Zahi Hawass: A Passion for Cairo
History is always waiting for Zahi Hawass in the Egyptian capital. But too few visitors, he says, "witness the true power of the place."
Al-Muizz Street in the Hussein area of Old Cairo bustles with crowds, the shouts of street vendors and traffic noise. Coffee shops set up on rickety streetside tables and shops selling fabric and spices are patronised by the local working class. Yet al-Muizz, despite its unassuming storefronts and the humble fare, is as potent a source of magic as the Sphinx and the Great Pyramid of Cheops (Giza). Unchanged by time, al-Muizz Street is a favourite haunt for Dr. Zahi Hawass, when Egypt’s archaeologist supreme wants to escape back in time.
“So many people visit Cairo every year,” Hawass muses, “and few of them witness the true power of the place, because they only go to the famous monuments.” But in Cairo’s lesser-known streets, Hawass finds pieces of ancient history that tell a story of a place that doesn’t exist anywhere else.
Few tourists go to El Matariya, for instance, once a pastoral village near Heliopolis. Today it’s a sprawl of unkempt alleys too close to the airport. Hawass says, “This is one of the most incredible places a visitor can see in Cairo. That entire area is full of history.” The oldest obelisk in Egypt, dating back to 1950 BC and the 12th dynasty of Senusret I, is nearby. And when ground was broken to build a supermarket in the area, Hawass’ office found a temple of Ramses II.
“There are so many tombs in Heliopolis! You can take a house, any house, and under that house you’ll find a tomb.”
His Formative Years
Hawass left his village in the fertile Delta region at age 10. He came to Cairo to spend a summer with an aunt in Rod-el-Farag “because I loved movies, and I planned to see several different films every day.” But instead he spent his time taking in the vibrant life of the local souk. “I loved the souk because it was like being in a movie, full of drama.”
But the souk was not Hawass’ only discovery. Fifty years ago, in the days of cleaner air, the Pyramids were visible from the Cairo Museum, but 10-year-old Hawass wanted to be closer. “I needed to see them in front of my eyes. I didn’t even know why. So I asked my cousin for directions to Giza and got on a bus. When it let me out, I could not believe it. There they were in front of my face, and for the first time I felt the Pyramid magic. I heard my heart pound; I trembled the way you do when you find love at first sight. At that moment, the Pyramids entered my heart.”
As a young man in Cairo, Hawass rented a flat on Roda Island across the Corniche from Garden City, “and there, I began to grow up, to learn and understand so many things in life.” He fell in love. With women, but also with Egypt, and often the two loves were not mutually exclusive. “I took girls on felucca rides, which is perhaps the most romantic way to spend an afternoon. You can feel the rhythm of the Nile, you can hear it, because the Nile sings. . . .”
A Pivotal Experience
His government job bored him, but Hawass was not happy when the head of Antiquities ordered him to go into Kom Abou Bellou in the Delta and assist on a dig in the desert. He hated the idea of leaving his girlfriend in Cairo, “but I was young and available, and they were shorthanded.” He set out reluctantly, but standing in the middle of a tomb, brushing off a statue of Aphrodite, something amazing happened. “I realised what power these monuments had. Aphrodite gave me a passion for archaeology, a dream to pursue that work, and because of this passion, which I have never lost, I made my dream come true.”
At that time in Egypt, young people felt that to be a success they must become doctors or engineers. “But I was able to make it not only as an archaeologist but as an international star, because of this passion that comes from the sand, the streets, the people, from everything that carries the magic of Cairo. . . .”