Bats Chasing Zahi Hawass: An amazing adventure into an underground cave system at Giza that doesn't exist

by Dr. Greg Little

Many people have seen the "archaeology" reality show series on the History Channel called "Chasing Mummies." Produced by the same producer who brought us "Walker Texas Ranger" and "Gene Simmon's Family Jewels" it was supposedly intended as a way to engage Americans in Egyptian archaeology, but in real-reality, it is about building numbers and viewers. How many people will watch the show and the channel is the only issue. And that is the stark reality of "reality tv" and all American tv for that matter. It is about numbers. It is supposed to be entertainment, so watching Hawass repeatedly fire the same people, lose his temper, and pretend that every day is a rush from one amazing "discovery" to the next (and each night is one party after another) makes Zahi a bit of Paris Hilton, a bit of Gene Simmons, and a bit of Walker Texas Ranger. The actors the show calls "fellows" are there to make stupid comments so Zahi can correct them and attend to his agendas. For example, one of the archaeology fellows tells Hawass that the pyramids had to be made by aliens. Of course, the archaeology "fellows" are stupid Americans/Canadians who are capable of urinating inside the Great Pyramid. As if that's not enough, they make sure they get "face time" by showing off the "pants wet spot" for the ubiquitous cameras.

It's difficult to guage what the enduring legacy of Dr. Zahi Hawass will be, but he is entering his retirement with a bang. Or at least his interactions with some of the females on the show make it seem that way. As the show says, all Egyptian archaeology and all artifacts are his, at least until he retires, which should be any moment. Of course, Zahi hasn't really retired, he's apparently been kicked upstairs.

The History Channel has a forum for its shows and the Chasing Mummies forum certainly has a huge amount of negative and downright mean feedback. But what really matters to the network is that it has a lot of feedback. The network is delighted.

The show's episodes have featured many of Zahi's numerous personal discoveries. What this means is that hundreds of other workers and scores of sanctioned archaeological teams conduct years of hard labor and research at sites. As they complete their work and uncover their findings, Hawass is called in toward the end and he shows the media "his discovery." It might seem a bit ludicrous, but apparently that's actually his job. His books feature his many discoveries. It'll be interesting to see who replaces him or if anyone can replace him.

The latest installment of Chasing Mummies, an episode titled "Bats" (aired September 1, 2010), finally showed the issue Zahi seems to want to be most remembered for. Zahi calls those who disagree with him Pyramidiots and he has a lot of grievances he needed to air. At the end of the show, Leslie, the Producer, gives us a two-thumbs up and a "mission accomplished" meaning that the show finally, completely, and absolutely proved all of Zahi's points about the Pyramidiots. On second thought they proved a cave system exists under Giza, and that seems to have been one of their stated goals, certainly not Zahi's. But proof is a slippery issue, and precisely what Zahi was trying to prove or did prove is not really clear. The one thing they did prove is that the caves are there.

The highlight of the show "Bats" was an adventure into NC2, the second tomb located on the North Cliff (thus NC2). Oddly, Hawass stated that it was the greatest adventure he had ever experienced at Giza. (And that is one big clue.) But the adventure took place inside a cave system accessed through NC2—a cave system which Hawass has insisted does not exist. And while that last sentence was in past tense, Hawass website today states this about the caves: "I can say that there is no underground cave complex at this site." (Still another big clue.)

The Actual 2008 Discovery of the Caves

It was on Monday March 3, 2008 when Andrew Collins, Sue Collins, and Nigel Skinner-Simpson discovered and entered this "lost" cave system. The complete story is in Collins' 2009 book, Beneath the Pyramids. The astonishing background of how the location of these caves was identified is in the book, but it began with a vast amount of scholarly research followed up by actual expeditions. Before Collins' book came out, the publisher released a news story in December 2008, but significantly, Collins met with Hawass and told him of the discovery. Hawass was also soon handed a detailed written report, before the book's release. Gradually, as he was finishing the book, Collins was forced to respond to numerous media inquiries stimulated by the publisher's news release, and by August 2009, the discovery had made headlines—before the book had been released. Major news agencies were issuing stories in print, online, and on televison about the find. In September 2009 Hawass finally issued a response on his internet website, which oddly criticized the use of the internet to make such headlines. Hawass' response on the caves remains available and is called the "Collins' Cave Controversy." In the first paragraph, Hawass writes: "I can say that there is no underground cave complex at this site" adding in the next paragraph, "We know everything about this site..."

He continues, "this 'cave' is a rock-cut tomb ... anyone who enters this tomb may feel they are in a maze corridor" ... adding that it is about 35 meters long. Hawass also stated that his office had recently re-explored it. He implied that Collins and his team were confused by the outer tomb and thought there was a cave there. But, as Hawass stressed, there is no cave there, "only short tunnels."

What Collins Wrote About the Caves

In Beneath the Pyramids Collins described the outer tomb exactly as Hawass has. But in a remote, dark, barely visible upper corner of the tomb there was a break in the stone wall. Beyond the break in the tomb's wall was a huge, natural cave system filled with bats. There were several extensions from the main cave entrance. Collins reported that rubble blocked several of the passages in the cave system. But Collins showed how one of these cave passages ran for over 300-feet, where it narrowed down to a small tube. They could see that the tube ran further, but because of the stench, bats, and presence of spiders, they chose to not try to go into the tube.

The Chasing Mummies—Bats Episode

Television documentaries do not show the full story, and they can certainly be edited to slant toward whatever viewpoint the producers wish. On the "Bats" episode, nothing was said or mentioned about Zahi's authoritative statement that there are no caves that can be accessd from inside the tomb. In fact, from the scenes and dialog, it was obvious that Hawass still did not know they were there and was taken by surprise. What wasn't shown on the episode was the person who had to show Hawass how to actually get inside the caves through the break in the wall. In fact, Zahi initially thought the outer tomb was what Collins called the caves. Nor did Hawass know their actual extent (after he was shown the entrance and went inside) as he expressed surprise frequently at how far they ran ("300 to 350-feet" according to the show, which is precisely what Collins showed in his book). Nor did Hawass know that the caves were inhabited by bats, which Collins frequently mentioned in his book. In short, it's clear that Hawass did not "know everything about this site" and that his statement there are no caves there is simply wrong. I don't think Hawass was lying about this, I just think he was blissfully ignorant when he dismissed the caves and he never seems to admit mistakes. Hawass was the one confused, confused by his certainty that he already knew everything. Whether intended or not, the show pointed out the fatal character flaw in the man and what his total control of Egyptian archaeology can do. It also emphasizes the major theme that is stressed in every episode of Chasing Mummies. All discoveries in Egypt are made by Zahi Hawass. He cannot stand for anyone else to discover anything, and will go to whatever lengths are necessary to that end.

The actual editing of the program made it seem that Hawass was trying to show that the caves did not extend all the way to the pyramids so that it could somehow be connected to his grievance against the Pyramidiots' idea that there is something under the Sphinx. But Hawass initial intention was to show that there were no caves. When that failed after he was shown that the caves actually did exist, he moved to a hastily made backup plan (e.g., they don't run all the way to the pyramids).

There is one other aspect of the show's editing that needs to be stressed. As Zahi sent his "helpers" to verify that all of the ends of the cave complex were blocked, not one of these supposed "ends" was actually shown on film. Not one. Collins also found all of these cave passages (but one) were either dead ends or blocked, but sometimes blocked by rubble (big fallen stones). As Collins himself found and mentioned in his book, the cave was formed by water flow. But water does not "flow" and form such a massive cave system when only one end is open. It enters somewhere and leaves somewhere. Collins' many photos do hint that at least one "end" of the cave complex is blocked by rubble, perhaps a collapsed part of a cave system that must run somewhere, as all water-formed caves do. But it's clear that Hawass wanted none of that. And the others who accompanied him were simply too scared of him to suggest that perhaps the pile of rubble at one end might be blocking more of the cave system. Of course that would be something a real archaeologist might look for, but this episode wasn't really about archaeology.

Finally, the tube at the end of the 300 to 350-foot long cave that ended their adventure merits mention. We were not shown the tube nor what was at its "blocked end" on the show, assuming that the helper actually went to the end. The photo of it that Collins has in his book looks eerily like one I entered at Andros back in 2003. I hyperextended a knee crawling through a narrow tube deep inside a limestone cave on the island. After 10 minutes of struggle and thinking several times that I could see its end, I finally entered into a massive circular chamber that had other tubes extending off it. Without Chasing Mummies presenting a single frame of film as their proof, I do not trust what Zahi's "helper" said about the tube ending. Zahi was clearly desperate for it to end, so end it did. It may be true, but all large water-formed caves have at least two openings. The Bats episode certainly showed entertaining film of the cave system that doesn't exist, but for the moment, the best examination and evidence we have of it remains Collins' book and his recent comments. And it is very appropriate and symbolic that bats chased Hawass out of their nonexistent lair.

Collins has also posted a detailed explanation of the affair here.