Video: Rare look inside Egypt’s pyramids

  1. Closed captioning of: Rare look inside Egypt’s pyramids

    >>> back now on a friday morning. 7:49. one of the most iconic images anywhere in the world. nbc's chief foreign correspondent richard engel is in egypt with a rare look inside one of the ancient pyramids. richard, good morning to you.

    >> good morning, matt. we have something very special today. egypt has been in the news a lot this year because of its revolution and on going political unrest. but this country has so much more to offer than that. and we were given exclusive access to a network of tunnels that i didn't even know existed underneath egypt 's oldest stone pyramids. and it was a look inside the pharoah's secret tunnel . the saqqara is also the oldest. the step pyramid of the pharoah was built years ago. today it's partially covered with scaffolding, under restoration by the minister of antiquities.

    >> the pyramid was tearing apart. the stones were loosening. it was collapsincollapsing.

    >> reporter: but the pyramid also has a secret, which we saw when the doctor took us inside. hidden beneath the pyramid are tunnels, they stretch for five miles.

    >> some of them with r. quite small.

    >> yes.

    >> reporter: at the center of the maze is the pharoah's final resting place, 120 feet below ground.

    >> the burial chamber is also propped up by scaffolding. the team is re-enforcing the pyramid from the unside out.

    >> the oldes per mid fall down, that's what the an gent egyptian found.

    >> reporter: as we toured he has a revelation of his own. egypt 's revelation has scared away tourists. and without them, there's no money to maintain the antiquities.

    >> this is something that is killing me inside when i see a project like this and have no money to continue if a pyramid like this collapse, with the story. we lose our past.

    >> reporter: the effect of the revolution is deeply personal. egyptian protesters have also accused him of corruption. he says he's a victim of a witch hunt against anyone who works for the former regime.

    >> everything i do makes the news and everything i do for the love of my country. but these people want to destroy me.

    >> reporter: after a few hours, the doctor left, but he gave us a unique privilege, to go back inside and explore with with only flashlights. some of the tunnels were so tight we needed to crawl. the tunnels served a spiritual purpose. they represent the winding journey ancient egyptians believes the soul travel tons way to journeys battling snakes and demons along the way. the heat and thin air took a toll on our cameraman. he fainted.

    >> not a lot of air down here.

    >> reporter: he recovered quickly. we didn't see any serpents guarding the passageway to heaven. instead, elaborate rooms with carved walls and tile as bright today as ever. but preserving egypt 's treasures, archaeologists warn, are now in danger from a political upheaval. these monuments, matt, are nearly 5,000 years old and still learning about them. there are some tourists here today, but less than half the number that would come on a day like this. matt?

    >> yeah, and richard, thank you. the doctor has been protecting those man knew meants and trying to tell their story for an awful long time. we thank you very much.

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updated 7/17/2011 6:21:56 PM ET 2011-07-17T22:21:56

Egypt's antiquities minister, whose trademark Indiana Jones hat made him one the country's best known figures around the world, was fired Sunday after months of pressure from critics who attacked his credibility and accused him of having been too close to the regime of ousted President Hosni Mubarak.

Zahi Hawass, long chided as publicity loving and short on scientific knowledge, lost his job along with about a dozen other ministers in a Cabinet reshuffle meant to ease pressure from protesters seeking to purge remnants of Mubarak's regime.

"He was the Mubarak of antiquities," said Nora Shalaby, an activist and archaeologist. "He acted as if he owned Egypt's antiquities, and not that they belonged to the people of Egypt."

Despite the criticism, he was credited with helping boost interest in archaeology in Egypt and tourism, a pillar of the country's economy.

But after Mubarak's ouster on Feb. 11 in a popular uprising, pressure began to build for him to step down.

Hawass was among a list of Cabinet ministers protesters wanted to see gone because they were associated with the former regime.

And archaeology students and professors blasted him for what they saw as his lack of serious research.

Image: Egyptian Chief of Antiquities Hawass, right, and head of the University of Memphis mission Schaden.
Aladin Abdel Naby  /  Reuters file
Egyptian Chief of Antiquities Zahi Hawass (R) and Otto Schaden of the U.S., head of the University of Memphis mission, stand in front of a hole that opens into a newly discovered tomb at the valley of the Kings in Luxor, Egypt February 10, 2006.

Shalaby said Hawass didn't tolerate criticism. She said most his finds were about self-promotion, with many "rediscoveries" in search of the limelight.

Hawass prided himself in being the "keeper and guardian" of Egypt's heritage. He told an Egyptian lifestyle magazine, Enigma, in 2009 that George Lucas, the maker of the "Indian Jones" films, had come to visit him in Egypt "to meet the real Indiana Jones."

Hawass, 64, started out as an inspector of antiquities in 1969 and rose to become one of the most recognizable names in Egyptology. He became the general director of antiquities at the Giza plateau in the late 1980s, before being named Egypt's top archaeologist in 2002.

In one of Mubarak's final official acts as president, Hawass' position was elevated to that of a Cabinet minister. After Mubarak's ouster, Hawass submitted his resignation but he was reinstated before finally being removed Sunday.

His name has been associated with most new archaeological digs in Egypt, with grand discoveries such as the excavation of the Valley of the Golden Mummies in Bahariya Oasis in 1999 and the discovery of the mummy of Egypt's Queen Hatshepsut almost a decade later.

He was also a staple on the Discovery Channel, which accompanied him on the find of Hatshepsut's mummy. He started his own reality show on the History Channel called "Chasing the Mummies." The channel introduces him as "the man behind the mummies."

Hawass has long campaigned to bring home ancient artifacts spirited out of the country during colonial times. He said since he became top archaeologist, he managed to recover 5,000 artifacts.

In January, just before anti-government protests erupted, he formally requested the return of the 3,300-year-old bust of Queen Nefertiti that has been in a Berlin museum for decades.

Hawass also had a fashion line, including his hat, for which he organized a photo-shoot in the Egyptian Museum, something that drew the ire of many archeologists.

"He was a personality created by the media," said Abdel-Halim Abdel-Nour, the president of the Association of Egyptian Archeologists.

He said many campaigned for Hawass's removal, including on Facebook and in Tahrir Square, the center of Egypt's protests.

Just before news of his departure, Hawass was heckled near his office Sunday as he left on foot. Protesters tried to block his way, until he jumped into a taxi to get away from the melee, the taxi driver, Mohammed Abdu, said.

Hawass was replaced by Abdel-Fattah el-Banna, an associate professor in restoration. He was frequently present in Tahrir Square during the protests.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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