We Spoke to Legendary Archaeologist Zahi Hawass About All Things Egypt

King Tut, Queen Nefertiti, and the Biggest Museum in the World

Dr. Zahi Hawass reigns supreme at Giza. Marc Deville/Contributor/Getty Images

Dr. Zahi Hawass radiates the energy of a rock star. When the former head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities gives a lecture, he strides out towards the podium with the barely contained force of an Apis bull; he wears a headset like a '90s pop star. Although the controversial archaeologist chooses to go bare-headed for formal occasions, one can't help but envision his famous, Indiana Jones-esque hat.

Beneath the imaginary brim, his dark eyes gleam with passion for the heritage he's worked tirelessly to preserve; he gestures animatedly towards a screen, which shows a film featuring Omar Sharif praising Zahi as the best actor to ever emerge from Egypt. 

Recently, Hawass was in New York, promoting tourism in Egypt and the traveling exhibition showing a recreation of King Tutankhamun's tomb. He spoke exclusively to About.com about the recent claims of Nefertiti being buried with Tut, what ancient monarch he admires most, and his archaeological legacy.

King Tut, Nefertiti, and Royal Genitals

Hawass is particularly passionate about sharing King Tut with the world. But he's dismissive of archaeologist Nick Reeves's infamous claim that Nefertiti, likely Tut's stepmother, was buried in a secret chamber in Tutankhamun's tomb. Scans done on tomb walls have hinted at a hidden room in Tut's tomb, which Reeves asserts holds the remains of the Great Royal Wife of Akhenaten.


Hawass vehemently disagrees with Reeves's theory, disputing the accuracy of said scans (especially since they were conducted on a recreation of the tomb). In his essay "The Burial of Nefertiti?" Reeves suggests that Nefertiti is shown on one of the tomb walls; Hawass asserts that the figure actually represents Ay, Tut's advisor and successor, and that Tut's tomb was originally meant to house Ay.

Besides, he says, Nefertiti would never have been buried in the Valley of the Kings, home to Amun-worshipping pharaohs, because she was a fervent adherent of Akhenaten's Amarna "heresy."

Recently, he was able to find the boy king's lost penis and reattach it to his mummy. People had assumed Tut's genitals were still attached to his mummy, but when Hawass did another X-ray, he couldn't find them! He and his team searched the sand around the tomb and found the preserved penis, then reattached it to the royal mummy. It didn't decay, “because, you know, the Egyptians put a stick inside the penis and they mummified the penis so that it can stay," according to Hawass.

What's so important about a pharaonic penis? Beyond the fact Tut would probably want it in the afterlife, its symbolic nature was integral to royal resurrection. The god Osiris symbolizes the death and rebirth of pharaohs, and he famously was dismembered in myth; his penis was eaten by fish, but his sister-wife, Isis, created a mock penis that worked just fine and allowed the two to conceive their son, Horus.

Tut came from a pretty good family, as his probable paternal grandfather, Amenhotep III, is considered by many archaeologists to have ruled Egypt at its most glorious state.

Hawass concurred, saying, “You know, we call Amenhotep III the Basha. A basha was a word that was given to people before the revolution in 195[2]…[it] means ‘the glory,’ and this is why he was the man to put Egypt on the top of the world and he was married to the most important lady, Queen Tiye.” 

Tiye and Amenhotep were often shown as the same size in statuary, a testament to her influence with her husband. "She became a very strong lady and—you saw her statues—equal to the king. This is rare among the queens and kings," Hawass observed. He added, "...I think her power was to make the king love her...he gave her more power than any king gave to any queen in history. And the most importance evidence are the equality in the statues of Queen Tiye and Amenhotep III.”

Hawass has dealt with the mummies and monuments of many of Egypt's greatest rulers, but he feels the greatest connection to Khufu, builder of the Great Pyramid.

He recalled, "He’s my favorite king, and I dedicated my life to the Great Pyramid. I wrote most of my books about pyramids and Khufu, the king that I really love, I put myself with him all the time."

Creating the Greatest Museum in the World

Although the 2011 Egyptian revolution that toppled former president Hosni Mubarak also saw the charismatic Hawass's removal from his position overseeing his country's archaeological pursuits, Zahi hasn't missed a beat. He's dedicated his life to ancient Egypt.

Regarding the work of Mamdouh Eldamaty, appointed minister of antiquities in 2014, Hawass is optimistic. "You know, I think the situation is very, very good. We have more than two hundred foreign expeditions excavating in Egypt, and Eldamaty is doing well and trying to restore the monuments and I think it’s better than before. Now everything is safe. Archaeology will protect it, and also at the same time, I’m making a message all over the country that Egypt is safe."

Hawass's current goal is to bring tourism back to Egypt and generate funds for more archaeological projects. His dream institution? The Grand Egyptian Museum, the largest in the world, which would prominently feature King Tut's relics. But it's only partially finished, and its completion would cost $700 million, none of which has been raised so far. Hawass added, "The construction will be finished, but the most important is the interior design of the museum, how to show the artifacts, and this needs at least $700 million.” 

The Grand Museum would generate great income for Egypt. “The only thing to bring tourism back and to raise funds for the exhibit is to actually make a big, large exhibit on King Tut and also announce this...this museum," Zahi said. "And if you participate in funding this museum, we can write your name on the wall of the museum, and that’s the only way to bring money to finish that museum, which is my dream. I did something incredible." In order to raise money, Hawass is planning governmental proposals and private fundraising parties. "I hope that the Grand Museum will show the beauty of the artifacts of King Tut in a way that will attract the people...because I said that King Tut’s still the hero," he said. "Every year, we have new stuff.” 

Learn more about the recreated tomb of King Tutankhamun in New York City at TutNYC.com.

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Silver, Carly. "We Spoke to Legendary Archaeologist Zahi Hawass About All Things Egypt." ThoughtCo, Jan. 23, 2016, thoughtco.com/archaeologist-zahi-hawass-all-things-egypt-118148. Silver, Carly. (2016, January 23). We Spoke to Legendary Archaeologist Zahi Hawass About All Things Egypt. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/archaeologist-zahi-hawass-all-things-egypt-118148 Silver, Carly. "We Spoke to Legendary Archaeologist Zahi Hawass About All Things Egypt." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/archaeologist-zahi-hawass-all-things-egypt-118148 (accessed November 22, 2017).