Dr. Zahi Hawass: Egyptian Antiquities’ Living Legend

Egypt’s celebrated archaeologist is piecing together 4,700 years of his country’s rich heritage, illuminating an ancient civilization for the world to see.

He is Egypt’s Indiana Jones and wears his signature hat on every adventure. You can find world-renowned Egyptologist, Dr. Zahi Hawass sifting through the desert sands of Egypt making discoveries lost to time. His goal is to preserve Egypt’s cultural heritage that has been raided and sold throughout the world. Among his major discoveries are the tombs of pyramid-builders at Giza, pyramids of Khufu and Teti, and the Valley of Golden Mummies at Bahariya Oasis. From valleys to underground tunnels to hidden chambers, his discoveries and experiences are the stuff legends are made of.


Recently, Dr. Hawass has been involved in a large-scale project covering pharaonic sites in Saqqara, Middle and Upper Egypt, and the Nile Delta. “The thrill of a discovery … You can’t really explain it,” he says in one of his lectures. “We have to look at every piece of sand to find what’s hidden.”

In an interview with World Archaeology, he discloses, “But the discovery that is closest to my heart is that of the tombs of the pyramid workers at Giza. It is unique because it tells us, for the first time, about the people who actually built the pyramids.” As it turns out, the pyramids were built by Egyptians and not slaves as many have theorized.


Lost and Found

Earlier this year, the discovery of a 2,500-year-old major Egyptian artifact was broadcast worldwide on an episode of Discovery Channel’s  Expedition Unknown: Egypt Live. Audiences were enthralled as archeologists made their way through ancient tunnels in the Egyptian desert to a sealed sarcophagus and revealed the mummy of a prominent high priest inside. The unprecedented find was made by Dr. Hawass, who led the excavation, and Josh Gates, an explorer, adventurer, and the TV show’s host.

Additional discoveries at the site included numerous precious artifacts and mummies. “Never in my 50 years in archaeology have I experienced something on such a grand scale as this,” says Dr. Hawass. “The findings here are completely special and totally unique. This is what keeps me going. It is what keeps me feeling young and alive!”

Kings’ Cold Cases Cracked

In another recent find, advanced technology used by Dr. Hawass in his excavations in the Valley of the Kings revealed some interesting facts about Egypt’s most famous monarchs, Tutankhamun and Ramses III. By using computed tomography (CT) scans he was able to address long-held theories about their deaths.

The scientific evidence dispelled the long-held belief that Tutankhamun was murdered and instead, had died of an unknown disease at age 19. Subsequent lab tests showed no evidence supporting the murder theory. CT scans also revealed that Ramses III had been brutally murdered with numerous weapons and had his toe and throat cut.

The Mummy’s Curse

Not all of Dr. Hawass’s adventures go without unusual occurrences, take for example his discovery of the huge burial site, the Valley of the Golden Mummies, the resting place for over 10,000 mummies. He came across two child mummies and had them transferred and displayed in a museum.

During this period, Dr. Hawass experienced frightful dreams of the children’s faces and in later dreams their extended arms moving toward his throat. The dreams ceased once they were reunited with their mummified father.

In Pursuit of Heritage

After decades of archaeological work, there is still a lot of work for Dr. Hawass to do. He estimates only 30% of Egyptian antiquities have been discovered. His latest projects include searching for the tombs of Queen Nefertiti and King Tutankhamen’s wife, Queen Ankhesenamun, in the Valley of the Kings. He’s also searching for secret chambers in the Great Pyramid of Giza and exploring beneath the Sphinx for possible ancient tunnels using a custom drill he made.

Still a relevant voice in political circles, he continues to forcefully advocate for the return of many looted Egyptian artifacts retained in other countries including the Rosetta Stone and the bust of Nefertiti. He also champions Egyptian participation in the excavation, conservation, and protection of their own sites.

Philip Pikart, via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

Another of his interests is to entice international tourists to see the ancient wonders of Egypt in Egypt. He participates in the Royal Tour To Egypt with other VIPs and Mrs. Jehan Sadat, Egypt’s former First Lady. He also takes artifacts on tour worldwide such as the Tutankhamen exhibit. His efforts have sparked national pride and prompted more tourism.

More Than a Passion

He’s been called the “motivating force for the next generation of archaeologists,” “the face of archaeology for Egypt,” “the third most famous living Egyptian, after Hosni Mubarak and Omar Sharif” in 2011, and in Italy “the last pharaoh.” His discoveries, works, and appearances spanning nearly 50 years are too numerous to list —suffice to say he lives and breathes Egyptology.

Dr. Hawass grew up in Damietta, Egypt and attended Alexandria University learning to become a lawyer but switched to study Greek and Roman archaeology. After a one-year postgraduate course in Egyptology at Cairo University he won a Fulbright fellowship at age 33 and earned a Ph.D. in Egyptology from the University of Pennsylvania. He has taught at the American University in Cairo, at UCLA, and at universities in other countries. Dr. Hawass has held the prominent positions of Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities and the first Minister of State for Antiquities in Egypt.


He holds seven honorary doctorates and was named Ambassador for Peace and Cultural Heritage by the International Declaration of Peace and Sustainable Development. Time magazine selected him as one of the world’s Top 100 Most Influential People in 2006. Among his many prestigious awards and honors are the First Class Award for Arts and Sciences by the President of Egypt, the Golden Plate Award from the American Academy of Achievement, the glass obelisk from U.S. scholars, and the designation of Goodwill Ambassador to Japan. His name was also inscribed on a CD carried by the 2003 mission of the Mars Exploration Rover.

Bringing Pharaohs to Our Homes

Dr. Hawass has authored over 150 scholarly articles and numerous general audience and academic books including the bestseller The Valley of the Golden Mummies. He has also written several children’s books and narrated several videos on Egyptology.

He has made frequent television appearances, sharing his expertise on Egypt’s archaeological heritage not only on Discovery Channel, but also National Geographic Channel, History Channel, PBS, The Learning Channel, and others. Additionally, he is a regular columnist for several magazines and journals. A the leading authority on the subject, Dr. Hawass is a popular lecturer who passionately shares his first-hand experiences on some of the most significant archaeological finds in Egypt.

As to how he got started, he says, “When I started excavating —you know when you see someone and fall in love right away? —that is when I found my love. And when I did that, archaeology became everything in my life. This is why I tell every young person in Egypt and outside Egypt that they have to look and wait until they find their real love.”

Ancient Egypt continues to fascinate us with its mysteries and wonders and Dr. Hawass is its voice to the world. Oh, and that hat he wears, you can buy your very own through his website with all proceeds going to the Children’s Cancer Hospital Foundation. Learn more at drhawass.com.