Blog by Andrew Collins, Dec 18, 2009

Dr Zahi Hawass under the gaze of Rameses II.


Last week in London I came face to face with Dr Zahi Hawass, the Secretary General of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, when he visited the capital's British Museum to deliver a key lecture on his recent work in Egypt, and sign copies of two new books. One, at £35 a throw, is his take on the best of the exhibits in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, with photos by Sandro Vannini (click here to find out more), and the other is the biggest book I think I have ever seen - a mammoth tome called A Secret Voyage in a black presentation case, with exquisite photos of the world of Egyptian discovery, again by Vannini. I didn't bother to study it too closely as it came in at a cool £2500 a copy!

Fine Wine and Canapés

The event, which I attended with journalist and writer David Southwell, his fiancé April, and Egyptological researcher Nigel Skinner Simpson, kicked off with the invited audience, consisting mainly of academics and leading socialites from the Arab Egyptian community, being offered glasses of expensive wine and dainty food in canapés. This took place in the museum's ancient Egyptian hall, which seemed a little strange since normally the visitor is not even allowed to touch the display cases, never mind the priceless objects on display. Yet tonight, without any guards present, it seemed okay to lean against statues, and even touch the co-called Shakaba Stone, with its crucial inscription bearing the oldest form of the so-called Memphite theology, including the death by drowning of the god Osiris.

Dr Hawass was introduced by various dignitaries from a podium set up beneath the gaze of a giant statue of Rameses II. He couldn't help but make a few cutting remarks about the nearby Rosetta Stone, which he has campaigned to be returned to Egypt, but added that he was not here to talk about that tonight.

After a short speech, it was all down to the lecture theatre, where after more introductions Dr Hawass delivered a fascinating audio-visual presentation, titled "My Discoveries". The whole thing was sometimes humorous, sometime annoying, but always compelling. Before he got into showing slides of him with world famous celebrities visiting the Giza plateau, including President Barack Obama, Laura Bush, George Lucas (who presented Hawass with Indiana Jones whip!), the Columbian singer-songwriter Shakira, and Beyonce Knowles (whom Hawass allegedly referred to as "a stupid person" when she visited the Great Pyramid recently, a story that made headlines around the world), there was a great deal on his current research projects. These included locating Cleopatra's tomb in Alexandria, uncovering a new tomb in the Valley of the Kings (designated KV64), sending another remote-operated robot up the southern air-shaft in the Queen's Chamber of the Great Pyramid (it's happening right now), and exploring a peculiar tunnel unearthed inside the famous tomb of Seti I, the father of Rameses II.

Seti's Secret Passage

Only the last mentioned activity made me reach for my notepad, for Dr Hawass explained how the long descending passage, originally hidden beneath Seti's sarcophagus, had been made known to him some years back by local a local family of tomb guardians. Yet only recently has he initiated a complete clearance of all rubble and debris in the passage. To date his exploration team has reached a depth of 110 meters, and at least another 10 meters has to be cleared before the workforce reach the end. On the way, clay vessels, fragments of the tomb's painted wall reliefs, and a quartzite ushabti figure, dating from Seti's reign, have been retrieved, demonstrating that the rock-cut passage does indeed form part of the tomb, and must have served a function, either practical or symbolic in nature.

The long tunnel discovered inside Seti I's tomb.

What made me sit up was Dr Hawass's suggestion that the long tunnel might represent a cave passage descending into the realm of Osiris, i.e. the duat-underworld, through which the soul of the deceased had to pass on their way to the afterlife. Such a passage is depicted among the books of the dead on one of the walls of the tomb, prompting Hawass to speculate that the physical tunnel leads either to Seti's secret chamber, or a confrontation with the multi-headed snake shown at the end of the passage in the aforementioned mural.

Everyone laughed, yet these statements seemed important, for they implied a number of things: firstly, the ancient Egyptians deliberately created an extremely long descending passage that they saw as linked in some manner with the soul's entry into the underworld. Secondly, there were clear indications that at the tunnel's termination there was a secret chamber, a symbolic Tomb of Osiris, and, finally, the passage was seen to be guarded by a great snake.

My mind thought immediately of the descending passages inside the Pyramids of Giza, and, of course, the nearby cave underworld, which in local Arab Egyptian folklore is said to be haunted by a giant snake named el-Hanash. In BENEATH THE PYRAMIDS I proposed that this story reflected a lingering memory of the snakes said to inhabit the duat-underworld in ancient Egyptian mythology. Thus it seems reasonable to suggest that the long descending passage beneath Seti's sarcophagus was a recreation of an actual cave underworld, arguably the one at Giza, ancient Rostau, which means "the mouth of the passages".

Dr Hawass made no mention in his lecture on his clearance and exploration of the Tomb of the Birds and its cave underworld. This will almost certainly come next year, with an announcement to the effect that he has rediscovered Giza's bird and animal necropolis after nearly 200 years of obscurity.

A Look of Fear

I was the only person to ask Dr Hawass a question in question time, and when he saw it was me about to say something he had a look of fear on his face! Since I cannot be his favourite person at the moment, due to the excessive publicity caused by the announcement in August of our rediscovery of Giza's cave underworld, and his subsequent public denial of its existence, I suspect he assumed I was about to ruin his night.


Dr Hawass can't help but point to the Rosetta Stone.(Pic credit: Andrew Collins, 2009)

He clearly did not want to look a fool in front of several top dignitaries, including the Egyptian Ambassador to Britain, the Curator of the British Museum, Dame Judy Dench, and the current Earl of Carnarvon However, all I did was introduce myself, commend him on his presentation on behalf of the audience, and ask what would be his greatest discovery, to which he replied: discovering a new tomb in the Valley of the Kings and finding a hidden chamber inside the Great Pyramid. I think he expected me to say something else!I later spoke briefly to him, and said I'd be in touch. Since then I have sent him a courteous email asking that we meet to discuss his work in tomb NC2, our Tomb of the Birds.

The email, dated December 15, said:

"I presume that a team continues the clearance of the tomb (NC2) and catacombs, and that hopefully we can look forward to learning of the discoveries very soon.

"Vyse's diary report of May 3rd, 1837, only says that he carefully removed a "large bird" from the tomb. The species of mummified bird left as offerings inside the tomb and catacomb will throw considerable light on the nature of the religious activity associated with the site.

"Was the site used for ibis or raptor bird burials? Your clearance will hopefully provide some tantalizing answers."

As of the end of 2009, I have received not response, although I do now appear to be on his e-mailing list for Christmas greetings, which is kinda nice way to end our somewhat eventful year!

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