Zahi Hawass, Egypt's Avenger of the Pharaohs

"We were once at the very top," he says, referring to the time of the pharaohs. "Be proud of this heritage," he tells young people.

Hawass often speaks of dignity, respect and honor. He believes that his nation was cheated, and that it is his mission to exact revenge for this treatment.

"Our heritage was stolen," he says. "People raped the realm of the Nile in past centuries." This makes him all the more determined to pursue one goal above all else: the return of cultural artifacts.

It is true that foreign rulers ransacked the region along the Nile for thousands of years. The Romans, for example, made off with entire obelisks.

Then came Napoleon. "Soldiers, 40 centuries look down upon you," the Corsican called out to his men when they invaded the country in 1798. Entire ships filled with cultural artifacts were later shipped to the West, where they served as the basis for large, new museums.

Many of these treasures were purchased legally and for large sums of money. But Egypt was also filled with smugglers and tomb raiders who broke the law and stole the country's golden heritage.

Hawass is outraged over this bloodletting, and he doesn't draw any distinctions. The antiquities director makes a general accusation that is inconvenient for the West. He resembles the Sphinx, except that instead of causing the plague, he gives people a guilty conscience.

The man has already brought home 31,000 smuggled objects in past years. They are primarily pieces taken in illicit excavations, which have been sold over the last 50 years, through auction houses like Sotheby's and Christie's, to museums in the United States.

He is celebrated at home for his achievements, and justifiably so. He even tracked down the embalmed body of Ramses I -- in faraway Atlanta. Hawass bent over the papery face and sniffed it. Then he said: "I can smell it -- this is Ramses." The analysis proved him right.

His successes have earned him various descriptions at home, including the mummy magician, the hero from the desert, and the showman of shards who has turned the pyramids into a circus tent.

He has a good sense of humor, but can also be moody. Recently in New York, he upbraided several museum curators from Boston before the assembled world press. They own a statue that he believes belongs to his people. As he was speaking, he rolled his eyes and made a fist.

The Louvre also got a taste of his fury. Hawass wanted the French museum to return five magnificent frescoes it had acquired from a seller who had obtained them illegally. When it refused, he ejected French archeologists from Egypt and terminated all collaboration with the treasure trove on the Seine.

Finally, last October, French President Nicolas Sarkozy put in a sheepish call to Mubarak, promising that everything that had been requested would be turned over. Hawass was triumphant: "It was a victory for us."

The antiquities director has stirred up a difficult fight, for which he will need staying power, strong nerves and robust good health.

To keep up his health, he begins normal workdays with gymnastics, on the advice of his wife, a gynecologist.

By 7 a.m., he is sitting in his office in the exclusive Zamalek neighborhood, drinking herbal tea and lemonade. He only goes out to eat in the evening. After 10 p.m., he relaxes over a game of backgammon in a café near his apartment.

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