It is 5 a.m. and Zahi Hawass is sitting in his SUV, freshly showered, about to drive out to the Bahariya Oasis for a press appearance. The streets are still empty as Cairo shimmers in the rose-colored morning sun. Hawass must hurry to avoid the morning traffic.
He has already had a heart attack, and since then he only smokes water pipes. Referring to his driver, he says: "If he slows down I'll fire him." He likes to call his opponents "assholes."
But no one here is troubled by his behavior. In fact, Hawass has a license to be loud and angry. He sets his own rules. As Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), he is the ultimate protector of all monuments in the country.
Some 30,000 people report to Hawass, whose organization is responsible for hundreds of dilapidated temples, gloomy tombs and treasure chambers fragrant with the scent of resin, once filled with gold jewelry and papyrus documents, stretching from the delta to the fourth Nile cataract.
Hawass can open them all.
Even looking like Indiana Jones in his jeans shirt and floppy, the master of the keys to Egypt's antiquities has made umpteen TV appearances dangling from a rope in a grave shaft or bending over coffins, constantly repeating the same tried-and-true mantra: "mummy, sand, secret, miracle, exceptional."
He is now "world-renowned," at least in his own assessment of himself. The pyramid whisperer drinks $300 (€242) bottles of wine, and his best friend is actor Omar Sharif. Sometimes he puts on an expensive tuxedo and drives to a party at the villa of President Hosni Mubarak.
He even met with US President Barack Obama in June, and the two men stood at the base of the Pyramid of Cheops with their hands in their pockets, looking cool as could be.
"We were friends right off the bat," says Hawass. "I told him that George Lucas came here to find out why my hat became more famous than Harrison Ford's." When he was shown the layout for his latest book, he had only one comment: "OK, but you have to print my name in bigger letters."
"I'm not just famous in the United States, but also in Japan and, in fact, everywhere," the narcissistic Egyptian explains without hesitation.
But Hawass is probably best known in his native Egypt, where he writes a column in the government daily al-Ahram. He often appears on television, chatting with official guests and ambassadors, or opening dance competitions in front of the Sphinx.
People like Hawass' approach and his ability to converse on equal terms with the West. He has liberated Egypt from a posture of humility.
He also happens to be a gifted speaker. He loves anecdotes, which usually revolve around him and contain minor untruths.
But this outgoing man isn't overly interested in details. "Jalla, let's go," he calls out testily when his Jeep gets stuck in heavy traffic in Cairo's urban canyons. His chauffeur has already run over several chickens.
But Hawass, who the German newspaper Hamburger Abendblatt dubbed the "fighting elephant of Egyptology," has no patience for delays. He is a restless and driven man.
He says he would need thousands of arms and legs to wipe out all the disgrace that have been inflicted on his country. He is vexed by the daily grind of his fellow Egyptians, the filth, the poverty, the lack of organization and his agency's poor technical facilities.
"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.
But there are often times when Hawass has to get up very early, skip his morning routine, brush his teeth and quickly eat a falafel before heading out into the countryside in his Jeep.
The reason he is so busy is that he has monopolized all PR activities relating to archaeology. Some 225 foreign archeological teams are working along the Nile, and all are kept muzzled. None of the professors working with the teams is permitted to report important finds without official approval. "It used to be a self-service operation here," says the boss, "but those days are gone."
Hawass reserves the right to announce all discoveries himself. Not everyone likes this. Some people feel that he is about as interested in serious research as Rapunzel was in having her hair cut.
He boasted that there were "10,000 golden mummies" at the cemetery in Bahariya, but only 200 were found. And he mistakenly declared a shabby find in the Valley of Kings to be the gravesite of a female pharaoh.
His own excavation efforts also appear to be somewhat bizarre. For some time, the master has been searching for the body of Cleopatra in a temple near Alexandria -- based on an idea suggested to him by a lawyer from the Dominican Republic.
"Are you sure about this?" a journalist wanted to know. Hawass replied: "Completely, otherwise I wouldn't have even mentioned it. After all, I don't want to embarrass myself."
When nothing was found, despite feverish excavation efforts, Hawass took a granite bust of Cleopatra's lover, Mark Antony, from a museum last year and pretended that he had just pulled it out of the ground.
Duncan Lees, a computer specialist who occasionally creates 3-D animations of grave shafts -- in other words, a relatively minor player -- calls him a "greedy guy" and a tyrant, who prefers to surround himself with "bootlickers."
The major Egyptologists, on the other hand, are more reserved, and tend to whisper their criticism. They are anxious not to lose their licenses.
Many in the field had been secretly looking forward to May 28, the day the narcissistic archeologist turns 63, which would normally be his retirement age.
But instead of being feted with a farewell dinner, Hawass has just received a new position. President Mubarak has appointed him Deputy Minister of Culture, which means that he can continue working until the end of his life.
Nevertheless, this enigmatic figure is by no means the sum of his negative traits. He has really achieved something.
With his frenetic public relations activities and his boundless vanity, Hawass has sparked a change in awareness among the 80 million Egyptians and sparked a new sense of pride.
"For small farmers, the world used to revolve around Muhammad and the Koran," says Egyptologist Christian Loeben, from the northern German city of Hannover. "But then Hawass came along and managed to convince every fellah that the pharaohs are his heritage. I admire him for that."
It is precisely these successes that are causing so much trouble for museums in Paris, London, New York and Berlin. They are rattled by the tenacious revenge campaign of the self-proclaimed "guardian" of the Pyramids.
The dispute reached a new climax last month, when Hawass hosted the "Conference on International Cooperation for the Protection and Repatriation of Cultural Heritage." Representatives of 25 nations traveled to Cairo to form a united front against the old exploiting countries across the Mediterranean.
At the end of the conference, the host presented a list of demands. It included six objects, all of them masterpieces.
Hawass wants the magnificent bust of the vizier Ankhaf from Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. The British Museum in London is being asked to hand over the Rosetta Stone, which was used to decipher hieroglyphs. The heaviest piece, an astrological relief with a depiction of the zodiac, is in the Louvre.
He has two demands for the Germans. In addition to the bust of Nefertiti in Berlin's New Museum, Hawass is claiming a 4,500-year-old limestone statue on display in Hildesheim near Hanover. It depicts Hemiunu, the architect of the tomb of Cheops.
The last item on his list, currently in Turin, Italy, is an image of Ramses II, carved by an unknown Nile Michelangelo.
Hawass reports that he spent "90 minutes" standing in silence, enchanted, in front of this work of art. This is probably an exaggeration, given his fidgety nature.
He is truly a sight to see, when he opens his eyes wide, dramatically rolls his r's and waves his hands in the air as if, like Moses, he could part the Red Sea. "God gave me the gift to speak in a way that appeals to audiences," he says.
But when it comes to the six masterworks, his magic tongue is not having the desired effect. On the contrary, the MFA in Boston is irritated, while the Louvre and Turin are refusing to give in.
Last December, Berlin's New Museum sent a representative to the Nile with old contract documents. They indicate that "everything was done legally" when the Nefertiti bust was found and sold in 1913. The Berlin museum has been silent on the issue since then.
In fact, the Egyptians' stunning indictment stands on weak ground. Egypt has no legal leverage. Some of the pieces Hawass is claiming arrived in Europe some 200 years ago, at a time when there was no such thing as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Convention.
The Mamluks, a dynasty descended from Turkish slaves, controlled Egypt at the time, and the Sultan of Istanbul also had a hand in governing the country.
When the French arrived with their enormous army, they promptly humiliated their opponents with a victory directly on the field of pyramids at Giza. The occupiers found the Rosetta Stone near a fortress.
The British arrived soon afterwards and snatched away the 760-kilogram treasure from the French. A series of secret coach journeys and chases in bazaars ensued, the details of which are still not entirely clear today.
The locals were somewhat mystified by all the wrangling. Why, they asked themselves, are the foreigners scrambling for an old piece of junk from the days of the pharaohs. They had no interest in their country's glorious past.
Muhammad Ali Pasha, who became vice king of Egypt in 1805, preferred smoking his water pipe in his harem. Meanwhile, his subjects were using mummies as fuel in their ovens.
The British and the French, on the other hand, were already consumed with Cleopatra fever at the time.
Two diplomats, the Frenchman Bernadino Drovetti and the Englishman Henry Salt, used their private fortunes to buy up tremendous treasures. They dispatched agents around the country, convinced village elders to open old cemeteries and funded excavations from Thebes to Giza.
Later on, they sold their spoils to the highest bidders, which included kings, princes and museums in Europe.
It was not illegal. In fact, the principle "nulla poena sine lege" -- no penalty without a law -- applied. Hawass is also familiar with this legal principle.
This explains why the general of antiquities tends to use somewhat vague language to justify his claims. He says that what is at stake is a moral appeal and general redress. His message to the Western museums is clear: Hand over the six masterworks, and your crimes of the past will be forgiven.
But now that the new owners are turning a deaf ear to his demands, Hawass feels compelled to vent his rage and relate his notorious anecdotes.
For instance, this is what he recently had to say about the people at the British Museum in London: "They kept the Rosetta Stone in a dark, poorly lit room, until I showed up and asked for it back. Only then did they suddenly find the piece important."
The accuser from Cairo also adopted the wrong tone when discussing the Nefertiti bust. The German archeologists who found the work, he said, had deliberately smeared mud onto the bust of the beautiful pharaoh to mislead the Egyptian antiquities office.
Not a word of it is true. All records were properly signed.
Is the antiquities director taking things too far? Is he pursuing real claims, or is he merely interested in bullying his opponents? Who exactly is this man who, referring to his adversaries, says: "I will destroy anyone who attacks me?"
Hawass is reticent about his origins. He was born in a village in the Nile valley. His father died at an early age. Zahi had to help support the family.
He has nothing whatsoever to say about toiling in the fields, the filth in the streets and the poverty. He does recall, however, that he was a "famous football player" as a boy. And, he adds: "All the women loved me and wanted to marry me."
At 21, the young man took a job with the antiquities administration, which at the time was an enormous, sleepy government agency with no scientific competency.
His work there, he says, consisted of little more than working as a guard once in a while, locking warehouses and looking over the shoulders of the Western scientists.
In 1978, the inspector attended a Grateful Dead concert in front of the Sphinx. Many American dope-smoking hippies had traveled to Egypt to attend the concert.
The big step was next: America. Hawass attended the University of Pennsylvania for seven years, eventually earning his doctorate there.
When he returned to Egypt, he came armed with a new skill: the ability to chatter away in English. Egyptians saw him as a world traveler who had enjoyed the blessings of a higher form of existence in the United States.
Thus anointed, he quickly rose through the ranks. First he was appointed "General Director of Antiquities," then "Undersecretary of State" and, finally, "Secretary General."
He kept his old office, a corrugated sheet metal container with musty carpets and three telephones on the table. It was directly in the shadow of the pyramids.
This office became Hawass' gateway to power. Over the years, billionaires, actors and politicians came to visit him there. From former US President George Bush to Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi -- they all had the Sherpa give them a guided tour through the gigantic tomb.
Hawass realized at the time that the West was willing to stand in line and pay hard currency to share in the luster of the pharaohs.
The television crews soon began knocking on his door, drawn by the gifted speaker's ability to extract exciting stories from even the most wretched heap of shards.
The magician gave his most astonishing appearance in 2002. In a live broadcast for the National Geographic Channel, he sent a remote-controlled robot through a light shaft into the Pyramid of Cheops. The event was broadcast to TV audiences in 142 nations.
There was little to be seen other than wobbly, black-and-white endoscope images, but Hawass, undaunted, indulged himself: "What we have seen in this night is completely unique in the world of Egyptology." This is the man's true gift: the ability to weave together dreams and history. Omar Sharif calls his friend an "amazing actor."
Nevertheless, he has tremendous achievements under his belt. The country has moved forwarded as a result of his determination. He provided the antiquities agency with clout, kick-started important mummy analyses and brought millions of tourists to the country.
Now Hawass wants to have 19 museums built, the largest of which is already under construction directly adjacent to the pyramids. In 2013, when it is finished, it is expected to house the world's largest Egyptian collection.
The master is working towards this triumph. He is also determined to exhibit the six disputed masterworks at the new museum, which would represent a crowning conclusion to his career.
But will he succeed? The Western museums have remained intractable until now. The curators in Hildesheim also see no reason to comply with his wishes. "The Hemiunu is the pride of our collections," they say.
The splendid statue was discovered in 1913. Wilhelm Pelizaeus, a wealthy businessman who sold railroad parts in Egypt for the German steelmaker Krupp paid for the excavations. Pelizaeus was painstakingly exact in adhering to the agreed division of the excavated objects "in equal parts." There can be no talk of theft and plundering.
The curator responsible for the Hemiunu in Hildesheim explains that it was taken to Germany because it was in such poor condition when it was discovered. "The head was completely fragmented, and the Egyptians didn't want the statue."
The circumstances of the Boston case are similar. In fact, the MFA even has a 1927 document stating that the Ankhaf bust was given to the new owner in the United States as an express act of gratitude on the part of Egypt.
Shortly after finding the Ankhaf, the US archeologist also found the famous shaft tomb of Hetepheres, the mother of the pharaoh. It was filled with furniture that had crumbled into dust, leaving only the gold plating and fittings. Nevertheless, the archeologists managed to reconstruct chairs, cushions and a bed.
After that, the Americans turned over the sparkling household goods to Cairo. Because they had paid for everything out of their own pockets, the Egyptians gave them the bust as a reward.
In light of such facts, Hawass' protests suddenly fall apart.
So why all the fuss?
Some experts speculate that the man is pursuing a "long-term strategy" and, in doing so, is bargaining as if he were at a bazaar. "First he makes the biggest possible demands, to intimidate the museums," says Loeben, "hoping that he will at least receive the masterworks on loan for the dedication of his big new museum."
But will the plan work? A huge tug-of-war is currently underway behind the scenes. "Without a bilateral national treaty," says a spokeswoman from Hildesheim, "we won't lend him anything. We don't trust the man."
In return, he says sharply: "We are not the Pirates of the Caribbean." This tone will likely characterize the debate into the future, and an agreement is not in sight.
But even if he fails, Hawass will probably get over it. He has already achieved his main objective: fame.
Nowadays, when the gray-haired antiquities director drives up the dusty road to the pyramids, where he began his career almost 40 years ago, his employees stand at attention and salute.
At such moments, the heart of this farmer's son is filled with joy. He smiles, in the knowledge that he has made it.
"No one in Egypt who comes from an ordinary family is revered as much as I am."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan