|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
28 May - 3 June 1998
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
The smile of the Sphinx is backThe great Sphinx of Giza is more than a symbol of Egypt. It is an archetype of antiquity, one whose image has for centuries stirred the imaginations of poets, scholars, adventurers and tourists. The Sphinx sits within the Giza Necropolis, which is dominated by the pyramids of Khufu (Cheops), Khafre (Chephren), and Menkaur (Mycerinus) -- pharaohs of the 4th Dynasty (ca. 2575-2467 BC). The Sphinx is connected to the Khafre causeway and valley temple, which suggests that Khafre commissioned the statue. It is carved directly from the natural limestone of the Giza Plateau, part of the Muqattam formation, moulded from marine sediments deposited when waters engulfed northeast Africa during the Eocene period.
The ancient quarrymen fashioned the Sphinx from the lowest layers, those lying directly on the harder reef. They cut deep into these layers, isolating a huge rectangular block of limestone within a horseshoe-shaped ditch. After sculpting the lion body they levelled the natural rock floor between the Sphinx and the sides of the ditch. The ditch opened to the east where they had already cut out a broad terrace from the hard and brittle reef limestone. On the south end of this terrace the builders created the Khafre valley temple from huge blocks of limestone -- some weighing more than 100 tons -- quarried from the upper layers of rock corresponding to those of the Sphinx head and possibly higher. Stone quarried from the Sphinx ditch was taken to the east to build the Sphinx Temple.
I believe that the Sphinx represented Khafre, the incarnation of the god Horus, in a posture of giving an offering to the sun, Ra. The Sphinx Temple is built on a terrace eight feet lower than the floor of the Sphinx, which looked down into the temple's open court. Offerings would have been made on an altar in the court, which was paved with white alabaster; the reflected light must have been brilliant if not blinding. In one interpretation, the association with the sun god might relate to a general Egyptian term for the Sphinx: Shesep ankh Atum, "Living image of Atum" known from later texts. During the New Kingdom the Sphinx was called Horem-akhet, "Horus of the Horizon".
More recently, writer John Anthony West and geologist Robert Schoch have claimed that the shape and the amount of surface erosion indicate that the monument is much older than Egyptologists think, originating not around 2,500BC but more like 5,000 to 7,000BC. They argue, a little fancifully, that it is the remnant of a lost civilisation.
Are there any secret passages found inside the Sphinx? The answer is yes. It is an age-old notion that the Sphinx conceals some sort of passage, tunnel, grotto or chamber. The idea enjoys wide currency today in popular publications about the Giza monument.
During our work on the Sphinx we cleared a passage located behind the statue's head. The tunnel was cut five metres deep in the bed rock. Another tunnel had been found by the French architect Baraize in 1926. Photographs taken at the time still exist and it is hoped that this tunnel will be reopened soon. And yet a third tunnel, located near the tail of the monument, was mentioned to us by Sheikh Mohamed Abdel-Mawgud Fayed, who described it as a round hole just under the masonry veneer.
It had been almost six decades since Sheikh Mohamed had last seen the opening. Nevertheless, he was able to point to a specific brick-sized stone, bonded with modern cement, that when moved revealed the opening. We moved this slab and exposed the grey cement packing characteristic of Baraize's repairs on the Sphinx. The passage behind slopes for about 15 metres. We found nothing inside the tunnel except an old shoe.
When Napoleon came to Egypt in 1798 the Sphinx was completely covered with sand. Napoleon's savants mapped the Giza Plateau and cleared the area around the Sphinx's head and neck to take measurements.
In 1842-1843 the German Lepsius cleared the chapel located between the two paws of the Sphinx. The French scholar Mariette started to clean the sand from around the Sphinx in 1853. He was followed by Maspero, Brugsh and Grebaut in 1885. For the first time since Thutmose IV, Baraize cleared the sand from around the Sphinx. This operation, carried out in 1925-1936, was documented in 226 photos. Selim started his work in October 1936. Continuing the work of Baraize, he completely cleared the Sphinx sanctuary and the temple.
The 1981-1987 restoration damaged the Sphinx largely because the restorers removed all the Roman casing, the strong as well as the weak stones. They also used cement. As a result of this ill-judged restoration, a large chunk of limestone fell from the south shoulder in February 1988.
In 1989, when we began the current restoration, everyone agreed that the casing stones and the harmful cement and gypsum mortar of previous restorations should be removed immediately.
We finished work on the north side of the Sphinx in 1993. The original proportions of the Sphinx were reclaimed and the south side and the chest were restored. We announced to the world that the restoration was nearing completion in December 1997 and that we would celebrate the event in May 1998. And now, finally, the Sphinx is smiling.
The writer is the director of the Giza Plateau.