The Burn of the Limelight

News that Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s minister of antiquities, has been removed from office is making the rounds this morning, as my readers are probably very much aware. It is of interest not just to those of us interested in archeology in general and Egyptology in particular, but also with respect to consideration of a more universal question. Specifically, the fall of Hawass should cause us to ask: at what price, fame?

Anyone who has watched documentaries about ancient Egypt on PBS, the History or Discovery Channels, or picked up a major news publication reporting on the world of the pharaohs over the last couple of decades will be familiar with Mr. Hawass.  At one point, before being raised to the level of a cabinet minister earlier this year by former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Hawass bore the rather grand title of “Secretary General of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities”. He served as the go-to person for the media any time there was news coming out about archeology related to ancient Egypt, drawing attention not only to discoveries and preservation efforts in his country, but also to the looting and sale of antiquities on the black market, as well as the thorny issues surrounding the repatriation of cultural artifacts.  No doubt Mr. Hawass also served as an example to many young people, though his prominence in the world of archeology came long after I had toyed with the idea of pursuing a career in that field.

Like many American boys, I can remember wanting to be a fireman or policeman when I was small, a desire probably reinforced by watching 70’s television shows like “Adam 12” and “CHiPS”.  Around the age of 5 however, I began to focus intently on the possibility of becoming either an Egyptologist or paleontologist – or both.  Never mind that these are rather different disciplines, I was sure I could manage to combine both, and began to teach myself things such as to read and write hieroglyphics, or the scientific names of the different species of dinosaurs.

My motivation for studying these areas of science and history was not a desire for fame and fortune, but rather intellectual curiosity. There were unanswered questions I wanted to learn the answers to.  With respect to Egyptology, for example, where is the tomb of Tutankhamen’s wife, Ankhesenamun? She appears with the young king in so many of the beautiful funerary pieces from his tomb, portrayed in a loving, relaxed way that strikes us as very modern, and yet to date her tomb has never been found.

While the desire to work with mummies and fossils eventually faded, the interest never completely went away. So it was inevitable that I would come across Mr. Hawass on a regular basis, whenever a new tomb or monument was found in the Nile valley, or a documentary aired on a pharaoh or the Pyramids. Mr. Hawass became such an ubiquitous feature of these reports that even the casual observer would have to wonder whether it was possible to write a story or produce a film about the ancient Egyptians without his having at the very least a cameo appearance. It gave the impression, intentional or not, that Mr. Hawass was the do-all-end-all of scholarship on Egypt, and that the only voice that mattered was his.

This complete dominance of a field is a dangerous path to tread, for it can lead to poor decisions. The legendary art historian Bernard Berenson, for example, parlayed his dominance of the field of Italian Renaissance art into lucrative deals with Joseph Duveen and other dealers, sometimes leading to questionable attributions with a whiff of them having been made for the sake of profit. His early dominance of this field of inquiry was tainted by his subsequent actions.

In the case of Mr. Hawass, the issue is not shady auction deals, but rather complaints of a political nature, i.e. his being too close to the Mubarak regime. There is also a repeated chorus from the media – which ironically enough, created him as a media personality – that Mr. Hawass was overly concerned with drawing attention to himself. For example, Hawass referred to himself as the real Indiana Jones whom George Lucas wanted to meet, and came out with his own clothing line.

How the study and preservation of Egyptian antiquities will survive without his mastery of the media remains to be seen. Yet no doubt when he began his career he did so out of a love for both the history of his country and for the subject matter. It was only later than celebrity and international politics became – or at least, appeared to become – more important to the scientist than the science.

Turning to Count Castiglione, the patron of this blog (and a copy of whose book you can win by entering the birthday contest now underway), the courtier of courtiers thinks it well to be admired and respected for reaching the top of one’s profession, whether as a statesman, general, artist, poet, etc. Yet this honor and fame that comes from being recognized by one’s contemporaries for a certain level of meritorious achievement is not something to be sought for its own sake, but rather enjoyed as a reward for having done well. “Hence to speak little, to do much, and not to boast of praiseworthy deeds but to conceal them tactfully,” writes Castiglione, “enhances these attributes in the case of one who knows how to employ this method with discretion; and so it is with all other good qualities.”

Being the best doctor, gardener, or Egyptologist you can be should be its own reward. That you are recognized for being a particularly good one by the media ought not to be the goal, but merely a side benefit of doing something you love and doing it well. For ultimately, seeking the fickle approval of popularity as the sine qua non of your career is perhaps the best way to ensure that it will end badly, with your burning out before your time.  Sadly, it appears that Mr. Hawass is learning that lesson, now.

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