of the Church of Jesus
Lake City in the US, home of the Church of Jesus


I was invited at Christmas by Ronald Cultural Cunnell to visit Salt Lake City in the US. He also invited many other people. The most important event that we saw on the visit was the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, where we listened to chief organist Richard Elliott and visited Park City. I gave a lecture at the University of Utah about my excavations and discoveries in Egypt.

This was my first visit to Salt Lake City, and when I arrived I found the snow covering it completely. It was like a beautiful painting. At the airport, all the people were very friendly, even at customs. It took me one minute to find Ron, who was meeting me.

Salt Lake City is the largest metropolitan area in Utah, the name used to refer to both the city and the country. The city is bordered by the Great Salt Lake and the snow-capped Wasatch Mountains. The area is a mountain desert, where the air is thin and dry and temperatures range between hot and freezing throughout the year. It does experience four full seasons, but sometimes they just all hit in one day.

Salt Lake City was founded in July 1847 by pioneer settlers, led by Brigham Young, who were seeking to escape the persecution they had experienced living further east. The Mormon pioneers, as they would come to be known, entered a semi-arid valley and immediately began planning and building an irrigation network that could feed the population and foster future growth.

Salt Lake City’s street grid is based on a standard compass plan, with the southeast corner of Temple Square containing the Salt Lake Temple in the Downtown area. The city is on the Salt Lake meridian owing to its proximity to the Great Salt Lake, and in fact it was originally named the Great Salt Lake City. In 1868, the word “great” was dropped.

Before I arrived, I had gathered some information about the Mormons, including the fact that the first Mormons had studied Egyptology at the University of Chicago. They can marry several wives and are based in Salt Lake City. There are about seven million Mormons today, and their founder was Joseph Smith. He is considered their prophet and was born in December 1805 and died in June 1844.

When he was 24, Smith published the Book of Mormon. By the time of his death 14 years later, he had attracted tens of thousands of followers and founded a religion that continues to the present with millions of global adherents.  

Smith was born in Vermont. By 1817, he had moved with his family to New York, the site of intense religious revivalism during what was called the Second Great Awakening. Smith said he experienced a series of visions, including one in 1820 during which he saw two personages whom he described as God the Father and Jesus Christ. In 1823, another vision featured an angel that directed him to a buried book of golden plates inscribed with a Judeo-Christian history of ancient American civilisation.

Smith published what he said was an English translation of these plates called the Book of Mormon. In the same year, he organised the Church of Christ, calling it the restoration of the early Christian Church. Members of the church were later called Latter-Day Saints, or Mormons, and Smith renamed the Church the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in 1830.

 In 1831, Smith and his followers moved west, planning to build a communal American Zion. They first gathered in Kirtland, Ohio, and then established an outpost in Independence, Missouri, which was intended to be their centre. During the 1830s, Smith sent out missionaries, published revelations, and began the construction of the Kirtland Temple.

Because of the collapse of the church-sponsored Kirtland Safety Society and anti- company skirmishes with non-Mormon Missourians, Smith and his followers then established a new settlement at Nauvoo, Illinois, where he became a spiritual and political leader. In 1844, when Smith’s power and practice of polygamy were criticised in the newspapers, Smith and the Nauvoo City Council ordered the destruction of the press, inflaming anti-Mormon sentiment.  

Fearing an invasion of Nauvoo, Smith rode to Carthage, Illinois, to stand trial, but he was killed when a mob stormed the jailhouse. Smith published many revelations and other texts that his followers regard as scripture. This teaching discusses the nature of God, cosmology, family structures, political organisation, and religious collectivism.

The great highlight of my trip to Salt Lake City was the Tabernacle Choir Christmas Concert. I understood that at least one million people apply to attend this concert, and a lottery is held to decide on who should attend. It takes place over three nights and hosts 21,000 people. The choir is incredible, numbering about 320 people, with the women dressed in red and the men dressed in black. The show lasts for one hour and a half.

For the first time since 2019, the Tabernacle Choir opened its Christmas Concert to the public, bringing to life heartwarming stories, music, and faith for a large audience of up to 20,000 after being canceled in 2020 and closed to the public in 2021. Over three days, the concert typically draws more than 60,000 people to Downtown Salt Lake City. This year, with the help of Disney and Broadway, singer Lea Salonga made a grand entrance on the stage and sang traditional Christmas tunes backed by the spectacular Choir and orchestra.

I was impressed by the English actor David Suchet, who was also at the concert. Suchet is best known for his long-running portrayal of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot on television, and after the concert I met him and told him that there was a big difference between the first film version of Christie’s Death on the Nile, shot in Egypt, and the second, done in a studio near London.

Suchet spoke about his love for his family and shared the five decades that have passed since he met his wife and recalled how it was “love at the first sight”. He told the story of Sir Nicholas Winton, an English stockbroker who worked tirelessly in the months leading up to World War II to rescue vulnerable children from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia by arranging visas, finding host families, and raising funds to ensure each child had the money to guarantee passage to England, a sum equivalent to 4,000 sterling today.

Suchet shared how parents hid their grief as they hugged their children and carried them to safety, unsure if they would ever be reunited. The parents waved good-bye and cried for the strength that only God could give them. In all, Winton helped to organise the safe passage of 669 children to England.


The Tabernacle Choir: The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, formerly known as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, is an American choir acting as part of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

It has performed at the Salt Lake Tabernacle for over 100 years. The Tabernacle houses an organ consisting of 11,623 pipes, which usually accompanies the choir. The choir was founded in August 1847, 29 days after the Mormon pioneers entered Salt Lake Valley. Prospective singers must be eligible church members, between 25 and 55 years of age at the start of their service, and live within 100 miles (160 km) of Temple Square.

The choir is one of the most famous in the world. It first performed for a US president in 1911, and it performed at the inaugurations of presidents Lyndon B Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H W Bush, George W Bush, and Donald Trump.

The choir’s weekly devotional programme Music and the Spoken Word is one of the longest-running radio programmes in the world and has aired every week since July 1929.

The Tabernacle Choir Christmas concert would not be complete without a stunning solo by principal organist Richard Elliot. The audience got that moment with Elliot’s arrangement of the traditional English music On Christmas Night, which showcased Elliot’s quick foot work and earned the organist a long ovation.


THE MORMON CHURCH: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, informally known as the LDS Church or Mormon Church, is a non-trinitarian Christian church that considers itself to be the restoration of the original church founded by Jesus Christ.

The church is headquartered in Salt Lake City and has established congregations and built temples worldwide. It has over 16.8 million members and 54,539 full-time volunteer missionaries. It is the fourth-largest Christian denomination in the US, with over 6.7 million US members as of 2021.

Latter-day saints believe that their church president is a modern-day “prophet, seer, and revelator” and that Jesus Christ, under the direction of God the Father, leads the church by revealing his will and delegating to his priesthood the keys to its president. The president heads a hierarchical structure descending from areas to stakes and wards. Bishops, drawn from the laity, lead the wards. Male members may be ordained to the priesthood, provided they are living up to the standards of the church.

Women are not ordained to the priesthood but occupy leadership roles in some church organisations.

Prior to his service as today’s head of the church, church president Nelson served as president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles from July 2015 until his call as the church’s leader. He has served as a member of that quorum since April 1984.

An internationally renowned surgeon and medical researcher, his professional work has included the positions of research professor of surgery and director of the Thoracic Surgery Residency at the University of Utah and chair of the Division of Thoracic Surgery at LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City.

The author of numerous publications and chapters in medical textbooks, Nelson has lectured and visited professionally throughout the US and in many other nations prior to his call. He has been awarded honorary professorships from three universities in the People’s Republic of China.

Nelson has held numerous positions of responsibility in the church. He served as president of the Bonneville Stake from 1964 to June 1971, when he was called as general president of the Sunday School. Prior to his call to the Quorum of the Twelve, he was serving as a regional representative. He had previously served as a regional representative for Brigham Young University.

The most interesting visit on my trip was to Park City. It is famous because of the skiing that can be done there, and it has a beautiful theatre called the Egyptian Theatre.

Park City is in Summit County and extends into Wasatch County. It is 32 miles (51 km) southeast of Downtown Salt Lake City and 20 miles (32 km) from Salt Lake City’s east edge. The population was 8,396 at the 2020 census.

On average, the tourist population greatly exceeds the number of permanent residents. After a population decline following the shutdown of the area’s mining industry, the city rebounded during the 1980s and 1990s through an expansion of its tourism business. As of 2021 the city brings in a yearly average of $529.8 million to the Utah economy as a tourist hot spot, $80 million of which is attributed to the Sundance Film Festival.

The city has two major ski resorts, Deer Valley Resort and Park City Mountain Resort, and one minor resort, Woodward Park City. Both Deer Valley and Park City Mountain Resorts were major locations for ski and snowboarding events at the 2002 Winter Olympics.

The city is the main location of the largest independent film festival in the US, Sundance, home of the US ski team, training centre for members of the Australian freestyle ski team, the 2002 Olympic bobsled track at the Utah Olympic Park, and golf courses. Outdoor-oriented businesses have their headquarters in Park City. It has many retailers, clubs, bars, and restaurants and nearby reservoirs, hot springs. forests, and hiking and biking trails.

In the summertime, many residents visit the area to escape high temperatures. Park City is usually cooler than Salt Lake City, as it lies higher than 7,000 feet (2,100 m) above sea level, while Salt Lake City is situated at an elevation of about 4,300 feet (1,300 m). In 2008, Park City was named by the US Forbes Traveler Magazine as one of the “20 prettiest towns” in the US.  

It seems that every place I go, I face a curse. I do not know why the Pharaohs do not like me anymore. After we had dinner in a beautiful club in Park City, we went out to get the car. In front of the club there were three steps. The top one was covered with snow so my leg could not touch the ground.

I found myself falling and then collapsed onto the ground.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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