BY REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — “So, what do you know about Egypt?”
This is Sean Calhoun’s famous opening line for making new friends. He’ll ask anyone. And when his mom, Nancy Calhoun, hears him say it, she knows someone’s about to get an earful.
On any given day, 7-year-old Sean might be found wearing a T-shirt and shorts — or, he might be dressed as Howard Carter, the famous archaeologist who found King Tut’s tomb. If it’s his birthday, he may be dressed as King Tut himself. That one’s for special occasions.
Sean first fell in love with the history, mythology and culture of Egypt when he read a Magic Treehouse series book called “Mummies in the Morning.” The land of pyramids and ancient kings seemed, literally, too good to be true.
“I asked my mom if Egypt was real,” he recalls now, sitting among gilded books about mummies and stacks of real papyrus.
Since discovering that Egypt was, and is, a real place, Sean has hungrily consumed every scrap of knowledge he can find. He has even taught himself to write and read hieroglyphs. His birthday card from his older siblings said “Happy Birthday Sean” in ancient symbols that only professional Egyptologists and fanatical 10-year-olds can understand.
“He’s all the time mummifying everything in the house,” Sean’s mother said with a laugh. He’s tried lots of techniques, from wrapping things in masking tape to gluing salt all over a leaf.
“That one worked!” Sean interjects, launching into a lecture on how ancient Egyptians preserved their dead using salt.
One day, Sean’s adoration for all things Egyptian made him an unforgettable friend.
He had gone to New York City for the day with his mom and one of his older brothers, Spencer, who wanted to tour Columbia University.
As part of the trip, the family stopped at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to admire the extensive collection of Egyptian artifacts there.
“This guy, he started talking to me,” Sean said.
The guy was Walid El Batouty, an Egyptologist visiting the United States to promote tourism and give speeches about Egypt.
Batouty overheard Sean’s neverending soliloquy about hieroglyphs and ancient kings. His interest piqued, he politely asked Nancy if he could talk with her young son.
“He was asking his mother a question, so I interrupted,” Batouty said during a video call from Egypt. He often chats with Nancy and Sean via video chat, and Sean’s face always lights up when he sees who’s on the line.
“It’s meant to be, as we believe here,” Batouty added. “If you walk one mile toward me, I’ll walk one thousand miles toward you.”
That day at the Met, Batouty exchanged contact information with Nancy, promising to be in touch. Not long after, he invited Sean and his family to attend one of his lectures in the Bronx as special guests.
“I introduced Sean in my lecture as a guest of honor,” Batouty said.
With Batouty as a contact, Sean has also received emails from Egyptian Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh Eldamaty, as well as Zahi Hawass, a former Minister of Antiquities and revered archaeologist.
Hawass directed excavations at Giza, among other prestigious sites. He also surprised Sean with a birthday phone call.
Batouty has a secondary motive for befriending Sean, about which he is transparent: Egypt is working hard to revitalize its tourism industry, which has suffered badly in the wake of well-publicized and violent struggles between moderate and hard-line Muslims, dicatorship and democracy, Coptic Christians and Muslims.
“We’re looking honestly to present the different picture of Egypt,” he said.
Media reports of violence in the Middle East have scared off tourists and damaged the country’s economy in the process. The fervent interest of a bright American child and his family is exactly the kind of story Batouty would rather tell.
“A lot of people are taking interest,” he said. “Sean was in the Egyptian media.”
Indeed, the Cairo Post published an article entitled, “Boy who loves ancient Egypt gets b-day gift from ministry.” And he did; the tourism office sent beautiful reproductions of ancient art on real Papyrus, bookmarks, keychains, pins, playing cards and even hand-stitched iPad covers made in Egypt.
By official invitation, there may also be a trip to Egypt in Sean’s future. If so, it will be a learning experience for a hopeful future archaeologist, as well as the perfect press opportunity for a country that hopes visitors will soon flock, once again, to its ancient attractions.
On former Antiquities Minister Hawass’ website, the first thing that greets visitors is a close-up of his face, squinting at the sun in a dusty archaeologist’s hat. Superimposed are the words: “Egypt is safe. We need you back.”