Egyptomania in Piešťany and Graz
Ancient Egypt lives on in the hearts of the peoples of Central Europe, finds Zahi Hawass
I was recently invited to travel to Slovakia by the country's minister of foreign affairs in order to give a lecture in the capital Bratislava. Later, I travelled to Graz in Austria, also to give a lecture on the occasion of an exhibition of replicas of objects from the tomb of the boy pharaoh Tutankhamun. I saw how the ancient Egyptians lived on in the hearts of all the people in the cities I visited on this trip.
I was informed by Valer Franko, ambassador of the Slovak Republic in Egypt, that the ministry would be sponsoring my visit to give a public lecture at Comenius University in Bratislava. Businesswoman Magda Awad would be the co-sponsor in cooperation with the Thermia Palace Hotel in the city of Piešťany. Awad is a great lady who truly loves her country of Egypt, always tries to promote it abroad, and also is very faithful to Hungary and the Slovak Republic.
I travelled directly to Piešťany through Vienna, and ambassador Franko travelled with me to make arrangements for the lecture. We knew that the university where I would be giving my talk had great Egyptologists working with a team from the Czech Republic under the supervision of Miroslav Verner and that they had made major discoveries in Abu Sir.
When I arrived at the university, I met many Egyptologists and we discussed the area of Abu Sir where many students from Slovakia and the Czech Republic are working. We talked about the discovery of the Late Period Tomb of Iuf-aa, the palace director, in great detail. The tomb is 15 m below ground level, and the Czech team had stayed more than a year to consolidate its walls and build concrete stabilising walls.
It was an amazing experience to see an intact tomb like this for the first time. When it was first discovered, Verner came to inform me and I discussed the discovery with Farouk Hosni, minister of culture at the time. Hosni said he would like to attend the opening of the large sarcophagus in the tomb. I talked to Verner, and we agreed that we could not risk opening the sarcophagus live in front of the press. We needed to learn from the past, such as when Egyptian Egyptologist Zakaria Ghoneim had discovered the unfinished Pyramid of Sekhem-khet at Sakkara in 1954 with a completely intact basalt sarcophagus in the middle of the burial chamber.
Then president Gamal Abdel-Nasser had earlier visited the boat of Khufu near the Giza Pyramid, and he went with other members of the government and the press to attend the opening of the sarcophagus. The sealed sarcophagus was opened, and it was completely empty. In the light of this incident, we decided that we should open the sarcophagus in the Iuf-aa Tomb before the press arrived, take the necessary protective measures, and then reopen it in front of the cameras.
I gave my lecture in Bratislava in a beautiful auditorium at the university, and it was attended by a lot of people. After the lecture, I went to the TV station at about 10pm, and at the end of a well-known TV show told the Slovak people that Egypt was safe for visitors and asked them to visit the country.
We talked about the curse of Tutankhamun and how it had begun when British Egyptologist Howard Carter found the tomb of the boy pharaoh in November 1922. Five months after the discovery, Lord Carnarvon, who had funded the discovery, died. The press became interested in the death of Carnarvon because he had given exclusive rights to the London Times to publish news about the tomb. I also talked about the project to scan the Pyramids at Giza and the possibility of locating queen Nefertiti's tomb inside the tomb of Tutankhamun.
Magda Awad and the manager of the Thermia Palace Hotel arranged for a press conference in Piešťany. It was wonderful to see so many press and TV people present. First, I reviewed what had been happening at the Ministry of Antiquities in Egypt since the Revolution, as well as the political situation in Egypt today. I explained that the country's archaeological sites were well protected, as were its tourist facilities. I said that one tourist company invited US citizens to visit Egypt and to explore it with me. Some 2,200 had come over the last two years, I said, and all of them had been amazed by the beauty of Egypt. The press asked me questions, such as which woman was more beautiful, Cleopatra or Nefertiti? I said Nefertiti.
The second trip was to Graz, where I experienced a curse of my own. I was travelling from Cairo to Graz through Frankfurt. I used my diplomatic passport but found that I had to have a Schengen visa. Unfortunately, I didn't have my regular passport with me. As a result, I had to change my flight and take the Milan-Vienna-Graz route, which took me 15 hours. On my way back, I was planning to take a flight at 10:20am, but went to the departure lounge to sleep and then woke up to find I had missed my flight. I have travelled all over the world, and this had never happened to me before.
I arrived in Graz and was met by my friend Christoph Scholz, the organiser of the replica exhibition on Tutankhamun. He said that my experience was definitely the curse of King Tut at work. Although the Tutankhamun exhibition he has organised does not include any genuine masterpieces and only features replicas, it is very educational since it uses advanced technology to explain the discovery and how the objects were made. This exhibition has been very effective in publicising Egypt abroad. I have seen many replica exhibitions, but this one is the best because Christoph truly loves ancient Egypt.
The next day, there was a meeting of representatives of European science museums in Graz, and I attended to sign my new book, Discovering Tutankhamun: From Howard Carter to DNA, which has recently been translated into German. Christoph gave out signed copies to people attending the exhibition, and while I was there I came across a German lady dressed as an ancient Egyptian queen, holding an Egyptian crook and flail and wearing a crown.
She caught everyone's attention, and when I stood next to her I found that she was twice my height. This is the kind of Egyptomania that you find across the world today.