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Cleopatra — the backstory

Anyone who’s worked as a reporter in Egypt long enough knows what it’s like to deal with Zahi Hawass, the head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, which oversees the country’s ancient sites.

Hawass may be the most media-savvy politician in Egypt. And when he brings the media along for an event, he puts on a show.

It was no different in late April when I, along with about 30 members of the press corps, arrived on Egypt’s north coast to hear the latest on the search for the tomb of Antony and Cleopatra.

We entered the ancient Temple of Isis at around 8 a.m. to find Hawass pouring over coins and burial masks. He lit up when he saw us and took considerable time with each media outlet to describe how he and his team were on the verge of discovering the tomb of the ancient lovers.

I have met Hawass on several occasions and found him to be serious and abrupt. In each case, though, when the cameras turned on, the aloof nature disappeared and a broad smile crossed his lips. Hawass has long been fond of telling the press how passionate he is about archaeology.

One friend of mine who’s been in the journalism industry a long time once told me that Hawass is always several discoveries ahead of what he tells the public about. He introduces each new finding on his own terms, creating media spectacles that ensure he’ll land on the front pages of major newspapers and websites around the world.

Hawass has succeeded in creating something of a brand for himself. He wears his now trademark Indiana Jones hat, which he sells copies of on his website ( for charity.

In support of this brand, Hawass makes sure that he’s the one announcing all ancient discoveries in the country.

When we all arrived at the Isis temple, Dr. Kathleen Martinez, the committed Dominican archaeologist who first thought five years ago that Cleopatra was buried there, was no where to be found.

Instead, it was the Hawass show. He gave interviews, showed off artifacts, and strolled around the temple time and time again for the cameras.

Martinez did eventually arrive. But at that point, Hawass was leaving for another site — the press in hot pursuit.

Even though his showmanship may be frustrating for journalists and archaeologists alike, it has allowed him to use his brand as a force for good.

In the last several years, he has traveled the world demanding the return of Egyptian antiquities to Egypt. And many have been sent back.

Hawass has managed to raise the profile of the pantheon of Egyptian antiquities. He has, therefore, undoubtedly played a role in boosting tourism here, which is critical to the economy.

Just know that if and when the tomb of Antony and Cleopatra is discovered, it will be unveiled to the public in a way that’s uniquely Hawass.