Kavitha Rao

Freelance journalist, author & trainer

Paws for Thought
South China Morning Post, October 1998
The Sphinx has a facelift

Standing at the world’s oldest tourist destination, with forty centuries of history gazing down upon me, I know how Napoleon’s soldiers must have felt. Beneath that superior yet enigmatic smile, it’s impossible to feel anything but small and insignificant. Once Alexander, Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony strode these sands. Today, even Caesar might balk at the modern day equivalent of crossing the Rubicon— braving the army of humanity that has laid siege to the Giza plateau.

For much of its history, the Sphinx has watched over the plateau in solitude, secluded by the barren desert sands. Now, it rears its weathered head from the bustle of downtown Cairo. Beneath its bruised chin, where pharaohs once paced, vendors peddle “antique” scarabs and plastic replicas of the pyramids. Kalashnikov toting security men negotiate dung heaps deposited by camels swathed in technicolor saddlecloths. In the distance, tourists swarm over the face of the Great Pyramid, ignoring the “no climbing” sign. Cries for “baksheesh”(alms), the drones of guides and the clicks of a thousand camera shutters all combine in a cacophony of noise. If the Sphinx still had its nose, it would probably be looking down it.

As night falls, and the crowds depart, the Giza plateau begins to look more like the necropolis it was designed to be. In the dim moonlight, flanked by the soaring pyramids, the majestic face takes on an eerie, almost supernatural glow. It is then that its Arabic name makes perfect sense - Abu El Hol, the Father of Terror.

Centuries of wind, sand and the odd potshot (the Sphinx was used for target practice during Turkish rule in the eighteenth century) have taken their toll. So have well intended but misguided repairs, dating as far back as 1400 BC, many of which did more harm than good. The latest such restoration campaign - a painstaking decade long US $1 million project aiming at correcting past mistakes - ended in May. For the first time in years, the Sphinx’s body is free of scaffolding and as whole as it will ever be.

The man behind the Sphinx’s makeover is Dr. Zahi Hawass, director of antiquities for the Giza plateau. When he took over in 1988, the Sphinx was on the brink of collapse. Botched repairs in the eighties had altered the original shape of the 242-foot long body-by as much as nine feet in some places-and eventually led to a large chunk falling off the shoulder. The chest and paws had also begun to crumble. Following an international outcry, Hawass and an all-Egyptian team of restorers were given the unenviable task of cleaning up the Sphinx.

What’s remarkable about the latest restoration is that no modern methods were used. Instead, the restorers adopted the techniques used by the original builders over 4500 years ago. About 12, 244 handcut limestone blocks, some as heavy as 1300 pounds, were hauled on rope cradles hoisted by Egyptian workmen. Working by hand, while laborious, apparently avoided damaging the delicate limestone of the body and made for a better fit.

The restoration has come too late for some parts of the Sphinx. The Sphinx is widely believed to be a likeness of its supposed builder, the Pharaoh Khafre ( or Chephren in Greek), who also built the second pyramid. The protective cobra goddess or uraeus and the pharaonic nemes headdress still top the head, which rises 66 feet above the sands. But the plumed crown and plaited beard- symbols of royalty-have long since crumbled. Gone too, is the famous nose. Contrary to popular belief and schoolboy jokes, it was not Napoleon’s soldiers who destroyed the nose. History’s most famous vandal is likely to have been a fanatical fourteenth century Muslim monk, enraged at the “pagan” idolization of the Sphinx by surrounding villages.

Over the centuries, rulers and scholars alike have battled to reclaim the Sphinx from the enveloping desert sands. For much of its history, it has been shrouded in a mantle of sand up to its neck, with only its head showing. An account of what is thought to be the first ever restoration - as early as 1400 B.C- is engraved on the so-called “dream stela”, an engraved plaque between the paws of the Sphinx. According to the stela, the Sphinx spoke to the prince Tuthmosis IV in a dream and asked him to free it from the sand, in return for the crown of Egypt. Tuthmosis is thought to have cleared away the sand, and replaced some of the original stones, which by then were already over a thousand years old.

Herodotus visited Giza in 440 BC, but made no mention of the Sphinx, an indication that it may have been once again hidden by the sands. It was the Greeks who popularized the term “Sphinx”, actually a corruption of the Egyptian word Seshep-ankh Atum - ‘the living image of the sun-god Atum’. Greek mythology developed its own feminine version - a winged beast with a woman’s head and a lion’s body - and made the Sphinx synonymous with mystery and intrigue. The Greek Sphinx was a deadly and enigmatic foe, asking riddles to passing travelers and devouring those unfortunates who failed to guess the right answer. Eventually the hero Oedipus solved the riddle, causing the death of the Sphinx.

By the Roman period around 30 BC, the Sphinx was again submerged in sand, and perhaps cleared. There is evidence that it was a popular tourist spot for Romans, with the Roman historian Pliny writing vividly of the Sphinx’s “stillness and silence” and describing plays being staged against the dramatic backdrop of the plateau. With such props, they could hardly fail to be a success. The Romans did their own bit to restore the Sphinx, applying a layer of protective stones to its paws and flanks.

By the time Napoleon visited the Sphinx in 1798, bringing an army to fight the Turkish rulers, the sands had engulfed it once again. That didn’t stop one of his party, Baron Dominique Denon, from producing a series of striking etchings of the plateau, sometimes drawing while cannons roared overhead. Denon’s volume of sketches, showing the head of the Sphinx emerging dramatically from rolling sand dunes, was an instant best seller in Europe. It was also an effective travel brochure, alerting the public to the then unknown wonders of Egypt.

Over the next two centuries, Giza - earlier visited only by hardy and obsessed Egyptologists - soon became a chic destination for European high society. By the beginning of this century, the city had crept to the threshold of the plateau, and the solitude of the Sphinx was shattered forever. As camel journeys were replaced by motorized transport, much of the magic and mystery disappeared. Gulian Morrill, a visitor in 1912, wrote tellingly of the changing order in Giza, “The auto's honk has drowned out the muezzin’s cry. You motor to the Pyramids, take a martini before you climb on and crawl in them; stand up by the Sphinx with a cigarette in your mouth and have your picture taken." 

Meanwhile, the Sphinx continued to crumble under the onslaught of the desert. The next phase of conservation came many years later, in 1925, with the French archeologist Emile Baraize. Baraize spent an incredible 11 years meticulously clearing the Sphinx of accumulated sand. He reinforced the head with cement and also restored the shoulders.

Sporadic and disjointed repairs were carried out by the Egyptian Antiquities Organization from 1955 -1987, after veneer stones began falling off the hind paw of the Sphinx. Tons of cement and gypsum were slathered onto the Sphinx, and new stones added, completely changing the original contours of the body. “It was the worst thing they could have done,” says Hawass. “When you put cement on limestone you stop the limestone from breathing, and then stones fall off. ” Eventually, when a chunk did fall from the southern shoulder of the Sphinx in 1988, a furore ensued. The existing chief of antiquities was sacked, and Hawass called in.

Hawass had to first right the mistakes of his predecessors. New stones and cement were meticulously removed. The workmen were guided by photos from the 1850s and a stone by stone color coded blueprint produced by the Cairo based American Research Centre. Each damaged stone was measured, removed and sketched. Each new stone was then hand cut by Egyptian masons and laid in place with a mortar of lime and sand, the same mixture used by the ancients. The chest was bolstered with limestone blocks and a thirty foot long crack in the back filled in.

Restoring the neck and head was the trickiest part of the project. Conservationists feared that erosion had made the Sphinx’s neck too fragile to support its massive head. After a UNESCO investigation with advanced ultra-sonic equipment, the Sphinx was certified sound. Only a few months later, it withstood the powerful earthquake that hit Egypt in 1992.

The crumbling chest, neck and paws are now whole again. The Sphinx, though, is still noseless and beardless, and likely to stay that way for a while longer. While the severed nose has never been found, parts of the beard are still in the British Museum. Recently several Egyptian newspapers have launched a vociferous campaign for the return of the beard, but Hawass is not in favour of restoring the face of the Sphinx. “We should not try to make it what it once was, or rather, what we think it was. The Sphinx is a ruin and should remain a ruin.” Restoration will have to be a continuous process, says Hawass. “The Sphinx is the oldest patient in the world; he will always need care and attention.”

Attention that most Egyptians hope will attract visitors and revive Egypt’s flagging tourist trade. Tourists have stayed away in large numbers since the brutal slaying of 58 sightseers by the radical Muslim Jamat-I-Islamiyya sect in Luxor last November, the latest in a series of nation wide attacks. The slump is a catastrophe for ordinary Egyptians, most of whom are employed in the tourist trade in one form or another, as guides, souvenir sellers or hotel staff. Understandably, the average Egyptian prefers to act as if the incidents never happened, even when surrounded by the heavily armed guards now deployed at every tourist site. Sometimes, this desperate attempt at normality took bizarre forms. Staff at my hotel explained that they had stopped supplying a complimentary newspaper to guests after the Luxor massacre, to prevent them from being scared away by news of terrorist outrages.

While tourists are good news for most Egyptians, they are bad news for the Sphinx. “The biggest challenge to the Egyptian monuments is tourism, and they will be gone in a hundred years if we cannot make everyone aware of the threat,” agrees Hawass. Even a casual glance at the throngs around the Sphinx is enough to convince me that he is not exaggerating. Hawass believes that the Giza plateau is the most difficult conservation site in the world, especially now that the pyramids are so close to downtown Cairo. “You have camel and horse drivers, you have antiquities robbers, you have people trying to climb the pyramid…,” he laments. Add pollution from tour buses and vehicles, litter, smoke from nearby factories, sewage from the adjacent village, and vibrations from neighboring limestone quarries, and you have what amounts to a conservationist’s nightmare.

Balancing conservation and the dire need for tourist revenue is a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it, says Hawass. He began his conservation drive ten years ago by closing the middle pyramid for the first time ever, ignoring protests from tourists. He then developed a conservation program which closes one pyramid yearly for repairs and maintenance, but reopens them to select groups after hours for a steep fee. Admission to the plateau was restricted to ticket holders, animal and car traffic diverted, and new settlements within the Giza area banned. Still, he says, his efforts are not enough. “UNESCO has to bring expertise from all over the world to find out how they can accommodate tourism and archaeology, stop pollution, close some tombs and create copies to be visited.”

Much of the original trappings of the Sphinx may have crumbled, but the riddle of the Sphinx has endured. Who built it, why and when? Theories swirl like sand, but none have been conclusively proved. Most Egyptologists still believe that the Pharaoh Khafre, the chief builder at Giza, also built the Sphinx around 2500 BC. While there is no direct literary evidence to support this, there are archaeological clues. Among such indications: the presence of the single syllable “khaf ”on the dream stela, a temple near the Sphinx which is strikingly similar to a temple built by Khafre, and the discovery of a water shaft connecting the Sphinx to a long causeway originating in Khafre’s pyramid.

Now American geologists are challenging this theory with a new and provocative claim: that the Sphinx is over 9000 years old. Their evidence: the deep weathering on the flanks of the Sphinx, which many geologists believe was caused by water erosion rather than the Sahara sandstorms. This would suggest that the Sphinx dates back to a period between 15,000 BC and 7000 BC, when Egypt had a wet climate. Some New Age gurus and maverick Egyptologists have gone even further, suggesting that the Sphinx could have been built by a lost civilization - possibly the Atlanteans of ancient legend - and then reused by Khafre. That theory has angered the older school of Egyptologists, Hawass included, who see it as a sensationalist attempt to appropriate Egypt’s heritage.

As to why the Sphinx was built at all, many scholars think it had an astronomical function, with the layout of the pyramids mirroring the arrangement of the three stars in Orion’s belt. Others hazard that it served as a sort of equinoctial “marker,’ with its eyes targeting the sunrise during the summer solstice. And still others continue to believe that it may have been built by extraterrestrials to serve as a message through the ages.

Some of the answers to these intriguing questions may be only a few feet away. If Hawass, and many other archaeologists, are to be believed, the sands of the Giza plateau may conceal more than they have revealed. “I think only 30% of the Egyptian monuments have been found, and 70% still lie beneath the ground,” says Hawass. There have been reports of secret passages within the Sphinx, and excavation on the water shaft connecting it to the second pyramid is currently in progress. “I think that there are still important discoveries to be made here. You never know what lies beneath the sands of Egypt,” says Hawass, with barely concealed excitement.

As dusk envelops the Sphinx, the famous sound and light show begins, and a booming narrative echoes round the plateau. “Those who worked here deserve not our pity , but our respect. At Giza, death itself was vanquished by mankind…”. Anywhere else, that could have been dismissed as typical tourist board overkill. Here, beneath that timeless gaze, even immortality seems within reach.