Honor thy mummy

Last year's remake of The Mummy had all of Hollywood's essential Egyptian movie standards -- lots of sand, eternal love, priests and magic, Westerners who didn't understand what they were messing with, treasure hunters and booby traps, and curses on those who entered tombs and disturbed the dead. While some said the real Mummy's curse was Brendan Fraser's acting (was he channeling John Wayne, or was his Harrison Ford really that bad?), a scientific story appeared refuting the curse legend. Yes, it said, people who open tombs have died, but the real cause was the release of poisonous gases locked in airtight tombs for thousands of years and exposure to viruses and bacteria modern man is not immune to. But if Fraser's performance couldn't stop production on The Mummy 2, neither could a bit of science that, like many facts about Egyptology, is as interesting as the fiction behind it.

For example, in 1996 a man was crossing the Bahareya Oasis to the temple of Alexander the Great, where he worked as a guard, when his donkey's hoof slipped through the sand and into a hole. It was the entrance to a buried tomb. Excavations uncovered more tombs, which may contain as many as 10,000 mummies. Now called the Valley of the Mummies, the region is a cemetery from the Greco-Roman era holding artifacts and remains of mummies from all social castes (from the middle class, who were buried in plaster coated in gold, to the nobility, who could afford the real thing). It's ironic that the greatest discovery since the tomb of King Tutankhamen was initiated by a temple guard, and not by an archaeologist who has spent years combing the desert for lost tombs. Perhaps the spirit of Alexander the Great was repaying the guard for his dedication. Nah, that's too Hollywood.

One force behind the excavation (though not supernatural or mysterious) is Dr. Zahi Hawass, the undersecretary of state to Giza and Saqqara. He's been working at the site since last March. Hawass (whom even a casual Egyptian fetishist will recognize from National Geographic, the Discovery Channel, or the Fox special Opening the Lost Tombs: Live From Egypt with Maury Povich) manages both Giza and Memphis and directs the conservation of Giza's three pyramids and the Sphinx. He also led the Sphinx's restoration and has been criticized for saying that tourists' access to the monuments should be limited to preserve the only remaining one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

On February 24 Hawass will discuss the Valley of the Mummies at the Dallas Museum of Art. The next day he will talk about what may be Giza's greatest mysteries -- who built the pyramids and how (those who answer "aliens" have been confusing The X-Files with the History channel again). The 53-year-old Egyptologist has worked on excavations of tombs and homes of the more than 18,000 workmen, supervisors, and artisans who designed and built pyramids at Giza for the kings. He has also worked on radiocarbon dating projects and curated the Dallas Museum of Natural History's Ramses the Great exhibit in 1989. Often called the leading authority on Egyptology, Hawass is still as excitable and passionate as a schoolchild reading his first tale of Cleopatra or ancient cities buried in the sand waiting to be discovered. He may not have the power to create plagues like the movie magic of The Mummy's Imhotep, but he did stop planes from flying over the Giza plateau and hopes to make sure the pyramids survive another 4,000 years. Those tasks are truly a work of greatness.

Shannon Sutlief